The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie
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A lively, graphic portrait of the balladeer and activist who made ants-in-his-pants into an art form.

Woody Guthrie (1912–67) doesn't emerge here as any sort of icon, but he does shine through as a force of nature, a deep-running reservoir of disobedient energy applied to music, politics, and writing. Cray (Chief Justice, 1997, etc.) makes few assumptions; rather, he follows close on Guthrie’s heels, letting the acts speak for themselves. In terms of number and content, they are a hell’s-afire riot. The author aptly characterizes his subject’s music as simple, idiomatic, and direct, rich in symbolism, steeped in old oral traditions, yet, amazingly, crafted in mere minutes or hours. Guthrie’s politics, on the other hand, took shape more gradually over a couple of years—a near-geological amount of time for this itchy soul. Cray neatly couples the singer’s musical and political evolution, showing how they fed upon one another: a black man fired his first interest in music, and thus fired his questioning of racism. But Guthrie was never as ingenuous as he made it sound when he said, “Left wing, right wing, chicken wing—it's the same thing to me. I sing my songs wherever I can sing ’em”; this prairie socialist evolved into a “full blood Marxican,” though seldom a dogmatic one. Guthrie had “to do a little something different . . . learn a little something different every day,” which didn't make him much of a husband or father, though it kept him curious. His biographer shrewdly charts his passage through radio programs and the Almanac Singers, his stint as a leftist columnist and the writing of Bound for Glory, his patriotic socialism during the war years and the sad days of increasingly crazy behavior that led to his institutionalization. Guthrie’s last years were dark, shadowed by the horrible death of his daughter, FBI probes, and his drastic physical decline from Huntington’s chorea.

A jam-packed life, unfolded with an artful blend of perspective and admiration. (16 photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-393-04759-8
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 2003