Woody Guthrie: An Intimate Life

Beacon. Oct. 2020. 232p. ISBN 9780807018910. $26.95. MUSIC
Stadler (English, Haverford Coll.; Troubling Minds) delves into the Woody Guthrie archives to uncover the motivations behind the singer-songwriter’s beliefs and actions. Rather than relying on the mythic image of Guthrie (1912–67) as a freewheeling, loner hobo who courageously championed the dispossessed, he discovers a vulnerable, somewhat fragile man wracked by shame, trauma, and guilt from his mother’s Huntington’s disease and who considered intimate relationships as the way to combat cutthroat capitalism. The author describes Guthrie’s mother’s entry into a mental institution after she set fire to his father, Guthrie’s first marriage, his rise as a protest singer in New York City, and his myth-making 1943 autobiography, Bound for Glory. Stadler continues with Guthrie’s tumultuous marriage to dancer Marjorie Mazia, the numbing death of a daughter, his 1949 conviction of obscenity, an ongoing commitment to antiracism, and a gradual decline from Huntington’s disease. Throughout, Stadler casts Guthrie as a bridge between the Communist-dominated old left and new left cultural politics.
VERDICT Though sometimes unable to explain the chasm between Guthrie’s words and actions, the author offers a well-researched addition to the Guthrie bibliography for general readers that complements Joe Klein’s standard biography, Woody Guthrie: A Life.
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