Ramblin’ Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie
History, as the saying goes, is written by the victors. And then rewritten by each successive generation as re-examined through the lens of its particular time, that distance serving to clarify and obscure all at once.
Woody Guthrie made up his own history and published it as Bound For Glory, but didn’t live to see David Carradine star in the 1976 film. The definitive biography to date has been Joe Klein’s 1980 Woody Guthrie: A Life. Ed Cray — like Klein, better known for writing about public figures, in his case General George C. Marshall and Chief Justice Earl Warren — has taken advantage of the newly opened Woody Guthrie Archives to expand and revise our understanding of the folk singer’s life.
It’s not a pretty picture, though Cray tells it in a carefully impartial voice, and bases it (as press materials tell us) on interviews with over 70 of Guthrie’s surviving friends.
The Woody Guthrie who emerges in these pages is a hard man to like; the charisma he cultivated that led so many to believe in him and in his work only rarely transcends the messy details of his life. Reduced considerably for brevity, the poet of the working man emerges as a restless philanderer who never picked cotton; the unlettered Okie is revealed to have been the conscious creation of a well-read (if self-taught), mostly middle-class lad. Indeed, Guthrie seems as self-involved and amoral as any contemporary star.
At the margins of Cray’s biography seems a relatively recent recasting of what it meant for Guthrie to have been a kind of satellite to the Communist Party. With the relatively recent revelation that the Rosenbergs really were spies, with a new biography even arguing for the rehabilitation of Senator Joe McCarthy, and with the continued ascension of the right wing, Gurthrie’s contributions as writer and performer to the Party (though never as a formal member) play differently on the page now than they might have two decades ago.
It is also hard to know what to do with a man who once supported his first family, barely, by hanging out a shingle as a faith healer and later emerged as the true voice of the American left. Cray seems precisely on point noting Guthrie’s certain awareness of the persona adopted by the once-famous humorist Will Rogers, who also traded on his Oklahoma accent and presumed ignorance.
How much of Guthrie’s personality can be traced to the peculiarities of his upbringing, to the debilitating disease he inherited from his mother, to the tragedies of fire that killed a sister and a daughter, cannot be known. How much of his legacy has been shaped by acolytes such as Bob Dylan, who came to know Guthrie after Huntington’s Chorea had impaired his speech but concluded that Woody’s phrasing was how folk music was supposed to be sung, we’ll probably not know either.
And if something is missing from these pages, it is Guthrie’s music. Cray writes about it and offers lyrics and cites letters, but what made and makes Woody special seems largely alluded to, rather than explored and explained.
The truth — this reader’s truth, anyhow — is that nothing to be found on the written page makes Woody Guthrie special. Those are the details of a difficult life, and they are not dissimilar from the details of many artists’ lives. The songs and the music are where the magic is still to be found. Today we too often break the first rule of literary criticism, and confuse the artist with the art.