Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 618

If an opera singer is a fine artist, then Guthrie was a crude artist. His songs are easy to sing, and the musical accompaniments to them are similarly simple; he planned them that way, since he wanted them to be folk songs that could be performed by anyone. His own...

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If an opera singer is a fine artist, then Guthrie was a crude artist. His songs are easy to sing, and the musical accompaniments to them are similarly simple; he planned them that way, since he wanted them to be folk songs that could be performed by anyone. His own line drawings, with which he illustrated his book, are also simple and almost childlike. During his active career, Guthrie carefully cultivated a reputation as an ordinary man of the people who spoke his mind openly. Therefore, it is surprising that the most striking feature of Guthrie’s writing in Bound for Glory is its subtlety.

Although many of Guthrie’s songs are didactic and push for a particular viewpoint, his approach in Bound for Glory is merely to present an incident and then to let the account speak for itself. This technique is effective because it involves the reader, who must sift through the material to deduce what an event might mean instead of simply being told what to think by the author. It is also remarkable that an individual known for his adult hobo wanderings devotes half of his autobiography to his childhood in a small town. Although most people think that Guthrie must have emerged from a rural background, he makes it clear that he started his life in a house in town and was forced into a footloose life of wandering—like so many others he met along the way—by circumstances over which he had no control.

Some of the incidents that Guthrie recalls from this period seem to be episodic set pieces introduced merely for the sake of telling them, but as the narrative continues they explode like time bombs in the reader’s consciousness. Guthrie devotes an entire chapter to a relative’s wanton killing of a litter of new kittens, then recalls this horrible incident years later when he sees an adult act in a similarly cruel fashion, letting the reader draw the conclusion that criminal activity often has its roots in a childhood of abuse or neglect. “Cain’t No Gang Whip Us Now” describes how an epic battle between two groups of Okemah kids ended in the union of the two gangs into a stronger one, a point that finds an echo in Guthrie’s account of fights between railroad bums or saloon patrons that result in new mutual respect and solidarity. One of Guthrie’s major themes is his recognition that a new, better world can be born out of strife and conflict. Guthrie was no pacifist; he believed that evil should be opposed with force, and during World War II his guitar carried a sign that read This Machine Kills Fascists.

Guthrie covers the events of his life that the casual observer would think most significant—namely, his career as a hillbilly radio singer in Los Angeles, his commission by the government to write songs about the construction of Grand Coulee Dam, and his recordings for the Library of Congress—in one sentence. This off-hand treatment suggests that it is not the events in a person’s life that the world considers to be important that matter, but the little, nameless, unremembered incidents that reflect that person’s true character and values. (Guthrie was not above omitting certain unpleasant details, either, such as the wife and family that he left behind when he fled from Pampa.) In the penultimate chapter of Bound for Glory, Guthrie describes his flight from an audition at a swanky nightclub in New York so that he could ramble through the streets with his friends, who were poor in pocket but rich in spirit. With such people, he implies, one finds real values.

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