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'Woody Guthrie: A Life' - 1999 Biography by Klein

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Joe Offer 24 Mar 04 - 12:14 AM
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Big Mick 24 Mar 04 - 09:15 AM
Backstage Manager(inactive) 24 Mar 04 - 09:51 AM
Mark Ross 24 Mar 04 - 11:06 AM
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Subject: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: Joe Offer
Date: 24 Mar 04 - 12:14 AM

I just finished reading Joe Klein's extraordinary 1980 book, Woody Guthrie: A Life. It may well be the best biography I've ever read, although Fischer's Gandhi biography comes in a close second. The book told the story of the era, and of all the people who sang with Woody. I took the book as gospel truth, but then yesterday my son sent me this link and gave me cause for doubt:I wish I could post the text for you like I tell everyone else to do with music information, but I'm on my dad;s primitive WEBTV and can't. Take a look - it's worth reading. I can buy much of what the article says of Woody's music, but not the contention that Woody was a product of upper-middle-class America. According to Klein's book, Woody's father Charlie Guthrie was a wheeler-dealer who sometimes had money, but the family's fortune never recovered after their new house burned down in 1909, three years before Woody was born. This was the first of five fires that affected the family, killing Woody's sister and daughter, and causing serious injury to Charlie, and finally to Woody himself. The fires and the Huntington's Disease that plagued every generation of the family, certainly did not indicate a life of luxury.
So now there's a new, more critical biography of Woody that claims to dispel the myth. I'm not sure I want my myths dispelled. What's the truth?
-Joe Offer-

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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: Pene Azul
Date: 24 Mar 04 - 12:26 AM

A new biography of Woody Guthrie.
Issue of 2004-03-29
Posted 2004-03-22

The folksinger Arlo Guthrie likes to tell a story about his father, the legendary Woody Guthrie, who died in 1967, at the age of fifty-five. When he was a toddler, Arlo says, Guthrie gave him a Gibson acoustic guitar for his birthday. Several years later, when the boy was old enough to hold it, Guthrie sat him down in the back yard of their house—they lived in Howard Beach, Queens—and taught him all the words to "This Land Is Your Land," a song that most people likely think they know in full. The lyrics had been written in anger, as a response to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," which Woody Guthrie deplored as treacle. In addition to the familiar stanzas ("As I went walking that ribbon of highway," and so on), Guthrie had composed a couple of others, including this:

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the Relief Office I saw my people—
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
God Blessed America for me.

"He wanted me to know what he originally wrote, so it wouldn't be forgotten," Arlo Guthrie has explained.

Like the defiant, vaguely socialistic original words to his best-known song, much of what Woody Guthrie was and did during his lifetime has been forgotten, supplanted by the stuff of nostalgic sentiment. "This Land Is Your Land," purged of its earthy contrarianism, shows up with "God Bless America" on albums of patriotic music and in concerts by pops orchestras that accompany the fireworks on the Fourth of July, and its author's face has been put on a United States postage stamp. Woody Guthrie, a contradictory man who vexed his family and his closest friends as much as he challenged the authorities—"I can't stand him when he's around," Pete Seeger, his friend and also a bandmate for a time, once said, "but I miss him when he's gone"—scarcely registers as a creature of human dimension. In the popular imagination, where he endures, more than half a century after his creative prime as a writer and singer, Guthrie seems more like Gypsy Davy, Rocky Mountain Slim, and other colorful folk heroes of the songs he sang. He functions as the embodiment of gritty American authenticity, the plainspoken voice of a romanticized heartland.

Guthrie was never really so authentic, as Ed Cray shows in "Ramblin' Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie" (Norton; $29.95), a work of tempered debunking that is the first notable Guthrie biography since Joe Klein's "Woody Guthrie: A Life," which started unravelling the lore in 1980. The Klein book, fans of classic rock will recall, was the beneficiary of a sweet plug on Bruce Springsteen's 1986 boxed set of live recordings; in a halting, Okie-inflected voice, Springsteen complimented "this fella named Joe Klein," before moving into an acoustic-guitar version of "This Land Is Your Land." Springsteen was then in the process of molting his leather jacket and his urban ambitions to become a Guthrie-style troubadour of the mythic hinterland, a change that signified his maturation within the rock world.

John Steinbeck—"the Woody Guthrie of American authors," as he has been called—revered his musical compatriot in polemical realism. In his introduction to "Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People," a book of Depression-era folk tunes compiled by the folklorist and activist Alan Lomax, Steinbeck praised Guthrie's music for capturing "the American spirit," and noted, "He sings the songs of a people and I suspect that he is, in a way, that people."

Guthrie's people were in fact the upper-middle-class American élite. His father, Charley Guthrie, was a prosperous real-estate speculator and aspiring politician (a conservative Democrat and vehement anti-Communist) in Okemah, Oklahoma, a boomtown in the oil territory of the newly annexed state; at one time, he and his wife, Nora, owned as many as thirty rental properties, and they were the first people in town to purchase an automobile. Their third child, Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, was born on July 14, 1912, twelve days after that year's Democratic Presidential Convention, and named for the freshly nominated candidate. "Papa . . . swapped and traded, bought and sold, got bigger, spread out, and made more money," Woody Guthrie recalled accurately in his often fanciful memoir, "Bound for Glory." "We all liked the prettiest and best things in the store windows, and anything in the store was [ours] just for the signing."

The hard times of the early nineteen-twenties devastated the Guthries, claiming the family's property and the children's buying privileges. Unpersuaded by his parents' faith in capitalism, Guthrie eventually fell sway to the socialist utopianism that was attracting the attention of intellectuals, the young, the poor, and other disillusioned or idealistic Americans during the late nineteen-twenties and early thirties. He was a convert to disenfranchisement and always advocated the underprivileged with a proselyte's zeal.

