W.B.’s Book Report: Woody Guthrie, A Life

Woody Guthrie: A Life was delivered on June 12, and I finished it four months later, on the morning of Oct. 14. It’s the longest print book I’ve finished reading in many years; if you remember me talking about a book longer than 500 pages, well, I had a talented narrator reading it to me while I drove to and from the day job.

The book is a remarkable work by Joe Klein that brings to life, flesh and blood a man who has been granted legendary status for his songwriting prowess and not shrinking from Guthrie’s proud belief in communism.

Klein documents what I have always suspected, that the term “progressives” was appropriated by communists who knew they needed a prettier name to be palatable. The intention of communism — at least as Guthrie understood it — is for the little guy to be treated as equal to the big guy, and there’s a universal desire for fairness there. 

The problem, of course, is that communist states seem inevitably to reduce everyone except the bosses into little guys who, if they dissent, can be brutally eliminated, and so states run by communists turn out to be just as (or more) nasty as the states they oppose that are led by democracy- or republic-loving people or monarchs. Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union was an embarrassment to the well-meaning American communists who called Guthrie a fellow traveler.

One might well conclude that it’s the nature of a state to brutalize, whatever the ideology of its rulers.

Political ideology aside — although Klein makes it clear you can’t understand Woody Guthrie without considering his politics — the book made me want to explore the music and hear the recordings of this passionate, flawed man and his passionate friends. I’ve heard a lot of them, but I have a long way to go.

After reading this book, I understand better where Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen are coming from, musically if not politically, with their roots in Woody Guthrie and his friends. And I’ll always hear the defiant anger in “This Land is My Land” from now on. The cheerful sanitized versions of that beloved song will make me smile if not laugh out loud, much like the Lawrence Welk version of that gospel song “One Toke Over the Line.”

Like Springsteen, whose autobiography led me to Klein’s biography of Guthrie, I’m in awe of Klein’s achievement and eager to learn more about the folk movement and especially to hear the songs and perhaps do my bit to preserve them.  

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