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From the January/February 2003 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

Boston Globe–Horn Book Award Acceptance

by Elizabeth Partridge

’d like to thank the Boston Globe, the Horn Book, and the award judges for this incredible honor. Even though my name appears on the cover, this book is truly a collaborative effort, with Jill Davis, an incredibly hard-working, patient, highly visual editor; Regina Hayes, the publisher who trusted Jill and me; Ed Miller, the designer; and Janet Pascal, the copy editor. As we wrapped up the book, Regina and Jill tempted Lane Smith into doing the cover. Lane, an Oklahoma boy, had spent his teenage years locked in his bedroom drawing and listening to Woody records, and his cover pays homage to one of his idols. I’d like to also thank Donna Brooks, my fiction editor at Dutton, who taught me that every paragraph must have true emotional resonance, a technique she instilled in me so deeply it’s woven into my nonfiction as well.

Writers are often asked where their ideas come from. This is at once answerable and unanswerable. Why did I choose Woody?

Let me take you back to the early seventies when I was in college and doing therapy in an only-in-California way. I was lying (naked) on a treatment table, complaining to the young woman therapist who sat behind me (fully clothed) about how I didn’t know what to do with my life. “Wait a second!” she said. “My other clients would kill to have any one of your role models. Get up. Get dressed. Stop whining and get on with your life.” We went from nouveau-California no-boundaries therapy to tough love in about fifteen seconds flat.

The therapist was right about my role models. I was loaded with them. There was my grandmother, Imogen Cunningham, brusque on the outside and tender inside, who photographed until shortly before her death at the age of ninety-four. My grandfather, Roi Partridge, a lifelong etcher. My godparents, photographer Dorothea Lange and economist Paul Taylor, a fervent Jeffersonian democrat who spent his life fighting to preserve the family farm.

My father, Rondal Partridge, managed to support our family as a freelance photographer. His bread-and-butter work was architectural photography, his visual interests ranging from quirky still lifes and revealing portraits to rampant urbanization and pollution. Our parents thought nothing of throwing us five kids in the back of our old Cadillac limousine and camping for weeks at a time, largely ignoring dress codes and rules like school attendance.

My mother came from a conservative family. They believed in their daughters as much as their sons, and she and her brother had both been sent to law school, though she quit practicing to raise a family. Her parents’ house smelled of floor polish and fresh-cut roses, and was an oasis of calm, order, and predictability. My grandfather, Walter Woolpert, had a wooden sign on his desk with just one word on it in bold letters: THINK. I liked that word, think. My bohemian family was big on feel, do, be.

My parents considered me smart and resourceful. They not only encouraged me to do what I wanted with my life, they expected it.

It was a winning combination for me, and a year or so after the sage advice from the California therapist, I did get my life together. I noticed something about myself: people often shared their problems with me. In an emergency, they turned to me for help. I discovered Chinese medicine, fell in love with this complex, holistic medical system, and went to England to study acupuncture. I came home, set up a practice, and married Tom Ratcliff, who had a beautiful tenor voice and could play any instrument he laid his hands on. We added the wonderful, challenging chaos of two kids, Will and Felix.

When our kids got older, our house became the place everyone hung out. I loved having all those kids around. I kept the refrigerator and the pantry stocked and the chocolate hidden. Reintroduced to my love of books by reading to my kids, I began writing myself. My writing room is a tiny room off the living room, which, by the time I started researching Woody, was often full of teenage boys, tall, gangly, thumping around, yelling, playing loud music-rock and roll, reggae, bluegrass, and old-time music.

I got back at these rowdy teenagers with my incessant playing of Woody songs. They somehow listened around or through their own music and came back at me with Bob Dylan. I put on Pete Seeger; they blasted Taj Mahal. My music got into them, their music got into me. Felix took up the mandolin; Will the guitar. Kids drummed on the table, played spoons, brought over banjos and fiddles. My husband sat in the middle of it all, singing his heart out, playing along on the piano and a sweet-sounding Mexican guitar. It was a cacophony; it was heaven. It was the perfect environment to write about Woody.

