Finding the Real Woody Guthrie

| 10/11/2012 12:25:12 PM

Woody Guthrie LOC This article originally appeared at  

Woody Guthrie has been having a blowout of a 100th birthday party, and it's lasted all year long. Forty-five years after his death in 1967, you can suddenly hear him everywhere.

Tribute concerts have been held around America and in Europe, many with conferences attached, and the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in his Oklahoma hometown this summer swelled to extra-large proportions for the centennial. Smithsonian Folkways has released a lavishly documented box set, Woody at 100, that couples well-known compositions with rare and unreleased performances. On October 14th, all will culminate in a Kennedy Center Celebration Concert with an honor roll of musicians.

A handful of fine books have also been timed to appear this year—including a "song biography," This Land Is Your Land: Woody Guthrie and the Journey of an American Folk Song, by Robert Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum, and a biography cum memoir, Woody's Road, by Guthrie's younger sister, Mary Jo Guthrie Edgmon, and the Oklahoma historian and folklorist Guy Logsdon. Guthrie's archives, long housed in Mt. Kisco, N.Y., are being shifted amid great fanfare to Tulsa, Okla. There was even an announcement by the historian and television personality Douglas Brinkley and the polymathic performer Johnny Depp of a deal to publish the recently located manuscript of Guthrie's previously unknown 1947 Dust Bowl novel, House of Earth. 

But after the confetti flutters to the ground and the crowd disperses, exactly what will remain?

The instability of Guthrie's renown owes something to his leftist politics, but that's only part of the story. Some of it surely has to do with how he lived his life. He was a nonstop creator, but never an entrepreneur. As a result, lots of his work went unnoticed until he was "rediscovered" after he stopped performing—and despite recent excavations, there's still a rich trove in the archive, including thousands of song lyrics that he never recorded. Nor should we overlook the nature of Guthrie's art itself: The accessibility of his writing masks its depth.

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