The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie
by Ed Cray. Foreword by Studs Terkel
WW Norton, New York. ISBN 0-393-04759-8
Pp.488+XVIII, hardback. $29-95
"Let me be remembered as the man who told you something you already knew" - Woody Guthrie.
"And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange" - John Steinbeck
It's just as well that Woody Guthrie never hired a publicity agent. Even without stirring outside my memory, I can recall two quasi-autobiographical books by Guthrie; three books of reminiscences by other authors; innumerable magazine and journal articles, plus a plethora of passages and references in other works; the legendary Library of Congress interview with Alan Lomax; a BBC TV programme; a BBC radio series; two film biopics; and Joe Klein's wonderfully evocative biography of Guthrie. And that's before we mention the endless tide of re-issues and re-re-issues of Guthrie's records, plus the hard copy publications of his songs and writings. Sometimes I feel that the only thing left is for John Adams to make Woody Guthrie the subject of his next opera.1
Some of this output is little more than glorified fiction, and much of what's left lacks the exacting authority of the academic historian. However, I have considerable regard for the Klein, and have come to think of it as the standard work on Guthrie. What can Ed Cray possibly tell us that we don't know already?
Well, it is now nearly forty years since Guthrie died, and almost a quarter of a century since Klein was published. That is time to reason and reflect and reconsider and reassess. In fact, Cray's intervention is particularly opportune, for it has enabled him to gain access to a vast amount of previously unseen material which is now in the Woody Guthrie archive; and he has interviewed over seventy of Guthrie's associates. Given the ages of some of these people, that is an opportunity which regrettably may not be available for much longer.
But there are other reasons why the Gods might favour a reconsideration of the Guthrie legend. First of all, even in a world which has learned to accept the foibles of artistic genius, Guthrie is often portrayed as a puzzling and enigmatic and disconcerting figure; the archetypal artistic sociopath. His is a difficult persona to understand and to accept.
Secondly, no other exponent of American vernacular music - not Leadbelly, not Robert Johnson, not The Carters, not Jimmie Rodgers - left such a sweeping imprint upon the world of popular music. His legacy is everywhere; from the skiffle movement of the 1950s, through the British and American folk revivals, and down through the music of Dylan and the Beatles.2
Finally, no matter how many times the songs are sung, or how many times the tale is told, there can be no such thing as too much Woody Guthrie.
I don't want to labour comparisons with those earlier works, but the analogies between Klein and Cray are much too salient to be ignored. Both authors are journalists (Cray is a Professor of Journalism), both are very good writers, and their literary styles are rather similar. Moreover, their books are of comparable sizes and, inevitably, they cover the same ground.
That is why the casual observer may be forgiven for wondering what is new about Ed Cray's canvas. As far as the broad outline goes, the answer is, not a lot. We read about the security of Guthrie's early childhood; about his father's fall from entrepreneurial grace, and his mother's confinement to a mental home; and about Guthrie's gamin adolescence. We hear about Texas and California and New York and the American folk revival and the Communist Party and the second world war and the Merchant Marine. There is stuff in plenty about the depression and the Okies and about Guthrie's radio days and his children and his marriages. Finally, the book chronicles Guthrie's long, slow, harrowing and depressing slide into Huntington's chorea. I warn you, the penultimate chapters are not a pleasant read.
However, the merits of Cray's book lie less in the broad brushstrokes than in the fine detail. There are differences of emphasis, of course, and Klein gives us far more about Guthrie's illness, and about the less desirable aspects of Woody's character. There are also differences of interpretation, although these are surprisingly few. Where they do occur, I don't feel that Cray always occupies the high ground. For example, Klein depicts Woody as an alcoholic. Cray does not, preferring to say that it took very little to get him drunk. Here though, the substantive evidence which Klein produces makes me think that he may have been right.
But overall, Cray's delineation of Woody Guthrie is more well rounded and more penetrating, and it benefits considerably from the material in that archive. As instances, compare the respective sections in which each author deals with Guthrie's days as a country music radio entertainer; or read Cray's discussion of Guthrie's musical influences; or note how each author deals with the conversion to socialism.
And Cray has some truly gripping stuff about Guthrie's life on the road, or perhaps I should say the boxcars. Nothing I have ever read before has managed to convey the harshness of the hobo existence in such vivid detail.
There is also a fair amount of testament to Guthrie's courage. In a scene so bizarre it could have come from one of Woody's tall stories, Cray describes how Guthrie, along with Cisco Houston and Jim Longhi, once risked his life to entertain a troop of frightened GIs on board a troop ship. The said squaddies had been hemmed below decks during a fierce naval battle, where a single depth charge could have sent the whole contingent to the deep at any moment. Ignoring the risks to their own lives, the three companeros left their comparatively secure quarters, to provide the soldiers with a musical morale booster. They also presented the military with an anti-fascist object lesson. Refusing to move out of an expediently sited, but racially segregated 'Nigra toilet'; they insisted that, if they were going to be heard at all, they were going to be heard equally well by both segments of this racially segregated fighting unit.
Inevitably, a different Woody starts to coalesce. Writers in the past have sometimes portrayed Guthrie as a feckless, irresponsible, and frankly not very pleasant individual. Well, Cray has plenty to say on Guthrie's failings, but he leaves one in no doubt as to the sincerity of the man's beliefs. What's more, elaboration brings understanding. For instance, there is a much remembered episode in Guthrie's life where he overturned a food table at a trade union benefit concert, because the organisers would not allow Guthrie's black companions to eat with him. In Klein's interpretation, Guthrie's behaviour comes over almost as an exercise in flippancy. In Cray's, one empathises with the anger which overtook him; "This fight against fascism has got to start right here and now."
