This outstanding biography belongs in every library collection, large or small. With access to the extensive Woody Guthrie Archives and opportunities to interview two of his children and his longtime friend and fellow musician Pete Seeger, Partridge has written a fascinating portrait not only of the man, but also of the historical upheavals that shaped his life and were captured and reflected in his songs.
Against a backdrop of the Depression, the Dust-Bowl migration, farm workers' camps in California, World War II, and the Cold War era, readers are introduced to the whirlwind of creative, nervous energy and often-erratic behavior that characterized Guthrie.
224 pages, young adult
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-0670035359
New York Times Book Review, July 14, 2002
"If 'This Land Is Your Land' -- originally meant as counterpoint to the sentimental "God Bless America" -- has been stripped of its undercurrent of irony by all the children who sing it each year, then Elizabeth Partridge will certainly return it to those who read her excellent, photo-studded biography of the song's author, Woody Guthrie."
San Francisco Chronicle; June 2, 2002
"Partridge does a beautiful job…comprehensive and impressive…a rich portrait of a towering figure in American music.
Publishers Weekly, February 25, 2002, Starred review
The author of Restless Spirit: The Life and Work of Dorothea Lange shapes a lucid, affecting portrait of another indisputably restless spirit, the prolific songwriter and impassioned folksinger, Woodrow Wilson Guthrie… Partridge offers intriguing insight into the singer as well as the creation of his songs... A memorable biography of this talented artist and understated proponent of social change.
School Library Journal; Spring 2002 Starred review
This outstanding biography belongs in every library collection, large or small. Partridge has written a fascinating portrait not only of the man, but also of the historical upheavals that shaped his life and were captured and reflected in his songs… readers are left with an overwhelming sense of the remarkable creativity and productivity of those years and its enduring legacy for future generations.
Horn Book; March/April 2002 Starred review
Biographer Partridge lays out the complexities as well as the contradictions of Guthrie’s life, drawing a full picture of a man who defined both the pain and the pleasures of so many Americans during the second quarter of the twentieth century. Well-chosen illustrations of Guthrie’s own sketches, family snapshots and archival photographs both personalize and extend this account.
Kirkus Reviews; January, 2002 Starred review
Woody Guthrie was arguably the greatest of American folk singers. … this fascinating, new biography will introduce him to a new generation of readers. Beautifully designed and illustrated with over 70 black-and-white photographs, this well-written account is a fitting tribute to an American legend. Partridge, whose earlier work on Dorothea Lange (Restless Spirit, 1998) was equally powerful, portrays many of the rough and tragic sides of Woody’s life.
New York Times Book Review, July 14, 2002
By Meg Wolitzer
If "This Land Is Your Land" -- originally meant as counterpoint to the sentimental "God Bless America" -- has been stripped of its undercurrent of irony by all the children who sing it each year, then Elizabeth Partridge will certainly return it to those who read her excellent, photo-studded biography of the song's author, Woody Guthrie. For as many of those children's parents already know, Guthrie was much more than a singer-songwriter; he was a political pioneer with a social vision.
Guthrie's story is dramatic and heart-wrenching, beginning in poverty and family tragedy and ending in incurable illness. In between is a life that reads like part "The Grapes of Wrath" and part "On the Road." Guthrie was an original, a man whose political sensibility and passion for radical change were informed by the suffering he saw around him. After his mother died in an insane asylum (later it was revealed that she suffered from Huntington's disease, a genetic disorder that eventually killed Woody as well), he made his way in the world, getting by on little more than guts, instinct and a guitar.
