Woody Guthrie was born July 14, 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma, a farming town that later experienced an oil boom in the 1920's. Guthrie's childhood was a heartbreaking experience. The family fell apart when Woody's mother, Nora, set her husband, Charley, on fire with a kerosene lamp. Charley survived and went to Pampa, Texas, to live with his sister, while Nora was institutionalized for the rest of her life. Woody's younger siblings went to Pampa while he and his older brother remained in Okemah. By the time Woody was 14, he was the leader of a gang that lived in an abandoned tin shack. When Woody was taken to see his mother for the last time, he realized that she did not recognize him:
"… the doctors took him through corridors of ravers and screamers, a great wash of crumpled and smelly humanity, through locked doors and into the room where his mother was sitting in a formless hospital smock, shaking and fidgeting…The doctors said she was suffering from…a nervous disease that couldn't be cured and got worse…but he wasn't listening very carefully: his own mother could not tell who he was."
--Joe Klein, biographer
When Woody was 17, his father recovered from his burns and asked Woody to come to Pampa to help run a rooming house he owned. Woody possessed an intense thirst for knowledge, and while he lived with his father he read everything he could get his hands on. Although he saw his fair share of hard times, Woody remained happy and optimistic, often dancing away his troubles to the accompaniment of stylized melodies he played on the harmonica. When his uncle, Jeff, taught him how to play some chords on an old guitar that Woody found, Woody became interested in singing and playing music. Soon he also taught himself how to play mandolin and fiddle. With the support of his friends and family, Woody had found his calling: to sing, write songs, make people laugh, and, most importantly, make them think.
Early on Woody realized that he could make up songs with ease. As a teenager, he formed a group called The Corncob Trio and sang optimistic country songs with a sardonic and insightful sense of humor. In an exhibition review published in the Journal of American History (vol. 87, no. 3), David Suisman wrote, "Behind his cornpone humor and deceivingly simple songs lay a rich and complex personality surging with playfulness, ideas, and paradoxes." Guthrie's early music foreshadowed a philosophy that he adopted later in life:
"I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim or too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling."
In 1933, when Woody was 21, he married his best friend's sister, Mary Jennings. Unemployment was at an all-time high, and farmers struggled to make a living as crop prices dropped. In 1935 the great dust storm called the "Black Blizzard" swept through Texas and left the land barren. Woody decided to move to Los Angeles, where his cousin Jack worked in the entertainment industry.