<B>The dark side of Guthrie's glory</B> Populist righteousness and homespun eloquence marked the songs of Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, the Oklahoma balladeer whose career was as remarkable for its brevity as for its impact. But like a tornado churning across the prairie, Guthrie's life was marked by turbulence, a struggle in which demons and angels battled and danced.

Author Ed Cray documents the singer's life thoroughly and engagingly in the new biography <B>Ramblin' Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie</B>. Each page comes packed with details about Guthrie's peculiarities his habit of not wearing underwear, or his aversion to the texture of peach fuzz, for example. Gradually these dots connect into a bizarre narrative, through which Guthrie traipses. His path seems aimless: months after being signed to host his own network radio show, he loses interest and drifts off to spend his days hitchhiking, his nights singing for pennies in saloons, and his mornings waking up drunk under bridges.

For 10 years he wandered through towns and hobo jungles, fell in and fled from love, and wrote about pretty much everything he saw. His songs came as fast as he could type them songs that recounted the trivial and the epochal with equal artistry. The best of them could summon Whitman's spirit, dress it in sweat-stained denim, and send it into battle against capitalists, union busters and anyone else who blocked the sun from shining on the sainted working class.

Despite Cray's painstaking effort to portray Guthrie, his subject's character remains elusive. Guthrie could be brusque and crude to his closest friends. He could show up unannounced at someone's house, spend the night crashed out on the couch and steal the silverware before slipping out the next day. He could guzzle free booze and insult the guests at parties thrown in his honor. He sometimes hit the women he worshipped. In other words, he could be a jerk.

Why? His illness the Huntington's disease that wore him down for 13 years before killing him at 55 surely had something to do with it. But real insight into this process somehow hovers just beyond our apprehension, leaving Guthrie a figure in the distance: a minstrel onstage, a voice on the radio, a boxcar jockey, or a broken man, old before his time, always thumbing toward some new horizon.

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