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Ramblin' Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie Paperback – March 17, 2006
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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 Cray's access to thousands of pages from the Woody Guthrie Archives (including previously unpublished letters, diaries and journals) allows him to present a comprehensive picture, although sometimes the detail keeps Cray from moving the story along.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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Warren, 1997) may well supplant Klein, as he was given access to the Woody Guthrie Archives, which contain previously unpublished letters, diaries, and journals.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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Born in 1912 in Oklahoma, Woody attempted to "find himself" through the "superstition business" of faith-healing, fortune-telling, Rosicrucian tracts, Eastern mysticism and the Baptist Church, finally ended with socialism as the response to the existence of private plenty amidst mass poverty during the Great Depression.
Cray is unable to resolve whether Woody ever joined the US Communist Party, but he favours the majority opinion that Woody was too eclectic (he melded primitive Christianity with communism, Jesus with Lenin), and too independent, to have been useful, or happy, as a member ("he was not an organisation guy", said an editor of the Daily Worker, for which Woody wrote almost 300 columns). Nevertheless, Woody was proudly loyal to the Party for better and, occasionally, worse.
Woody brought his special gift of song to his new-found cause, dedication to the poor. Tastes of commercial musical success were the exceptions to an otherwise frigid reception by the cultural arm of capitalism (his Department of the Interior minder edited out "the bad stuff" from his 1940 government-commissioned album on the building of the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River because "he was in the class struggle pretty deep").
Woody survived submarines and mines during the war but he did not survive the FBI which blacklisted the pro-Soviet and anti-racist balladeer from the Merchant Marine. Music continued to consume Woody, and his 1947 songs on Sacco and Vanzetti (the two Italian-American anarchists framed and executed for a payroll murder in 1927) often reached the poetic heights of his creative peak (roughly 1937 to 1947), despite lapses into "political speeches in verse".
Signs of Woody's eventual fate, however, began to appear with the onset of the rare, genetic, incurable nervous system disease, Huntington's chorea. As energy and creativity drained from him, he produced "no new songs of real note" from this time. Alcohol was Woody's solution to his developing psychosis but this only made everything worse.
Despite the curse of Huntington's, the attentions of the FBI continued (they didn't drop Woody from their `watchlist' until 1955) and the blacklist stayed in place (RCA and Decca dumped him, and Hollywood ditched a movie deal for his autobiography). The last thirteen of Woody's 55 years were spent in state psychiatric hospitals, dying slowly until the end came in 1967.
Woody was no saint. Cray doesn't soft-pedal on Woody's personal failings, not all of which were entirely reducible to the effects of Huntington's. Woody could be ill-mannered, self-engrossed, irresponsible, undisciplined and immature. However, he was, more often, supportive and generous. An eternal child in many respects, Woody was, despite his faults, impossible to hate and easy to love.
Woody left generations of musicians in his debt which was marked by a lyrical grace and melodic simplicity, sung with a voice which "bit at the heart" and which drew its moral verve from, as Pete Seeger put it, Woody's "strong sense of right and wrong".
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.
The "Times" is the key to this wonderful book...I have never read a bigraphy that so completely ties the subject to the context. I have been a Woody Guthrie devotee since the early 1960's having read and heard all I could but in reading this book my horizons, outlook and...just about everything else are enhanced.
Where is he today?
And it's still Democrats v Republicans!!
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History lessons of american folk music on the go...Read more
I'm surprised Americans tolerated this at one time