Woody Guthrie: Paintbrush Troubador
Boston Globe, November 2005
We reduce our artists in death to a shorthand list of images and accomplishments, quickly forgetting more complicated traits. Grant Wood becomes synonymous with the bald guy in overalls, Martha Graham with her hand-to-head pose and sweeping dress. Woody Guthrie, a bohemian populist, is tolerated because he is also our preeminent folksinger. “This Land is Your Land” (which his friend Pete Seeger once said was not among Guthrie’s best) is a perennial favorite with American schoolchildren who can belt out its chorus without ever learning the radical choruses that follow.
Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter and a singer herself, has worked hard to keep Guthrie’s Depression-era radicalism from being erased or simplified, most notably through two recordings she produced with Billy Bragg and Wilco. Her new book, Woody Guthrie: Art Works, written with Steven Brower, provides a more striking portrait of her father’s complex nature and multiple talents than any biography or recording could.
Guthrie was on fire with ideas, images and words. Though these emerged most famously as song lyrics, they also took the form of cartoons, watercolor, and pen and ink drawings. To a lesser extent, he dabbled in clay, metal, dance, and architecture. Guthrie didn’t seem to care about the medium as long as he got the idea down for posterity: “I just felt like I was going out of my wits if I didn’t find some way of saying what I was thinking. The world didn’t mean any more than a smear to me if I couldn’t find ways of putting it down on something.”
Nora contends that her father might just as likely have become a notable visual artist as a singer/songwriter. In fact, she reports that the image of Guthrie setting out for California at the height of the Depression with a guitar strapped over his shoulder—an image Woody extended through some of the illustrations he did for his autobiography Bound for Glory—was a myth. He was carrying paintbrushes.
Guthrie took up painting before music and continued to draw in his later years when Huntington’s disease had robbed him of his songwriting abilities. The images range from the humorous and political to the sexual. “So much is revealed in their simple lines,” writes Nora, “much about himself, much about the life he lived, and much about his understanding of the people and the issues that surrounded him.”
Guthrie’s exploration of styles was fearless. Flip through the new book, and you might think you had opened an unlikely anthology of somber Franz Kline paintings, violet and violent Frida Kahlo diary entries, primitive Keith Haring graffiti, and impudent James Thurber cartoons. But the handwritten text that is often married with the drawings is pure Woody. A nude female form, whose powerful, erotic lines echo Matisse, has scrawled over her pubis: “You woke up my neighborhood.”
Brower, who designed the book and provided concise text that situates the pictures chronologically and stylistically, did great service to Guthrie by reproducing the work as objects rather than full page bleeds. A scrap of paper is shown tattered edges and all, and the many journals were photographed as books, so that we see their bindings and edges.
Guthrie’s journals are interesting in that many of them were not intended as diaries. He filled small books with prose and drawings, sending them in lieu of letters to friends and lovers. Others books were intended for his children. His greatest muse was his daughter Cathy, killed in an electrical fire when she was four years old. Guthrie penned letters to her prior to her birth, and sketched her during her short life, noting her toddler phrasings (“Twice I fell down once.”). After her death, he poured his abstract, bruise-colored grief into one sketchbook executed on a single day.
Guthrie was enthralled with children, in part because he knew the pulse of his own frank, playful style resided in, if you will, his “inner child” (think here of Haring and his “Radiant Child”). The father of eight children by three different women, he was one of those rare adults who could interact with kids unselfconsciously and effortlessly. But he banked what he learned, as this reflection on Cathy indicates: “And it flew across my mind when I watched the seat of your britches dance into the front room that I would do right well … if I could put down on paper, film, clay, canvas, wax, metal, or on some windier material, the song you sang for me, and the way you sang it.”
By the early 1950s, Guthrie’s artwork slowed and his behavior grew more erratic as a result of Huntington’s. What remains of his later work does not reflect childlike joy, but rather a man hemmed in by anger and frustration, both with himself and with a society that struck him as racist and small minded. He died in 1967 at age 55 following more than a decade of hospitalization. The monumental outpouring of Guthrie’s art could lead to yet another myth: that he knew death was imminent. The way he bled himself onto every free scrap of paper, however, proves he would gladly have burnt through another few decades with equal exuberance.
“This world it’s hit me in my face
It’s hit me over my head.
It’s beat me black ad blue and green
But still tho’ I ain’t dead.”