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The Curse of the Guthries

Woody Guthrie: A Life

by Joe Klein
Knopf, 426 pp., $15.95

Bound for Glory

by Woody Guthrie
Signet, 320 pp., $1.95 (paper)

Woody Guthrie, The Library of Congress Recordings”

recorded by Alan Lomax
Elektra Records, 271/272, $11.98

Then my dad started having a little bad luck. In fact all my family had a bit of it.”
—Woody Guthrie, 1940

The genius of our politics is the art of distracting the resentments of a cheated middle class and letting them fall upon a worse-cheated lower class. And so we have the revolution of Woody Guthrie’s dream: the Okies and their sons and daughters have elected a one-time California labor agitator president of the United States. This triumphant populist tribune is, of course, Mr. Reagan.

Joe Klein reminds us that Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” has been recorded by such repositories of the national self-satisfaction as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the New Christy Minstrels, and Tex Ritter. It is as secure in the pantheon of celebratory anthems as “America the Beautiful” and probably sits higher in the affections of school children than “The Star Spangled Banner.” Marching bands saluted the new president with its strains when they passed before him on Inauguration Day.

Woody Guthrie had composed “This Land Is Your Land” as a bitter parody of “God Bless America.” It had originally closed with the stanza:

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.

These words and like notes of alienation were excised from “This Land Is Your Land” when it was smoothed into the affirmative expression that soothes us today. Guthrie accepted the amendment, but the pain of the sacrifice lingered so long that, in the early 1960s, when he was near dying, he took his son, Arlo, into the backyard and taught him the old verses, because, Klein tells us, “he was afraid that if Arlo didn’t learn them, they’d be forgotten.”

The genius of our politics also extends to the transformation of the song of protest into the hymn of acceptance.

Joe Klein’s is too fine a sensibility to settle for merely belaboring the ironies of an unrepentant communist being apotheosized into a laureate of the national self-esteem. He tells instead a tale of such pervasive personal and domestic calamity, so remorseless a working out of a curse in the blood, that the incongruity of Guthrie’s absorption into the stagnant mainstream of our social current seems one more curtain to one more of those tragedies with happy endings that, Delmore Schwartz was first to notice, are especially satisfying to the American taste.

The curse was Huntington’s chorea, the disease that carried his mother to a state asylum and her death. “She would be all right for a time and treat us as good as any other mother,” he wrote in one of the few passages of hope-broken realism in Bound for Glory, an autobiography that is otherwise one long flight into doggedly cheerful pop fantasy. “And, all at once, it would start in—something bad and awful—something would come over her, and it came by slow degrees. Her face would twitch and her lips would snarl and her teeth would show…and she would double over into a terrible-looking hunch and turn into another person.”

Huntington’s chorea fell upon Woody Guthrie by slow degrees too; and there is no way of saying just when its assault commenced. Most of what can be called coherent in his work was done before he was thirty, and he would struggle for the next fourteen years with recurrently disabling bouts of derangement and spend the last fourteen in the hospital, where he died three years after he had all but ceased to speak or even move.

There were times, Klein tells us, when he was still mobile and would get leave from his hospital to roam Washington Square among the crowds of his disciples with their guitars. On one of those Sundays,

Woody nearly went berserk when he overheard a kid saying he was dying of syphilis. Slurred and blathering, he grabbed the kid and tried to explain that it wasn’t syphilis, it was Huntington’s chorea. Huntington’s chorea that came from his mother, and not from sleeping with whores or living out on the road. There was nothing, nothing he could have done about it. Nothing.

We are reminded in such anecdotes that of all the coldnesses that surround us the heart of the groupie is by no means the least far from warmth. The artist as outcast and social victim is the surrogate martyr of the middle-class young. The isolation and the penury that he himself hated, the vices that he struggled against as invalids contend with mortal sicknesses—all these degradations have been transformed into glories by devotees who pity the misfortuned god even less authentically than they pity themselves. The sort of people whose class assures their survival do not form cults around survivors.

There is no easy way to decide whether Woody Guthrie’s terminal years were better or worse than the average for those victims whose ghosts have the dubious reward of being worshiped more for their legend than their art. There is in this long wasting away—achingly sad though we feel it—a dignity that was denied the Billie Holiday whose audiences drew more gratification from the evidence of what was irrevocably ruined than from what was miraculously preserved in her performances. And yet movement and even gaiety stayed with Billie Holiday to the end and the recollections of her in tragedy are full of how funny she could be.

There was the time when a drugged and dying John Foster Dulles was wheeled before the television cameras, and she observed, “How come they let him have all the shit he wants and won’t give none to me?” There was the uneasy moment at one of her last recording dates when she fumbled the lyrics of “I Get a Kick Out of You.” The musicians stopped and Ben Webster looked up and said, with altogether unwonted gentleness, “Lady, how come you get no kick from cocaine?”

