Woody Guthrie took the first steps of his music career in a Pampa drugstore

Woody Guthrie took the first steps of his music career in a Pampa drugstore

PAMPA, TX (KFDA) - He made "common music for the common man," says a man who knows a great deal about one of America's musical icons – the one best known for writing "This Land Is Your Land".

And he began making that music in a drugstore where he once worked as a soda jerk in Pampa.

The icon's name was Woody Guthrie, who went on to write thousands of songs, some of which became virtual anthems during the 1940s and early 1950s.

A Texas Historical Commission marker singles out Harris Drug Store in Pampa as a place of great historical significance to the region and the community.

Guthrie was a high school student who lived in Pampa from 1929 until 1936. He walked into Shorty Harris' drug store and saw a guitar, said Michael Sinks, a Pampa resident and chairman of the Woody Guthrie Folk Music Center Board of Directors that operates the old drug store..

"Shorty Harris told him if he learned how to play the guitar, he could have it," according to Sinks.

Guthrie learned how to play it, and Harris gave the instrument to him.

"History was made right there," Sinks said.

These days the site plays host to musicians every Friday night who come to play some of the "common music" that Guthrie helped make popular. Most of the musicians are guitarists, according to Sinks, who plays guitar himself.

"These events are sort of patterned after the barn dances and they pass along songs from generation to generation," Sinks said.

"Woody would take tunes and write new lyrics to old songs," said Sinks, explaining Guthrie was "more interested in the lyrics of songs than the music."

Sinks became involved with the small museum after he retired from AT&T in 2009. "I stopped to get a haircut next door," Sinks recalled. "I noticed a guitar in the window (of the old drug store). Someone asked me to help," he said. "I thought they wanted me to help move a piano or something," he said with a slight chuckle. "They needed help with the exhibit and lots of other things," he said.

Sinks signed on.

The drug store was a hangout in the old days.

"It was during Prohibition, and they sold a drink there called 'Jake,' which was a combination of moonshine and ginger. Woody never saw 'Jake' anywhere else. That's where his music got started," Sinks said.

Guthrie was joined eventually by Matt Jennings and they later formed a music trio with a fellow named Cluster Baker, said Sinks. "They called themselves the Corn Cob Trio."

Guthrie's family history was full of plenty of pain, Sinks said. Indeed, Huntington's disease – which eventually would kill Guthrie in 1967 – afflicted other members of his family, including his children. Guthrie's mother was institutionalized. A sister died in a fire.

Guthrie's father had owned a number of farms, but lost them all during the Great Depression.

"They were gone when the market crashed in 1929," said Sinks.

Guthrie was born in Okemah, Okla., from where he and his family moved when they settled in Pampa.

Thelma Bray founded the Woody Guthrie exhibit that sits inside the Harris Drug store and she remains involved with the project. Sinks said the organization is a "non-profit" and relies on individual donations to help fund its activities. The old store is open just part of the time.

"A lot of folks come here to learn about things such as the Dust Bowl," Sinks said. "Sometimes they are on the way to a new Woody Guthrie center in Tulsa … Woody never lived there, but Tulsa is pretty close to Okemah, where Woody was born."

The drug store comes to life, though, on Friday nights when musicians gather to play music and to invite audience members to take part as well.

Guthrie's final years were spent suffering from Huntington's disease, a horrifying neurological disorder. He was hospitalized for a dozen years. Sinks said Guthrie was unable to travel much during that time.

He died in New York City on Oct. 3, 1967.

Guthrie was 55 years of age at the time of his death.

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