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Woody Guthrie Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-113276).

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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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Hays, Lee Elhardt (14 March 1914–26 August 1981), songwriter, singer, and political activist, was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, the son of the Reverend William Benjamin Hays, a Methodist minister, and Ellen Reinhardt, a court reporter. The youngest of four children, Lee Hays left home at age fourteen for Emory Junior College Academy in Oxford, Georgia, a Methodist prep school from which he graduated in 1930. He had hoped to take a bachelor’s degree, but during the depression none of his family members could help with tuition....

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Jenkins, Andrew (26 November 1885–1956), folk composer and gospel singer, was born in Jenkinsburg, near Atlanta, Georgia. His parents’ names are unknown. Jenkins was partially blinded as an infant when the wrong medication was put into his eyes. By the time he was nine he had joined the Methodist church and was climbing up on tree stumps to preach sermons to his family and friends. He preached his first formal sermon in a church in 1909, when he was twenty-four. Among his influences were two Atlanta residents who had gained nationwide reputations in the field of religion, composer Charlie Tillman (who had written the song “Life’s Railway to Heaven”) and evangelist Sam P. Jones (who published many gospel songbooks and traveled around the South doing tent revivals). To supplement his income, Jenkins sold newspapers on the streets of Atlanta and soon acquired a reputation as a folk preacher....

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Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly) With his wife, Martha Promise Ledbetter, 1935. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-35026).

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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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Bill McCulloch and Barry Lee Pearson

Lipscomb, Mance (09 April 1895–30 January 1976), songster and guitarist, was born on a farm near Navasota, Texas, the son of Charlie Lipscomb, a former slave who became a professional fiddler, and Janie Pratt. Mance learned to play fiddle and guitar at an early age, learning mainly by ear because his musician father was seldom home to teach him. While still a preteen, Mance supposedly traveled with his father for a time, accompanying him on guitar. However, when Mance was around eleven years old, his father stopped coming home altogether, and the youngster went to work on the farm to help his mother....

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Niles, John Jacob (28 April 1892–01 March 1980), balladeer and composer, was born in Louisville, Kentucky, the son of John Thomas Niles and Louise Sarah Reisch. Through oral tradition, John Jacob learned “old timey” music from his father, a folksinger and square dance caller. From his mother, a pianist and church organist, he gained the more formal elements of theory and note-reading skills. When Niles was twelve, his family moved to rural Jefferson County, Kentucky, where Niles began collecting folk music under his mother’s tutelage. By 1907 Niles had composed his first important song, “Go ’Way from My Window,” based on a single line of text collected from an African-American worker on his father’s farm....

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Ochs, Phil (19 December 1940–08 April 1976), folksinger and songwriter, was born Philip David Ochs in El Paso, Texas, the son of Jacob Ochs, a physician, and Gertrude Phinn. Ochs’s earliest musical influences were country singers such as Hank Williams, Faron Young, and Johnny Cash, along with early rock and roll stars such as ...