Ramblin’ Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie By Ed Cray W.W. Norton & Company, 2004 Hardcover, 384 pp., $29.95
Since first “discovering” Woody Guthrie over 30 years ago, I’ve devoured everything about him. I listened to – and loved – his music. I read all the books about him. I even watched that horrid film that Hollywood made about him, “Bound for Glory.”
Woody was the great “traveling troubadour.” He became almost like the wistful legend of the IWW organizer Joe Hill, who will “always be there whenever working folks fight for their rights.”
Woody, however, was a real man: a tough, gritty, skinny, little Dust Bowl refugee who wrote and sang the songs of common folks, songs that lifted the spirits of people beaten down by the corporations and the banks.
Even today, Woody’s songs continue to boost people struggling against injustice, for a better life. While this tough little man is a true hero, an almost mythic figure to many of us, I often wondered who the real Woody was. After reading Ed Cray’s “Ramblin’ Man,” I wonder no longer.
“Ramblin’ Man” is the first piece I’ve seen on the real Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, born in 1912 in Okemah, Okla. For those who want to read of Woody the legend, this is not your book. However, as I read “Ramblin’ Man,” another Woody came alive, this one with warts, shortcomings and personal problems like all of us, but a much more real-life Woody, struggling – like all those around him – against the massive impersonal, and truly evil, power of raw capitalism during that awful period of the 1930s that we have come to call the Great Depression. Instead of being swept aside by this tide of brutal history, Woody saw the possibility of a better life and was driven to fight to get there.
Cray’s book traces Woody’s life from his early days in Okemah, where his father was a rough-and-tumble speculator and politician, through an early marriage, to Woody’s travels (first to the West Coast and later to New York and elsewhere), to his rise as one of the premier people’s musicians of the 1930s.
It describes the insanity that his mother fell into and the death of his young sister in a fire caused by his mother’s infirmity. These were events that Woody carried as scars throughout his life.
The book gives the reader a feeling of being with Woody as he traveled to California to find “his people,” the Oklahoma refugees, “Okies,” who’d fled the loss of all they had in the horrible dust storms of the early ’30s.
Deeply angered by the mistreatment of working people he witnessed, he became radicalized. It takes us with Woody when he sang, with Lefty Lou, at a radio station in Los Angeles and how he came in contact with African American people for the first time. Learning that his use of the N-word was offensive, he vowed never to use it again.
The book traces Woody’s joining up with the Communist Party, his long friendships with actor Will Geer and Cisco Houston, and his later travels to New York where he met Pete Seeger, Leadbelly and many others, including the Almanac Singers. It covers his time in the Merchant Marines, in the war against Hitler, when his guitar carried the slogan, “This machine kills fascists!”
For much of his life, Woody was haunted by the fear that he might be carrying the gene that caused his mother’s insanity. That fear was horribly confirmed when he succumbed to the ravages of Huntington’s Chorea, a horrible degenerative disease that gradually stripped Woody of his talents and abilities and led to his death at age 55 in 1967.
Cray’s book is a fine contribution to Woody’s story. There is one area, however, in which his work comes up short. That is Cray’s use of numerous quotes to show that Woody “wasn’t really a member” of the Communist Party USA. Cray treats the CPUSA in a respectful manner, and acknowledges the role of communists in the building of the great people’s movement during the ’30s and ’40s.
Therefore, I found it somewhat ridiculous and out of character that Cray felt he should publish quotes from others about Woody’s “not really” being in the Party at the same time he is writing that Woody wrote hundreds of “Woody Sez” columns for the Daily Worker and that he stood with the CPUSA during every twist and turn of political events during that terrific period. For me, the only quote that should matter is Woody’s when he stated, “The best thing I ever did was join up with the Communist Party!” (p. 150).
Even with that one flaw, this book is one that will make a great many new friends for our brother and comrade Woody. These new friends will know a newer, much fuller and richer Woody, one with flaws, like you and I, who rose above them and took us up with him.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.