Overdue rediscovery of folk music’s great agitator.
“I was born to be a reddical,” wrote Woody Guthrie (1912–67) at age 40. His father was a socialist-hating, small-town politician, but Guthrie learned during the 1930s Dust Bowl to identify with America’s underclass, writes Kaufman (American Literature/Univ. of Central Lancashire, England; American Culture in the 1970s, 2009, etc.) in this deft exploration of the lyrics and activism of a singer-songwriter whose anti-capitalist radicalism has been buried in romantic celebration of “the Dust Bowl Troubadour.” Few Americans realize that “This Land Is Your Land,” written out of his strong dislike of Irving Berlin’s sanctimonious “God Bless America,” contains verses condemning private property and challenging the authoritarian state. The author uses many previously unpublished materials from the Woody Guthrie Archives to show the singer’s efforts to expose “the system” in songs, poems and articles (his “Woody Sez” column ran for years in the People’s Daily World). A Communist sympathizer, he was not one for political theory: “His greatest artistic and critical strength,” writes Kaufman, was giving radical theory a human face. Beginning with his political awakening by California actor-activist Will Geer, who introduced Guthrie to progressive causes, the author chronicles the singer’s increasing militancy during the Popular Front and Cold War eras, including work with Lee Hays, Pete Seeger and many others in left-wing circles. By 1956, when he was committed to a psychiatric hospital with neurological disintegration from Huntington’s disease, the singer had become the “new patron saint of American folk music.” Guthrie wrote more than 3,000 songs that exist in archives; others were never written down. His political edge was lost in the mass-market folk-music revival of the 1960s, but now flourishes in the work of progressive musicians from Bruce Springsteen to Ani DiFranco and Emmylou Harris.
Not likely to hold wide appeal, but a solid choice for scholars and folk-music lefties.