Monday, December 23, 2013

Woody Guthrie - A Life

Woody Guthrie is, of course, the man who revolutionized folk music in America and showed its strength and power and showed that you could modernize folk music and didn't have to simply rely on the old songs. This legacy brought us Bob Dylan, among many others, which alone makes Woody a man worth knowing!

I quite enjoyed the background on Woody’s family, disturbing though it was. His father was, ironically, a bigot, anti-Socialist, money-hungering man who took advantage of people, got into violent brawls and apparently participated in the murder of an innocent black family. His sister set herself on fire during an argument with their mother, and his mother – who taught him many of the old-country folk songs - was mentally unstable and diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease, as rare malady. Certainly an odd background for this man-of-the-people.

But, what a life he did manage to lead! Traveling through the country, a restless man never able to stay put for very long, he went from coast to coast, with some success on the radio in the LA area and success with Alan Lomax and the Communist party in NYC. Of course, the nomadic ways did not help his struggling family (he seemed to manage to impregnate his wife any time he wandered through their small town in Oklahoma) but, while he was not there in person, he did seem to try to send money whenever he could – and whenever he didn’t simply give what he had to strangers.

He would come back to his wife and kids or bring them to him but eventually, it all became too much for them and they left him. He settled in NYC and fell in love again with a dancer, Marjorie, and settled down (as much as he could) with her and their new family. He spent time in the merchant marines and the army and wrote continuously – there are numerous quotes from quite personal and lewd letters that – while certainly trying to make him more human – seemed embarrassing as obviously no one else was supposed to read these. But this, and later, almost Lenny Bruce-esque performances that lapsed into rambling talks and berating the audience, apparently were symptoms of Huntington’s Disease, inherited from his mother.

Following the horrific death of his daughter, Cathy, by fire - like his sister and his father – this marriage fell apart and he eventually married a third time (Anneke), sired another daughter, severely burned his right arm, which meant that he could never play guitar properly again, and started succumbing to ravages of Huntington’s. This proved too much for Anneke, and Marjorie stepped in again to help care for him until his death. In a terribly, sadly, ironic twist, he came to prominence again with the folk boom of the late 50’s and early 60’s when he was far too sick to capitalize on it. He enjoyed the company of the young turks who would visit and pay homage to him, but could not ever perform again.

Klein does a great job here of bringing the man to life and showing all his weaknesses and foibles as well as his talent and his horrible descent. A strong tale of Americana and a man whose songs are now a part of this country’s legacy.