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…


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