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Bound for Glory (Penguin Modern Classics) Paperback – 24 Jun 2004
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About the Author
Woody Guthrie, the son of a cowboy, was born in 1912 in rural Oklahoma. When the Depression arrived, Woody hit the road and travlled round America. He became a folksinger, guitarist, merchant seaman, actor, artist and broadcaster. Woody Guthrie died in 1967 in Queen's, New York.
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Huntington’s Disease (chorea) played a major part in Guthrie’s life, since his mother had it, and would die from it, as would he. I was not familiar with the disease. Key points are that it is hereditary, due to the fault of a single gene; there is no cure or treatment for it, even today; and it causes a variety of conditions, many of them manifesting themselves as mental illness. Quite possibly he was already suffering from it when he wrote this work, and thus I tried to make allowances.
For it is an “autobiography,” of sorts. It ends in mid-life, in 1943, with much of his productive song-writing still ahead of him. It is a series of rather disjointed vignettes, in the form of reconstructed dialogue. Motivation for his actions, and introspection, is largely missing. Key aspects of his life are totally absent, for example, his marriage at the age of 19, and his three children from that marriage. Dates, and various time periods are “fussy.” Quite probably, some aspects of his story are fabricated, based on the experience of others. The first third of the autobiography are reconstructed stories from when he was six and younger, including a lengthy battle between two groups of young kids, a la, Spanky and Our Gang. Alas, I did not even think his “heart was in the right place.” It has occurred in more than one “heroic” life; rushing around “saving humanity,” while abusing those who are nearest to you, and that should always be questioned.
“Riding the rails.” That is the first chapter. His relationship with other hobos, in a large boxcar. And that will also be the last chapter. He commenced life in a family that seemed to be prosperous, with his dad making real estate deals. Then it is inferred that his mother burned down their home, and it is largely downhill from there. They buy another older, less satisfactory home, which is destroyed by a tornado (which Guthrie calls a cyclone). Another chapter involves the torture of cats, and I note one reviewer gave up after that one. The discovery of oil brings the “rough necks” and the entire entourage of hangers-on. A young boy of nine sees and experiences much of life. And then they move on to the next site, leaving poverty and Guthrie behind. Suddenly it is 1936, he is 24, and he is trying to hitch hike across New Mexico on his way to the “promised land.” No mention of who he left behind, and how they were to survive. He must have experienced the “down and out” life, but I had to wonder how much he embroidered, particularly hanging on to the metal ladder on the side of a train, going up the Central valley of California, his hands freezing. He is next singing in a “jungle camp” outside Reddings, as they wait for the weather to ripen the apricots for picking, and he describes the company store “credit system.” The only woman he mentions, by name, in this book, besides his mother, is Ruth, in the “jungle camp.” And then he is suddenly auditioning in Rockefeller Center, in NYC. When they tell him he will need to wear make-up, he walks out… and is back on the train again.
Ugh! I still respect his message, his songs, and appreciate how many other singers he has influenced . But his “autobiography” is nothing short of a shamble, with a number of embroidered episodes. Overall, 2-stars.
The book recounts Guthrie’s experiences, told in an engaging, lyrical style, heavy with conversations in the vernacular language of those he meets along the way: bums and hobos, construction workers and fruit-pickers, cops and sailors. All of this makes gripping reading, but one is left unnerved by the silences, those aspects of Guthrie’s life at the time that remain unrecorded. Despite his involvement in left-wing circles, and the famous saying he sported on his guitar (‘this machine kills fascists’), there is no discussion of politics or the tumultuous economic times he is living through, that of the Depression and the era of the New Deal. Given that Guthrie’s fame largely rests on his music, it is also odd that this takes up little space in the book: musical influences, playing the guitar and song-writing are never discussed, and Guthrie’s life as a wandering troubadour only takes up the last sixth of the book. Equally strange is the treatment of family: while we get a clear picture of some family members, most of these just drop out of sight, and his first marriage and three children never get a mention. One is left with an incomplete picture of Guthrie’s early years, but one that nevertheless paints a vivid picture of a fascinating life and time.
For a book that’s about a musician, there isn’t a huge amount of information here about Guthrie’s early musical career, but that’s okay. We still get to see him travelling around with his guitar and playing songs to the folks he met along the way. In many ways, that’s the point – this isn’t a ‘coming-of-age’ kind of story but rather the non-fiction equivalent of the fabled great American novel.
It’s also interesting to some of the themes that followed Guthrie throughout his life, of which fire is probably the most prominent. In fact, he lost several houses as a kid and spent a lot of time on the move, which is probably why he grew up to live a life on the rails. Say what you want about Guthrie, the man was a real character – and I can see why Bob Dylan used to re-read this book over and over again.
Ultimately, then, this book isn’t for everyone – but if you’re a big fan of either Guthrie or the folk music that he influenced, you’ll definitely enjoy this. But you’ll also enjoy it if you’re interested in America during the 1930s – 1950s. Guthrie’s writing is as evocative as any novelist’s, which means you can almost taste the dust and smell the sweat of the men in the taverns.
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