In 1998, when folk singer Woody Guthrie was commemorated on a U.S. postage stamp, his son, Arlo, remarked: “For a man who fought all his life against being respectable, this comes as a stunning defeat.”
There were plenty of things stacked against Guthrie during his lifetime. He suffered from sweeping depressions, lost beloved family members to devastating fires and spent his last 13 years in a mental institution, dying slowly of Huntington’s disease. Despite all this, he was a passionate and enthusiastic man, patriotic, generous and deeply spiritual. He spent most of his life on the run, jumping freights, hitchhiking, walking, talking, playing music, womanizing and writing. The rules he lived by were his own, which left a legacy of several thousand songs and friends and family holding the bag.
Giving a full-bodied account of someone so contradictory is a challenge, and then there’s the nuts-and-bolts difficulty of tracking Guthrie’s kinetic movements around the country. Ed Cray, author of numerous books, including biographies of Earl Warren and George C. Marshall, and a professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism, does a beautiful job with a new biography, “Ramblin’ Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie,” thanks to meticulous research and a detailed writing style.
Guthrie was born in 1912 in the swaggering, brash new state of Oklahoma. His parents, Nora and Charley Guthrie, were scrabbling their way to the top of society while the state’s small farmers lived on “the four B’s": beans, bacon, biscuits and bull gravy. The family’s financial situation devolved as Nora’s increasingly erratic behavior from Huntington’s disease devastated the family. After several horrific fires, Guthrie’s sister Clara was dead, his father badly burned and Nora hauled off to a mental institution. The remaining kids “scattered out,” and 15-year-old Guthrie began rambling.
He eventually followed his father to Texas, where he couldn’t hack high school but found refuge in a library, reading from one end of the bookshelves to the other. He married, tried just about every kind of work except steady employment and spent most of his time learning to play the harmonica, guitar and violin. When his wife, Mary, was pregnant with their second child, he left for California. Her brother Matt, who would remain Guthrie’s friend through the rest of his turbulent life, put it this way: Guthrie was “the least adapted to marriage of anyone who ever took the vow.”
In the lush green splendor of California, he found miserable squatter camps filled with desperate farming families blown off their land across the Great Plains, lured west by the promise of work. “I can’t tell you how pretty this country did look to me,” Guthrie wrote. “I can’t tell you how ugly the cops looked, nor how ugly the jails looked, the hobo jungles, the shacktowns up and down the rivers, how dirty the Hoovervilles looked on the rim of the city garbage dump.” Guthrie was galvanized:
These were his people; he was angry, and he used his guitar to fight back. He sang on the radio, in the squalid camps and on picket lines, encouraging, supporting, cajoling, lamenting. He honed his writing skills, adding his own hard-hitting songs to a repertoire of melancholy ballads, breakdown fiddle tunes and plaintive cowboy songs.
Soon he was on the road again, hitting New York late in 1939 just as John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” swept the nation. Guthrie was in demand at fundraising parties, benefit concerts and on the radio: Here was the real thing, an authentic Okie who could put his experiences into words. “Bound for Glory,” his 1943 “autobiographical novel,” tightened and organized by a clever editor, was a huge success. Guthrie immediately began work on a second. Several long, rambling years later, he turned in a staggeringly digressive 840-page manuscript, “Seeds of Man.” A new editor turned it down flat.
Stung, Guthrie grumbled that long novels were just too slow and “plowy and ploddy” for him to spend time fooling around with. He threw his energy back into songwriting.
The 1940s were a fervent, yeasty time for Guthrie. Folk musicians and causes were collecting in New York City: He lived and sang with Pete Seeger, Cisco Houston, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee and Leadbelly. The Almanac Singers, which included Guthrie, Seeger, Lee Hays and Millard Lampell, formed, reformed and melted away. Library of Congress archivist Alan Lomax and record producer Moses Asch hustled Guthrie into the studio and recorded hundreds of his songs.
In a lifetime of complex, difficult relationships, Guthrie’s early New York years were also a time of deep connection for him. He fell in love with Marjorie Mazia, a dancer with Martha Graham’s company, and in 1943 they had a daughter, Cathy Ann. Cray writes that Guthrie was no longer the “grand lover of anonymous mankind but a man truly in love with Marjorie and their daughter.”
Cray’s dexterity as a biographer is most evident in Guthrie’s involvement in the complex dynamics of left-wing politics as they shifted with the Depression, World War II and the postwar disillusionment of the left. Guthrie’s Dust Bowl songs gave way to a torrent of songs lauding peace, anti-fascism, win-the-war and unions. In the words of fellow Almanac player Hays, “Woody always reminded me of water over a dam, just an unstoppable creation.” While Leadbelly and other musicians showed people exactly how the traditional songs went, Guthrie inspired them to write their own.
