Notes from a Plague Year

Bound For Glory

by Woody Guthrie
Dutton, 430 pp., $6.95

Daybreak

by Joan Baez
Dial, 159 pp., $3.95

Beginnings are always the best of times. Looking back now at the past eight years one realizes that what sometimes appeared to be apocalyptic vision was, in fact, an extraordinary optimism, an uncommon belief in the possibility of radical enlightened change—if not immediately in our institutions, then certainly in the people; a kind of neo-populist faith first in the blacks and then in the young as the instruments of purification, the trustees of a new morality. It is painful to recall that, only last spring, some of us were inordinately dismayed at the prospect of being forced to settle for Robert Kennedy as President rather than McCarthy. How ingenuous that dismay seems now. It appeared, then, that the years of direct action had paid off; that the peace marchers, the demonstrators, the black liberation movement, the draft resisters had caused a government to fall. It was a time in which anything could happen. It now looks as if everything will.

This is, I suppose, a way of saying that last spring, one might have thought differently about Woody Guthrie and Joan Baez. Both folk musicians and radicals, they seemed each to exemplify the dominant idealistic values of their respective generations as well as to demonstrate the gulf between them.

Guthrie’s document of his life and thought in the rough hard-times America between two world wars was first published in 1943 when he was just past thirty. He grew up in an Oklahoma town where the townsmen would, for their amusement, arrange savage fights between unwilling school-boys, where his father did business with his fists, and where, on election days, Guthrie “used to follow the different speakers around and see who got beat up for voting for who.” Disasters, natural, economic, and personal, were frequent—yet he wrote about his youth with remarkable ebullience. A passage describes his father, moments before a cyclone destroyed their house, shouting at the storm:

…Let the old wind go crazy and pound us over the head! And when the straight winds pass over and the twisting winds crawl in the air like a rattlesnake in boiling water, let’s you and me holler back at it and laugh it back to where it came from!…”

This resilience we once thought of as peculiarly American was a vital element in the movement to revolutionize the country in those years when America was still a metaphor for youth. However, it is also easy enough to find in Guthrie’s writing the characteristic mythologies and evasions of those of the 1930s Left who believed with Guthrie that Joe Stalin loved the songs of Robert Burns. The unshakable conviction that trade unionism was the way to world peace and universal brotherhood, the faith in powerful central government, the selective morality and on-again-off-again pacifism, the beatification of the “common man”—all ended in a kind of splendid contradiction. What is Bound for Glory, in Guthrie’s book, is a freight train carrying a euphoric group of the unemployed …

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