Bound for Glory
Bound for Glory
by Woody Guthrie
Woody Guthrie: A Life
by Joe Klein
Joe Klein’s biography of Woody Guthrie is a masterpiece.
Along the way he tells the tale of the rise of folk music and its sometimes strained relationship with leftist politics. He provides an excellent summary of the rise in interest in folk music and John and Alan Lomax’s part in it. It’s interesting that the leftists saw folk music as proletarian and therefore inherently progressive, while John Lomax himself, a conservative, just saw it as “a distinctive, glorious American art form.” Up to that time, folk music was primarily an academic pursuit but partly swept up by the 1935 Popular Front phenomenon, a coming-together of Leftist organizations in response to the Great Depression, an attempt to “Americanize” the movement led them to seek out what was distinctive in popular culture. They were awestruck by the ability of the working class to survive the Depression and saw in it a kind of greatness.
I had read Woody’s own autobiography before Klein’s treatment and was at first a bit shocked to discover the differences between it and Klein’s biography. I would suggest reading the books in this order too. Woody writes in an affected Okie vernacular that while true to the sound of the people he knew growing up in some ways masks the true man. Klein exposes his other dimensions; how well read he was; his communist associations and his religious explorations just to name a few. He supposes that Guthrie’s affectations where in part used to assert his authenticity in the eyes of his readers and especially some of the urban radicals who were being drawn into the folk music scene. There is a purity though to the way Guthrie depicts the pain of the defining tragedies of his youth: the deaths of his mother and sister. His narrative of his train-hopping journey from Oklahoma to California is pure genius; the sense of honor and desperation among his fellow travelers is both uplifting and tragic.
Guthrie’s own story ends in 1943 at the height of his abilities and well before the ravages of Huntington’s Chorea afflicted him. Klein’s story depicts his sad mental and physical deterioration. This was the hardest part of the book to read because he becomes so wildly adrift.