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Guthrie, Woody (14 July 1912–03 October 1967), singer and songwriter, was born Woodrow Wilson Guthrie in Okemah, Oklahoma, the son of Charles Guthrie, a cattle rancher and real estate salesman, and Nora Belle Sherman, a schoolteacher. Guthrie’s roots were in the soil of the American frontier. His maternal grandfather had been a dirt farmer in Kansas who settled in Oklahoma at the end of the nineteenth century, and his father’s family had been cowboys in the territory. Woody Guthrie’s childhood was uneventful until he reached the age of seven, when he experienced a series of family tragedies that set the tone for his adult life as a loner, a wanderer, and, at the same time, a man who spoke for America’s “little people.” His sister was burned to death in a fire that his mother was suspected of setting, his father’s business ventures failed, and the family lost a total of three homes. When his father was also injured in a suspected arson fire, his mother was institutionalized. She had begun to show signs of Huntington’s chorea, the degenerative and hereditary disease of the central nervous system that would eventually kill her son....

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Ives, Burl (14 June 1909–14 April 1995), folk singer and actor, was born Burl Icle Ivanhoe Ives in Hunt City Township, Illinois, the son of Frank Ives, a tenant farmer and highway culvert builder, and Cordella White. A bird, singing on an oak branch outside his mother’s window, ushered in Ives’s birth, and his brothers made him a cornstalk fiddle when he was just a toddler, but it was his pipe-smoking grandmother Kate White who made him a singer. She knew hundreds of folksongs and would fix her bright, black-button eyes on him and sing. Ives was age four when, at an old soldiers’ reunion, he first performed in public. Although he had just eaten two hot dogs that he purchased on credit, he sang well, received one dollar, paid his debt, and spent the remainder on merry-go-round rides. At age twelve he sang and played his banjo at a local camp meeting and was asked while still in the sixth grade to be part of a high school theater group that performed in neighboring towns. He spent his junior and senior years in a consolidated high school in nearby Newton and played football as a fullback and as an all-conference guard....

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Lead Belly (15 January 1888–06 December 1949), folk singer and composer, was born Huddie Ledbetter on the Jeter plantation near Caddo Lake, north of Shreveport, Louisiana, the only surviving son of John Wesley Ledbetter and Sally Pugh, farmers who were reasonably well-to-do. Young Huddie (or “Hudy” as the 1910 census records list him) grew up in a large rural black community centered around the Louisiana-Texas-Arkansas junction, and he would later play at rural dances where, in his own words, “there would be no white man around for twenty miles.” Though he was exposed to the newer African-American music forms like the blues, he also absorbed many of the older fiddle tunes, play-party tunes, church songs, field hollers, badman ballads, and even old vaudeville songs of the culture. His uncle taught him a song that later became his signature tune, “Goodnight, Irene.” Though Huddie’s first instrument was a “windjammer” (a small accordian), by 1903 he had acquired a guitar and was plying his trade at local dances....

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Lunsford, Bascom Lamar (21 March 1882–04 September 1973), folk performer, folk song collector, and festival promoter, was born in Mars Hill, North Carolina, the son of James Basset Lunsford, a teacher and schoolmaster, and Louarta Leah Buckner. Both of his parents were descended from pioneer settlers in the area. Though the entire Lunsford family had varying degrees of formal education, James Lunsford encouraged his six children to take seriously the rich folk culture of the mountains. By the time he was ten years old, Bascom Lunsford and his brother Blackwell were adept on the fiddle and were performing for schoolhouse functions....

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Sandburg, Carl (06 January 1878–22 July 1967), poet, writer, and folk musician, was born Carl August Sandburg in Galesburg, Illinois, the son of August Sandburg, a railroad blacksmith’s helper, and Clara Mathilda Anderson. His parents were hardworking Swedish immigrants who had met when August Sandburg was working on the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad in Galesburg and Clara Mathilda Anderson, who had traveled on her own to the new world, was employed as a hotel maid in Bushnell, Illinois. The frugal couple instilled in their seven children the necessity of hard work and education, as well as a reverence for the American dream. When Carl Sandburg entered first grade, he Americanized his Swedish name, thereafter signing his school papers and his early work as a poet, orator, and journalist “Charles A. Sandburg.”...

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White, Josh (11 February 1915–05 September 1969), folk and blues vocalist and guitarist, was born Joshua Daniel White in Greenville, South Carolina, the son of Dennis White, a teamster and preacher, and Daisy Elizabeth Humphrey. The fifth of eight children born into a poor African-American family, White received little formal education. He later completed the sixth grade and may have attended high school for a time. As a child he was exposed to music through his mother, a leading singer in the church choir. At age seven he began to serve as “lead boy” (guide) for blind guitarists. His masters included John Henry Arnold, Blind Joe Taggart, and (possibly) ...