"Woody Guthrie," like "Bob Dylan" and "Springsteen," was essentially a self-invention made for the electronic media: after a few years of scrounging, singing for change, and passing himself off as a seer and a faith healer, Guthrie made his name doing a comedic hillbilly act on Los Angeles radio in 1937. He had moved to the city in the mid-thirties, a time when outlandishly hokey cowboy singers were a novelty craze—a way for the music and movie industries simultaneously to exploit and ridicule rural culture for the pleasure of the urban audience. Cray describes a Los Angeles "awash in country-hillbilly-cowboy-western music," with radio stations broadcasting the likes of the Stuart Hamblen Gang, the Covered Wagon Jubilee, the Beverly Hillbillies, the Saddle Pals, the Bronco Busters, the Saddle Tramps, and the Sons of the Pioneers. Woody Guthrie rode the marketplace like a saddle-sore poke on a long-tailed dogie (or some such), crooning cowboy songs with his cousin Oklahoma (Jake Guthrie) and a cowgirl, Lefty Lou (his friend Maxine Crissman), playing the spoons, spinning tall tales, and reciting what he called his "cornpone philosophy" in a theatrical Okie drawl that he employed to disarming effect for the rest of his life.

Guthrie's inchoate socialist leanings grew into a deep commitment to the labor movement and to the social and political adventurism of the American Communist Party. (Guthrie never joined the Party—his independence was such that he "was not affiliated with anything," according to his sister Mary Jo; he did follow the Party line, however, down to belittling Roosevelt as a warmonger during the period of the German-Soviet non-aggression pact, and he wrote a column called "Woody Sez," in hillbilly dialect, for the C.P.U.S.A. organs People's World and Daily Worker.) The first of Guthrie's three wives, Mary, lamented his politicization as "his downfall as an entertainer," and she had a point: the more he focussed on rousing the masses, the less he pleased the crowd. Guthrie's modest popular following diminished; at the same time, through politics, he found his voice.

"I never did make up many songs about the cow trails or the moon skipping through the sky," Guthrie wrote in "Bound for Glory," "but at first it was funny songs of what's all wrong, and how it turned out good or bad. Then I got a little braver and made up songs telling what I thought was wrong and how to make it right, songs that said what everybody in the country was thinking."

In a letter to Alan Lomax quoted (with its creative grammar and spelling) by Klein, Guthrie expanded on this thought:

A folk song is what's wrong and how to fix it, or it could be whose hungry and where their mouth is, or whose out of work and where the job is or whose broke and where the money is or whose carrying a gun and where the peace is—that's folk lore and folks made it up because they seen that the politicians couldn't find nothing to fix or nobody to feed or give a job of work.

Indeed, folk music has traditionally served as an outlet for native discontent, often expressed in coded language (the boll weevil stands in for field hands, the farmer's son is the government). Still, there is a great difference between the folk songs that circulated in Woody Guthrie's day and the music he wrote; that is, the very fact that he wrote it. Folk music (including country, blues, and other vernacular styles) was supposed to be anonymous—a collective art passed along orally from singer to singer, generation to generation, sometimes culture to culture. From the vantage point of today, when kids with their first guitars start writing songs before they learn to play other tunes, it is difficult to process how exceptional it was for a folk artist such as Woody Guthrie to have created a vast repertoire of deeply idiosyncratic works. (Many Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and Hollywood songwriters of the thirties and earlier were as skilled and prolific as Guthrie, but they were working in a different vein, writing to order for professional singers.) Guthrie brought the authorial imperative to vernacular music in America.

Guthrie, like many American musicians, was immeasurably indebted to black music. In an unpublished manuscript quoted by Cray, he recalled that one of his earliest childhood memories was of hearing a "Negro minstrel jazzy band blowing and tooting and pounding drums up and down our street," a sound that inspired him to "sing out the first song I ever made up by my own self." At the age of thirteen, he discovered the blues; according to what Guthrie told Lomax in an interview for the Library of Congress (released on a three-CD set in 1989), he studied a "big ol' colored boy" shining shoes in front of a barbershop and singing what Guthrie found to be "undoubtedly the lonesomest music I ever run on to in my life." Each experience informs one of the two main categories of Guthrie's songs. His light tunes (many of them, such as "Car Song" and "Jiggy Jiggy Bum," written expressly for children) have a free, joyful, improvised feeling; his ballads of hard life have the impenitent rawness of Mississippi Delta blues, along with the blues' harmonic structure (three chords, tonic, subdominant, and dominant) and, in many cases, the blues' metre:

Down in Texas, my gal fainted in the rain
Down in Texas, my gal fainted in the rain
Had to throw a bucket of sand in her face
Just to bring her back again.

The Popular Front saw artistic refinement as a mark of bourgeois élitism, and so did Guthrie. "Woody believed in simplicity like people in the Bible Belt believe in their scripture," Guthrie's schoolmate Matt Jennings tells Cray. Guthrie seemed to think of musical complexity as corrupt, and he wrote most of his songs with just a few chords, in the key of G. (He would slide a capo up the neck of his guitar to change keys, much as his nemesis Irving Berlin, who could play only in F-sharp, used a special mechanism built into his piano to transpose his songs.) Guthrie's melodies, many of which were adapted from traditional sources, are as basic and memorable as schoolyard chants, and the words are just as biting. (The music to the opening phrase of "This Land Is Your Land" simply follows the first four notes of the major scale, making the tune a model exercise for beginning musicians.) His lyrics, similarly, seek to convey a guileless cleverness and intensity—a pridefully untrained intelligence. Grammar and syntax give way, rhymes miss, and accents fall awkwardly, all contributing to the songs' effect of unadorned veracity, as in "The Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done," one of Guthrie's many tunes about the Grand Coulee Dam:

I clumb the rocky canyon where the Columbia River rolls,
Seen the salmon leaping the rapids and the falls.
The big Grand Coulee Dam in the State of Washington
Is just about the biggest thing that man has ever done.