Partridge, who also wrote a biography of the photographer Dorothea Lange, doesn't shy away from details that paint Guthrie in a less-than-saintly light. While he was on the road raising the country's awareness of poverty and social injustice, his wife, Mary, was at home taking care of their children. "Late one afternoon, just a few months before the baby was due, Woody suddenly jumped up off the couch and announced he was leaving for California. Mary was devastated. How could Woody leave her now, shortly before the baby was going to be born?" But Woody did leave, again and again, and along the way he wrote songs that fired people up and genuinely changed countless lives for the better. There's a plain-spoken openness to Woody Guthrie that comes through here; for example, in his response to being told that a rally he'd be singing at in the late 1930's was to be a left-wing event. "Left wing, right wing, chicken wing -- it's the same thing to me," Woody replied. "I sing my songs wherever I can sing 'em."
Folk Music's Legendary Lyricist, May 2002
Reviewed by Gerald Haslam, Special to The Press Democrat
In the 1930s, the work of folklorists such as John and Alan Lomax, B.A. Botkin, and Charles Seeger produced an exhilarating notion: America had a culture worth celebrating. From that recognition the concept of folk music arose to include music that had previously been considered country or the blues or cowboy ballads and so on, just as "Americana" has more recently developed as an inclusive musical category.
The supreme lyricist of folk music was a poet named Woodrow Wilson Guthrie. Elizabeth Partridge, in this biography of Guthrie, effectively examines the tragic life of a figure who would become legendary due to the power of his words. Indeed, the book would be worth the price if only for the wonderful collection of photographs and illustrations it includes, but it offers much more, including candid glimpses into the early folk-music subculture and its "progressive" political roots as it traces Woody's remarkable, though star-crossed life.
Woody Guthrie's own roots were hardscrabble. In his inimitable style, he once described his hometown, Okemah, Okla., as the "singingest, dancingest, walkingest, talkingest, laughinest, yellingest, preachingest, cryingest, drinkingest, gamblingest, fist-fightingest, shootingest, bleedingest, gun- club, razor-carryingest of the oil boom towns."
A series of family tragedies, including disastrous fires and his mother's hospitalization with hereditary Huntington's chorea, cut the boy loose in 1927. Eventually, at 17, Woody ended up in Pampa, Texas, where he came under the thrall of his uncle, Jeff Davis Guthrie, considered the finest country fiddler in the panhandle. Jeff gave his nephew a guitar.
No one knows for certain when Woody made his first trip into California. Probably 1936 when, although married, he hoboed and spent several weeks in Turlock with an aunt.
While on the road, he was deeply moved by the plight of migrant Okies with whom he identified. He had shared the disdain they were suffering when he visited the Golden State. At that time, too, he encountered old radicals in hobo jungles. Some of them were or had been Industrial Workers of the World members; they were not only radicals, they were singing radicals, and Guthrie soon obtained and studied a copy of the Wobblies' famous Little Red Songbook.
He found he could produce lyrics as good or better than those in the book, for he had an unusual gift with language. He wrote in a deceptively simple down-home style, most frequently setting his words to the tunes of older songs. He also began employing an old African-American style called "talking blues."
In 1939, Cisco Houston and Will Geer persuaded Guthrie to try New York City. There was a lively folk-music scene on the East Coast then, and Guthrie joined Pete Seeger and others on the circuit. He was heard by Alan Lomax at the fabled "Grapes of Wrath" concert of 1940 and invited to record his dust-bowl ballads for the Library of Congress. They became his ticket to national fame.
Eventually Guthrie, by then suffering from the same hereditary disease that had killed his mother, would become the hero of another generation of folk singers in the 1950s and 60s -- Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Woody's son Arlo, among others. When the lyricist died in 1967, his songs such as "So Long It's Been Good to Know You," "It Takes a Worried Man to Sing a Worried Song" and "This Land Is Your Land" were considered part of our national heritage. In fact, as Partridge writes of the latter, "Many Americans consider it our unofficial national anthem."
Her book reveals all this and much, much more. It's worth reading.
Gerald Haslam is the author of "Workin' Man Blues: Country Music in California."
I love researching and writing books, both fiction and nonfiction. I'm fascinated by courageous, artistic people, and ordinary people who do something extraordinary and make a difference.
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