Some of his greatest songs are contradictory, critical, fiercely patriotic, like the man himself. Take “Pastures of Plenty,” written on the banks of the Columbia River in 1941. Guthrie eloquently captures the difficulty of the migrant’s life:
I worked in your orchards of peaches and prunes
I slept on the ground in the light of the moon
On the edge of the city you’ll see us and then
We come with the dust and we go with the wind
But Guthrie doesn’t speak of just the tough stuff, he snaps the song shut with this beautiful stanza:
It’s always we rambled, that river and I
All along your green valley, I will work till I die
My land I’ll defend with my life if need be
Cause my pastures of plenty must always be free
The relatively idyllic years based in New York changed dramatically when 4-year-old Cathy Ann, left alone for just a few minutes, died of burns suffered when the cord of a rebuilt radio caught fire in their apartment, propelling Guthrie back on the road and into a profound depression. The Huntington’s disease he inherited from his mother began its insidious work: Bouts of disorientation and dizziness were accompanied by trembling and twitching; his frequent letters to friends and family became increasingly incoherent; he was often drunk, sloppy, rude, even violent.
For decades Guthrie fans have fervently debated whether he was a member of the Communist Party. During his life, he shrugged the question off with an evasive answer. “Some people say I’m a Communist. That ain’t necessarily so, but it is true that I’ve always been in the red.” Although Guthrie sang at Communist functions and had a column in the Daily Worker, Cray presents a compelling list of people who claim Guthrie was never, could never, have been a Communist. Unable to handle meetings and structure, Guthrie didn’t have the discipline the party required. Cray insists that Guthrie was, in the parlance of the times, only a “fellow traveler.”
Occasionally Cray’s eye for detail and exacting recounting goes over the top. Having edited books such as “The Erotic Muse,” Cray includes in “Ramblin’ Man” an overwhelming number of testimonials from women Guthrie bedded, or tried to. Point made. But perhaps this is a personal quibble. Cray and I have inherently different views of Guthrie. I take to him as if he were a ghostly lover: wonderful, seductive, mercurial, infuriating. Cray treats him as a buddy: funny, smart, clever, brave and hopeless.
In exploring the nuances of Guthrie’s work, Cray’s exacting style is pitch-perfect. It is in his songs and poems, “songs without music” as Cray calls them, that Guthrie’s “genius glistens. In those works are the passion and compassion, the anger and the humor that make him a significant poet.” Generously included in “Ramblin’ Man” are many verses of Guthrie’s songs, giving us a firsthand feeling for his evolution as a writer.
Cray doesn’t spare us the painful details of Guthrie’s life unraveling: more children, the dissolution of his second marriage, the insanity of his third and his excruciatingly slow death from Huntington’s. But it is not without humor: In the 1950s, the FBI doggedly tracked Guthrie as he roamed between New York, Florida and California. In 1955, he was removed from their watch list when they ran him to ground, finding him locked up in Brooklyn State Hospital. Guthrie claimed that being in a mental ward wasn’t so bad. “I can say I’m a communist and all they say is ‘ah, he’s crazy.’ You know, this is the last free place in America.”
In an evocative last chapter, Cray examines Guthrie’s legacy as a writer in multiple genres and as an American folk hero, with a caveat that we not over inflate his importance: “Predictions of immortality tend to be fallible ... [but] as long as Guthrie’s lyrics can be adapted to contemporary issues, his songs will be sung.”
Are they ever. Cray follows the slipstreams of Guthrie’s musical influence, through musicians such as Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Judy Collins, and a generation later, Bruce Springsteen, Ani DeFranco and Billy Bragg. As folk singer Tom Paxton put it, “The most important thing Woody gave us was courage to stand up and say the things we believe.”
It’s a timely reminder. *
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From Ramblin’ Man
However well he and Marjorie stoically soldiered on -- the two of them at her insistence performing a program at a nursery school just days after Cathy’s death -- Guthrie suffered the loss of this golden child.
“There has been made in me an open place and an empty spot now, a spot lots emptier than I ever felt it before, a spot so sinking and so empty that I reach around a thousand times a day and grab onto things, old letters, signs, faces, people, pictures, and things, and I try to use all of these things in some way to fill up this hungry and thirsty place.”
Guthrie added a pledge and a prophecy [about songs he wrote for her]: “Cathy’s works in her four short years will echo from iron to brick for some long season to come, and maybe always keep on living and growing.”