Born in 1912, in Okemah, Oklahoma, Woody Guthrie was famously peripatetic: he lived in Oklahoma, Texas, California, Oregon, New York, New Jersey, and various places in between, though often temporarily. In an intriguing turn, two books published in 2020 consider this itinerant aspect of Guthrie’s life, and they both take refreshing approaches. Aaron J. Leonard’s The Folk Singers and the Bureau examines Guthrie and several other folk singers as their movements were closely tracked by the FBI in the 1940s and 1950s. Gustavus Stadler’s Woody Guthrie: An Intimate Life considers the intimacies in Guthrie’s life as he developed them in relation to his sexual, disabled body in the postwar years, and especially after he was institutionalized following his Huntington’s disease diagnosis.

In 1955, Guthrie was at the Brooklyn State Hospital after first receiving his diagnosis of Huntington’s Chorea (as it was then known). He took the news with his characteristic mix of realism and avoidance, of willful optimism and wishful thinking. Yet, even while he dealt with this immense information, the FBI stalked him and updated its files. Stadler, relying on a 2018 article published by Leonard, notes that an FBI field agent suggested terminating surveillance (Stadler 145, 150, 153). Leonard’s 2020 book definitively resolves the question of whether the FBI stopped monitoring Guthrie: no, it did not.

For Leonard, Guthrie’s time in psychiatric institutions (Brooklyn State Hospital, Bellevue, and Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital) was marked by continued, albeit greatly reduced, federal surveillance. More broadly in The Folk Singers and the Bureau, Leonard takes great pains to show the thoroughly intrusive and pervasive nature of FBI surveillance of folk musicians, even as this spying was often wildly speculative and misinformed. Leonard’s careful archival work in the bureau’s Communist Index and related files shows that surveillance was greenlit until Guthrie’s death (in 1967), regardless of further field agent recommendations. As Leonard bitingly puts it, “For the FBI, however, the motor of its bureaucracy set loose and powered by its anti-communist mania, mandated that until [he died], Guthrie merited their attention” (Leonard 231).

In case after case, Leonard shows the vicious depths to which the FBI marked folk singers for surveillance and retribution. Burl Ives, Josh White, Woody Guthrie, Lee Hays, Cisco Houston, Bess Lomax, Fred Hellerman, Sis Cunningham, Millard Lampell, Ronnie Gilbert, and especially Alan Lomax and Pete Seeger were all targeted for sustained personal, social, and professional harm by the Bureau. This ruinous quest was inspired by these singers’ relationships to the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), or to related publications, groups, initiatives, and individual people, such as The Daily Worker, The New Masses, the Almanac Singers, People’s Artists, People’s Songs, and Paul Robeson. Leonard’s wide-ranging, yet careful archival labor reveals the lengths to which the FBI went to harm these musicians. He achieves this by turning to regional FBI field office documents (in particular, materials from the Oklahoma City and Seattle offices give a sense of how the FBI communicated as it traced and tracked people), as well as to materials connected by specific informants. As a whole, the book relies on a significant trove of previously undiscussed FBI files (a helpful list appears in the Appendix), which is one of the book’s most important contributions.

Leonard shows how often the FBI turned to undependable informants and propaganda outlets to justify intrusive and punitive measures. Informants such as Harvey Matusow (who was made to recant much of his false testimony—even as it was still used to establish cause) and propaganda outlets such as the right-wing publication Countercurrents and its defamatory pamphlet Red Channels were used to justify much of the FBI’s folk singer surveillance. Leonard’s lengthy discussion of Matusow is a case in point. The FBI maintained the files it established using his information but updated each case with the note that Matusow was “now to be characterized in every instance as of known unreliability”; Leonard continues, opining that this was the “way the FBI—which had justified no small amount of attention on the folk singers based on Matusow’s otherwise unsubstantiated accusations—sought to save face and legally insulate themselves” (Leonard 205–6). Fuzziness and dishonesty were beside the point, since for the FBI the ends justified the means.

Leonard’s energetic writing is admirable, and it propels the book’s important narrative. The book consists of a brief preface, an introduction, twelve chapters, a conclusion, and a biographically summative epilogue. The twelve chapters are further broken down into brief sections, some of which are a page long or less, most of which are two to three pages long (with a few longer exceptions). This helps Leonard compellingly develop a largely chronological and wide-ranging narrative, which gives both a macro and micro view of folk singers through the lens of FBI surveillance. Indeed, the best way to read this book is in small bursts, after each one of which the reader can shout or exclaim their indignation to anyone else in the room. The book’s format means readers can truly take in the vast network of surveillance and harm, such as when Leonard carefully details the Smith Act’s use as a lever against creative workers, or when he discusses how the FBI tracked and repressed folk singers who were in the armed forces (in several cases, Woody Guthrie’s and Dave Van Ronk’s included, merchant marines were discharged due to what can only be described as the highly suspicious disappearance of service documents).

