In 1943 Clifton Fadiman wrote in The New Yorker about
Bound for Glory: "Woody Guthrie and the ten thousand songs
that leap and tumble off the strings of his music box are
a national possession, like Yellowstone and Yosemite. There is a
wonderful tone, a cocky poetry in these pages."
In the more than
half a century since, the legend of Woody Guthrie has become
enshrined like that of some kind of patron saint of folk
music and Americana. But the man himself was much more than
that. His memoir is that of a ragged minstrel, selling his sweater
for a dime to buy a bowl of soup, sharing the hardship of
his companions in boxcars, hobo jungles, dusty roads or waterfront
bars. His account of his life is not simply folklore,
but a deeply felt excursion out of personal pain and family
tragedy, filled with a sense of wonder that proclaims itself
in timeless songs and the deceptively simple but expressive
drawings that accompany his words. Bound for Glory is
the heartfelt testament of a man who transformed his life into art,
who wrote and sang the songs of the little people of America, himself
included, and turned them into an epic that sings out to us still,
and always will.
Woody Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma, in 1912 (he was named for
Woodrow Wilson, who was elected President that year). After a poor and
troubled childhood (his mother suffered from mental illness and died
in an institution), Woody went on the road as a migrant worker
and itinerant musician, and with brief exceptions never settled down.
He became involved in the struggles of organized labor and many
of his songs dealt with contemporary social issues, while others were
charming nonsense rhymes written for his children (his son Arlo
eventually established his own career as a songwriter and performer).
Together with friends like Huddie Ledbetter, Cisco Houston, and Pete
Seeger, Woody Guthrie laid the ground for a golden age of
contemporary folk music that first flowered in the 1940s with such
groups as the Weavers, and then in the great folk revival of
the 1960s, most notably in the person of Bob Dylan, who modeled
his early musical persona (and writing style) after Guthrie's.
Stricken with Huntington's Chorea, a progressive nervous disorder, Woody Guthrie
spent most of the last two decades of his life in an institution. He died
in 1967, by which time his song "This Land Is Your Land" had become
the anthem of a new generation.