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Woody Guthrie: A Life Paperback – February 9, 1999

4.8 out of 5 stars 36 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Before he became Anonymous, author of the political novel Primary Colors, Joe Klein wrote this intelligent biography of America's legendary folksinger-activist. Klein's first book may not have created the fuss that Primary Colors did, but it attracted the attention of no less a celebrity than Bruce Springsteen, who used to cite it with respect during concerts before singing Guthrie's most famous lyric, "This Land Is Your Land." Klein's unearthing of two politically radical verses usually omitted from that song is just one instance of the solid research underpinning his vivid narrative of Guthrie's often tragic life (1912-67). Before Woody turned 15, his sister died in a fire and his mother was committed to an Oklahoma insane asylum with a mysterious disease he later learned he inherited; Klein's chilling description of Huntington's chorea is one of the book's strong points. Its heart is a full rendering of Guthrie's restless wanderings across Depression-era America, which fired his lifelong radicalism, and a scrupulously unsentimental account of Woody's oft-sentimentalized personality. He may have been a genius and a staunch advocate of the common people, but Guthrie was also a bad husband, neglectful father, and difficult friend, as Klein shows. He pays Woody's life and music the tribute of assuming they need no sanitizing, and this biography is all the more interesting because of it. --Wendy Smith

About the Author

Joe Klein is an award-winning journalist and the author of seven books, including the #1 bestseller "Primary Colors" and most recently "Charlie Mike". His weekly "Time "column, In the Arena, covers US politics, elections, and foreign policy and has won two National Headliner Awards for best magazine column. Previously, he served as Washington correspondent for "The New Yorker" and as a political columnist for "Newsweek". Klein is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former Guggenheim fellow.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Delta; Reprint edition (February 9, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385333854
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385333856
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #275,409 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
It's hard for a book that comes so highly recommended to avoid ultimately being a bit of a disappointment, but Joe Klein's fine biography of Woody Guthrie does just that. Full-bodied and balanced, "Woody Guthrie: A Life" gives a very complete picture of an amazing life. The only disappointment here is reaching the end, both of Klein's book and of Guthrie's fascinating life.
Klein's extensive research is the first key to this book's success; he is able to show so many different sides of one of America's greatest songwriters that Guthrie becomes ever more complex even as he becomes ever more human. Equally as important, though, is the manner in which Klein unblinkingly and impartially tells the bad along with the good. So what comes out in the long run is exactly how brilliant, industrious, flighty, difficult to live with, insufferable, and ingenious Woody Guthrie was. Klein's prose and its conversational ease spin out this long yarn, detours included, in a fluent and friendly tone that reflect well the topic at hand.
Readers expecting mere annotations to Guthrie's music will be surprised to find much more in this book--I know I was. I was shocked to be allowed a glimpse into familial and erotic life. None of this interested me at first, and even seemed like an unwanted accompaniment to the real story of the music, but Klein quickly makes it clear that this corner of Guthrie's life had its own impact on his creative energies in every other area, and the gaps get filled in.
This completeness contributes to a portrait that quickly overgrows the confines of a single American life, for Guthrie's story is in many ways the complex story of America in the last century. Klein's telling of this story allows us a glimpse into histories we've forgotten or have been allowed to forget.
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Format: Paperback
This was one of those book I bought on a whim-- I was at a used-book-store near me, looking thru the Music section, trying to find a biography on Bob Dylan when I saw this, an old hardcover library edition with "DISCARD" stamped into the front (such a sin!), and I picked it up. I haven't put it down since. Klein does an incredible job, relating Woody's life story in a way that can only be described as the absolute furthest thing from a textbook possible. Once you finish, you cannot help but go around to your friends, relating some parable from Woody's life, like, "Hey guys, you gotta hear this... Woody's on a freight, right, and...." Klein went through hundreds of sources to get the informations for this book, making sure everything fit and talking to everyone Woody ever met or said hello to, it seems. He also was careful to cross-check all of Woody's stories on his life (Woody would often exaggerate his own life, changing parts and including others, lying about the more touchy subjects). It is incredibly well-written, and very comprehensive. Klein even will give extensive back-ground information so that when you get to the last page, you are practically an expert on the American culture from the turn of the century to the late 1960s. An amazing book, and a must-read for just about everyone-- no, not for just about everyone. It is a must read for ABSOLUTELY everyone.
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Format: Paperback
I first picked up a copy of this book after Bruce Springsteen mentioned during a concert that he had read it and loved it. It inspired him to sing a very sad and mournful rendition of This Land is Your Land and to explain why it was really an angry song and not at all the happy little ditty we remembered from childhood. That was a fitting introduction to this book of his life which was also not a happy little ditty. Woddie Guthrie's life and music speak to more than just Folk Music fans and I hope more younger folks pick this book up, read it and as a result give his music a listen. If you want to hear Bruce's comments on this book, they preceed his performance of This Land is Your Land on his Live performance Boxed Set. I highly recommend listening to NEBRASKA and THE GHOST OF TOM JOAD while reading this book!!
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As a child of the 60's and 70's, I held the rather myopic view that my generation invented rebellion, cynicism and their voice in music. Not so! Joe Klein's masterful telling of Woody Guthrie's story reveals the musical tradition of the folk song as a means of political activism long before Bob Dylan and the rest. Woody Guthrie's wonderful, painful life is detailed with careful attention and astute observation. Mr. Klein does not spare us the unsavory irresponsiblity of this hobo, nor does he turn us away from the tragedy of his illness and death. Instead, through the words, letters, and memories of Woody, his friends, and detractors, Joe Klein gives us a protrait fo a flawed, resolute singer of our songs and in the process, presents a bit of our history that was never covered in my textbooks! Not an easy read, but a mesmerizing story. My next stop is the record store (or is it CD store?)!
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Format: Paperback
Every Christmas, I buy multiple copies of this book and give it away to friends and family. Every spring/summer, I receive multiple messages of enthusiastic thanks and gratitude. No one who reads it comes away unaffected.

Basically, I will just say this is the most riveting biography I've ever read, and I've read it many times (am rereading it now actually).

There are two primary reasons why this book is so far above all other biographies:

1.) Joe Klein's writing is fantastic. His research is thorough, but his ability to communicate to an audience complex historical, socio-political, medical, and psychological concepts is virtually without peer.

2.) Woody Guthrie's life simply is one of the most fascinating lives I've ever read about. From his birth (even before his birth) straight through to his death, his life never gets boring. There is no plateau, where a great artist achieves his best work and then self destructs or mellows, etc etc.....every single period of Woody's life is equally fascinating. He was an incredible human being, a very complex artist and man-and he happened to straddle many periods of history. You will be constantly surprised. Sometimes you want to strangle him and then he turns around and does something so unbelievabely heroic, that you can hardly believe it actually happened. There is NO ONE like Woody Guthrie today....nor was there ever another in any other time period, the guy was truly a one and only.

I couldn't recommend this book enough. It's so good that not until 2004 was another biography attempted on Woody, and I can't imagine it could be any better than this.
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