Once Hitler ventured into the Soviet Union and Stalin joined forces with the Allied powers, Guthrie became patriotic; he supported the United States' involvement in the Second World War and pasted a hand-painted sign onto the front of his guitar: "This Machine Kills Fascists." He kept it there after the war, in reference to another target: the cultural power brokers who, in his view, oppressed folk artists by rewarding sleek professionalism. Guthrie, now living in New York, challenged the commercial aesthetic of the pre-rock era through a performance style that was not merely plaintive, like that of countless singing cowboys in the movies, but almost combatively anti-musical. In the dozens of recordings that he made between 1940 and 1952 (many of which have been reissued by Smithsonian Folkways in conscientiously engineered and annotated CDs), his singing and playing are jarring: his voice bone-gray, dry and stiff, and indifferent to pitch; his guitar work spare and ragged, and frequently out of tune. Aesthetically, Guthrie was less a socialist than an anarchist, contemptuous of the prevailing rules and standards.

For all his advocacy of the common man, Guthrie sought to be recognized as someone exceptional. Agnes (Sis) Cunningham, his sometime bandmate (along with Seeger, Bess Hawes, Millard Lampell, Lee Hays, and others) in the Almanac Singers, the leftist vocal group of the forties, told me a few years ago that Guthrie was "determined to become a legend in his own time." (Cray quotes Hawes as saying that Guthrie was "desperate" to become "a big, important person.") After all, he did not call his autobiography "Bound for Obscurity," and the book is dense with folksy anecdotes that dramatize his innate superiority to government officials, businesspeople, other authority figures, and most of his friends. "Bound for Glory" captures Guthrie vividly; he was fearsomely gifted and ambitious, and also egalitarian—a most uncommon man.

Woody Guthrie succeeded in becoming a legend in the last years of his life, as young people of the postwar era, seeking their own cultural identity, veered away from the coolly sophisticated, urbane pop on their parents' hi-fis in favor of more idiomatic music grounded in rural America—folk, country, the blues, and their hybrid, rock and roll. Students by the thousands massed in Washington Square Park each week to strum along to "This Land Is Your Land," and to look for Woody Guthrie, the exemplar of the folkie ideal. He was unable to take active part in his newfound idolhood, however. Debilitated by Huntington's disease, a degenerative disorder of the nervous system, Guthrie became a tragic figure to his young acolytes: an American original cut down before his time, seemingly gone mad (wildly erratic behavior being a symptom of the disease)—a living amalgam of Hank Williams and Friedrich Nietzsche. When the nineteen-year-old Bob Dylan arrived in New York from Minnesota in January of 1961, he told his friends that he was going to meet his god, Woody. "He's the greatest holiest godliest one in the world," Dylan said of Guthrie around that time—a "genius genius genius genius."

Reflecting on the period later, Dylan explained, "Woody turned me on romantically. . . . What drew me to [him] was that, hearing his voice, I could tell he was very lonesome, very alone, and very lost out in his time. That's why I dug him. Like a suicidal case or something. It was like an adolescent thing—when you need somebody to latch onto, you reach out and latch onto them."

With today's rock and pop feeling homogeneous, and with hip-hop now twenty years old, popular music is ripe for something new. Whatever comes will surely be something that challenges the complacency of the mainstream; something from disreputable sources; something critical of the status quo, harsh, simple, seemingly anti-musical, and doable without formal training—that is to say, something much in the vein of what Woody Guthrie did. If few nineteen-year-olds today think of latching onto Guthrie, his spirit may be closer than they know.

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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: Mark Clark
Date: 24 Mar 04 - 02:25 AM

I've always been a huge fan of Woody and his music. I haven't read everything published about him, I'm sure, but I don't see the Hajdu biography of Woody as presenting any understanding different than I'd accumulated myself over the years. This sounds to me like the Woody of Bound For Glory when I read it so many years ago.

Still, I don't see Woody as someone to be outgrown. Neither do I see him as someone to be deified. He was definately a product of his time and his surroundings, and he left us so many thoughtful songs and stories. Like most of us here, I never met Woody but a friend of Woody's is responsible for my early and continued interest in folk songs.

      - Mark

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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: Deckman
Date: 24 Mar 04 - 03:04 AM

Doggone it Joe! There you go again, causing me to think. I've got that book in my library, so now, THANKS TO YOU, I have to re-read it! I wish you would leave my icons alone SHEEEEUH! Bob

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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: harvey andrews
Date: 24 Mar 04 - 05:26 AM

That seems a fair piece of writing to me.I never understand this idea that creative people are somehow different from "ordinary" people. The work so often comes from the faultlines we all have. One of my all time favourite poets is Philip Larkin. When his biography was published people were horrified to find he had faults; he collected pornography, he was racist, etc. But none of that diminishes his words on the page. After all, the richer the dung, the better the rose!
Whatever a biographer writes, it will always be only some facets of a full personality. Don't worry Joe, Woody was human, but the songs are divine!

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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: Dave Hanson
Date: 24 Mar 04 - 05:40 AM

If you read Joe Klein's book, he tells it warts and all. I really wonder what more there is to try and pull Woody down.

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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: Big Mick
Date: 24 Mar 04 - 09:15 AM

I have read most of what is out there on Woody, and I also don't see this as adding any thing that I hadn't already come to. And it seems to me that the author throws in "opinion" as fact. For example, the comment of being of the "middle class elite". Gratuitous assertion and poorly supported. It would be more accurate to say that Charley Gutherie had ambitions, lived for a time in a middle class setting, lost the family's nest egg in the fire, and never recovered. Further, these are only important to the story as factors in Woody's life that formed him into who he became.

Can there be any doubt that he experienced the things he wrote so well about? I don't think so. He rode the rails, lived the life, and was a very good empath. He wrote about what he knew, or what he saw. His life experiences and losses, coupled with his genetics, caused him to see the world through different eyes than most of us. And his talent caused him to cast off convention and relate that world to us, bad grammar and all, with incredible ability.

