Monday, October 5, 2015

Bound For Glory, by Woody Guthrie

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Woody Guthrie’s colourful memoir is all written in his home dialect. It’s a book full of humour, grittiness and honesty. 

The famous folk singer of the American Dust Bowl, Woody Guthrie, originally wanted to title his freewheeling memoir “Boom Chasers”, after the men chasing money from the oil found in his home town of Okemah, Okla. His wife persuaded him to change it to Bound for Glory, which is just as well, as it is a glorious book.

First published in 1943, Bound for Glory concentrates on Woody’s years growing up, then on his years tramping around the United States as a hideaway passenger on the railroads, and finally on his early years of success as a singer. He notes that fame didn’t bring him much money, even though many presumed otherwise. Along the way there are plenty of colourful descriptions of hobo camps, fist fights, fruit picking, chancers avoiding the rough hand of the law, migratory workers, the injustices of the capitalist system and the tough life of bumming free rides on the trains.

Guthrie’s memoir is notable for its use of the Okemah home dialect. You often see dialogue written this way, but Guthrie has written the entire book in this style. It’s often ungrammatical, with incorrect tenses and misspellings. Using home dialect to tell every word of his story means that Guthrie himself comes across as being somewhat like a fictional character. Bound for Glory could easily be mistaken for a novel. Linguistically, its closest cousin is probably Huckleberry Finn, which is also entirely written in dialect. The miracle of the book is that Guthrie makes it work perfectly, without seeming mannered or artificial. In fact, his language is extraordinarily rich and exciting. A random example gives you the flavour:

“This is where the working people come to try to squeeze a little fun and rest out of a buffalo nickel; these three or four blocks of old wobbling flop houses and buildings. I know you people I see here on the Skid. The hats pulled down over the faces I can’t see, you know my name and you call me a guitar busker, a joint hopper, tip canary, kittybox man.”

The sections of the memoir that deal with migratory workers and fruit pickers searching for work during The Great Depression strongly recalls John Steinbeck’s classic The Grapes of Wrath (1939). The only difference between Steinbeck and Guthrie is the latter’s sense of humour in the midst of great difficulties. There are plenty of funny lines and wisecracks that punctuates the story, whereas The Grapes of Wrath is unremitting in its tragedy and hardship.

For anyone interested in American literature and history, I should say that Bound for Glory is indispensable reading. It has an artistry and a language all of its own. Woody Guthrie  illuminates the hard struggles of America’s underclass with humour, grittiness and honesty.

Bound For Glory, by Woody Guthrie. Published by Penguin Modern Classics. ISBN: 9780141187228  RRP: $34.99

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