There are two major issues with Leonard’s otherwise compelling book. First, I want to highlight distracting grammatical and copy-editing issues. These sometimes interfered with the reading process, especially if moving through the book in large chunks. Whether the issue was misuse of commas and the ubiquitous presence of comma splices, problems with the quotation of materials (including Leonard’s selective and uneven use of “[sic]”), or sporadic misspellings, The Folk Singers and the Bureau could have been fortified by a rigorous copy-editing process. I recognize the strength of Repeater Press and the important work it highlights. Yet it must be pointed out that the publishing industry at large has forced the important and specialized labor of copy-editing into an unsustainable and largely damaging freelance market. The pursuit of ever-increasing profit margins comes at the expense of freelancers, writers, harried editors, and independent publishers, such as Repeater Press. I want to emphasize that I do not blame Repeater Press or Aaron Leonard or any editorial assistants and copy editors in particular for the book’s linguistic imprecisions. Rather, I hold to account the major publishing conglomerates and their steady, deliberate eradication of publishing’s salaried editorial infrastructure through their monopolization of acquisition and distribution.

The second issue I would like to highlight is Leonard’s briefly discussed and largely incorrect scapegoating of the Communist Party’s postwar focus on racial justice. Leonard introduces the party’s addressing of “white chauvinism” as a distracting concern of the 1950s, and the sections of Chapter 9 he devotes to discussing this moment take on anachronistic and embittered overtones. In other words, it becomes clear that Leonard sees in 1950s CPUSA discussions early rumblings of twenty-first century leftist debates over class and race. In expressing these concerns, however, Leonard waves away very important twenty-first-century and mid-twentieth-century Marxian syntheses of race. The CPUSA’s analysis of the links among race, class, and colonialism came to national prominence during the Scottsboro Boys trials in the 1930s and was central to party ideology, identity, and organizing efforts. This legacy remained central and motivating to the party and its members. Leonard’s editorializing on the CPUSA’s efforts to eliminate white chauvinism ignores the importance of their longstanding (though often fraught and sometimes manipulative) commitment to addressing racism as a central component of the party’s fight against capitalism. Although this remains confined to a portion of Chapter 9, it becomes a strangely unmoored part of the book’s overall argument. And, rather than showing the party’s longstanding commitment to theorizing racism as fully part of capitalism and part of the FBI’s longstanding beef with the CPUSA and fellow travelers, Leonard’s tangent makes the surprising and mistaken claim that this supposedly new emphasis disrupted party solidarity. More accurately contextualized, this renewed focus on racism was likely an attempt to win members back at a time when the party’s numbers were plummeting.

In this vein, one of Stadler’s signal interventions in his critical biographical study of Woody Guthrie is to consider the folk singer’s commitment to racial justice throughout his adult life, especially after his Huntington’s disease diagnosis. Biographers have noted moments in Guthrie’s life that motivated his antiracism, especially a horrific lynching in Okemah the year before he was born, and a time in his young adulthood when he sang a putrid, racist song live on air. Although it remains historically disputed, it is indeed quite likely that Guthrie’s father, Charley, participated in one way or another in the May 1911 lynching of Laura Nelson and L.D., her twelve-year-old son. Stadler shows how especially in the 1950s and 1960s, Guthrie turned his artistic attention to lynching and other forms of racist violence. And although Guthrie rarely mentioned the Nelson family’s lynching in particular, his late artwork more than likely spoke of and around that horrific incident, informing many of the lyrics, poems, journal entries, and paintings he created as his health waned. The incident of the racist on-air song Guthrie performed is well covered in Guthrie biographical studies, and Stadler touches on this moment as well. An African American listener, upon hearing Guthrie performing the song on his very popular and regular KFVD presentation The Woody and Lefty Lou Show, wrote a letter explaining his disappointment and anger. As reported by at least Joe Klein, Ed Cray, Will Kaufman, Peter La Chappelle, and now Stadler, Guthrie read the letter on air and promised to never again use the n-word or perform racist songs.

