WE DON’T KNOW how Woody Guthrie might have sung one of his most tender (and because of this, seemingly out of character) songs. It came down to us — as so much of Guthrie’s work — only as words scratched into one of his many notebooks. The recording we have is Jeff Tweedy — a songwriter of a different time, though one equipped with a similarly wiry timbre — on Mermaid Avenue, a collaborative album by Tweedy’s band Wilco and British folk mainstay Billy Bragg, which set to music a portion of the voluminous lyrics and poems Guthrie left behind when he died of complications from Huntington’s disease in 1967.

“California Stars” is an exercise in restrained folk arrangement: a well-paced acoustic guitar, a stately rhythm section, and an ethereal lap steel ambiently inflecting the stargazing singer. The vocal arrangement is likewise sparse, gently turning over simple couplets:

I’d like to rest my heavy head tonight
On a bed of California stars
I’d like to lay my weary bones tonight
On a bed of California stars
I’d love to feel your hand touching mine
And tell me why I must keep working on

As someone who grew up with a very particular and surely familiar idea of Guthrie’s legacy — a Dust Bowl balladeer, keeper of the folk almanac, and New York–via–Oklahoma leftist whose guitar settled scores with fascists — “California Stars” always puzzled me. The Guthrie I knew was a sort of earthbound materialist: he knew what it was to toil in the dust, and he gave that toil a voice of melancholy indignation. Who was this gentle, pacific voice singing to the stars?

“California Stars” doesn’t get extended treatment in Gustavus Stadler’s wonderful new biography, Woody Guthrie: An Intimate Life, but it does serve as a particularly compact statement of the book’s suite of concerns. Nested in those couplets is a tribute to intimacy, the dense term of art of Stadler’s title that unfolds across the book as a form of political, social, aesthetic, and libidinal relation. But the image of hands in union in “California Stars” also leads elsewhere in Guthrie’s repertoire: to the question of work, that demand that we toil in order to meet our most basic needs. Stadler takes seriously the way bodies in contact link up with an affective politics of American labor. This link sets the book in motion, propelling it into some of the more obscure corridors of Guthrie’s life.

Rooted in a sort of received wisdom of American folklore, my youthful image of Guthrie was not unfounded; Stadler dutifully cites and praises the many biographers and critics who came before him. What keeps the book from being merely another entry in a timeworn biographical tradition is that it is an expansive and strikingly unique portrait of a man, not of an immortal legend. An Intimate Life privileges the messiness of character and circumstance, tying together the many Guthries collected under the proper name and placing them in the context of broader social and institutional movements. And here we find the most rewarding and unanticipated delights of the biography: at various stages, one could be forgiven for forgetting that Woody Guthrie was a musician at all.

Indeed, the Guthrie of Stadler’s book regards music as but one expression of a complex political mind. This Guthrie was as much a theorist as activist, a man who yearned for a less alienated existence, a life organized around being-in-common and the joys therein. He understood “bad feelings” to be the lived experience of institutional and social inequality. Seen from one angle, An Intimate Life is the story of the American left (and its passage from Old- to New-); from another, it’s a Foucauldian history of sex, tracing the emergence of a regime of medical and political surveillance, and an exacting account of the pleasures and terrors of being a body. Binding these stories together is the dynamic force of intimacy, which draws bodies into proximity and allows them to become more than the sum of that relation.

Perhaps the most meaningful relationship of this sort in Guthrie’s life — his marriage to his second wife, dancer Marjorie Mazia — served as the vibrant locus of a constellation of political issues with which he wrestled throughout his life. As Stadler describes it, “Their closeness seemed a medium for discovering ways to make sense of the world, to change it, to make their lives consequential.” The small-scale scope of a romance becomes a worldly event, one with consequences beyond the couple. Stadler recodes it as a “union” — a useful abstraction that lends deeper, broader significance to the messy relationships left along the archival grain.

