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GUTHRIE, LEON JERRY "JACK" (1915-1948)

Western singer-songwriter Jack Guthrie first made popular the song "Oklahoma Hills." He was born Leon Jerry Guthrie on November 13, 1915, in Olive, Oklahoma. His father, an early day blacksmith, was a younger brother of Charley Guthrie, the father of Woody Guthrie. Jack Guthrie grew up around horses and grew to love them and the cowboy image. As with others in the Guthrie family, he learned to play the fiddle, guitar, bass fiddle, and other instruments from family members. The family moved often, and since Guthrie did not enjoy the discipline of public school life, he would go in the front door of a school and straight out the back door. It is doubtful that he ever completed the sixth grade. By the mid-1930s the family had settled in California. As he believed that the names Leon and Jerry were not good cowboy image names, he became known as "Jack," "Oklahoma," and "Oke."

He developed a style of singing and yodeling influenced by his idol, Jimmie Rodgers. In the mid-1930s Guthrie competed in rodeo as a bucking-horse rider. Later he adapted his music to fit the cowboy image. In 1937 his cousin and good friend Woody Guthrie traveled to the Los Angeles area, and they became a musical team, landing the Oke & Woody Show on KFVD radio in Hollywood. During the fall of 1937 Woody wrote "Oklahoma Hills," which they performed during their shows. However, each cousin had different ambitions and quickly went separate ways.

Jack Guthrie also was a stage performer who entertained audiences with a whip act. His wife participated in it until their marriage became rocky and Guthrie started missing the items she held, accidentally hitting her with the whip. His friend Ruth Crissman then joined the act, and when he was injured in a fall from a bucking horse and had no other career, in 1944 she provided funds to buy him a demo recording session at Capitol Records's studio. Capitol offered him a contract, and "Oklahoma Hills" was the first song he recorded. Released in 1945, it quickly became a number one country-western hit. When Woody Guthrie heard it on a jukebox, he called Capitol and claimed it as his song. Because Jack had recorded it and made it popular and had made a few changes to improve it, he and his cousin decided to share the copyright.

Jack Guthrie was in the U.S. Army and stationed in the Pacific when "Oklahoma Hills" was released. When discharged, he started playing Western-swing dances along the West Coast, making personal appearances, and writing songs such as "Oklahoma's Calling." He also recorded more hit songs for Capitol, including "Oakie Boogie." Guthrie was diagnosed with tuberculosis, but he was determined to take full advantage of his popularity. He avoided medical treatment or hospitalization until it was too late. In July 1947 he was admitted to Livermore Veterans Tubercular Hospital near Sacramento, California, where he was told that there was no hope. He then moved in with his sister, Wava Blake. In October he recorded a few more songs, but he was so sick that he had to lie on a cot between songs. Jack Guthrie died on January 15, 1948, two months after his thirty-second birthday, and was buried in Memorial Cemetery, Sacramento, California.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Guy Logsdon, "Jack Guthrie: A Star That Almost Was," The Journal of Country Music 15 (1993).

Guy Logsdon

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