When a book turns your world around

December 28, 2014

I still remember the first day I saw it, upright in a metal paperback stand in my English teacher’s class.  Because I recognized the author’s name, it took me a week or two before I asked about the paperback; I was already a dweeb to the other students and I didn’t need that image underscored by carrying around this book.  The teacher probably guessed I was interested but he played it cool saying the books in the rack were for borrowing as long as we wanted to keep them and didn’t say a word about the author.  That’s all it took.  One reading lead to another and another until I had to replace the disintegrating paperback.  I’ve read a lot of books that achieved a new point in literature but few things have amazed me as much as Woody’ Guthrie’s Bound for Glory.

Before I picked up this autobiography, my thoughts of Mr. Guthrie were tagged to grade-school sing-alongs of “Roll On Columbia” or “This Land is Your Land.”   I appreciated the simple lyrics and catchy melodies but I really didn’t know anything about the man other than he was from Oklahoma, like my dad’s family.  His autobiography was a revelation.

First, there was his writing style. Woody’s formal education ended before high school and although he read everything he could find, public libraries weren’t as common or stocked as they are now.  You would expect his prose style would either be hideously limited or an imitation of what he read in “important” books.  It’s neither.  Although Woody keeps the optimistic low-key vernacular found in his song lyrics, his sentences have an immediacy and drive that put the reader dead center in every scene. There are a lot of professional writers who can’t write this well or this way.  Woody tells the story of his life as if each scene is happening in front of his eyes and that’s how you see it too, partly because he doesn’t pull any punches about what he sees.

The second thing is his emotional honesty.  Woody writes like his priority is to tell the truth, no matter how much it hurts.  As an adolescent, he watched his mother’s mental and physical deterioration from what would later be diagnosed as Huntington’s Chorea (the disease that eventually killed him.)  He describes her slide into insanity in these unforgettable lines:

‘She would be alright for awhile, and treat us kids as good as any mother, and all at once it would start in something bad and awful something would start coming over her, and it would come by slow degrees. Her face would twitch and her lips would snarl and her teeth would show. Spit would run out of her mouth and she would start out in a low grumbling voice and gradually get to talking as loud as her throat could stand it; and her arms would draw up at her sides, then behind her back and swing in all kinds of curves. Her stomach would draw up into a hard ball, and she would double over Into a terrible-looking hunch and turn into another person, it looked like, standing right there before Roy and me.

I hate a hundred times more to describe my own mother in any such words as these.  You hate to read about a mother described in any such words as these.  I know. I understand you.  I hope you can understand me, for it must be broke down and said.

Woody doesn’t spare words in Bound for Glory, on himself or anyone else.  This is his life, the way he saw it.  That level of integrity, despite the pain, moves me.  It makes me want to tell the truth.

When other people sing the phrase “Bound for Glory” their emphasis is on the last word, as if they’re saying, “I’m going to be star.”  I would say becoming a star was the last thing on  Woody Guthrie’s mind.  He walked out on auditions, played for no money and always managed to irritate the right people.  Instead, Woody’s emphasis was on the first word in his title not the last.  He was headed in the right direction, on his way and the journey was more important than the destination.  As long as the train was still moving, Woody Guthrie was on it and searching for a better place.  In the meantime, he left us behind, sadder for his absence but more articulate because of his words.

So Long, it’s been Good to Know You
So Long, it’s been Good to Know You
So Long, it’s been Good to Know You
It’s a long time since I’ve been home
And I’ve got to be drifting along.

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