With regard to "This Land", the version I did at The Getaway, replete with the stories of 25 years of union organizing, was a tribute to how Woody would have wanted this song remembered. It was an attempt to take an overdone and whitewashed song and give it back to its author. It was risky to do it at The Getaway, because I was sitting in front of a crowd of very sophisticated folkies who would smell out a fraud in a heartbeat. I hope Woody was OK with it.

All the best,


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: Backstage Manager(inactive)
Date: 24 Mar 04 - 09:51 AM

"I don't see the Hajdu biography of Woody as presenting any understanding different than I'd accumulated myself over the years."

Hadju -- whose Positively 4th Street was a piece of trash -- has not written a new biography of Woody Guthrie. The article posted above, which implies that it is about a bio of Guthrie by Hadju, is actually a supposed review of of Ed Cray's book, "Ramblin' Man."

This note is from the Woody Guthrie Archives, run by Woody's daughter, Nora Guthrie: Guthrie biographer Ed Cray recently finished his manuscript for Ramblin' Man, the first major biography of Woody Guthrie in more than twenty years. Due to be published by W.W. Norton & Co., in February 2004, Ramblin' Man presents a fresh perspective on Guthrie and contains a lot of new information, photographs and images. We look forward to its publication and expect that Woody fans everywhere will be satisfied with the results."

Based on that note, and certainly not on the Hadju article, I'm looking forward to reading Cray's book.

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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: Mark Ross
Date: 24 Mar 04 - 11:06 AM

I'm looking forward to reading the new book. Actually I've read the 1st 150 pages sitting around at one of those mega chain bookstores waiting for my lady to finish looking at orchards. It looks pretty good, well written and informative, with new info from people that Klein didn't get to talk with. I can't wait to finish it, either through the library copy I have put on reserve, or if I come up with the 30 bucks(which I will eventually, it belongs on my shelf with my other folk music books, I even have a first edition BOUND FOR GLORY that I got for 3 an a half cents!). So far, my favorite book about Woody is Jimmy Longhi's WOODY, CISCO, AND ME, his memoirs of shipping out in the Merchant Marine with those two stalwarts. If you haven't seen that one, do not read anything else about Woody until you do. I was so moved after reading it that I found Longhi's phone # and called him up to tell him that it wasTHE BEST BOOK ABOUT FOLK MUSIC AND FOLKSINGERS THAT I HAVE EVER READ! Also don't forget to look at Elizabeth Partridge's THIS LAND WAS MADE FOR YOU AND ME.
It was written for younger readers but it's still a damn good read.

Mark Ross

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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: McGrath of Harlow
Date: 24 Mar 04 - 01:13 PM

Nothing the least surprising in learning that Guthrie started out as rich child, and then became a poor child. That's a pretty typical pattern among people who grow up to be radcal activists of one sort or another.

I was watching a TV programme about Al Sharpton, who had a similar childhood in that way, and he was saying how this meant he grew up knowing that poverty wasn't something natural and inevirable to be accepted as normal, it was something unnatural and imposed on people, something to fight against, because he knew it didn't have to be thta way.

The interesting thing is why some people in that situation respond by a desperate ambition to get back to where they feel they belong in the world, as an individual, and others respond by trying to fight the system and change it, so it's fairer for all.

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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: Steve-o
Date: 24 Mar 04 - 04:28 PM

Klein's book was superb. Who needs to go beyond it...who needs to "debunk they myths"...what is it with this stupid, typically American writing/reporting trend du jour??!! Does putting everyone and everything under the microscope, scrutinizing for accuracy, and then re-writing the stories somehow give us some new insight or expand our minds? I think not. I think it's not only pointless, but also insidious. It's a whole lot like buying all the books on how to improve our sex lives when we have lost the meaning of love. We need some jerk "debunking the myths" about Woody like a fish needs a bicycle.

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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: WFDU - Ron Olesko
Date: 24 Mar 04 - 05:07 PM

Hold on Steve-O.   Unless you have read the book and know something the rest of us don't, I wouldn't make an opinion based on anythind David Hajdu wrote.

Debunk myths? Why not?   Why do we need to blindly believe every urban legend or publicists plot that comes along? Woody has been put on a pedastal and I guess people do not like to see idols with feet of clay.

The fact that Woody was a well-educated man who read constantly is "debunking" the image that has been created of some poor Okie who blew out of the Dust Bowl. I do think we all can learn something by investigating the whole story.

I had the pleasure of getting to know Marjorie Guthrie during her later years.   Marjorie was Woody's second wife and one of the reasons Woody's memory has been perpetuated. She worked tirelessly to keep the story alive, and she opened up her heart and her files to Joe Klein when he was writing the book.   She felt it was important to tell the whole story, warts and all.

I do remember asking her once about any film that existed with Woody. She told me of a few items that they had, but she said there was nothing more.   Years after she passed away, her daughter Nora began showing some films of Woody during his later years, when the effects of Huntington's was full blown. She explained that her mother was very protective of those images and that they were part of her families private life. Nora felt that it was important the people see the suffering that existed, but more importantly see the interaction that Woody had with his family. I was at a showing of these films once and after the audience viewed them, Arlo remarked how he could see people in the audience visably shaken, but his memories were happy ones of a family that dealt with the disease and lived a normal life.   

There is something to be said for not digging up the dirt and doing a scandal sheet biography, but there is something also to be said for a biographer that tells a story where the truth comes out.

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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: Joe Offer
Date: 24 Mar 04 - 10:10 PM

I guess I got confused by the New Yorker article - I got the impression David Hajdu had written a biography. The New Yorker article made me think that the writer considered Woody to be a fraud, and I can't buy that. I liked the Klein book, and I didn't think Klein sugar-coated Woody at all. In fact, I got the impression from the Klein book that Woody was an undependable, obnoxious pain in the ass much of the time. If the new biography is by Ed "Erotic Muse" Cray, it's likely to be a good piece of scholarship.

