Form and Content
In Woody Guthrie: A Life, Joe Klein paints a detailed portrait of Woodrow Wilson Guthrie and, in doing so, reveals the mid-twentieth century United States, especially the dust bowl of Depression-era Oklahoma and the burgeoning folk music scene of New York City in the 1940’s. Klein does this in twelve chapters, each covering a significant number of years in Guthrie’s life, from his childhood in Okemah, Oklahoma, to his last tragic years, dying of Huntington’s disease.
Klein examines Guthrie’s evolution as a songwriter and performer, especially his daily show at station KFVD in Los Angeles, where he learned how to work in radio and, more important, gained confidence in his songwriting ability. Of parallel significance to Guthrie’s artistic development at that time was the empathy he was gaining for the homeless, the hungry, the sick, and the poor. In California, he saw them firsthand. Many were “Okies” like himself, desperate migrants who had fled the dust bowl for California, only to be met with bigotry, violence, and near slave-labor conditions in the orchards and vegetable fields where they found work. Guthrie’s political sympathies went to the Communist Party, whose members, it seemed to him, were the only ones fighting for the rights and dignity of common people.
By the time Guthrie got to New York City in 1940, many of his songs were political statements as well as accessible ballads. Intellectual folk music enthusiasts greeted him as the proletarian American balladeer that Walt Whitman had imagined nearly a century earlier. Guthrie was flush with bookings to perform his songs, often at Communist Party rallies or union organizing meetings. For a time he sang with the Almanac Singers, whose mission was to organize workers and build union momentum.
Tragedy visited Guthrie periodically; fire, especially, haunted him. His older sister burned to death when she was fourteen. One of his own children burned to death at four. When Guthrie was an adolescent, his mother entered a state mental hospital after setting fire to her husband as he lay napping on a couch. She was suffering from Huntington’s disease, a debilitating, incurable, hereditary illness.
Guthrie and the important people in his life are pictured in two generous sections of photographs. Klein also includes seven pages of notes that acknowledge research sources, important books, manuscripts, articles, and the full cooperation of Guthrie’s three wives, children, relatives, and friends, as well as a few of his enemies. Because he was granted complete access to all Guthrie’s private papers, Klein is able to quote the legendary songwriter throughout the book.