In sharp contrast to the fresh-air eloquence and gritty wisdom of his now-sanitized radical songs (""This Land is Your...

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WOODY GUTHRIE: A Life

In sharp contrast to the fresh-air eloquence and gritty wisdom of his now-sanitized radical songs (""This Land is Your Land,"" ""So Long, It's Been Good to Know You""), Woody Guthrie's life is a fire-haunted study in family misery, fatal restlessness, political itchiness, Coney Island bohemianism, and ghastly disease--all of which emerge vividly from this solid, detailed rather cautious biography. Woody's father was an Oklahoma boom-town speculator who fell from flashy Main Stree! success to three-room-shack humiliation. His mother was an apparent madwoman who sang the old songs in a nasal wail, wreaked havoc, and had to be put away. So young bookworm Woody became something of a ratty tramp, with music just one of his many freeform pursuits. Married and a father at 23, he was still a soda-jerk, the smelly town weirdo--but then came The Great Dust Storm of the mid-Thirties, which inspired his first real songs and catalyzed his drifting impulse: he freight-trained to California, discovered Wobblies and Joe Hill and anti-""Okie"" bigots; he found a hill-billyish career on L.A. radio, wandering back home often enough to father more kids; and he became fiercely, if naively, political--playing the prole for Communist rallies, writing picket-line songs and outlaw ballads (""Some will rob you with a six-gun/ And some with a fountain pen""), gravitating to N.Y., center of Popular-Front culture. There, encouraged by musicologist Alan Lomax, he recorded, performed, wrote Bound for Glory, became a womanizing celebrity, found soulmates (Pete Seeger, Cisco Houston), compromised a little for radio acceptance (he stopped writing a Daily Worker column), but finally ran away from ""capitalist temptations."" The war years instead became a mix of Union sing-tours, spotty naval service, and a stormy affair with Jewish modern-dancer Marjorie, whom he finally married. But by the late Forties, when folk music would begin to become commercial, Woody's political base was gone, his writing had petered out, and--with a push from his four-year-old daughter's death by fire--he was showing signs of the hereditary, degenerative, incurable brain disease that killed his mother: wildly erotic letters, outrageous and violent behavior, verbal convulsions, more drifting, another marriage, years of piteous hospitalization. Aside from an occasionally soppy lapse (in the second-marriage material), this is thoughtful, readable, and balanced work--informal enough to convey the epic pathos of a less-than-likable personality, carefully grounded enough to fill in the political contexts and rescue Guthrie once and for all from the assorted ""folk hero"" myths that have blurred his very real, very conscious achievement.

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 1980

ISBN: 0385333854

Page Count: -

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1980