A full blooded Marxican

The Guardian

Had Woody Guthrie not been cremated, his spirit surely would have erupted from the grave in the early hours of November 3 2004, as Republicans celebrating Bush’s re-election in Washington bellowed out his anthem “This Land Is Your Land’’. No doubt they felt, in their moment of triumph, that this land did indeed now belong to them “from California to the New York island’’ - but their sheer effrontery in purloining Guthrie’s hymn to an egalitarian US will be hard to beat. Certainly, they’ll never be caught singing what is probably Guthrie’s second most famous song, “Union Maid’’ (“Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union’’). Guthrie

was a committed class warrior and in his own words “a full blooded Marxican’’. His hatred for the rich was unwavering and his contempt for private property bracing.

As long as song is counted among the major forms of human expression, Guthrie should be counted a major artist. At their best, his songs are vivid, passionate, witty, shaped with a craftsman’s love of form, and an irony so economical that it makes most of what passes for the ironic mode today look turgid. He had an eye for the telling detail and a way of using a deceptively simple phrase to open up vistas of injustice and hypocrisy. Guthrie was a poet not only of social protest but also of loss and loneliness, hope and wonder. Far from being merely an earnest troubadour of worthy causes, he revelled in surreal fantasy and off-the-wall humour. He was addicted to wordplay. And he was immersed in the ballads, hymns and blues of the American past.

Even in his own lifetime, he had acquired the status of a legend: the Oklahoma dustbowl refugee, who tramped from state to state, stood up to bosses and fascists and lived the life of the people he sang about. In 1943, at the age of 30, he published his “autobiography’’, Bound for Glory, rich in anecdotes and propelled by a prose of ceaseless verve and ingenuity. However, as Ed Cray’s biography makes clear, Guthrie’s book strays far from the truth and tells only a fraction of his extraordinary story. His youth was scarred by traumatic events. An older sister was killed in a fire. His mother suffered from a degenerative nervous disease (the same one that would ultimately cripple and kill Guthrie himself) and set his father ablaze during a domestic row. The elder Guthrie, a small town entrepreneur and frustrated Democratic party politician, was severely injured and subsequently fell on hard times, which is how Woody ended up wandering the country and singing for his supper.

In California he encountered the left and the labour movement and dedicated his voice to the workers’ cause. Here in the late 30s he produced his first collection of original songs, the “Dust Bowl Ballads’’, tales of migrants fleeing poverty and ecological disaster, seeking work and self-respect and suffering persecution. In their evocation of uprootedness and displacement, of a collective destiny experienced as personal isolation, these songs remain searingly pertinent. Listen to “I Ain’t Got No Home’’, “Ramblin’ Round’’ or the later, hauntingly eloquent “Deportees’’, and think of the Chinese cockle-pickers swept to their deaths in Morecambe Bay. “Some of us are illegal and others not wanted. / Our work contract’s out and we have to move on . . . They chase us like rustlers, like outlaws, like thieves . . .’’ During this period he also composed his outlaw ballads, “Pretty Boy Floyd’’ (“Some rob you with a sixgun and some with a fountain pen’’), “Jesse James’’ and “Jesus Christ’’, which asserts a Christian socialism that would make Tony Blair’s blood run cold (“The bankers and the preachers, they nailed Him on a cross’’). In 1940, the federal government commissioned Guthrie to write songs to popularise a vast hydro-electric project in the Pacific Northwest. The result was a string of masterpieces - “Grand Coulee Dam’’, “Roll On Columbia’’, “Pastures of Plenty’’ — filled with awe at the power of nature and optimism about the human capacity to harness it for benign and democratic purposes.

Cray details Guthrie’s involvement with singer Pete Seeger, archivist Alan Lomax and the pioneering urban folk troupe, the Almanacs, and his eventful and at times heroic stint in the merchant marine during the second world war. He also shows that although commercial success repeatedly beckoned Guthrie, who was a charismatic entertainer, he compulsively turned his back on it, driven at least in part by a visceral suspicion of anything “slicked up and starched and imitation’’. For much of his life, even after he had appeared on national radio, Guthrie was genuinely indigent — sleeping under bridges and spending nights in police cells.

In Guthrie, the economic migrant blended with the bohemian wanderer. “I don’t know what this stuff called time is made of,’’ he complained, and as Cray makes clear, he remained something of a mystery to himself as well as to his friends and lovers. His later years were filled with pain. The traumas of his youth were harrowingly reprised when his four-year-old daughter (for whom he wrote his marvellously playful children’s songs) died in a fire. He sought escape in alcohol, suffered depression, and was hounded by the McCarthyite witch-hunt. With the onset of Huntington’s chorea, he lost his faculties one by one and spent his last 13 years (1954-67) in state mental hospitals. Cray meticulously reconstructs Guthrie’s incessant peregrinations, shedding new light on every phase of his life. He makes good use of his access to the family archives and spices his account with rich dollops of Guthrie’s vivacious prose (excerpts from letters and diaries) that confirm his genius in the medium — and which some enterprising publisher ought to collect in an anthology.

Cray is sensitive to Guthrie’s varied moods but in the end has difficulty coming to terms with his intense, complex personality. “Guthrie, praised for his authenticity, was inauthentic himself,’’ he concludes, stumbling, as many before him, on the elusive paradoxes of the cult of the authentic. Yes, Guthrie was a well-read intellectual and his language was an artificial construct — he was not some native genius warbling his wood notes wild. But in disparaging “his pose of unlettered regionalism’’, Cray underestimates Guthrie’s artistic and political depth. For Guthrie, the colloquial idiom wasn’t a self-denying straitjacket but a rich seam, an endlessly pliable medium of vibrant personal expression. Guthrie was driven by a sense of the richness of life and a belief that money and status inevitably severed one from its abundance. His attachment to the workers’ cause was not sentimental. For him, trade unions embodied grassroots power, the human power he tapped as an artist and an individual. Guthrie remained close to the Communist party through one volte-face after another, but never joined — or was never allowed to join. He jotted in a notebook: “Lenin: Where three balalaika players meet, the fourth one ought to be a communist.”

Me: “Where three communists meet, the fourth one ought to be a guitar player.”

(Ramblin’ Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie by Ed Cray, 384pp, Norton)