In 1998, when folk singer Woody Guthrie was commemorated on a U.S. postage stamp, his son, Arlo, remarked: "For a man who fought all his life against being respectable, this comes as a stunning defeat."
There were plenty of things stacked against Guthrie during his lifetime. He suffered from sweeping depressions, lost beloved family members to devastating fires and spent his last 13 years in a mental institution, dying slowly of Huntington's disease. Despite all this, he was a passionate and enthusiastic man, patriotic, generous and deeply spiritual. He spent most of his life on the run, jumping freights, hitchhiking, walking, talking, playing music, womanizing and writing. The rules he lived by were his own, which left a legacy of several thousand songs and friends and family holding the bag.
Giving a full-bodied account of someone so contradictory is a challenge, and then there's the nuts-and-bolts difficulty of tracking Guthrie's kinetic movements around the country. Ed Cray, author of numerous books, including biographies of Earl Warren and George C. Marshall, and a professor at USC's Annenberg School of Journalism, does a beautiful job with a new biography, "Ramblin' Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie," thanks to meticulous research and a detailed writing style.
Guthrie was born in 1912 in the swaggering, brash new state of Oklahoma. His parents, Nora and Charley Guthrie, were scrabbling their way to the top of society while the state's small farmers lived on "the four B's": beans, bacon, biscuits and bull gravy. The family's financial situation devolved as Nora's increasingly erratic behavior from Huntington's disease devastated the family. After several horrific fires, Guthrie's sister Clara was dead, his father badly burned and Nora hauled off to a mental institution. The remaining kids "scattered out," and 15-year-old Guthrie began rambling.
He eventually followed his father to Texas, where he couldn't hack high school but found refuge in a library, reading from one end of the bookshelves to the other. He married, tried just about every kind of work except steady employment and spent most of his time learning to play the harmonica, guitar and violin. When his wife, Mary, was pregnant with their second child, he left for California. Her brother Matt, who would remain Guthrie's friend through the rest of his turbulent life, put it this way: Guthrie was "the least adapted to marriage of anyone who ever took the vow."
In the lush green splendor of California, he found miserable squatter camps filled with desperate farming families blown off their land across the Great Plains, lured west by the promise of work. "I can't tell you how pretty this country did look to me," Guthrie wrote. "I can't tell you how ugly the cops looked, nor how ugly the jails looked, the hobo jungles, the shacktowns up and down the rivers, how dirty the Hoovervilles looked on the rim of the city garbage dump." Guthrie was galvanized:
These were his people; he was angry, and he used his guitar to fight back. He sang on the radio, in the squalid camps and on picket lines, encouraging, supporting, cajoling, lamenting. He honed his writing skills, adding his own hard-hitting songs to a repertoire of melancholy ballads, breakdown fiddle tunes and plaintive cowboy songs.
Soon he was on the road again, hitting New York late in 1939 just as John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" swept the nation. Guthrie was in demand at fundraising parties, benefit concerts and on the radio: Here was the real thing, an authentic Okie who could put his experiences into words. "Bound for Glory," his 1943 "autobiographical novel," tightened and organized by a clever editor, was a huge success. Guthrie immediately began work on a second. Several long, rambling years later, he turned in a staggeringly digressive 840-page manuscript, "Seeds of Man." A new editor turned it down flat.
Stung, Guthrie grumbled that long novels were just too slow and "plowy and ploddy" for him to spend time fooling around with. He threw his energy back into songwriting.
The 1940s were a fervent, yeasty time for Guthrie. Folk musicians and causes were collecting in New York City: He lived and sang with Pete Seeger, Cisco Houston, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee and Leadbelly. The Almanac Singers, which included Guthrie, Seeger, Lee Hays and Millard Lampell, formed, reformed and melted away. Library of Congress archivist Alan Lomax and record producer Moses Asch hustled Guthrie into the studio and recorded hundreds of his songs.
In a lifetime of complex, difficult relationships, Guthrie's early New York years were also a time of deep connection for him. He fell in love with Marjorie Mazia, a dancer with Martha Graham's company, and in 1943 they had a daughter, Cathy Ann. Cray writes that Guthrie was no longer the "grand lover of anonymous mankind but a man truly in love with Marjorie and their daughter."