Woody Guthrie’s place in American culture is well established. Despite a peripatetic, disjointed life lived under sometimes very painful circumstances, Guthrie nevertheless emerged as our quintessential folk balladeer and outspoken traveling troubadour.
In celebration of Guthrie’s 100th birthday in 2012, Robert Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, has written This Land Is Your Land: Woody Guthrie and the Journey of an American Folk Song, which gathers the basics about the Guthrie legend, with special focus on the origins and legacy of the fitful folksinger’s enduring and well-beloved collection of American folksongs and anthems.
In no way a full-on biography, Santelli’s work nevertheless offers a useful, general chronological overview of Guthrie (1912-1967) and his infernally maverick ways, through which he somehow carved out a career as musician, poet/lyricist, radio personality, recording artist, synthesizer of folk songs and children’s ditties, and as the author of the fictionalized autobiography Bound for Glory.
Guthrie was born in Oklahoma, later moved to Texas, then eventually found some success in California as a wandering minstrel who sang songs that chronicled the plight of the Depression-era poor, Dust Bowl migrants, union workers and the otherwise marginalized. Guthrie gained both notoriety and necessary public exposure on the coast, then proceeded to criss-cross the country in pursuit of haphazard work, finally finding some semblance of a professional and personal life in New York. Alas, Santelli’s coverage also includes Guthrie’s miserable track record as a husband and father—a man with a penchant for dragging wives and children around the country in pursuit of sketchy projects.
Guthrie’s rootlessness was a huge part of his mythology. It made him famous and a beloved spokesperson for the underdog, while also underpinning the insecure lifestyle that made living with him so difficult. Worse, Guthrie developed Huntington’s disease, and the final decade of his life was spent in hospitals fighting an affliction that robbed him of his ability to communicate as before.
Of necessity, much of Santelli’s factual narrative comes off as fairly bleak, though throughout there is a hagiographic tone in his treatment of Guthrie, the man’s single-minded dedication to his purpose and his ultimate place in American history. To that end, the author expends an almost equal amount of words on the Guthrie song catalog, with deep focus on “This Land Is Your Land,” taking the reader through the song’s many versions and the public performances that eventually helped solidify its place in the patriotic repertoire. This includes extensive discussion of Irving Berlin and his “God Bless America,” which Santelli sees as the candy-coated thematic forerunner to Guthrie’s more realistic classic. Other personalities that emerge in this story include folk pioneer and Guthrie colleague Pete Seeger, singer Kate Smith, producer Moses Asch, Bob Dylan—who copped the Guthrie modus operandi by way of exploiting it to his own artistic ends—and even Bruce Springsteen, who never knew Guthrie but acknowledges his debt to the original.
Santelli’s engaging opus is studded with interesting photos, and appended material includes the various texts of “This Land Is Your Land” and a wide-ranging bibliography. The book’s foreword is written by Guthrie’s daughter Nora.