But I sure as heck didn't like the book review and its attempt to introduce reverse class struggle into Woody's story. I suppose that's just a restatement of one of the standard attempts to discredit progressives by dismissing them as "spoled rich kids."

Thanks for the insight on Marjorie, Ron. Tell us more, if you can. I get the impression she was quite brilliant herself - a lead dancer with Martha Graham is quite a position.
-Joe Offer-

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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: GUEST,Whistle Stop
Date: 25 Mar 04 - 08:55 AM

I've read Klein's book (thought it was a tremendous piece of work), as well as Bound For Glory. I think it's pretty well established that Woody's public persona was part authentic, part fabrication. The same is true of Seeger, Dylan, Springsteen, and a lot of other people who have built careers in "folk music" (broadly defined; let's not quibble, okay?). Personal reinvention is part of the deal, it seems, from fictitious stories of the performer's origins to manufactured accents (Guthrie, Dylan and Springsteen have all deliberately changed their patterns of speech in a quest for authenticity). We see the same thing in black blues musicians who played up the "rural/primitive" aspect of their backgrounds to cater to the crowds of college kids who discovered their music in the 50s/60s, and (stretching the "folk" definition even further) in rock'n'roll performers, from Mick Jagger through Johnny Rotten ("punk" was the phoniest thing going), right on up to present-day performers.

However, a lot of these people were/are really good, and convey really important messages. Rather than dismiss them as phonies (which would perhaps be a reasonable response), maybe we should revise our expectations. The fact that Guthrie's famiily may have had money at one time, or that Seeger came from a very comfortable New York family, or that Dylan was originally a middle-class Jewish kid from Minnesota, does not diminish their work, in my opinion. These performers tapped into something deeper than the surface, were drawn to it, and actively sought to make it part of who they were and are. I don't see anything wrong with that; in fact I think it is admirable. I think these sorts of discussions, and the kind of moral hand-wringing that accompanies them, say more about us -- our expectations, our fears and insecurities -- than it does about any of the musicians we're discussing.

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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: GUEST,stumd3
Date: 25 Mar 04 - 09:00 AM

Good morning,

I really loved "A Life" as well as Woody's own books "Seeds of Man" and the legendary "Bound for Glory." One of the best books ever, in my opinion, is the now out-of-print "Pastures of Plenty" which is a collection of miscellaneous writings from Guthrie. Also, I just picked up the award-winning "This Land is Made For You & Me." It's a picture book of sorts and I really enjoyed it. Has anyone read the new biography - "Ramblin Man" by Ed Cray? I've read very mixed reviews . . .

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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: WFDU - Ron Olesko
Date: 25 Mar 04 - 10:16 AM

Joe, back in early 1977 I was a student at FDU and working as a DJ and newscaster on WFDU-FM.   I was not doing a folk music show, I was just doing DJ work really. I had yet to do an interview.   The film Bound For Glory was out and I had heard about Marjorie Guthrie and her work with the Woody Guthrie Foundation and the Committee to Combat Huntington's Disease.   I called her up to ask if I could interview her for a program that I was thinking of doing on Woody Guthrie. She invited me to visit her in her office to talk about it. When I visited her, she gave me a tour of the archives (more or less file cabinets)in the office of Harold Leventhal. She was incredibly cooperative and giving, probably more than any person should be with someone who was still "green" like myself.

About a week later she came to our studios in Teaneck, NJ bringing a musician named Tom Taylor with her.   For nearly 2 hours she opened her heart and told me a fascinating a story of the life of Woody Guthrie and even more importantly, how she formed the Committee to Combat Huntington's Disease and the Woody Guthrie Foundation. She was a real inspiration to me. She set an example of how one person came make a change in the world. She did not let roadblocks stand in her way, but she was always (at least to me)very kind and understanding - a great listener. She was also instrumental in keeping the Guthrie archives intact and available for those interested in Woody's works. If it wasn't for her, and now her daughter Nora, we would not have access to some of the writings and the works of Woody Guthrie might not be as recognized as it is.

I don't want to give the impression that I was a close friend, but we did meet a few more times over the years before her passing as I visited her in her office when I started working in the city. It may be just me, but whenever I see or hear Arlo talk, I can see the influence his mother had.   

Her story is an important part of the Guthrie "legend" and she is well represented in Klein's book. I also did an interview with Klein with the book came up and remarked about how cooperative she was, revealing intimate details that others would have covered. She opened up her archives to Klein without restrictions.

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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: McGrath of Harlow
Date: 25 Mar 04 - 11:22 AM

So at the age of ten or so, Woody's family loses their cash and becomes poor - and that means he's to be put down just as another rich kid playing at being poor?

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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: Joe Offer
Date: 26 Mar 04 - 01:45 AM

Thanks for your comments, Ron. I got the impression from the Klein book that Marjorie was remarkable. You confirmed that.

I'm spending 2-1/2 weeks in Florida, helping care for my mom, who has dementia. It was fortuitous that I had been reading the Klein book - Marjorie's devoted treatment of her ex-husband Woody helped me learn how to deal with Mom.

I've seen two productions of Peter Glazer's Woody Guthrie's American Song in the last three months - I recommend it highly. It's fascinating to delve into Woody's life and work.

-Joe Offer-

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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: Mark Clark
Date: 26 Mar 04 - 01:33 PM

I never knew Marjorie Guthrie but I did get to meet her once. In that brief meeting it seemed obvious to me that she was not the sort of woman to fall for a man who wasn't as educated and sophisticated as she was. That thought helped me better understand the dichotomy between Woody the man and Woody the persona. He was, by all accounts, a man of excesses and driven to follow his own muse wherever it led. Still, he must have been a man of great intellect and energy on a personal level as well as a public level.

