Behind the 1967 Death of Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie painted the songwriting palette for Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, Jerry Garcia, Joe Strummer, Bruce Springsteen, and countless other admirers of his real-life American stories.

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Though his creative life was brief, Guthrie filled his songbook with pages of folk and Dust Bowl classics like “Do Re Mi,” “I Ain’t Got No Home,” “Crawdad Song,” and “Tear the Fascists Down” and his response to Irving Berlin‘s “God Bless America” with “This Land is Your Land.”

Huntington’s Disease

By the late 1940s, Guthrie’s health began to decline, and he was later diagnosed with Huntington’s disease in 1952. The rare degenerative, hereditary, and fatal disease causes the progressive degeneration of nerve cells in the brain, according to Mayo Clinic, that eventually impacts a person’s functional abilities and leads to death.

As the debilitating disease progressed, Guthrie was unable to control his muscles or speak and would often have to roll his eyes to communicate.

On October 3, 1967, Guthrie succumbed to HD.

[RELATED: Bob Dylan Honored His Hero in a Poem “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie”]

Family Tie

Guthrie’s mother, Nora, had Huntington’s disease, although it was never diagnosed at the time and was thought to be a form of muscular degeneration and dementia. Misdiagnosed and untreated, his mother was committed to the Oklahoma Hospital for the Insane, where she remained until her death in 1930.

Sadly, two of Guthrie’s eight children also inherited HD. His daughters Gwendolyn Gail (1935–1976) and Sue (1937-1978) both died at the age of 41 from Huntington’s disease.

Marjorie Guthrie

Guthrie’s second wife Marjorie returned to care for him towards the end of his life. In 1967, she started her lifelong crusade against HD in 1967 when she placed an ad in a New York City newspaper for volunteers and families impacted by HD. Along with five volunteers, Marjorie formed the Committee to Combat Huntington’s Disease (CCHD).

Now known as the Huntington’s Disease Society of America (HDSA), helps individuals and their families impacted by HD and has become the largest public nonprofit organization for the disease.

Today, the HDSA has provided millions of dollars toward the treatment of the further research of HD, along with providing families impacted by the disease with a network of resources, including social workers, support groups, 24/7 access to information, a youth support initiative, and more.

Photo: Universal History Archive/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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