But cheated though he was of never-quite-extinguished sparks of laughter like those, Guthrie was spared the humiliation that generally attends the final stations of the cross for pop martyrs. He lived instead through a protracted lying in state, his adorers around his bed; he did not need to die to become a god.

But even the consolation of living into one’s own enshrinement is paid for with a few coins of debasement. Two years before he died, Guthrie’s wife, Marjorie Mazia, came to visit him and

found a kid in a pea jacket squatting in front of Woody, who was sitting in his wheelchair, and just staring at him. Marjorie took the boy aside and said, “He’s not an animal in the zoo. He has feelings. How do you think he feels about you staring at him like that?”

So, now and then, in his long dying, Guthrie endured the insolent veneration of votaries whose style of worship was the gawk. It is the style appointed for the deification of the authority of failure. His disease, of course, dictated his destruction; and yet there are unmistakable signs that, even before it asserted its command, there was a kink in Guthrie’s will that fled every turn in his career threatening him with material success. His image might not otherwise have taken on the glow that lit it up in the Sixties. What was admired then was not the social radical but the private rebel, the drop-out, the bindlestiff who idealized the community of the boxcars on which he traveled and the migrant camps where he would sing; and so he was thought, somewhat inaccurately, to have anticipated the visions so painfully acted out in the communes.

Most of the work that sustains his memory had been done before he struck an infertile period that, had his blood been luckier, might have been one of those times of reflection and regrouping that so often precede the young artist’s leap into higher reaches. He was only thirty-one when he wrote Marjorie Mazia about the loneliness and fear that attended his suspicion of having reached a dead end. He spoke of himself in the third person, with the endearing grandiosity of someone who had always been impelled by the urge to be great and who was afraid he would never be unless he could find some means of breaking out from the forms that had served him well enough until now:

He had a national reputation as a people’s artist which he had built on pure blind instinct, passion, wild, unbounded, unhampered and unlimited imagination—that sort of inspiration that gets you so far and no farther. And he knew that he had come to the end of his animal inspiration and couldn’t progress any farther unless he got the help of somebody who had developed her mind along different lines and was entirely different in outlook and approach than he was.

But all that was too late even if it could ever have been. His disease was already about its ravagings; and it worked so cruelly upon his power to communicate that, if he had by no means lost his creativity, all that came thereafter were a few highly intriguing fragments in a rising sea of incoherence. And yet, even had there not been the taint in his blood, there remains the sense that Guthrie would still have willed his failure and lived his life in lonely resistance to every temptation to comfort and conformity.

He had the range of talents that intimate the possibility of genius without any of them being transcendent enough to quite realize it. He belongs less to music than to literature, and it is hard to give him his proper due even there, because no extended sample of his writing has come down to us in any ordered condition except his autobiography, and that was woefully damaged by his New York editors, who encouraged his every weakness for windy sentimentality, preferred his tall tales to his authentic recollections, and neglected the considerable gift for natural speech that identified his special character to exalt the dreadful folksiness of the false naif.

As composer he was more collector than creator; the tunes that provide royalties to his heirs represent the mining of traditional themes rather than the search for fresh ones. His vocal range was severely limited; his tones were dry and his voice had the harsh and distancing timbre that Klein captures nicely when he says that listening to Guthrie was like biting into a lemon.

The weight and force of his influence owe no little to this modesty of range. His style was distinctive but it was not a virtuoso’s distinction; and its narrow compass made a comfortable fit for disciples who needed no more than a reasonable sense of pitch and a more-than-ordinary endowment of the urban Jewish talent for mimicry to re-create him so faithfully that better ears than mine would have trouble distinguishing between a 1940 Guthrie transcription and the same song as recorded in the Fifties by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who was raised in Brooklyn as a physician’s son.

A truly transfiguring style does not as a general rule lend itself to copies this exact, because the great stylist seldom venerates himself enough to settle for the tedium of imprisonment in the frozen cast of the public monument. Miles Davis once remembered that, when he first came to New York, he set himself to becoming Dizzy Gillespie, went to hear Gillespie every evening, and grew most dexterous in forging a faithful copy of every note he had heard. He gave up his search when he discovered that, each time round, Gillespie was attacking a theme in a fashion quite different from the way he had dealt with it the night before.

I just quit trying to be Dizzy,” Miles Davis said. “All I’d been able to do was hoard stuff that he was throwing away.”