      - Mark

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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: WFDU - Ron Olesko
Date: 26 Mar 04 - 01:44 PM

Marjorie's mother, Aliza Greenblatt, was a Yiddish poet as well as an active organizer in the zionist movement as well as other social causes.   Woody and his mother-in-law were very close and Woody wrote many poems based on Jewish themes.   The Klezmatics are working on an album of these pieces. Yet another side to the complex person that was Woody Guthrie.

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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: Backstage Manager(inactive)
Date: 26 Mar 04 - 01:50 PM

I've heard a bunch of the Guthrie songs the Klezmatics have done. It's absolutely wonderful stuff.

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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: Mark Ross
Date: 26 Mar 04 - 04:55 PM

I got to know the Guthrie family through Arlo in the '60's. I asked his mother if it was possible to visit Woody in the hospital. She said no, because it disturbed him too much when new people were around and he couldn't communicate with them. I guess this was a couple of months before he died. On the phone I once told Marjorie that on of my great regrets was never having met Woody. She replied that I shouldn't let it bother me because there was a little bit of Woody in all of us.

Mark Ross

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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: voyager
Date: 26 Mar 04 - 06:10 PM

I read the NewYorker Puff-Piece on Woody including -

"Guthrie became a tragic figure to his young acolytes: an American original cut down before his time, seemingly gone mad (wildly erratic behavior being a symptom of the disease)—a living amalgam of Hank Williams and Friedrich Nietzsche."

and other pompous discourse.

My favorite Guthrie expression is

"I just use 3 chords
Everything else is showing off"


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: Eve Goldberg
Date: 26 Mar 04 - 06:29 PM

David Hadju is known for his very sensationalistic approach to his subject matter - someone mentioned his book "Positively 4th Street," which I haven't read but I hear is full of hearsay and lurid gossip.

He also wrote an outrageous article for the New York Times sometime last year about how lesbians are taking over folk music. It was one of the most absurd pieces of writing about folk music that I have ever seen. It didn't seem to bear any relation to reality at all, and several people who were quoted in the article said publicly that their remarks were taken out of context and/or twisted. I can't remember all the details, but there was quite a discussion about it on folk dj-l.

Maybe someone else can remember the gory details.


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: GUEST,David Hajdu
Date: 30 Mar 04 - 11:37 AM

I'd like to contact "Backstage Manager" off list. Reason: to hear more (not to argue) about his opinion of my book "Positively 4th Street." Could he or she please email me at Thanks.

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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: Backstage Manager(inactive)
Date: 30 Mar 04 - 02:47 PM

Here is my emailed response to David Hajdu:

"My comment that Positively 4th Street was "a piece of trash," was a comment that I'd make about any gossipy account of celebrity romances. Kind of fun to read, on one level, because I personally know/knew some of the major and peripheral characters; but trash, nonetheless.

"Bear in mind that it's almost three years since I read the book, and I've probably read 100+ books since, so I can't be more specific than that without rereading. Which I don't have the inclination to do."

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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: Mark Ross
Date: 30 Mar 04 - 07:42 PM

I just finished the book(got it out of the public library yesterday, finished it this morning). A wonderful read, well done. Ed Cray should be complimented on his extensive research. 'Course, I will read anything written about Woody. Jimmy Longhi's book is still my favorite after BOUND FOR GLORY, but the Cray biography is great!


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: alanabit
Date: 31 Mar 04 - 03:56 AM

It's quite a difficult dividing line to distinguish what personal detail should be in a biography and what should not. I think that the personal stuff which Klein included was necessary to illuminate the private man. I felt that above all, the Klein biography set out to show Guthrie's virtues and faults - and keep some sort of balance. Klein also was in no doubt that Woody was the object of a lot of myth making (not least of all his own), but that the myth was based on a lot of real events and experiences. Klein is very far removed from the gossip columnist who is simply after sales figures. To me it sounds as if Hajdu is one of the Britneys of the publishing world.
More information is always likely to emerge about anybody. No biography is ever really complete. It would probably be unreadable if it was. I think Klein's biography was painstaking, honest, critical and respectful. Maybe enough new information will emerge to make a new biography necessary. I haven't seen the evidence yet.

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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: Sandy Paton
Date: 31 Mar 04 - 11:39 PM

Ed Cray has been a dedicated folklorist, ballad scholar, and traditional folksong enthusiast for over forty years. His academic credentials are undeniable. For anyone to refer to him as a "jerk," without even having read his new biography of Guthrie, is absurd.

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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: WFDU - Ron Olesko
Date: 01 Apr 04 - 12:02 AM

Well said Sandy!   I am looking forward to reading this book.   By the way, Ed Cray will be at the Eisteddfod Festival this year to discuss Guthrie in a symposium. I'm looking forward to that as well!

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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: alanabit
Date: 01 Apr 04 - 01:04 AM

Sounds like I should check out this Ed Cray boook. Maybe it will appear here in Germany. It's the David Hajdu stuff which sounds less interesting to me. Just in case I caused any misunderstanding.

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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: Dani
Date: 01 Apr 04 - 01:59 PM

All Right!

Enough literary and intellectual snowball-throwing. Thank you to those of you keeping a wonderful subject dignified, and please keep sharing your thoughts and memories. It is a fascinating topic.

Anyone see the exhibit at the Smithsonian a couple years ago? It was very moving.

Anyone want to hear about the time I saw the ghost of Woody Guthrie?


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: Sandy Paton
Date: 01 Apr 04 - 10:01 PM

Yes, Dani, I do.

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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: Deckman
Date: 01 Apr 04 - 10:21 PM

The closest encounter I ever had with Woody was in the late 1950's. A friend called me and said that Woody would be at his house in four hours and invited me to be there. I was being a house builder at the time and I always put in long and hard hours. After work, I took a nap, and then went to the gathering. Woody left just before I arrived. Oh darn! Bob

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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: dick greenhaus
Date: 02 Apr 04 - 02:32 PM

Just heard from the publisher of Ed Cray's "Ramblin' Man" (biog. of Woody)

CAMSCO is pleased to offer it for $20--a 33% discount from list price ($29.95). Amazon gets a buck more.

