By John Rogers
The Associated Press
More than a dozen writers have tried to chronicle the vagabond life of Woody Guthrie, but none brought him alive quite like Ed Cray, not even Guthrie himself.
Cray used a treasure-trove of songs, stories, letters, drawings and notes that the balladeer compiled from his youth until the neurological disease Huntington's Chorea made it impossible for him to write or draw.
The University of Southern California journalism professor was the first to seek out the collection five years ago, when the family opened it to scholars.
Guthrie's daughter Nora has had no regrets.
"We developed a kind of spirit of trust early on and it turned out to be a wonderful book."
Author saw subject once
Guthrie's own acclaimed work, Bound for Glory, was published when he was only 31 and contained enough admitted tall tales that he preferred to call it an "autobiographical novel."
As Cray reflected recently on his just-published biography, Ramblin' Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie, he said he came to realize that he had something else going for him that perhaps previous biographers didn't.
"I was part of what Arlo - Woody's son - calls that great folk music scare of the 1950s," quips Cray, 72.
Back then, Cray did like so many other young men of his era. He picked up a guitar and, influenced by the composer of "This Land Is Your Land," "Pastures of Plenty" and "Oklahoma Hills," set out to change the world through music.
It was during those years that Cray found himself at a party in Santa Monica, Calif., one night when someone pointed to a slight, wiry-haired fellow sitting on the floor and said, "That's Woody."
He would never see Guthrie again.
"It was shortly before he went into the hospital for the last time," recalled the soft-spoken Cray.
In his final days, Guthrie would resort to blinking his eyes to communicate, and one of his final statements before he died in 1967 at age 55 would be "Yes," when asked whether, despite all he'd been through, he still wanted to live.
It is details like these, literally hundreds of them, that make Cray's work the definitive Guthrie book, says the folk singer's old friend, Pete Seeger.
"It's a wonderful book, isn't it?" says Seeger, the dean of American folk singers at age 85.
Details describe conflict
It is a biography that creates a portrait of a far more complicated genius than many previous accounts of Guthrie's life.
Politically, he was so far to the left that the FBI concluded he was a communist, while at the same time he was so contemptuous of authority that the Communist Party wouldn't have him as a member.
He also lived a life shaped by unimaginable tragedy, beginning at age 6 when his older sister, Clara, died of burns suffered in a house fire. Her last words to him were to never cry, and he never would again.
It's that complicated portrait of her father that Nora says impressed her most about Cray's book.
"Woody is very similar to Abraham Lincoln as a historical figure in that he's kind of been reduced to an icon who stands for certain things," she said. "There are a lot of shades and colors to him so that no one can completely own him."
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