If Jack Guthrie is remembered at all today, it is as the cousin of Woody Guthrie, but in his own lifetime, Jack was far more commercially successful than Woody ever was while he was alive. He was one of the most important and influential country singers of the mid-'40s, and only his early death from tuberculosis prevented his legacy from being better known to the generations since.
Guthrie was born in Olive, OK, in 1915, the son of a blacksmith who also played the fiddle in his spare time. The family led a somewhat mobile existence in the area around Texas and Oklahoma, and Guthrie had little chance to put down deep roots. His main interests as a boy included roping and trick riding, at which he became very good. He also listened to his father's playing and the music of Jimmie Rodgers, and some sources indicate that he was taught guitar by Gene Autry in the years before Autry became a recording star.
The family had little to hold them in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl era and eventually migrated to California, where they settled in the area around Sacramento. He performed in rodeos and was employed by the National Forest Service through the Works Progress Administration. In 1934, he married Ruth Henderson, and the two worked together for a time in an act together, in which he would use his skills with a bullwhip to snap cigarettes out of her mouth. By most accounts, the marriage was a lasting one, though not always happy, and the two spent a fair amount of time living apart from one another. They had one son, Jerry Leon Guthrie.
Woody's arrival in California three years later gave the cousins the opportunity to team up. Their act was heard on radio during the summer of 1937, under the name The Oklahoman and Woody Show. It was a success in terms of listener response and fan mail, but it paid no money, and the boost it generated for their club performances wasn't sufficient to provide either man with a living. The partnership broke up when Jack took a job in construction to earn more money and Woody found a new partner, Maxine ("Lefty Lou") Crissman, although Jack continued to appear occasionally with the duo. By 1939, Woody had headed to New York, where he first hooked up with the organized Left and political singers like Pete Seeger, and began the main body of his musical career. Jack stayed in California and continued to play before live audiences in bars and other local venues whenever he could, and one of the songs that he picked up was a Woody original, "Oklahoma Hills." Jack made some changes and refinements in his cousin's song, effectively earning a co-authorship credit. At that time, California was populated by many thousands of transplanted Oklahomans, and Jack became well known for his version of "Oklahoma Hills."
Guthrie became a well-known figure in the clubs around Los Angeles, where his brand of dance music was extremely popular and his flamboyance made him a memorable figure -- at rodeos, he was known for leaving the band and doing some trick riding during a set. By 1944, he was more than ready to begin recording. With the encouragement of Maxine Crissman's sister Mary Ruth, he approached Capitol Records, and she also put up the money for the demo record that he used to get in the door, "Oklahoma Hills." He recruited a band from among acquaintances, did the demo, and went to Capitol.
In 1944, Capitol Records -- which had only been founded four years earlier -- had begun a new cycle of signing country and blues artists, which included Leadbelly and Merle Travis. Jack Guthrie was one of the new signings, in what turned out to be a seven-year contract. He made his Capitol recording debut in October of 1944 with "Oklahoma Hills," with a backing band called the Oklahomans, consisting of Porky Freedman (lead guitar), Red Murrell (rhythm guitar), Cliffie Stone (bass), and Billy Hughes (fiddle) -- he cut the B-side "I'm Brandin My Darlin' With My Heart" and a cover of an Ernest Tubb number, "Careless Darlin'," at the same session on October 16, 1944. Nine days later, Guthrie had a second recording session that yielded four more songs, including his version of Jimmie Rodgers' "When the Cactus Is in Bloom," a number that highlighted Guthrie's yodeling ability. "Oklahoma Hills" was released early in 1945 and rose to number one on the country charts, spending six weeks in that spot.
Before the song was even released, however, Guthrie had been drafted and was serving in the Pacific, stationed as an entertainer in Special Services on Iwo Jima. He was unable to do anything about his record's success, and this led to decisions that would ultimately have tragic consequences. Desperate to return to the United States so he could resume recording, Guthrie signed up for an additional year's enlistment in Special Services in exchange to being sent stateside. He returned to the United States in the first days of 1946 and tried to resume his performing career while still in uniform. He was stationed at Fort Lewis, WA, began playing with Buck Ritchey and His K-6 Wranglers in Tacoma, and returned to Capitol on January 29, 1946, for his first recording sessions since October of 1944. His personal appearances were so popular that a publisher felt confident enough to issue a Guthrie songbook that proved very popular locally.
In early 1946, just as he was resuming his career, Guthrie's weight began dropping rapidly, and a civilian doctor diagnosed his problem as tuberculosis. He was immediately released from the army, and had he used this chance to convalesce, it is possible that Guthrie might have made a full recovery. Instead, never believing his ailment to be a serious case of the disease, he kept working, organizing a new band and going out of the road.
And the irony was that he was on his way to stardom. "Oklahoma Hills" brought Guthrie to the attention of Ernest Tubb, who got Guthrie a gig on the Grand Ole Opry and toured with him for two weeks, during which they became good friends. Guthrie's band, which was later inherited by T. Texas Tyler, was a success, though by the time they were back in California in the spring of 1946, his health had begun to deteriorate further. Advised to lay off for a year and go into a sanitarium, he instead insisted on pushing himself to take advantage of the success he had found. Moreover, he never gave up the smoking or drinking that further taxed his system. Guthrie continued recording and performing every chance that he could, and he even turned up in the movie Hollywood Barn Dance, singing "Okie Boogie." He signed a contract that summer to do a movie with cowboy B-movie star Russell Hayden, but it never happened. By the spring of 1947, he weighed less than a hundred pounds, and that summer he entered a veterans hospital near Sacramento and was informed by the doctors that the prognosis was terminal.
This did nothing to slow him down. In fact, the result was the opposite -- as all of Guthrie's records were selling and Capitol wanted every side that they could get out of him, he became a willing participant in this musical death march, seeing this as his best chance to leave a lasting legacy. Guthrie's attitude had always been that if he was going to die anyway, that he should make the most of the time he did have.
Additionally, although it sounds grisly in retrospect, the dedication was justified. Even in the songs from Guthrie's later sessions, there is a compelling quality to the music. His easygoing manner, his way with a phrase, and his studio band's virtuosity leave the listener wanting to hear more. The play of the words and music are startling in their attractiveness, and there's hardly a weak number in his output, despite the conditions under which most of it was recorded.
Guthrie continued to record, despite being so weak that his wife had to set up a bed for him in the back of their car when he traveled anywhere. At his final sessions, he had to be transported in an ambulance, and he had to lie down and sleep between songs to regain what strength he still had. He finally amassed a body of more than 30 songs, in addition to radio transcription discs intended for broadcast. Guthrie lingered into the first weeks of 1948 and finally died in a sanitarium on January 15 of that year. Ironically, his records continued to sell for years after his death and remained in print, sometimes in redubbed form with extra instruments added. Meanwhile, Woody's reputation as an author of topical and political songs grew in the folk community; the folk music boom of the late '50s and early '60s and the rise of such figures as Bob Dylan, who freely traded on Woody's image and legacy in his early days, eventually eclipsed the memory and reputation of his cousin, at least in the popular culture.
In 1966, Capitol rather belatedly released an LP collection, Jack Guthrie's Greatest Songs. It helped keep Guthrie's legacy before the public, but it was Arlo Guthrie, Woody's son and Jack's second cousin -- and the first member of the Guthrie family since Jack to achieve mass popularity and sell large numbers of records to the public in his own musical prime -- who played just as large a role, continuing to perform and record his uncle's music into the 1970s. ~ Bruce Eder