2003-02-01: This Land Was Made for You and Me

This Land Was Made for You and Me

The Life and Songs of Woodie Guthrie (2002)

by Elizabeth Partridge (1951-)

This biography shows how Huntington’s Disease affected Woodie Guthrie’s mother and later him. The disease caused serious problems that made Woodie’s life difficult with his mother, and made him difficult on his family and friends. The effects must have been worse as the disease was unrecognized until quite late in both their lives; Woodie and his friends attributed his problems to alcohol abuse, until after he was hospitalized a couple of times.

But his contribution was songwriting. In a twenty-year career, from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s, he wrote over three thousand songs, in addition to books, articles, and letters. Perhaps some aspect of his neurological problems contributed to his facility with combining observation and insight into new songs; it might be worth looking into.

Woodie doesn’t seem to have been too bothered by the fact that his political leanings made him the target of FBI harassment and blacklisting. His desires were largely short-term, not career-oriented.

The latter part of this book is somewhat depressing, as his disease causes his life to deteriorate. However, even earlier it is distressing to see a man with great talent unable to tolerate the confining nature of a “normal” job and married life. He certainly caused a lot of pain to his first wife, and at least intermittent pain to his second and third.

But those problems can be overlooked as being “internal” to his life. More bothersome are the societal problems that drove him to do a lot of his best work. The Depression-era labor problems deserve looking into, to understand who the people were, and what beliefs and desires they had that made them treat migrant workers and jobless people so badly. Specifically, why would the owners of California farms hire thugs and police to attack people who organized in an attempt to earn a livable wage?

The book is somewhat interesting, but doesn’t look beneath the surface to answer the questions that interest me. Still, it raised them, and that’s something, too.


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