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Pastures Of Plenty

May 2024
1min read

A Self-Portrait

by Woody Guthrie, edited by Dave Marsh and Harold Leventhal; HarperCollins; 259 pages; $29.95.

“I hope you never do call me another Walt Whitman or another Will Rogers. I ain’t neither one,” Woody Guthrie wrote in his 1946 datebook. This collection of his unpublished writings shows how true Guthrie’s statement was. The folk singer was sui generis , an unmistakable voice that was equally passionate and irreverent.

During his short career—it began in the mid-1930s, when he left the Dust Bowl of Texas for California, and ended in the early 1950s, when his energies became consumed by his long struggle with Huntington’s chorea— he consciously made himself the voice of an entire generation of small-town people knocked loose from their homes and farms by hard times, heading west through the dust storms. He did this so effectively that his ballads have become as much a document of the Depression years as Dorothea Lange’s photographs, and we still see that great, desperate migration largely through his eyes. It is a considerable accomplishment on Guthrie’s part, and in the process he turned out a tremendous amount of material: journals, letters, songs, poems, and sketches. From it all Marsh and Leventhal have constructed what they call a selfportrait.

Scrapbook might be a more apt description. The manuscript for “This Land Is Your Land” is here, its original title, “God Blessed America,” scratched out. Candid pictures of Guthrie decorate the margins: skinnydipping, building sand castles at Coney Island, posing in a dime-store photo booth.

His politics run throughout, of course, his writings addressing issues both large (lampooning the 1938 Munich Conference in a “Frankie and Johnny” takeoff called “Adolph and Neville”) and small (denouncing the juke box as a laborsaving device that had “throwed lots of musicians out on their ass and I don’t mean perhaps”).

Through it all, Guthrie maintains his curious characteristic mix of humor and bitterness. When the Library of Congress obtains his songbook, in 1942, he writes a letter asking that it be made available to members of Congress. “They’re awfully easy to sing, and you can sing them drunk or sober, it don’t matter, just a matter of personal choice,” he explained. “I tried them both ways. The senators, too.”

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