Life and Work of Woody Guthrie Inspire New Scholarship

From The Folknik Jul/Aug 2000

His full name was Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, an early hint that the man who grew up to be one of his nation's most important songwriters would make his political mark as well. As scholars today find in popular music a rich vein for exploring American history, the career of the folk troubadour Woody Guthrie has become a lively topic. 

The first of what promises to be several books is Hard Travelin': The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie, with which  Wesleyan University Press recently inaugurated its American  Music Masters series. The book emerged from a conference on  Guthrie organized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and  Museum. Edited by the museum's Robert Santelli and Emily  Davidson, the volume collects reminiscences by Pete Seeger and  Arlo Guthrie, as well as analyses of Guthrie's lyrics and his  artwork. In one essay, David R. Shumway, an associate  professor of literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon  University, argues that Guthrie's canonization has "largely  excluded" his radical politics. "This Land Is Your Land," his most famous song, had an explicitly socialist agenda, Mr.  Shumway points out.   

Well before gaining notoriety as the "Anonymous" author of Primary Colors, Joe Klein wrote the definitive biography, Woody Guthrie: A Life, which Delta Press reissued last year .Now Ed Cray, a professor of journalism at the University of Southern California, has signed a contract with W.W. Norton for a new account of Guthrie's short, peripatetic life. Among other advantages, Mr. Cray has in hand the research done by another professor, E. Victor Wolfenstein, of the University of California at Los Angeles, who abandoned his own biography 25 years ago when he began writing about Malcolm X.   

Guthrie also plays a part in larger scholarly stories about  Dust Bowl America. Peter La Chapelle, a graduate student in  history at U.S.C., talks about Guthrie's years as a radio disk  jockey in Los Angeles in a Ph.D. dissertation on migrants,  race, and political identity in the region's country music.   

Two other historians will devote a chapter to Guthrie in a  book on the character of Tom Joad, the Okie immortalized in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Guthrie's song "The  Ballad of Tom Joad," turned Joad into a union organizer and   supporter of the left-wing Popular Front, explains Bryant   Simon, of the University of Georgia. Mr. Simon and William   Deverell, of the California Institute of Technology, got the   idea for a biography of the character when Bruce Springsteen   released his 1995 album, The Ghost of Tom Joad.

Mr. Springsteen's turn for a scholarly conference will surely come. In the meantime, the next books in the Wesleyan series, each based on a Hall of Fame event, are about Jimmie Rodgers, Robert Johnson, and Louis Jordan.

Copyright 2000, The Chronicle of Higher Education. Reprinted with permission. This article may not be posted, published, or distributed without permission from The Chronicle.

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