Monday, June 9, 2008

Elizabeth Partridge: This Land Was Made for You and Me

I just finished Elizabeth Partridge's biography of Woody Guthrie: This Land Was Made for You and Me. The book is geared for kids ages 12 and up, but there is enough detail and depth there to hold the attention of any adult interested in Woody Guthrie's music. Pete Seeger calls it "The best book about Woody ever written!"

In my "Stories behind the Songs" post about This Land Is Your Land, I wrote that Woody wrote over 1400 songs in his lifetime. Elizabeth Partridge says the number is over 3000, which is incredible especially when you consider that he only lived to be 55 years old.

The story of Woody Guthrie's life is fascinating, filled with moments of optimism, despair, redemption, and unthinkable tragedy. Elizabeth Partridge places Woody's story firmly within the events, places, and people who were so important to him and shaped who he was. The Dustbowl, Great Depression, migrant farms, New York City folk scene, and the Cold War all play a major role in the development of his songs.

And all the folk music greats show up: Ledbelly, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Pete Seeger, Odetta, Bob Dylan...the list goes on and on. The tragedies in his story are so heavy, and would almost be too much to bear if it wasn't for the stories of the people he loved and who cared about him and took him in and forgave him his weaknesses and idiosyncracies time and time again. Through good times and bad, it is clear that those relationships were influences on his music. Woody famously said:

"I hate a song that makes you think that you're not any good. I hate a song that makes you think you are just born to lose. I am out to fight those kinds of songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood."
The one question that is still burning in my mind after closing the book is, whatever happened to Mary? His first wife who dropped out of high school to be with him and endured all his wayward, rambling ways while she tried to take care of three children with little to no sporadic income. Halfway through the book, I started to hope that after their divorce, she went on to have the happy, stable life she probably dreamed of. But from the notes in the back of the book, it looks like two of her children contracted Huntington's Disease (the disease that tragically killed both Woody and his mother) and the third died in a car accident. There should be a song for Mary. Maybe there is, but there should be more.

There is much more information on Elizabeth Partridge's website, including an interview with Arlo & Nora Guthrie (two of Woody's children from his second marriage with the incredibly talented, patient, and giving dancer Marjorie Mazia).

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