Stadler’s work significantly extends the discussion and context of Guthrie’s antiracism. In this, he shares a commitment with Kaufman, whose work has used deep archival dives to build a story about Guthrie’s thinking on racism’s connection to capitalism.1 Stadler’s important contribution is to turn to Guthrie’s attention to racial justice in his art, especially in the last dozen years of his life. Showing how this was sustained, Stadler blends the best of compelling biographical writing with exquisite and sensitive analysis by interpretively engaging Guthrie’s art, writing, and music. Woody Guthrie: An Intimate Life—from its beautifully designed jacket cover, to its engaging writing style, to its carefully considered probing of interpretive possibilities for Guthrie’s late work—, enlivens the art of critical writing as a revelation of one’s encounter with another. Stadler grapples with Guthrie’s legacy—or, to borrow from Stadler’s critical idiom, he dances along with Guthrie, following the great musician’s lead. An example of this comes early in the book, when Stadler notes that Guthrie’s mother, Nora, “suffered from Huntington’s disease—known before the 1970s as Huntington’s chorea (the Greek word for dance, poignantly)—a hereditary neurological illness with brutal physiological and cognitive effects” (Stadler 6).

In Woody Guthrie: An Intimate Life, Guthrie’s time in psychiatric facilities becomes an integral part of examining Guthrie’s creativity. Stadler goes to great lengths to argue that rather than bemoaning Guthrie’s loss of motor coordination and neurological stability, we are better served by examining how Guthrie’s artistic practices proceed from a continuous concern with the human body as it lives, loves, and moves in the world. Stadler himself puts it quite well: “The story this book has been telling has suggested that the illness becomes a convenient way of accounting for (and judging negatively) an unfamiliar, less accessible Woody Guthrie, and continuing the marginalization of this work, to the detriment of our understanding of Guthrie’s art and politics.…Another story here is what the illness may have enabled—what it may have allowed him to express that he hadn’t previously been able to, when he was busy (and capable of) being the Woody Guthrie widely known and loved” (Stadler 164–5).

Stadler generatively attends to little-discussed creative documents, especially some of Guthrie’s late notebooks and his increasingly abstract paintings. One notebook in particular captures Stadler’s imagination, and he refers to it as Guthrie’s “White Southern” notebook. In it, Guthrie repeatedly wrote the words “White” and “Southern” as he filled the pages with lyrics, prose work, poems, and artwork, much of which discussed racial violence, white complicity, and the haunting geographies produced by lynching. In his consideration of this notebook and several others, Stadler makes important links between Guthrie’s artistic expression and important critiques of carcerality and coloniality shared by thinkers who were roughly contemporary to Guthrie, although unmentioned. Frantz Fanon, Michel Foucault, and Félix Guattari are certainly three of the thinkers Stadler has in mind. More speculatively, it would indeed be powerful to see the art and music Guthrie would have created if he had ever gotten to meet Angela Davis.

Fittingly, Stadler focuses much of Woody Guthrie: An Intimate Life, on Guthrie’s complicated yearnings and intimacies. He neatly summarizes Guthrie’s focus by arguing, “No term in Guthrie’s lexicon has as much range, potency, or alchemical potential as union” (Stadler 67, emphasis in original). As Stadler shows, Guthrie’s use of union encompassed sex, love, family life, politics, singing, labor organizing, antiracism, and antifascism. In songs Guthrie wrote and recorded in memory of Sacco and Vanzetti, Stadler finds that for the singer, “The act of singing produces intimacy; singing these historical actors’ names reanimates them through the warmth of feeling in Guthrie’s lungs, vocal cords, and mouth” (Stadler 116). Clearly, Stadler’s emphasis on embodiment and intimacy in Guthrie’s music, writing, and art helps him develop insights that understand melodic and lyrical attention as forms of caress and generativity—Guthrie’s singing breath is the breath that gives him, and now Sacco and Vanzetti, life through acts of memorialization, speech, and song known as performance.

Woody Guthrie: An Intimate Life enters a crowded field of Guthrie biographies and stands out through its creativity, rigor, and imaginativeness. As another excellent scholar, Alexandra Vazquez, puts it in her book Listening in Detail, “To listen in detail is a different project than remembering. It is not archeological work done to reconstruct the past. It is to listen closely to and assemble that inherited lived matter that is both foreign and somehow familiar into something new.”2 Guthrie’s biography is fairly well known, and his songs are internationally recognized. Yet Stadler sees the familiar and understands that important new details can and must emerge. In this, his intimate portrait breathes life into a musician whose thoughts on intimacy, embodiment, and living continually sought a greater and more powerful union.

Francisco E. Robles
University of Notre Dame
Email: frobles1@nd.edu
1.

Will Kaufman, Woody Guthrie, American Radical (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2011): 1–29 and 145–81; Will Kaufman, Woody Guthrie’s Modern World Blues (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017): 206–34; and Will Kaufman, Mapping Woody Guthrie (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019): 97–114.

2.

Alexandra T. Vazquez, Listening in Detail (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 8.