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.
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