A Week in Books: Shaping the sound of modern America

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The Independent Culture

In the event of an unwelcome result on Tuesday, millions of people beyond America will need to remind themselves of what they love about the country.

In the event of an unwelcome result on Tuesday, millions of people beyond America will need to remind themselves of what they love about the country. For me, the claptrap and the clichés of the electoral campaign have run in parallel with the renewal of a much more edifying American tradition. Over recent weeks, a posse of peerless troubadours have shown off their skills as bridge-builders between music and poetry, artistic vocation and the mass market, even culture and politics. Bob Dylan, in his free-form memoirs, proved as much of a slippery riddler as you might expect from the words of his songs (now collected by Simon & Schuster as Lyrics 1962-2001; £20). Tom Waits - who once played Kipling to Dylan's Whitman before striking out in avant-garde directions - has pushed his frontiers even further forward with the album Real Gone. And the tireless Bruce Springsteen has been out on the road, as chief recruiting-sergeant for reform in the Vote for Change tour.

For all their unique virtues, each of these careers would have been unthinkable without one great forerunner. In 1961, the 19-year-old Bob Dylan tracked down this ailing legend to New Jersey. "I was there as a servant, to sing him his songs," Dylan later recalled. "That's all I did. I was a Woody Guthrie jukebox."

There could hardly be finer timing for a definitive biography of Woody Guthrie than the week of a presidential election. If the Oklahoma singer-songwriter first forged the link between American folk styles and a young urban public, he also pioneered the marriage of musical celebrity with political commitment. Ed Cray's meticulous and often moving Ramblin Man': the Life and Times of Woody Guthrie (Norton, £18.99) reveals the burdens as well as the blessings of this union. As Guthrie shifted from the guitar-toting nomad of the 1930s to the Manhattan-based darling of the left of the 1940s, his songs traded in their freewheeling radicalism to toe a party line. Like so many icons of mid-century US popular culture, Guthrie stuck fairly closely to Communist policy through this period - a truth that the idiotic savagery of McCarthyite persecution made it hard for liberals to admit.

Cray fleshes out the family and social history behind the hobo years mythologised so vividly in Guthrie's "autobiographical novel", Bound for Glory (the book that gave Bob Geldof the name "Boomtown Rats"). He roots Guthrie's down-home populism in the farmlands of Oklahoma, where pastors preached equality and, in his native county, the Socialists took 31 per cent in the 1912 election. "This Land is Your Land", Guthrie's best-known song and the anthem of radical America, alludes to Leviticus: "The land shall not be sold for ever: for the land is mine; and ye are strangers and sojourners with me."

Cray also tells, with tact, the sad story of Guthrie's decline in the 1950s. The personality-warping effects of inherited Huntington's chorea coincided with harassment by the FBI, and boycotts by a craven music industry. Dylan, Waits and others have achieved the mature artistic identity that Guthrie himself, thanks to history and heredity, could never develop. They carried on where he was forced to leave off.

One bizarre detail makes this painfully plain. Listen to Guthrie's classic recordings and you hear a wonderfully lucid delivery: it has to be, as his words carry so much weight. Later, the damage done by Huntington's snagged and slurred his voice. Guthrie's daughter Nora believes that Dylan mimicked this clinical symptom, and hi-jacked it as his trademark drawl. If so, Woody's dying, as well as his living, has shaped the sound of modern America.