And messy they were. For one of the prime ways Guthrie understood union in intimate life, we learn, was sex — “it was quite literally an embodiment of the principle of union […] two bodies become one” — and Guthrie’s archives are full of it: in the detailed, florid letters he wrote to Marjorie, and in the detailed, florid, and unsolicited letters he sent to women beyond the confines of his marriage. Sex is another point of gravity for An Intimate Life, linking together embodiment, psychiatry, and politics, and Stadler rewardingly demonstrates how Guthrie was beginning to understand sexuality “as a realm of political struggle.” Indeed, without excusing Guthrie’s infidelities (which, Stadler notes, hurt not only his family but also the other women involved), Stadler alerts us to the ableism in most commentaries that automatically affiliate the man’s enthusiastic sexuality with the onset of Huntington’s disease.

As the book makes clear, sex came to be as disruptive as it was emancipatory, leading us to a different, darker sort of intimacy. For those unsolicited, extramarital letters Guthrie wrote wound up in the hands of a New York district attorney. Standing before a judge, Guthrie was not charged with harassment, but rather obscenity, and was dutifully labeled “deviant” and sent to a rehabilitation facility. Met with the institutional pressures of an overreaching and damaging psycho-medical regime, Guthrie’s thinking about intimacy transformed, and Stadler tracks such turns with aplomb.

Guthrie’s time in an institutional setting became an occasion for him to think in ever-more embracing terms, to understand “that ‘normal’ was less a commonsense ideal than a way of maintaining the power structure.” But this recognition was in turn painful and uneasy. In the wake of the collective, coalitionist struggles of the Popular Front, psychology and psychiatry had grown considerably as regulatory institutions, claiming new authority over all manner of political and moral values. Guthrie was thus confronted with what Stadler calls the “professionaliz[ation] of intimacy,” where, rather than a place of social communion and potential, Guthrie found a state-sanctioned confessional that could harm as much as help.

This kind of attention to cultural history is paradigmatic of Stadler’s style. Perhaps the book’s most important contribution comes in its final chapters, where we find Guthrie becoming increasingly engrossed in matters of race and racial justice. A sharp if sometimes inarticulate awareness of whiteness and Blackness had long been a part of Guthrie’s psyche. Throughout, Stadler returns to the fact that Guthrie’s uncle was an active member of the Ku Klux Klan and likely an enthusiastic participant in a lynching in Okemah, Oklahoma, during his nephew’s youth. Guthrie’s most explicit engagement with race, though, comes later, finding voice during his time in Topanga Canyon in the 1950s, where he kept a notebook full of scrawled racially centered images scratched over with the terms “white” and “southern.” Tempting as it is to read these portions of the book as especially timely, they actually demonstrate the morbidly timeless role of racial violence in American history: it is American history. Timelier, of course, is Stadler’s nod to Guthrie’s songs protesting his Beach Haven landlord’s racial politics, including the particularly biting and poignant “Old Man Trump.”

An Intimate Life is not simply the story of a beloved folk hero. In it, Guthrie emerges as a particularly useful prism for the culture at large. Stadler reads the silences in the biographical record in order to theorize something grander and more important than what we have usually been given. When tracking Guthrie’s childhood in Okemah, where a Black family was brutally murdered by a group of white citizens, Stadler writes:

Guthrie never addressed this past directly. We don’t know what he knew about it. We don’t have his story of the murders or, more importantly, of the people murdered. […] He may have known and not said. Intimacy, like whiteness itself, teaches us to look away from certain things, in order to perpetuate relationships on which we believe our survival depends.

The example of Guthrie thus opens our eyes to the complex and thorny entanglements of race and violence, history and memory, and the myths foundational to American culture. Another way of saying this is that Stadler has produced the only useful thing a biography could be: a document of someone caught up in history, fighting their way through. For someone as acutely aware of himself and his relation to others as Guthrie, the pain of living was often searing. But, as Stadler reminds us, Guthrie was also an optimist, one who knew that intimacy is “the place where people made one another powerful.” In 2020, it’s easy to want heroes. But Guthrie was not that; he was a part of a constellation, a union of like-minded people fighting in their way for justice. What An Intimate Life suggests is that we might look to this constellation to guide us, not in toil, but in work on the important and still unfinished projects left behind.

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Robert Ryan is the founding editor of hyped on melancholy, a forum on music and sadness. Ryan lives, teaches, and writes between Upstate New York, Downstate New York, and Chicago.