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Ramblin' Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie Hardcover – February, 2004

4.2 out of 5 stars 26 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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 Cray's access to thousands of pages from the Woody Guthrie Archives (including previously unpublished letters, diaries and journals) allows him to present a comprehensive picture, although sometimes the detail keeps Cray from moving the story along.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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From Booklist

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Warren, 1997) may well supplant Klein, as he was given access to the Woody Guthrie Archives, which contain previously unpublished letters, diaries, and journals.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 Wilkinson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition (February 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393047598
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393047592
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.4 x 1.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,895,800 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Kerry Walters VINE VOICE on August 18, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Ed Cray's new biography goes a long way toward clearing up some of the hagiographic fog that's collected around Guthrie since his long illness and death. The romantic picture of Guthrie is that he was an artistically restless drifter who threw in his lot with the farmers and laborers of the Depression era. There's some truth to that picture. Guthrie undoubtedly was a good poet and wrote some good songs and prose (although his skills as a performer were uneven), was extremely restless, and seems to have had a genuine concern for the poor. But these bare facts only scratch the surface of his complexity. He was also a self-indulgent tomcat who took little responsibility for his many children; a prima dona performer who frequently insisted doing things his way or no way; a person whose idiosyncracies and freeloading perpetually tried the patience of his friends and acquaintances (see, for example, Cray's account of Woody's refusal to carry his weight when he lived in the Almanac Singers cooperative); and a chronic mythmaker, in both his memoir and his tales, when it came to his relations with the working class. In the eyes of many (although certainly not all), there apparently was a charm to him that overrode his blemishes. But the blemishes are still there.

In a curious way, the people who come across as the real heroes of this biography are the less celebrated types such as Pete Seeger and Will Geer, both victims of the McCarthy witchhunt, and Marjorie Greenblatt Mazia, Arlo's mom and Guthrie's second wife, who nursed Woody during the final years, long after they were divorced. Compared to them, Woody both lived a pretty comfortable life and was less committed to the farmers and laborers he sang about. Touchingly, it was these same people whose loyalty to Guthrie helped make him into one of America's folk heroes after his death.
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Format: Hardcover
You may disagree with Woody Guthrie's politics, or you might not even know who he was, but you know his music. "This Land is Your Land," for instance, is known as "America's folk national anthem," and unlike the real national anthem, normal people can hit all the notes. It used to be taught in public schools; I wonder if it still is, since it might be a little too, well, communal for our current philosophy of carving out one's own sector for profit. Guthrie wrote the song as a response to the treacly "God Bless America," not because he wanted something secular but because he failed to see how God had blessed the sharecroppers and hoboes and Okies Guthrie lived with. "Do Re Mi," "Oklahoma Hills," and a bunch of children's tunes are part of his legacy as well, thousands of songs, mostly one-offs which no one wrote down or recorded. He would easily tear out a rhyme and a tune, and did so passionately whenever he felt for a cause. Frequently inspired, he was also unreliable, irresponsible, and grimy, a difficult man to live with. In Ramblin' Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie (Norton), Ed Cray has given a full portrait of an influential man whose songs and stories are legendary, but has brought forth both legend and truth, and sorted between them nicely.
Guthrie, despite his claims to the contrary, had a middle-class upbringing. His father was, of all things, a successful real estate dealer, who was too busy to pay the boy much attention. His mother was distant and uninterested. He was a dedicated student only when he wanted to be; he would listen to local singers and imitate guitar records for hours. In 1937, the 25-year-old Guthrie lit out for California (leaving his wife), by freight train or hitchhiking, as did other migrants.
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Format: Hardcover
Ed Cray's biography of Woody Guthrie gives us as complete a picture of the folk-song legend as we are ever likely to get; he had the cooperation of all surviving members of the Guthrie family and full access to Guthrie's personal papers. Cray also does a marvelous job giving us a sense of Guthrie's work, liberally sprinkling his text with lyrics from familiar and unfamiliar songs. The result is not only complete and comprehensive but very sympathetic, despite details (wandering, neglecting his children, womanizing, drinking, fighting, etc.) that bring Guthrie down a peg from the sainthood that some might want to give him.
Guthrie himself seems a knotty reflection of the troubled times in which his music first arose: the struggles of the working poor during the Great Depression, followed by the paranoia of McCarthyism in the late 40s and beyond. Both Guthrie and his music showed a kind of restless, kinetic energy until this second period set in, but then dissolve in a kind of undisciplined confusion.

We know now of course that this change in Guthrie was caused by his disease, Huntington's chorea, which hospitalized him for the last decade or more of his life. Cray does an exceptionally good job of showing the gradual increase of the disease from the point where its earlier symptoms just seemed like a quirky part of Guthrie's personality to the point where his internal fight against it made him violent, and finally to the point where he was rendered speechless and immobile. Guthrie's second wife Marjorie (Arlo's mother) comes off fairly saintly, visiting Guthrie with their kids weekly in the hospital for years even after their divorce.
In sum, the book is inspirational, informative, and poignant as well. The only thing that keeps me from giving it five stars is its length, which fans of Guthrie will not find daunting but which may be more than you are looking for it you are only a casual reader.
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