If I look deeper than my extended family, deeper than my own family, I would tell you that writing this biography was actually Woody’s idea. There was something big happening with Woody, something blowing through the great collective unconscious. This verges dangerously near the unanswerable-ness of where ideas come from. Several people, including Bonnie Christensen [author-illustrator of Woody Guthrie], had felt this wind blow against their cheeks and were hard at work on books, CDs, radio shows, and performances about Woody. Some energy, some essence of Woody, was at work.

I collected all the books I could about him and read them voraciously. I went many times to the Woody Guthrie Archives in New York, which Woody’s daughter, Nora Guthrie, threw open to me.

I read his journals, listened to his thoughts. I pored over several thousand songs he had written down and never recorded. I stared at his sketches and paintings and held them up close to my nose and sniffed them to see if they still smelled like paint and would solve some mystery: who was this man?

I learned about Woody Guthrie’s wild, cross-country trip in 1939 during the Depression, and how he heard Kate Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America” pouring out of jukeboxes across the country. The lush, orchestrated song irritated Woody. In a run-down hotel in New York City he wrote his own song, titled “God Blessed America.”

I found Woody to be an angry man, who wrote about himself, “I have always been hot-tempered and stubborn and full of lots of nervous energy.” All true. But when he focused his anger, he wrote, “I hate a song that makes you think that you’re not any good. I hate a song that makes you think you are just born to lose. I am out to fight those kinds of songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs that’ll prove to you that this is your world, no matter how hard it has run you down and rolled over you. I am out to sing the songs that will make you take pride in yourself.”

I took all that I learned about Woody and hunkered down in my little writing room, wrapped in his music, pulling books off the shelves, referring to the huge stack of photocopied material I had from the archives. Gradually I slipped into Woody’s world. My real world was full of acupuncture patients, rambunctious teenage boys, and the constant busyness of life. Woody’s world was transparent and imposed right across my real life. A world in which Woody walked and talked and wrote exquisitely beautiful songs and made stupid decisions and was pursued by fires and Huntington’s disease.

There was one book I dove in and out of, Woody’s Pastures of Plenty, which had a great photo of him on the front cover. Somehow when this book ended up on the top of the stack next to me, Woody’s eyes would beam out at me. There was almost an iridescent blue light that came from his eyes, and his attitude was accusing, demanding, intense: hurry up. Get your book done. I began to feel a tremendous sense of urgency, and irritation. When he beamed at me I would grab the book, mutter, “Shut up!” and shove the book back on the bookshelf.

As I worked, I wondered, What drove this man? Why did he have to throw on three shirts and take off for days, even weeks, whenever things were going badly? Whenever things were going well? He was often lonely and unhappy on the road, but as he said, songs came best to him when he was walking down the road. How were the songs more important to him than his loneliness, his comfort? How were they more important than his children’s comfort, even their well-being?

But while he was out rambling around he wrote such beautiful, tender songs. In 1939, fresh from the dust bowl where the sky was dull and gritty with dust, he hit the West Coast and was awed by the bright, shimmering stars at night. In a song titled California Stars, he wrote, “I’d like to dream my troubles all away / On a bed of California stars.” What an image!

When I finished the book, I had a lot of conflicting feelings. I’m glad I didn’t marry the guy. Three years with Woody was enough. I’m not even sure I would have been his friend. I’ve got a few friends like him, and they’re pretty high maintenance.

But mostly I was in awe of his genius, and his ability to hold two seemingly contradictory ideas. He combined a passionate patriotism with a clear-eyed look at our problems. Some time after writing “God Blessed America” he crossed out the title and changed it to “This Land Was Made for You and Me,” the song we now know as “This Land Is Your Land.” On the original handwritten version his last verse reads:

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the Relief Office I saw my people —
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
God blessed America for me.

The shadow of the church steeple falling across his hungry people — another beautiful image, in a few succinct words. This is a terrific example of a patriotic song — acknowledging the problems we have in the United States, but still in love with our golden valleys and diamond deserts.

I think James Baldwin put it best when he said: “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” At a time when our national poverty rate is climbing, when we are asked to accept a blind, unquestioning patriotism, we need Woody Guthrie again. We need to offer our young adults examples of critical listeners and critical thinkers. We need to encourage them to dream, to find creative ways to use their stubbornness and anger, to let them know that they, too, can have a voice.

We need them to be strong-hearted and clear-eyed for the challenges ahead.


 
 
   
 
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