And so Diana Ross could not be Billie Holiday and Linda Hopkins cannot be Bessie Smith; and the Duke Ellington orchestra is beyond recapture by anyone now alive. Guthrie had a unique persona but he was not a special original. He belongs with W.C. Handy among those whose gifts were more for anthologizing what had already been done than for seeking what might be done. He was content to be no more than that. His itch for experiment was expressed in language rather than sound. His message and not his music was his purpose; and, for just that reason, his influence could not long sustain itself in its rude purity. As message it had to be adulterated, a business of gentling, sweetening, and popularizing for the Weavers; and as music it would be progressively left behind or, as in Bob Dylan’s adventures into folk rock, carried as baggage for the invasion of unfamiliar territories.

But if Dylan could not be content with just being Woody Guthrie, Guthrie himself had the complete satisfaction with the formulas he had found when he was young that so often assures a long and comfortable commercial success.

He was not, after all, a migrant worker, but an itinerant troubadour. When he was hungry on the road, he had not earned his meals by picking in the fields; he had instead sung in the saloons. The roving life was a choice rather than a necessity, and more a flight from family tragedy than from otherwise hopeless poverty. His branch of the Guthries was a town and not a farm family. His vision of an infinite American promise was a direct, if transmuted, inheritance from a father who had defended it in vehement polemic against the Oklahoma branch of Eugene Victor Debs’s Socialist Party and who had chased success as a land speculator until the economic disaster of the oil boom’s collapse and successive domestic calamities finally cost him every illusion of hope.

Fire pursued the Guthries like a fury. His father’s transient prosperity was celebrated with the construction of a six-room house in the section of Okemah, Oklahoma, where its merchant class lived. This edifice embodied all his pretensions and his ruin began when it burned to the ground.

Woody Guthrie’s sister died after a kitchen fire; Klein leaves us good reason to suspect that his mother poured a kerosene lamp on his sleeping father the day before she was carried to the asylum; the child Cathy, who inspired him to write the “Songs to Grow On,” burned to death when she was four years old; and his career as a performer was effectively ended when his guitar hand was crippled in a cooking fire.

Doom was thus woven into his destiny. Somewhere, in the wreck of his family when he was a child, he must have sensed the implacability of the appointment of the Guthries with misfortune, and that could explain why his life seems so continual a flight from places whose security could only seem false to him.

He did not run to California in the Thirties because there was nothing left to him in the Southwest. He had a wife and child and an assortment of commercial skills that equipped him for some degree of comfort even in the devastated wake of the duststorms. His country music trios could have earned him a steady, if modest, competence; he was a mercantile sign painter in high demand by clients who forgave the occasional eccentricities of his imagination for the whimsies of its conceptions. Once, in Pampa, Texas, he even set up as a species of Kahlil Gibran teacher, lay analyst, and faith healer for troubled spirits who came to him, as he said once, on superstitious feet.

But he seldom took fees from these patients; and he had a habit of throwing away or giving to strangers most of what he earned calling square dances or singing in saloons. He had a hand that could climb on any rung he chose to put it on; and he had a heart that scorned to rise.

But everything about him that seems so capricious may have been a kind of discipline enforced by the spectacle of a father who had lost his dignity in the crash of his quick-rich dreams. From adolescence on, Klein says, “Money bothered Woody; getting it turned people into animals, and losing it drove them crazy.”

He had, all the same, one of those divided natures in which the eagerness to be famous and conspicuous contends with the horror of material possessions. His voyage to Los Angeles seems to have been impelled by his desire for a booking no less than by his restlessness. In his recorded conversations with Alan Lomax, he refers to “show business” in tones of community hardly cooler than his affection for the radical movement. His professionalism turns up most unexpectedly in the account of his debt to the Communist Party he rendered to Marjorie Mazia in 1945: “Lord knows I owe them…the only guidance and recognition and pay that I’ve ever tasted.”

But then no artisan would like to think that his work is entirely without its inspiration in need and hope for cash. It is more to the point of his story that, when Guthrie thanked the communists for the steadiest wages he was ever to know, he was describing the consequences of the choice he made between the byways of rebellion and the highways of commerce.

The timbre of his singing voice could never have taken on the suavities that elevated Gene Autry and Roy Rogers to those shrines where preside the gods who own baseball teams and fast-food franchises. But he might have been an Arthur Godfrey; and his persistent rejection of that choice may have been his only piece of luck, typically, rewarding him in history as no luck ever did in life. For, if he had turned his whole heart to show business, the deadly cast of his blood would still have broken him young and there never would have been the crowd of Woody’s children, or indeed any trace of him at all.

