Woody Guthrie Essay - Critical Essays


Klein’s portrait of Guthrie does not glorify his attributes, gloss over his failings, or sentimentalize his terrible death. Certainly, Klein recognizes the songwriter’s genius for transforming anger and joy into music and his remarkable ability to take key phrases from newspaper items or observations and turn them into significant song lyrics.

Just as forthrightly, however, Klein tells readers of Guthrie’s less endearing qualities: his abandonment of his first wife and children, his “incessant boozing,” his preoccupation with sex, and his federal conviction for writing obscene letters to a woman during the time of his second marriage. Klein does not attempt to explain away these faults, nor is he an apologist for Guthrie. He candidly presents all sides of the folksinger in clear, nonjudgmental prose.

One aspect of Guthrie that emerges unmistakably is that of a writer. He needed to put words on paper; they poured forth from him. He wrote countless long letters, an autobiography—Bound for Glory (1943)—that an editor whittled down to readable size, a massive unpublished novel, newspaper columns, occasional magazine pieces, and, Klein estimates, the words to more than a thousand songs.

As this chronological biography moves ever closer to Guthrie’s struggle with Huntington’s disease, Klein does not flinch. He compellingly presents the details of the illness that finally killed Guthrie in 1967 when he was fifty-five years old. As early as 1945, Guthrie began exhibiting symptoms of the...

(The entire section is 629 words.)