To the extent that Woody Guthrie is remembered today, we think of This Land Is Your Land, Oklahoma Hills, Roll On Columbia or any number of children’s songs. We may recall that Bob Dylan was strongly influenced by Guthrie (or that Bruce Springsteen, Bono, Emmylou Harris, Wilco, Indigo Girls, Ani DiFranco, Billy Bragg and Steve Earle acknowledge Woody Guthrie’s influence). Will Kaufman in Woody Guthrie: American Radical makes the case that the soft, fuzzy, naïve Okie version of Guthrie, balladeer of Americana, is largely a myth, created partly by publicists and part by the musician himself. In reality Woody was a true radical who never stopped thinking about or writing about the downtrodden—the migrants, the unemployed, the dispossessed, small farmers, the industrial workers, the poor. As much he sympathized with the lower classes, he despised the rich—the bosses, the owners, the elite, the power brokers and politicians. He wanted his songs to serve as weapons in all the causes he fervently believed in, perhaps most importantly the union struggle.
The author has obviously done his homework. He traces Guthrie’s activism from his early years scratching out a living to his final years hospitalized with Huntington’s Chorea. Song lyrics (and other writings) are quoted prolifically. That Kaufman’s Guthrie is a little more committed, more sophisticated and maybe more strident than his popular image, doesn’t imply any lack of enthusiasm for the subject by his author. He’s clearly a fan. He’s a fan of the radical Woody Guthrie, warts and all. As Phil Ochs sang in his song about Woody: “Oh why sing the songs and forget about the aim? He wrote them for a reason, why not sing them for the same?”