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Ramblin' Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie
by Ed Cray
Available at the Woody Guthrie Store

"Ramblin Man, the Life and Times of Woody Guthrie" is the first full-blown biography in two decades, and relies on a great deal of previously untouched material in the Woody Guthrie Archives, in the papers of Richard Reuss housed at the University of Indiana, and in private collections. In addition, some 50 people have been interviewed, many of whom were speaking on the record for the first time. The result is a fuller portrait of a man and artist much more complex, perhaps even more talented than the mythic figure currently celebrated as an icon of the Dust Bowl and Depression. Published by W.W. Norton.

Ed Cray, who once met Woody Guthrie in the crowded kitchen of Bess Hawes' Santa Monica home, recently finished a biography of the celebrated singer-songwriter.  Now a professor of journalism at the University of Southern California, Cray is the author of more than a dozen books, including a well-reviewed biography of U.S. Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, and a prize-winning biography of Chief Justice Earl Warren.  Cray also edited the first unexpurgated anthology of Anglo-American bawdy folk songs and ballads, "The Erotic Muse," which he claims is the most-often pirated book of modern times.


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New York Times
Oklahoma Gazette
SingOut Magazine
Salem Statesman Journal


'Ramblin' Man': Coney Island Okie
By Robert Christgau | New York Times | April 11, 2004
Read the Full Review

Twenty-four years after Joe Klein's superb biography, ''Woody Guthrie: A Life,'' comes a retelling of the life almost as admirable. Ed Cray, a professor of journalism at the University of Southern California, had the advantage of unlimited access to a Guthrie archive that has expanded considerably since Klein did his research. But both books reveal pretty much the same man behind the myth. Both are fascinating not just because Guthrie's life was fascinating, but because Guthrie's vision of that life was so seminal, original and articulate.

But Cray, who has written biographies of Earl Warren and George C. Marshall (as well as compiling a collection of sexually explicit American folk songs), makes even clearer than Klein did that Guthrie was worthy of the legend he created. His poverty was real, and while his deep-seated tendency to hit the road ended up having its beatnik aspect, it always freshened the intimate contact with ordinary Americans that nourished his art from the beginning. In his songwriting -- and also, as Cray's piecemeal celebration of his limited gifts demonstrates more forcefully than many more expert critiques, in his musical performance -- Guthrie's self-conscious and sometimes fanciful commitment to the vernacular, the regional and the traditional were a theory come true for several generations of folklorists, as well as the embodiment of folk music as the Popular Front conceived and promulgated it.

-Robert Christgau is a senior editor at The Village Voice.


SingOut Magazine
By Mary Des Rosiers | Spring 2004
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Americans have stacked the narrow shoulders of Woody Guthrie (1912-1967) with so much cultural baggage that it's increasingly difficult for writers to bear his weight. To folkies he's the composer of some of our most beloved songs, and the inspiration for countless other musicians, from Bob Dylan to Billy Bragg. To the Left, he's the working class hero who sang at union rallies and fought Fascism in all its forms; to the Right he's the loudmouthed pinko punk who scoffed at Christianity, read Marx and narrowly escaped Joe McCarthy's hammer. It's the territory between the reverence and the venom, the territory beyond (in Cray's words) "'the mythic intrusion" that he explores so successfully in Ramblin' Man.

Cray is the first biographer to be given access to the Woody Guthrie Archive: which includes letters, unpublished songs and poetry (including, an doubt, some of those scribbled envelopes). He interviewed dozens of people who knew Woody: some who loved him and some who didn't. What emerges from his work is a picture of a complicated man who saw the paradoxes in America and wasn't afraid to "call 'era as he saw 'era ." Cray also employs his extensive knowledge of the Depression and the beginnings of the Cold War era to clearly contextualize Guthrie's work. To his credit he doesn't gloss over Woody's failings, and the fact that the same man who wrote "This Land Is Your Land" could be a right sonofabitch to the people close to him. Cray's depiction of Gutbrie's long battle with Huntington's chorea is heartbreaking.

Ramblin' Man is an important addition to the continuing documentation of the history of American folk song and a vivid, often gritty portrayal of one of our best.


Salem Statesman Journal
By Dan Hayes | March 15, 2004

Well, here it is, at last: a thorough study and biography of the man who, for a great many people, defined what America is. Or rather, what it was during a good deal of the 20th century.

Have you ever sung “This Land is Your Land”? How about “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You”? “Roll On, Columbia Roll On”? Guthrie wrote them. And sang them in his plain, honest voice. He wasn’t the favorite of “the bosses” because he forever was that cliched thing, “a man of the people.” But Guthrie was just that, as this well-written book reminds us. The FBI hated him, because he stood for things that frightened those who fought against unions, equality and a living wage. Oddly, the U.S. government once paid him to come to the Pacific Northwest and write songs for them.

So here he is, warts and all, in a wonderful book that makes it very plain how folk music came to be such a vital and influential force in America. How? Two words: Woody Guthrie. Here is Guthrie the man, the politician (he understood politics very well, indeed), the songwriter, the husband, the father, the friend. He was a fighter to the last. Even beyond the last, as Cray tells us — his ashes proved very difficult to scatter.

He probably would have loved this book. It’s the best thing ever written about him. And it reminds us, just in time, of the things he stood for. - Dan Hayes

 

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