Will Kaufman,
Woody Guthrie's Modern World Blues
(University of Oklahoma Press, 2017)

In this book, Woody Guthrie scholar Will Kaufman -- who previously wrote Woody Guthrie: American Radical, which aimed to show that Guthrie bought fully into radical politics -- once more tries to show that the picture of Guthrie as a primitive, aw-shucks Oklahoma cowboy who managed to make up a few songs while wandering bowlegged through the world was far from being true. The real person, Kaufman says, was an engaged citizen who took a great interest in the technological developments of the day, a Marshall McLuhan in blue jeans and flannel shirts.

As he says:

The conventional images of the "Okie bard" emerging out of a dust storm, riding a boxcar, or walking along a dirt road with a guitar strapped to his back -- the images of the rural folk myth that has been built around him -- reflect an almost pre-modern figure. He is not widely associated with the city, although his most productive years were spent in Los Angeles and New York, or with modern technology, although machines and physics were among his favorite subjects and metaphors.

Kaufman develops his thesis by examining Guthrie's drawings and paintings, his music and his writing, both fiction and nonfiction. His development starts with a chapter called "Woody Guthrie: American Modernist," in which he examines all of the aspects of Guthrie's creative works, seeking evidence of modernism in them. He finds echoes of Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky, as well as architects Walter Gropius, Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, in Guthrie's drawings, sketches and in the small objects he built for his children that he called Hoodises, a bastardization of who's this.

Much of Kaufman's case is made by name association: stating that Guthrie, on the cover of his album, Songs to Grow on for Mother & Child, "offers a rendering of a dance, a woman in motion holding a child, along the legend 'Dance Around and Around and Around.' Dance, arguably the most abstract of modern arts alongside atonal music, was central to Froebel's kindergarten curriculum." Kaufman offers no evidence that Guthrie was aware of or cared about this connection.

When Kaufman gets into specifics, his argument gains strength. He devotes a chapter to each major technology that Guthrie was fascinated by: Modes of transportation, of course -- highways, railroads and airplanes and ships, pointing out convincingly, that far from being the freight train-hopping hobo of myth and legend, Guthrie very much preferred to travel as a paying passenger. He liked his creature comforts.

He was a strong believer in the peaceful use of nuclear power and, surprisingly enough, supported the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan, feeling it brought the war to an earlier close.

He was also fascinated by movies and, for a time, longed to be a movie star. When it came to the movies, though, mostly he was in love with actress Ingrid Bergman, writing many songs and poems in praise of her.

Kaufman does a good job of proving that Guthrie was a citizen of the modern world, a sophisticated and curious intellectual who preferred to play the rustic, for reasons of his own.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

2 December 2017

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