Bound for Glory

Bound for Glory
by Woody Guthrie
illustrated by the author
foreword by Pete Seeger
E.P. Dutton (1943)
Plume (1983)

As this compelling autobiographical excursion proves, Woody Guthrie was not only a writer of great songs, but of some of the sharpest, funniest, most colorful, poignant prose a reader is likely to find.

. . . She folded her hands together under her chin and clicked her wax eyelashes together like loose shingles in a high wind. . . .

How much of Bound for Glory is factually true is hard to say. But the larger truth about the man and the country he roamed shines brightly as a result of his gifted observation and enthusiasm for a good story. The book is rich with rural wisdom. In some ways, it serves as a condensed version of The Grapes of Wrath, with scenes and dialogue worthy of Steinbeck�s pages and which might have made the Nobel author�s mouth water.

Guthrie (1912-1967) did not have the patience of Steinbeck, or that author�s financial success, or his more widely developed artistic range. He did not have as much time as Steinbeck: he died at the age of fifty-five after a long, debilitating battle with Huntington�s Chorea � the same disease that drove his mother mad and eventually killed her. On the other hand, had Guthrie been healthy, and had he lived another twenty years � but it�s useless to speculate. For all we know, his genius might have been, at least in part, a product of his disease.

. . . One day my curiosity licked me. I said that I was going to taste a bottle of that Jake* for myself. Man ought to be interested. I drawed up about a half a mug of root beer. It was cold and nice, and I popped the little stopper out of one of the Jake bottles, and poured the Jake into the root beer. When that Jake hit that beer, it commenced to cook it, and there was seven civil wars and two revolutions broke out inside of that mug. The beer was trying to tame the Jake down and the Jake was trying to eat the beer up. They sizzled and boiled and sounded about like bacon frying. The Jake was chasing the little bubbles and the little bubbles was chasing the Jake, and the beer spun like a whirlpool in a big swift river. It went around and around so fast that it made a little funnel right in the middle. I waited about twenty minutes for it to settle down. Finally it was about the color of a new tan saddle, and about as quiet as it would get. So I bent over it and stuck my ear down over the mug. It was spewing and crackling like a machine gun, but I thought I�d best to drink it before it turned into a waterspout or a dust storm. I took it up and took it down, and it was hot and dry and gingery and spicy, and cloudy, and smooth, and windy and cold, and threatening rain or snow. I took another big swallow and my shirt come unbuttoned and my insides burnt like I was pouring myself full of home-made soapy dishwater. I drank it all down, and when I woke up I was out of a job. . . .

*Jamaica Ginger, a potent Prohibition mixture of ginger and alcohol � W.M.

And yet, from what I can make out, Guthrie didn�t really see himself as an author. He was a wandering minstrel in the truest, oldest sense. He was an incurably restless man who sang for his supper, then moved on. In that light, Bound for Glory reads and sounds as if it were his longest song � a work composed on the run from a jumble of events and a hard, unsettled life when the opportunity presented itself, and which he knew from experience was bound to quickly disappear.

In Bound for Glory, Guthrie devotes several chapters to his childhood and growing-up years in pre-Depression, oil-boom Oklahoma and Texas. Through them all the dust is rising, spirits are falling, and the shadow cast by his mother�s advancing illness grows darker and more foreboding.

. . . I was thirteen when I went to live with a family of thirteen people in a two-room house. I was going on fifteen when I got me a job shining shoes, washing spittoons, meeting the night trains in a hotel up in town. I was a little past sixteen when I first hit the highway and took a trip down around the Gulf of Mexico, hoeing figs, watering strawberries, picking mustang grapes, helping carpenters and well drillers, cleaning yards, chopping weeds, and moving garbage cans. Then I got tired of being a stranger, so I stuck my thumb in the air again and landed back in the old home town, Okemah. . . .

Finally, several years after his mother�s death and after having already lived what amounts to an entire lifetime, the restless sign-painter and guitar-picker receives a letter from a wealthy aunt in California inviting him West to the town of Sonora � a circuitous adventure-filled trip he makes by hitchhiking and hopping freights. By the time he arrives, he realizes there is no place for him in the musty, well-ordered world of his aunt. When her butler assures him that he is at the right house, Guthrie tells him that he is just as sure he isn�t, then

. . . He was wearing a nice suit of clothes. An old man, thin-faced, and straight shoulders, gray hair, white cuffs, black tie. The air from the house sifted past him on its way out the door, and there was a smell that made me know that the air had been hemmed up inside that house for a long time. Hemmed up. Walled in. Covered away from the moon and out of reach of the sun. Cut away from the drift of the leaves and the wash of the waters. Hid out from the going and the coming of the people, cut loose from the thoughts of the crowds on the streets. Lazy in there, sleepy in there, cool and pale and shady in there, dark and dreary in the book case there, and the wind under the beds hadn�t been disturbed in twenty-three years. I know, I know, I�m on the right hill, but I�m at the wrong house. This wasn�t what I hung that boxcar for, nor hugged that iron ladder for, nor bellied down on top of that high rolling freight train for. The train was laughing and cussing and alive with human people. The cops was alive and pushing me down the road in the rain. The bridge was alive with friends under it. The river was alive and arguing with the fog and the fog was wrestling the wind and boxing the sun. . . .

When Bound for Glory was first published in 1943, Guthrie was only thirty-one. But one of the first things I noticed about him was that his voice is old. Like that of the revered country singer Hank Williams, Sr., who died when he was twenty-nine, the wisdom, miles, and tribulations were already hard upon it.

Down in Texas, my gal fainted in the rain,
Down in Texas, my gal fainted in the rain,
I throwed a bucket o� dirt in her face just to bring her back again.

Guthrie�s voice is the voice of experience, and his priceless Dust Bowl humor is the result of being knocked down countless times and always getting back up again. By the time the world knew him, he had already learned the hard way that laughter means survival, and tears, if allowed to flow unchecked, all too often spell the end.

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Woody Guthrie
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