If you want a copy, please notify me ASAP--I don't know how long I can hold this price.

800/548-FOLK <3655>

or PM me: dick greenhaus

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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: Sandy Paton
Date: 03 Apr 04 - 01:40 PM

Put me down for one, Dick. Great price!

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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: Dani
Date: 03 Apr 04 - 01:59 PM

Thank you, Sandy. You know I'm not a "woowoo" type of person, but I truly believe that's who I saw, though I'm still not sure why.

I was at the Great Auditorium in Ocean Grove, New Jersey, to hear the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. There is an upper gallery which was completely empty (go figure!). As I listened to the music, I would often look around up there, because the ceiling is lovely, arched wood all around. All of a sudden, there he was: I could see him very clearly, not very far away. He was completely absorbed, watching the stage. I looked for a long time. And then, in a blink, he was gone.

Was more sure than ever when I met, briefly, his son (Joady?) outside Carnegie Hall one night. I was looking into almost the same face.


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: Mark Ross
Date: 03 Apr 04 - 03:43 PM

Dani, I was working for the Retail Clerks Union in Berserkely walking an informational picket line at a shoe store(for minimum wage). I was singing UNION MAID one fine sunny California afternoon, when across the Telegraph Ave. I spy what looks to be Woody! Hat tipped back, mandolin under his arm, curly hair, the whole nine yards. Of course it was Joady(who I knew from NYC). But it almost stopped my heart beating, lemme tell ya!

Mark Ross

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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: Kaleea
Date: 04 Apr 04 - 05:24 AM

It is sometimes too easy to iconize someone as a folk hero without knowing (or perhaps ignoring) the rest of the story. As a person whose roots are from that area of Okla., I grew up listening to some family members discuss the family left behind by the folk "hero" we think we know so well. He was not well thought of in the area, until enough time had gone by to "forget" his lack of respectability-as they put it, & "that poor Guthrie family" as some used to say. When I was a younger, I often wondered why people would idolize a man who couldn't deal with the "regular" life of working, maintaining a home, caring for his family, etc. & abandond his family, drifting from place to place. Now I realize that he was a person with "feet of clay" as we all are, and he lived as he did with no apologies.   The history books & his family (for whom I have great respect) prefer to recognize the contributions he made to American Folk Music by helping to preserve the folk songs from various regions of the USA.

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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: Big Mick
Date: 04 Apr 04 - 02:06 PM

Kaleea, I wonder if you have read Klein's bio of Woody? I don't think that you will find many that think it is OK to leave one's family, maintain a steady job, etc. And I don't "idolize" Woody Gutherie, nor do I know many serious folkies who do. I can't speak for them, but I will try to summarize my feelings.

I was drawn to Woody by his music. The more I found of his music, the more I recognized his genius. Like Grandma Moses, but using words instead of canvas, he painted real pictures with real stories and pointed out real problems, using less than perfect structures but getting brilliant results. That lead me further into wanting to know more about the mind that could do this. Which of course lead to a study of his life and times. And that lead to understanding. Understanding is a whole lot different than accepting behaviours as being OK. And it requires a lot more work. I would say that I understand much of what made Woody into the person that he became. I don't idolize Woody, but I place his music and message on a pedestal. And I wish him a nicer voyage on this next leg of the journey.


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: dick greenhaus
Date: 12 Apr 04 - 10:58 AM

I just finished reading "Ramblin' Man", and, having read "Bound for Glory" and Klein's book, think that this is the best biography of this brilliant, troubled man yet. It's neither debunking nor hero-worshiping, but a well-rounded picture of a man and his times.

CAMSCO has some copies left for $20 + shipping (you specify--media mail is $1.84; priority mail is $3.95) This,BTW, is a honest-to-God hardcover edition.

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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 12 Apr 04 - 05:32 PM

NEW YORK TIMES Sunday Book Review
Published: April 11, 2004

'Ramblin' Man': Coney Island Okie

Twenty-four years after Joe Klein's superb biography, ''Woody Guthrie: A Life,'' comes a retelling of the life almost as admirable. Ed Cray, a professor of journalism at the University of Southern California, had the advantage of unlimited access to a Guthrie archive that has expanded considerably since Klein did his research. But both books reveal pretty much the same man behind the myth. Both are fascinating not just because Guthrie's life was fascinating, but because Guthrie's vision of that life was so seminal, original and articulate.

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born in Okemah, Okla., in 1912. His father was a Democratic politician and real estate man whose luck went bad in the 1920's; his musically adept mother was a cattleman's stepdaughter who would die in a state mental institution of Huntington's chorea in 1930. In 1919, his older sister died in a fire she set while arguing with her mother; in 1927, his father was badly burned in a fire his mother apparently set herself. Between his father's failures and his mother's madness, Guthrie was an exceptionally footloose teenager who often lived off friends and was singing for change by the age of 14. But he did not leave his Oklahoma-Texas stomping grounds until he set off penniless to take a look at California in 1937, by which time he was married with a second child on the way. Six months later he had his own radio show in Los Angeles.

Fame came suddenly to Woody Guthrie. But his fame was always narrow, and his success was narrower. Before and after his radio gig he underwent genuine hardship in California, as Cray painfully details. And having migrated to New York, where he was one of Pete Seeger's Almanac Singers, he published the well-reviewed quasi-autobiographical ''Bound for Glory,'' worked with Norman Corwin at CBS, recorded for RCA and Folkways and -- next to his sometime benefactor, Leadbelly -- was the biggest attraction on the nascent folk circuit. He counted $180 a major payday -- $10 or $15 was what he was used to.

