Woody Guthrie would have turned 100 years old on July 14, 2012. Considering the century which has passed since his birth, Guthrie's music has proven influential above and beyond the reaches of contemporary and topical folk music. Whether you're loosely familiar with his legacy (via unignorable songs like "This Land Is Your Land," or are a long-time fan of how his music has touched the world, there are plenty of great books for learning more about what moved and motivated the late singer-songwriter. From his own imaginative accounts of his childhood and early adulthood to biographies written by others, to coffee table books celebrating his contributions. Check out this list of five highly recommended books by and about Woody Guthrie.
Woody Guthrie was a tale-teller, to be sure, and it's clear from early on in his primary autobiography that the facts aren't always the most important things in his tales. Using a working man's drawl, Guthrie spins a story about his life and upbringing which is at least mostly true. But, even in its blaring and uncanny subjectivity, Guthrie's story retains its theme - one which favors the common man over the corruption of money and power. This same theme is echoed throughout Guthrie's work, making it perhaps one of the most important ideas he attempted to communicate throughout his life. For those just becoming familiar with his work, it's an excellent wider window into the way Guthrie regarded his life and creative endeavors.
Joe Klein's classic was originally released in the early 1980s, and went a great way toward facilitating a rediscovering of Woody Guthrie's work in the American mainstream. It told a story Woody himself had never told in his own writings - that of his struggle and decline under the difficult and confusing thumb of Huntington's Disease. Klein followed Woody's tragic childhood to the earliest sparks of his creative life, maintaining an honest and objective tone about a man who was as equally complex as he was a source of great fascination for artists and others around him. To this day, Klein's account of Guthrie's life remains the most reliable and thorough introduction to the man who is treasured as one of the greatest poets to ever touch American folk music.
For all the stories which could and have been told about Guthrie's life and struggle, the thing for which he's most famous is his vast and innumerable collection of songs. It's now believed Guthrie wrote somewhere in the thousands of songs in his brief lifetime. But, this collection gathered 100 of his finest, most provocative and unforgettable songs. The book includes classics like "Pretty Boy Floyd" and "This Land Is Your Land," as well as various work and worship songs, children's songs, blues tunes, and love songs. It's an excellent paperback introduction to Guthrie's work for anyone looking to learn how to play the songs themselves.
Folks more interested in the story of how Woodrow Wilson Guthrie became one of America's great folk heroes would be advised to read both Klein's tale and this one by Ed Cray. Cray was the first person allowed access to the rather exhaustive Woody Guthrie Archive, and he created a story of Guthrie's life which is teeming with detail and remarkable citations. Where Klein's account is focused more on the history and storytelling of Guthrie the individual, Cray places Guthrie in context of the times, including a close look at what the folk revivalists of the mid-20th Century did to keep Guthrie's legacy alive and relevant.
Where Bound for Glory is a life story overview beginning with Guthrie's childhood, Seeds of Man focuses on a time when Guthrie lit off into Texas and Mexico with his uncle Jeff (who was about the same age as he) and others. They traverse the countryside in a Model T Ford searching for a silver mine Jeff had supposedly found and lost. It was a time when Guthrie was feeling particularly restless and in need of distraction. His account of what took place on that trip - he admits early on - is as much imagined dream as it is a story of what actually happened. Somewhere in the narrative, the truth becomes meaningless and what matters is only the bonds of family and the creative wordsmithing of Guthrie's well-imagined prose.