In the winter of 1940, a twenty-seven-year-old hillbilly singer named Woody Guthrie headed east to New York City. He had already been west, along with thousands of fellow migrants, where he sang on an LA radio program for his homesick Okies. Now he was on the road once again. Leaving behind a wife and kids he couldn't support, he took a bus as far as his twenty-five dollars would get him, which happened to be Pittsburgh, where he started to hitchhike as a blizzard blew in, winds whipping as hard as the dust storms back home. He made it as far as the other side of the ice-jammed Susquehanna River, where a "passing forest ranger out to photograph hibernating animals saved [him], stranded in the whiteout alongside the empty highway."
Coming midway through Ed Cray's Ramblin' Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie, it is a heartrending image, made more so by its concluding note, as the ranger's mother revives the frozen Okie with steaming bowls of buttered clam chowder. Though success awaited Guthrie in New York, such scenes of hardship and privation hounded him all his life. As the first biographer with full access to the Guthrie archives, Cray is able to recount the calamitiesóas well as the triumphsówith riveting detail absent from previous accounts such as Joe Klein's 1980 Woody Guthrie: A Life, which renders the harrowing pilgrimage to New York with a single bland sentence: "The trip north wasn't very pleasant, as Woody had to hitch rides in the wind and snow." In this unflinching portrait, Cray scraps the cardboard Commie icon in order to give us the man in full, the scrappy hustler and workers' friend who shirked hard labor; the womanizing deadbeat dad who recorded lovely and enduring children's songs; the well-read autodidact and accomplished artist who did his best to come off like a cracker-barrel, aw-shucks Will Rogers.
Ramblin' Man offers a much-needed corrective to the romanticized, too-familiar Guthrie that makes an unwelcome cameo in Studs Terkel's overwrought foreword, which reads like a parody of a Woody Guthrie impersonator: "Who was this bard? . . . A dirt-road, hard-pavement, dank-boxcar, cold-city, hot-desert gamin. Coast-to-coast poet and minstrel." Out of Guthrie's thousand-plus songs, there are only a handful of lines that work on the page, and, for all his cross-country rambling, he never approached the poetic gusto of the hobo anthem "Big Rock Candy Mountain," where "little streams of alcohol come a-trickling down the rocks." Guthrie's great gift as a writer wasn't the imagination of a poet but the clear eyes of a reporter and witness. As he scrawled on the bottom of the notebook paper that contains the lyrics to "This Land Is Your Land," penned in a seedy hotel at Forty-third and Sixth Avenue: "All you can write is what you see."
Guthrie emerges as a sort of Dust Bowl Zelig and wily survivalist who constantly reinvented himself to adapt to his surroundings. For the audience of The Woody and Lefty Lou Show, his twice-daily radio program on KFVD in Los Angeles, he was another labor-camp Okie, even if he never picked a single grape and instead spent his time scouring newspapers to bone up on global politics: "Rewrite with better slant on the chinamen," reads a note he made to himself on a draft for a song about the Sino-Japanese conflict. As a radicalized folksinger among New York's left-wing clique, he played his salt-of-the-earth persona to the hilt, even if it didn't fool Bess Lomax, a cohort in the Almanac Singers, who saw "'a desperate little man' . . . searching for some way to connect, some way to be a big, important person."
Guthrie's achievement was that he did connect, both with the working masses and with the folk-revival lefty eggheads like Pete Seeger, and this despite the fact that Guthrie remained an unremarkable guitarist and singer of limited range. But he was a mesmerizing performer, as classically trained composer Earl Robinson witnessed at a farmworkers' benefit in New York in 1940: As Cray reports, "Guthrie stopped in the middle of an introduction to a song, Robinson said, to clean his fingernails with a guitar pick, all the while spinning a humorous story that ambled to no end. 'It was an act, obviously, but it felt so fantastically real,' Robinson marveled."
Cray's portrayal makes it clear that for all his poses, Guthrie stayed true to his roots as a southerner and rebel outsider, not only in his art, but in his undying allegiance to the working class. Unlike Seeger and so many of the northern folkies, Guthrie's bond to the "common folk" was forged from personal experience. His own misfortunesóthe deaths-by-fire of a sister and a daughter; his mother's terminal wasting disease, Huntington's chorea, which he inherited; his string of busted marriages and unrealized projectsónever soured him. Instead, life's hard knocks only served to feed his empathy for the downtrodden, fueling such masterpieces as "Pretty Boy Floyd" and "Deportees."
For all his legendary status as a political radical, Guthrie's life reads like an old-fashioned American morality tale, where grit and fortitude win out over greed and frippery, even if our hero was most always near broke and headed somewhere down the road. His final years, even before the decade that left him a prisoner of Hun-tington's, make for painful reading, and Ramblin' Man offers a testimony to how dear a price Guthrie paid to give his countrymen pictures from life's other side.
Eddie Dean is a writer based in Rockville, MD.