The period of his greatest renown, the early and mid-1940's, was interrupted by several tours in the merchant marine. By 1947 or so, the dementia of Huntington's chorea, which takes years to ripen, was nearing the surface. Always a phenomenally fast writer -- he produced 38 pages of ''Bound for Glory'' overnight -- he typed thousands of pages that never cohered into the books he had received advances for, and found hard to come by the deceptive simplicity of the songs he had once made up at will. The career he had walked into at 25 was over before he was 40. He was permanently hospitalized at 42 and at 55 died a cult figure, never anything like a star.

Those who resent Guthrie's doctrinaire leftism and staunch artistic populism are free to disparage his pretensions to authenticity and his claim to speak for the common man. A son of the failed middle class who was a Communist fellow traveler and union stalwart for almost all of his public life, he had limited personal experience of labor, although he certainly worked tough jobs and suffered privation. He was better read than he let on; he was a mooch, a womanizer and an alcohol abuser. Guthrie's salacious side spun out of control as his illness got worse, once landing him in jail on obscenity charges. He misused his first wife, and his marriage to the dancer Marjorie Greenblatt Mazia was as troubled as it was passionate; they, too, lost their first child in a fire. He delighted in shocking and sometimes exploiting genteel progressives who took him up as a true working man, rustic wit or son of the soil. He mythologized himself compulsively and shamelessly.

But Cray, who has written biographies of Earl Warren and George C. Marshall (as well as compiling a collection of sexually explicit American folk songs), makes even clearer than Klein did that Guthrie was worthy of the legend he created. His poverty was real, and while his deep-seated tendency to hit the road ended up having its beatnik aspect, it always freshened the intimate contact with ordinary Americans that nourished his art from the beginning. In his songwriting -- and also, as Cray's piecemeal celebration of his limited gifts demonstrates more forcefully than many more expert critiques, in his musical performance -- Guthrie's self-conscious and sometimes fanciful commitment to the vernacular, the regional and the traditional were a theory come true for several generations of folklorists, as well as the embodiment of folk music as the Popular Front conceived and promulgated it.
Just as important, Guthrie belonged to a long line of American self-creators that includes Davy Crockett, Walt Whitman and his fellow Oklahoman Will Rogers. He promoted himself not just just through music but also through the written word -- most lastingly in ''Bound for Glory'' and other late or posthumous books, and also as a voluble contributor to the left-wing press. His great inheritor and spiritual interpreter, Bob Dylan, understood and developed both halves of his art, and through Dylan (a qualification neither Cray nor Klein before him makes enough of), Guthrie changed popular music.
Although Klein's biography deromanticized Guthrie, Cray's version is even more hardheaded. While sympathetic to Guthrie's progressivism and unionism, and emphatic about his unsuitability for Communist Party membership, Cray is sharply contemptuous of the Stalinist hypocrisies in which Guthrie's loyalties embroiled him. Nor does Cray mince words about Guthrie's personal irresponsibility. This plain-spoken effect is intensified by Cray's narrative method, which piles incident on incident and supporting quotation on supporting quotation, rather than going for the smooth summations at which Klein excelled. As a result, ''Ramblin' Man'' can be a spiky read. But because it is so fact-filled, it vividly conveys how difficult Guthrie's life was and how heroic his achievement. And for seekers after writerly flavor, it is shot through with passages by Guthrie himself -- pithy, airy, acerbic, waggish, faux-folksy, self-serving, romantic, erotic, lyrical, imagistic, obscure and utterly unhinged.

Guthrie's prose was usually impulsive, sometimes affected and so word-drunk that it didn't necessarily connect up very well. But in the well-organized context Cray provides, it makes sense as further proof of a genius who meant to poke holes in the facade of received culture, and succeeded better than the genius in question was lucky enough to see.

Robert Christgau is a senior editor at The Village Voice.

So give Dick a call.

~ Becky in Tucson

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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 18 May 04 - 11:37 PM

Another useful (and favorable) review is now up at Musical Traditions (see Ramblin' Man/).

~ Becky in Tucson

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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 18 May 04 - 11:49 PM

Here's the direct link: Ramblin' Man.

~ Becky

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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: dick greenhaus
Date: 19 May 04 - 01:26 AM

Well, CAMSCO is sold out. If anyone wants a copy for $20, please let me know; if I can assemble a minimum order, I'll re-order it.

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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
Date: 20 May 04 - 05:05 PM


G. U.

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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: Thomas Stern
Date: 24 Mar 16 - 05:41 PM

new entry in the Guthrie saga - looks quite interesting:

Woody Guthrie L.A. 1937 to 1941
Darryl Holter and William Deverell
Gardners Books, 2015

Woody Guthrie in Los Angeles, 1937/1941 / Darryl Holter --   
Ramblin' in black and white / Dan Cady and Douglas Flamming --
Slow train through California / James Forester --
The Guthrie prestos : what Woody's recordings tell us about art and politics / Peter La Chapelle --
Woody's Los Angeles editorial cartoons / Tiffany Colannino --
In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people / Philip Goff --
Woody and Will / Ed Robbin --
Woody Sez : the people's daily world and indigenous radicalism / Ronald Briley --
Woody and Skid Row in Los Angeles / Darryl Holter --
"The ghost of Tom Joad" / Bryant Simon and William Deverell --
Woody at the border / Josh Kun --
Woody Guthrie's recordings, 1939 to 1949 / Darryl Holter.

The WOODY SEZ People's Daily World columns were published
in paperback many years ago [Grosset & Dunlap, 1975] - should be reprinted!!


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie Biography
From: Stewie
Date: 24 Mar 16 - 10:30 PM

There is also Will Kaufman's excellent 'Woody Guthrie: American Radical'.

American Radical

Also of interest:

John S. Partington (Ed) 'The Life, Music and Thought of Woody Guthrie' Ashgate 2011
Robert Santelli & Emily Davidson (Eds) 'Hard Travelin': The life and legacy of Woody Guthrie' Wesleyan University Press 1999.


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Mudcat time: 14 April 12:43 AM EDT

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