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April 25, 2012

Book: Woody Guthrie’s dirty little secrets

‘Woody Guthrie, American Radical’ 
By Will Kaufman. University of Illinois Press; 304 pgs., $29.95.

The general perception of Woody Guthrie’s most famous song, “This Land Is Your Land,” essentially matches the overall understanding of Guthrie himself. With its depictions of the redwood forest, Gulf Stream waters, golden valley, diamond deserts and wheat fields waving, it is viewed as a celebration of America and has rivaled “America the Beautiful” as a secondary national anthem.

But three verses of “This Land” were lost. One involves people sitting outside a relief office in the shadow of a church steeple. Another says that no one can stop the singer from traveling the freedom highway. And a third speaks of “private property” signs, which casts a different light on the line, “this land was made for you and me.”

Likewise, Guthrie is often regarded as sort of a singing Will Rogers who crafted folksy songs about Dust Bowl refugees and the Grand Coulee Dam, traveled the country by hopping trains, and served as an inspiration to a young Bob Dylan and other “folk revival” singers.

Those details are all basically true (albeit romanticized), but some aspects of Guthrie’s life, notably how radical he really was, have been as forgotten as those three lost verses of “This Land.”

In his new book, “Woody Guthrie, American Radical,” Will Kaufman fills in a lot of information about Guthrie’s activism based on song lyrics that were never recorded, letters that were either never sent or lost, and notebook entries — all of which he was given access to by Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, who maintains the Woody Guthrie Archive.

Through Guthrie’s own writings, as well as other research conducted by the author, the portrait that emerges casts Guthrie in a different light than that of his popular image. For starters, Guthrie’s writings reveal that the “aw shucks” persona he projected in public and in his (somewhat fictionalized) autobiography, “Bound for Glory,” was largely a put-on. He was, in fact, quite articulate in letters to friends and in his own journals, until Huntington’s disease began affecting his writing and speech.

There are also indications that Guthrie had some racial prejudices in his early years, that he sometimes flip-flopped on political issues, and that despite his fervent championing of the “common people,” he didn’t always treat the people he knew — or married, or fathered — very well. Kaufman never serves as an apologist for Guthrie’s faults, but he provides a context that explains them, while not necessarily excusing them.

The book primarily documents Guthrie’s socialism, his connections to the Communist Party (of which he was never apparently an actual member), and the political climate in which being a folk singer could get you called up before the House Un-American Activities Committee (although Guthrie never was). While this is by no means a complete biography, the book reveals an imperfect man whose strong convictions led him to create some of the most influential music in American history.