ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The man who composed the anthemic song “This Land Is Your Land” is the main subject of the new book “Searching for Woody Guthrie.”
It is primarily an engaging biography focusing on key periods in Guthrie’s life, his personal relationships, progressive (some say radical) politics and his decidedly political songs.
“I think he was a homegrown intellectual, though he was characterized as a country bumpkin,” said Ron Briley, the author of the book and a longtime Albuquerque resident. “He had no formal education, but his intelligence is seen in his writings, his letters and his songs. He had a tremendous intellectual curiosity.”
Briley acknowledges that there are already several good biographies of Guthrie, but none takes his unusual double-barreled approach to the famous mid-20th century folk singer and songwriter. Unusual because it is secondarily an autobiography, with Briley occasionally but pointedly shining a light on himself.
Flowing from Briley’s dominant search for Guthrie is the author’s search to understand his own life and political beliefs.
Briley and Guthrie share small-town, religious fundamentalist roots.
Guthrie was born in Okemah,Oklahoma, in 1912 and later moved to Pampa, Texas. Briley was born and raised in Childress, Texas, about 90 miles from Pampa, in 1949.
The book’s foreword says that to Briley, Guthrie was “a fellow seeker from the Southern Plains who crafted a meaningful and morally upright life in a complex world.” More than that, Briley considers Guthrie a political hero.
He said Guthrie grew to appreciate contributions of blacks and confronted Jim Crow; he supported the Dust Bowl migrants scratching for work in California; and he had “the courage to take on ‘the establishment’ of his time, that is the music industry, the (capitalists). He was a courageous man to fight for his ideas and put it on the line. He sacrificed a great deal. He was a man of principle.”
In the Great Depression, Guthrie began writing columns for American Communist newspapers and entertained at Communist gatherings, though it is unclear whether he was a card-carrying party member, Briley said. Guthrie termed his indigenous radical American ideology “common-ism,” meaning a shared humanity of workers under the aegis of organized labor.
The ideology, Briley writes in the introduction, contained elements of communism, Christianity, socialism, progressivism, Jeffersonian agrarianism and populism.
In World War II, Guthrie saw his U.S. Army service as an anti-fascist stand. He protested the Korean War through a lengthy song cycle, at a time when the FBI surveilled him because his dissent was considered unAmerican.
In the 1950s, Guthrie began struggling with health issues, spending the last dozen years of life institutionalized with Huntington’s disease. He died in 1967.
If “This Land Is Your Land” is Guthrie’s most famous song, it is partly because two anti-capitalist verses are rarely sung. This is the fourth verse: “As I went walking I saw a sign there,/And on the sign it said ‘No Trespassing.’/But on the other side it didn’t say nothing./That side was made for you and me.”
One chapter in the book is devoted to Guthrie’s musical heirs – his son Arlo, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen, Billy Bragg and Wilco.
Briley spent about 14 years researching and writing the book, including a summer on a fellowship at the Guthrie Archives. The book is part of the University of Tennessee Press’ Charles K. Wolfe Music Series.
Briley was a history teacher and the assistant head of school at Sandia Prep for 40 years before retiring.
Ron Briley is scheduled to discuss and sign “Searching for Woody Guthrie –
A Personal Exploration of the Folk Singer, His Music and His Politics”
at 1 p.m. Saturday, June 27 at Bookworks, 4022 Rio Grande NW.