From Publishers Weekly
The biographer of Gen. George C. Marshall (General of the Army) turns his prodigious skills to view another complex American hero with an equally complex story-folk singer and political activist Woody Guthrie. Cray's access to thousands of pages from the Woody Guthrie Archives (including previously unpublished letters, diaries and journals) allows him to present a comprehensive picture, although sometimes the detail keeps Cray from moving the story along. However, this is the definitive biography of a songwriter whose legendary image for the past half-century has been "the banty, brilliant songwriter who had stood up for the underdog and downtrodden." Cray provides a superb look at Guthrie's background as a real estate agent's son. He carefully details how Guthrie moved from a fairly conventional career in country music to a recreation of his image through remarkable songs, like his "Dust Bowl Ballads,'' and gained a whole new Depression-era audience: "The Okies and Arkies, the Texicans and Jayhawkers, had become Woody's people." Cray also expertly observes how the "writerly discipline" of these works was missing in his post-WWII songs. While Guthrie's folk hero status is a given today, Cray shows just how much effort it actually took for a new generation of folk singers such as Bob Dylan to raise awareness of Guthrie's importance as the man himself fell victim to Huntington's disease. Finally, Cray fully explores one of the real heroes in this story, Guthrie's second wife, Marjorie, who stuck with the singer during and after their stormy marriage.
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Although Woody Guthrie has been a favorite topic of children's books in recent years, there has not been a substantive adult biography written about him since Joe Klein's definitive Woody Guthrie
(1980). Cray (Chief Justice: A Biography of Earl Warren,
1997) may well supplant Klein, as he was given access to the Woody Guthrie Archives, which contain previously unpublished letters, diaries, and journals. Although his narrative is sometimes too thick with details, Cray eloquently sums up the Okie songwriter's sorrowful life, during which he endured his sister's and daughter's deaths by fire, his mother's committal to an insane asylum, and his own diagnosis and death from Huntington's disease. Cray is especially insightful on Guthrie's politics and his deep empathy for Depression-era migrant workers. A man of contradictions, the songwriter emerges as an intellectual who took pains to hide his intellect and as a crusader for social justice who neglected his own family. His second wife, Marjorie, takes on near-heroic stature as the caregiver who, though they were long divorced, looked after him during the last decade of his debilitating illness. Joanne WilkinsonCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved