EVEN BACK IN THE 1950s, when I was in college, it seemed like Woody Guthrie had always been around. That wipsy, nasal tenor of his, singing of Depression hardships and labor battles of the past, was even then still available on small record labels -- even if he himself was no longer to be heard on the radio. Where was he? What had happened to him? Blacklisted for his unrepentant association with the Communist Party, he might simply have sat out his exile and then returned, in time for the folk revival of the early '60s and the immense popularity that was due him through Bob Dylan, who had become a sudden superstar singing Woody's songs and miming his manner.
Yes, all that he might have done, except that in 1952, after showing some symptoms of alcoholism and recurrent bouts of erratic behavior, Woody Guthrie was at last diagnosed as suffering from Huntington's Chorea, a degenerative disease of the central nervous system. He had inherited it from his mother, who died from it after having been institutionalized for years. That, too, was Woody's future -- in and out of various hospitals, unitl at last, mute and twitching constantly and uncontrollably, he entered the final phase of the disease which lasted nearly a decade. Woody died at last in 1967.
Back during the '50s, as he was being moved in and out of hospitals, observed by doctors and therapists of every persuasion, one of them sat down with Woody's business manager Harold Leventhal and went over the case:
"Guthrie, Guthrie," he said, rummaging his desk for the file. "ah, Guthrie! A very sick man, Very sick. Delusional! He says he has written more than a thousand songs! And a novel too. And he says he has had made records for the Library of Congress. . . ."
"He has," Leventhal said.
Yes, Woody Guthrie had done it all. And it is not the least of the many virtues of this excellent biography of the great Dust Bowl troubador that its author, Joe Klein, manages to make us aware of his subjects accomplishments without overwhelming us with details of the and-then-he-wrote variety. Although it is admirably researched and thoroughly presented, it is Woody's personal story that is told here -- and told with the sweep and flow of a good novel.
Born in Okemah, Oklahoma, on July 4, 1912, Woodrow Wilson Guthrie grew up in the post-frontier West, hearing the legends of gunfighters and outlaws and learning their songs. When his mother was beset by Huntington's Chorea (although it was never diagnosed as such in her lifetime), the family began to fall apart. With her in the county hospital, Woody followed his father to Pampa, Texas, an oil boomtown in the Texas panhandle. It was from there that he began rambling, covering the vast Southwest, learning songs, making them up, and singing them along the way.
These were the years of the Depression and the Dust Bowl. When people from his part of the country, foreclosed and dispossessed, began picking up stakes and moving out to California, Woody followed them just to find out if this land of milk and honey was all that he heard. He found that for the "Okies" who arrived to serve in the migrant labor force on which the state's agriculture is so dependent, California was more like a land of wormwood and bile. Reviled, paid starvation wages, forced to live in subhuman conditions, they and their misery turned the apolitical Woody hard to the left.
While he was out in California he got his first recognition as a performer, playing around the Los Angeles area with his cousin, Jack Guthrie, who later became a country music star on the strength of Woody's tune, "Oklahoma Hills," for which he claimed credit. Woody got a radio show of his own and was soon heard across the country. This brought him eventually to New York and got him a contract with CBS.
Yet as success came his way, he did all he could to dodge it, walking out on one good deal after another. Why? It all seemed somehow dishonest to him. How could you keep faith with yourself as a radical and still collect a big weekly paycheck from the "opressors"? He would take off and play some strike benefit or other. He was constantly on the move, going with incredible energy through thousands of performances, three marriages, and the writing of a couple of books, one of which (Bound For Glory) actually got published. Reading about him here, I was reminded again and again of another Westerner, Neal Cassady, the original Beat, whom Jack Kerouac portrayed as Dean Moriarty in On the Road -- driving, driven, dynamic to the point of madness.
And of course as Joe Klein points out, from very early on, Woody Guthrie may have been rather close to madness. Although sympathetic, this is no cosmetic biography. If Klein has rescued him from misty legend, he has done so somewhat at his subject's expense. We meet Woody as he was. Often dismaying, sometimes painful, always powerfully honest, Woody Gutherie is an exemplary piece of work and as good a biography as I have read in years. i