(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Fittingly, Ed Cray asked folk music connoisseur and historian Studs Terkel to write the foreword toRamblin’ Man. Like Guthrie, Terkel was a tough-minded idealist born in 1912, the year the Titanicsank and Woodrow Wilson (after whom Guthrie was named) was elected president. In 1941, Guthrie was staying at Terkel's Chicago flat. One morning near dawn, the host awoke to the sound of his peripatetic guest typing furiously after having returned from a South Side bar. The next morning Terkel found thirty discarded, single-spaced typed pages of impressions and song fragments. How many “been-here-and-gone pieces,” Terkel wondered, were “lost, bartered for a bologna sandwich or a pint of muscatel, or casually slipped away?” Composer of a thousand songs, this “dirt-road, hard-pavement, dank-boxcar, cold-city, hot-desert gamin” man (Terkel's words) was also a soda jerk, sign painter, mariner, radio entertainer, writer, spinner of yarns, labor organizer, and left-wing propagandist.

Oklahoma's Okfuskee County, Guthrie's birthplace, was a bastion of white racism. In 1911, a mob lynched thirty-four-year-old Laura Nelson and her fourteen-year-old son Lawrence in retaliation for the death of a policeman. Guthrie's go-getter father had a budding realty business in the oil-boom town of Okemah before suffering financial ruin during the post-World War I depression. Misfortune dogged him. One home lost its roof to a tornado; another burned down.

Guthrie's mother, Nora, sang Scots-Irish and parlor ballads to her children but was mentally unstable and never recovered from an incident that occurred when Guthrie was six. Grounded unfairly, Guthrie's sister Clara set her clothes on fire to scare her mother and died from the burns. A few years later, Nora doused her husband with kerosene and set him on fire. It took eighteen months for him to recover. Nora was institutionalized with Huntington's chorea, a disease Guthrie inherited.

Free to roam, Guthrie became fascinated with the harmonica playing of a “shoe shine boy” named George. He saved up enough money for his own harmonica and learned blues songs. For coins, Guthrie sang, jig-danced, and played the bones, sometimes in blackface. Forgoing his last two years of high school, he moved to the Texas Panhandle oil town of Pampa in 1929 to help his father manage a flophouse. He also worked in a drugstore whose owner sold “jake,” an alcoholic concoction that sometimes caused paralysis.

Guthrie's Uncle Jeff taught him guitar chords, and on a nearby farm they would spend hours “woodshedding” with accomplished musicians. An acquaintance described Guthrie's infectious good spirits: “He would ride the freight train within two miles of our house and come down the lane singing and playing his guitar.” Guthrie's first combo, the Corncob Trio, played hoedowns, minstrel tunes, and square-dance numbers.

In 1933 Guthrie married the teenage Mary Jennings. Two years later, drought and wind turned the Panhandle into a dustbowl. On Palm Sunday, the sky became black as night. The young couple “hunkered down in their shotgun shack,” struggling, Cray writes, to “catch a good breath as the fine dust filtered through cracks until the naked electric light hanging on a cord from the ceiling glowed no brighter than a lighted cigarette.” The following day, humorist Will Rogers died in a plane crash. From then on, Guthrie emulated the droll, cracker-barrel aura of Oklahoma's favorite son, although Guthrie was more impish and antiestablishment.

An indifferent husband, though affectionate toward children, Guthrie left his pregnant wife and daughter to go west. As Cray puts it, he “stuffed his paint brushes in a hip pocket, slung his guitar over his shoulder, and put up his thumb. Out there, at the end of Route 66, lay California and opportunity.” Before reaching Los Angeles, the brushes had been stolen and the guitar swapped for food. His confidence intact, he teamed up with his cousin Jack Guthrie, who “could sell ice cubes to Eskimos,” as a mutual friend put it.

Crooners Ken Maynard and Gene Autry had made cowboy music popular, and Jack landed the Guthries a show on radio station KFVD. They received no salary but hoped to parlay the exposure into guest appearances on other shows. When Jack tired of the gig, Woody found a woman partner. The act received thousands of fan letters from “Okie” migrants exploited by big growers. In 1938 Guthrie became a self-styled roving “hobo correspondent” for a fledgling weekly, theLight, which was promoting the gubernatorial candidacy of progressive Democrat Culbert Olson. Guthrie drifted from Hoovervilles to skid rows, witnessing the desperate conditions thrust upon proud “workhunters” despite five years of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. Guthrie determined to be the voice of “people living hungrier than rats...

(The entire section is 1987 words.)