Culture  /  Book Review

Woody Guthrie: Folk Hero

Guthrie challenged the commercial aesthetic of the pre-rock era through a performance style that was almost combatively anti-musical.

For all his advocacy of the common man, Guthrie sought to be recognized as someone exceptional. Agnes (Sis) Cunningham, his sometime bandmate (along with Seeger, Bess Hawes, Millard Lampell, Lee Hays, and others) in the Almanac Singers, the leftist vocal group of the forties, told me a few years ago that Guthrie was “determined to become a legend in his own time.” (Cray quotes Hawes as saying that Guthrie was “desperate” to become “a big, important person.”) After all, he did not call his autobiography “Bound for Obscurity,” and the book is dense with folksy anecdotes that dramatize his innate superiority to government officials, businesspeople, other authority figures, and most of his friends. “Bound for Glory” captures Guthrie vividly; he was fearsomely gifted and ambitious, and also egalitarian—a most uncommon man.

Woody Guthrie succeeded in becoming a legend in the last years of his life, as young people of the postwar era, seeking their own cultural identity, veered away from the coolly sophisticated, urbane pop on their parents’ hi-fis in favor of more idiomatic music grounded in rural America—folk, country, the blues, and their hybrid, rock and roll. Students by the thousands massed in Washington Square Park each week to strum along to “This Land Is Your Land,” and to look for Woody Guthrie, the exemplar of the folkie ideal. He was unable to take active part in his newfound idolhood, however. Debilitated by Huntington’s disease, a degenerative disorder of the nervous system, Guthrie became a tragic figure to his young acolytes: an American original cut down before his time, seemingly gone mad (wildly erratic behavior being a symptom of the disease)—a living amalgam of Hank Williams and Friedrich Nietzsche. When the nineteen-year-old Bob Dylan arrived in New York from Minnesota in January of 1961, he told his friends that he was going to meet his god, Woody. “He’s the greatest holiest godliest one in the world,” Dylan said of Guthrie around that time—a “genius genius genius genius.”

Reflecting on the period later, Dylan explained, “Woody turned me on romantically. . . . What drew me to [him] was that, hearing his voice, I could tell he was very lonesome, very alone, and very lost out in his time. That’s why I dug him. Like a suicidal case or something. It was like an adolescent thing—when you need somebody to latch onto, you reach out and latch onto them.”

With today’s rock and pop feeling homogeneous, and with hip-hop now twenty years old, popular music is ripe for something new. Whatever comes will surely be something that challenges the complacency of the mainstream; something from disreputable sources; something critical of the status quo, harsh, simple, seemingly anti-musical, and doable without formal training—that is to say, something much in the vein of what Woody Guthrie did. If few nineteen-year-olds today think of latching onto Guthrie, his spirit may be closer than they know. ♦