Woody Guthrie’s autobiography Bound For Glory records his travels through the America of the Great Depression. Jonathan Guilford scrutinises the life and work of this travelling singer and poet.
It might not be too reductionist to say that Woody Guthrie wanted to leave one primary image of himself in the American consciousness: that of his departure. In his writing, we meet again and again that moment in which, on the precipice of some great realisation concerning the beauty of America, the spirit of its people and the essential hope that the future holds, Guthrie tumbles over the edge and once again disappears over the horizon.
This is Woody Guthrie: the poet of travel. This is not intended to mean that the erstwhile troubadour glamourised movement for its own sake, nor descended into narcissistic Kerouac-isms about the divinity of the would-be nomad. Bound For Glory, which, from its title on through, is a hymn to many kinds of travel – historical, mythological, physical – it fully elaborates the moral manifesto that Guthrie held to be necessary for any traveller. In this heavily mythologised autobiography, he walks us through an America that is sketched as vast and teeming, which exists in many different social and political strata and features wildly divergent landscapes, one that truly is the ‘melting pot’ of American mythology. Every town, every train and every street corner hides the many layers that make up the nation’s society in all of its aspects: the task of the traveller is to go to these places and to live them, to hear their stories and to experience their complexity.This does not only mean living among the ‘bums’ and the ‘Okies’ and the general mass of people displaced by the Great Depression, but also living through the trials and rituals of an American people made nomadic and desperate by a situation beyond their control. And so Guthrie claims to have developed his political education while clinging half-dead to a train carriage as it swept through a freezing cold night; or that he understands the power relationships in American society by being frog-marched out of town by the police time after time; or that he comes to know love through his many departures from those he loves.
The Great Depression hangs heavily over the entire book, for obvious reasons. What is most joyful about Guthrie’s writing, however, is that no tragedy is ever cause for somberness or defeat, but is instead always an opportunity, a lesson to be learned, the budding of a new hope. Touring the country, performing for unions and their sympathisers, working with the Popular Front for the communist cause, Guthrie always saw deprivation and subjugation as places where abundance and empowerment could flourish. He was aggressively anti-racist, anti-classist and anti-patriarchal, and the Great Depression seemed like a fire in which a new consensus could be forged. It was Guthrie’s duty as a traveller to seek out the kindness, the hopes and the dreams of every layer of American society and take that with him to every place in the land. The traveller exists to correct what is, in Guthrie’s view, the great ill of American society: ‘People hunted for some kind of an answer. The banker didn’t give it to them. The sheriff never told anybody the answer. The chamber of commerce was trying to make more money, and they was too busy to tell people the answer to their troubles. So the people asked the preacher, and still didn’t learn much where to go or what to do’.
The irony of this passage is that the answer is all around them. The Depression had sent all of these people on this search, and now Guthrie – along with contemporaries like Pete Seeger – had to go out into the country and direct them towards the answer.The traveller in Bound For Glory becomes the new centre of society, a kind of politician that earns his position rather than being elected to it, or a preacher that directs people to each other rather than a remote God. While anti-political sentiment in American literature is hardly novel, what is unique about Guthrie is that he so completely envisioned the replacement of the nation’s political institutions by the elevation of the solitary wanderer. This new position in society is exemplified in the New York chapter of the book, in which Guthrie, disgusted at himself for auditioning to be an entertainer at a club in the city, goes out into the streets and spontaneously leads a parade of people along the streets in song.
It is here that Guthrie’s education among the people of the American landscape comes round in a form of closure, and his departure becomes a more permanent condition. After the parade is broken up, Guthrie walks with his friend Will Geer along the docks, hopping from one barge to another. One of the boats that they jump on to begins pulling away, and while Geer jumps to the shore, Guthrie stays on. His friend implores him to jump off the ship; Guthrie, instead, lets it carry him to wherever it might be going. As he looks down into the water, he perceives the images that form the sum total of his life and his travels, and then we are left with… nothing. It’s unlikely that the event ever actually occurred, but if it did, Guthrie doesn’t let us know where he ended up. That’s because it doesn’t matter: this book is a manifesto, and now it has said what has needed to be said. This departure is what awaits anyone seeking to pick up Guthrie’s mantle; we don’t need to be told where one ends up after drifting away, because we already know: leaving, again, time after time after time.