His voice was as gentle in conversation as it was harsh in song. He would speak of the outlaw Pretty Boy Floyd as his hero but Will Rogers was plainly his ideal among Oklahomans. His reminiscences to Alan Lomax give a wryly comic turn to any reference to social tragedy; his wounds cry out only when he talks about the fires that haunted and all but consumed his family. He had all the charm that Brecht deplored as the ruin of American actors but that is the sustenance of the not-always-inexplicable longevity of so many successful popular entertainers. And he could resist neither displaying that charm nor fleeing the temptations it spread open before him.

He began his apprenticeship as a supporting player on one of those Hollywood cowboy broadcasts that were a Los Angeles staple in the Thirties, shifted to the hillbilly format that was fitter to his taste, and swiftly moved from being a journeyman to becoming so much a master of that style as to draw overtures from such colossi of the genre as “Hollywood Barn Dance.”

He ignored these beckonings from the main chance, abandoned radio, and took to wandering the migrant camps. Two years later he was in New York as star of “Pipe Smoking Time,” an embarrassingly watered mess of corn porridge that he could stand for no more than a month before deserting the network and escaping to the road again.

Pipe Smoking Time” had represented the farthest step across the line that separates the agrarian rebel’s shout of protest from the hayshaker’s “Aw, shucks” the healthy Guthrie was ever to make. He had debased his nature as far as he could, even giving up his column in the Daily Worker, singing at Jimmy Dwyer’s Sawdust Trail, and rollicking most pleasurably with the $100 bills these compromises earned him, until the interior voice of guilt drove him into his chosen exile.

His breakdown was almost at hand by 1950 when Pete Seeger and the Weavers had the brief blaze of popular triumph that was gutted only too soon by the blacklist. The Weavers had leaped transiently forth from the pit where the communist left had by then been entombed; and there was no way to contrive even a delusive revival except by smoothing over the rasp of the old rebel songs. By then Woody Guthrie sensed his disablement; he had begun worrying about what he might have to leave behind to his and Marjorie Mazia’s three small children and, uncomplainingly and even enthusiastically, he sat down to reshape “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You” from the dust bowl émigré’s bitter envoi into a lover’s farewell.

The sources of the derangements arising from physical illness generally yield themselves to clinical analysis, while the origins of rational, if singular, choices keep their mystery. This may account for the failure to explain why Guthrie became and remained a communist, which is the only shortcoming of Klein’s otherwise admirably accomplished work.

The mound of Guthrie’s papers is so huge, and Klein has dug through it so tirelessly, that we have to assume that Guthrie made no record of the process of his conversion. He must then have become a communist rather casually, but he would remain one with the stubborn fidelity of someone bound not so much by doctrine as by the claims of a family.

He had, to be sure, the understandable radicalism of the losing class in a social catastrophe; and that impulse had been given some definition by the preachments of the Wobblies he had met on the road. But all the same it was the radicalism of lonely resentment. He was indeed so far from recognizing any great community of the oppressed that Klein has unearthed several scraps of Negro baiting Guthrie indulged in barely a year before he took up with the Party. This was an inherited bigotry so superficial that he appears to have cast if off without need for reflection; it was the last trace upon him of that mean country South whose cruelty had visited him with the unhealed wound of his childhood.

The common man abides most curiously in Bound for Glory as the hero of a bright future and the villain of a dark past. His boyhood had taught Guthrie how cold a face the common man can turn toward the bizarre and the unlucky. His crazy mother had been shunned even by the other Guthries in Okemah, and, years later, he rendered as caricatures of evil the uncles who had scorned their failed brother-in-law and their destroyed half-sister. Most of what kindness he knew as a pariah child came from persons who were not of his blood. The very tone of the discourses that interspersed his radio song programs—now begging untrustworthy approval, now defying anticipated disapproval—bespeaks an engraved familiarity with rejection.

He hated his loneliness, and that may explain why he did not settle for the anarcho-syndicalism that might seem best suited to the bent of his nature. It cannot be without significance that the Wobblies embodied the socialism of the boxcars and the hobo camps while the Communist Party represented the socialism of the hearth.

It cannot be accident that the song “I Ain’t Got No Home” was written just before he found the Party. His decision to join may have been unique, but the condition that brought him to it was all else but. The image of the Depression years is of men forced to wander against their will, as he did against his real preference; and the real puzzle may be not that so many but that so few joined the Communist Party.

Woody Guthrie is an exemplary recounting of a life which, if fate made it greater than its achievements, nonetheless earned for its protagonist the compliment Samuel Johnson paid to Richard Savage: “Of his style, the general fault is harshness, and its general excellence is dignity.” The genius of our politics further extends to misunderstanding great lives; and so it was only in accordance with this appointed custom that the young who were anxious to escape their homes made a hero of this man desperate to find one of his own.

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