Woody Guthrie Analysis
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long letters, an autobiography—Bound for Glory (1943)—that an editor whittled down to readable size, a massive unpublished novel, newspaper columns, occasional magazine pieces, and, Klein estimates, the words to more than a thousand songs.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 disease. In a letter to his second wife he complained of nervousness, an inability to concentrate, and confused states of mind. By 1956 Guthrie was spending most of his time in state hospitals. He was unable to control his bowels. His walk was a lurch. He occasionally struck himself when one arm suddenly flew out of control, sometimes gashing his face with a thumbnail. His hands shook so badly he had trouble lighting a cigarette. “He would continue to slowly lose control of his mind and body,” writes Klein, “until there was nothing left to him but a quivering, vegetable sack of skin and bones, his brain depleted and rotting inside a cavernous skull.”
Although Woody Guthrie is intended for adults, teenagers will find it interesting. Klein brings Guthrie to life as a picaresque hero making his way through a Depression-battered United States, learning the writing craft, reading widely, and serving in the Merchant Marine and Army during World War II. He took whatever his country offered and fashioned it into folk songs, some of which became legendary: “Roll On, Columbia,” “The Grand Coulee Dam,” “Jesus Christ,” and “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportees).” His most famous composition was “This Land Is Your Land,” a song that every schoolchild in the United States has probably sung, despite the fact that its author was an ardent supporter of the Communist Party during the last thirty years of his life.
Readers come to care about Klein’s main character—this slightly built, irrepressible, passionate writer of songs. By following Guthrie’s life, they learn about the dust bowl, the influence of communism in the artistic and labor communities of the 1930’s and 1940’s, the recognition of folk music as an authentic part of American culture, and the popular resurgence of folk music during the 1950’s and early 1960’s.
Of most interest to teenage readers of Woody Guthrie, though, might be the connection they will see between much of the music they listen to and Guthrie’s rebellious spirit and socially conscious song lyrics. The most notable of Guthrie’s spiritual children was Bob Dylan, who early in his career mimicked Guthrie’s song-writing and performing style. Through Dylan to Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, the group U2, and many other contemporary songwriters, Guthrie’s legacy has provided sturdy roots for the flowering of socially conscious song lyrics.