It is also worth observing some of the minutiae which emerges from Cray's exegesis. For instance, I never knew before that the ship which Guthrie served on spent several weeks moored in Liverpool bay while waiting to convey allied invasion troops to Normandy. That is within ten miles of where I now live, and that is the kind of stuff which puts flesh and blood on the bones of long dead heroes!
Incidentally, Guthrieologists will be glad to note the selection of photographs in this book. There are several which I had certainly not seen before.
By now, regular visitors to this site must be wondering what happened to the McCormick lambaste, and the remorseless dissection. I'm sorry to disappoint my readers, but this is one author who knows how to play in the Big-League. Consequently, his book displays all the hallmarks of impeccable editorial standards, meticulous scholarship and accuracy of the highest degree. I should probably caution people to treat the 'and Times' part of the subtitle in the appropriate spirit. This is a book about Woody Guthrie, rather than about the world he moved in. Hence, there is stuff in plenty about Oklahoma and the depression and the New York folk scene, and about many of Guthrie's associates. But it is here as the backdrop to the main story.
Also, this is neither a critical biography, nor a theoretical tract and, at a total of 511 pages, it is a substantial work already. Even so - and while these things do get mentioned in the book - I could have done with a more exhaustive analysis of Guthrie's politics, and of his relationship with the American Communist Party, and of his attitude towards Marxism in general. The point is important because these things help to give us an insight into Guthrie's song-writing. Unlike the songs of a more doctrinaire Marxist and party member, such as Ewan MacColl, Guthrie's creations tended to rail against events rather than prescribe courses of action. That, I think is a function of how Guthrie saw his role in politics. He was an emotive agitator; a man with a musical soapbox. He wasn't a song-writing Marxist.
Moreover, the vacillations of the American far left, in the years of the Hitler-Stalin pact, come in for some discussion. Therefore, a note explaining the theories, which led Marxists to believe that protection of the Soviet Union was protection of the revolution world-wide, would have gone a long way towards enlightening non-Marxist readers.
The book could have benefitted from some less cryptic chapter headings. Titles like Radical With a Twang, or The Noise of Roaches tell the reader virtually nothing about the content, and make it difficult when trying to trace information. And I could have lived without Studs Terkel's two-page foreword. It is mercifully brief, but it retails the kind of naive mythology which used to pass for informed comment in folk music, and which still does, wherever naive mythologists pontificate.
Finally, and this is nothing to do with the book, but somebody at W W Norton should have had a word with their publicist. The literature which accompanied pre-publication copies states that Woody Guthrie died aged 42 in 1954. One reviewer I read had actually taken that at face value.
But there are molehills and there are mountains, and overall, this book is a magnificent achievement. I don't think it renders Klein obsolete by any means, but it deserves to take its place as the standard work on Woody Guthrie. If you want to find out what inspired the man, and what moved him to song, this is the book to consult.
There is something else which Klein's book lacks. It does not contain a concise appreciation of the artistic and humanistic significance of Woody Guthrie or of Woody Guthrie's songs. By comparison, the final chapter of Cray consists of a fine and moving assessment of Guthrie's artistry and his legacy. His last few sentences are worth quoting in full:
As long as Guthrie's lyrics can be adapted to contemporary issues, his songs will be sung. As long as there remain social inequities against which he protested, his songs will be sung.
So the songs live.
So too does Woody Guthrie, American.
Now I don't want to knock Woody's patriotism none. But it kinda seems to me that as long as little children is hungry and cryin'; as long as people ain't free; as long as working folks is fightin' for their rights; as long as this crazy old world keeps knockin' people for a dozen loops, and tellin' us we're no good; as long as there's lots of funny men in it to rob us with six-guns or fountain pens; then we got us some singing to do. And as long as there's a world where people daily torture and starve and massacre each other in the name of progress or profit, then we need Woody Guthrie's songs to remind us that it's our world and it's up to us to change it. As long as inequality exists there can be no such thing as too much Woody Guthrie - World Citizen.
The TV documentary was broadcast in BBC 2's Arena series, as far as I recall, sometime in the mid '80s. The radio series was transmitted in four parts on BBC Radio 2 in 1987. The episodes were titled: This Land is Your Land / Going Down the Road Feeling Bad / California to the New York Island / I ain't got no home in this world anymore.
A fictionalised film biography of Woody was released in 1976, as Bound for Glory. It was directed by Hal Ashby and starred David Carradine and Ronnie Cox. A possibly more reliable version of the legend was retailed in 1988 as A Vision Shared: A Tribute to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. This mixes archive footage of Guthrie and Leadbelly, with modern performances by various artists, including Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and U2.
2. Cray has very little to say concerning Guthrie's influence on popular music. Indeed, I do not know of anyone who has carried out a thoroughgoing study of the same. However, anyone who ever listened to '60s protest, or skiffle, or British blues, or Merseybeat, or psychedelic rock would do well to acquaint themselves with the chief of their founding fathers. Incidentally, Cray does acknowledge Guthrie's influence on the Beatles, via their origins as a skiffle group. It is worth pointing out also that that their psychedelic phase had connections with Guthrie through their association with Bob Dylan.
Fred McCormick - 10.5.04