Conversation With Ed Cray

The prolific author and professor reflects on persistence, craftsmanship and his admiration of musician Woody Guthrie.
By Allison Engel
Cray's career has included stints as a wire service reporter and ACLU staffer.

Photo/Philip Channing
Journalism professor Ed Cray has a colorful past (wire service reporter, ACLU staffer, founder of the Minority Educational Training Program at the Los Angeles Times, musical folklorist) and a string of 18 well-regarded books, including biographies of World War II Gen. George C. Marshall, Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren and his most recent “Rambling Man,” the biography of writer and musician Woody Guthrie. Cray was a key contributor to the recent PBS “American Masters” documentary on Guthrie, “Ain’t Got No Home.”

AE: There must have been dozens of authors vying to gain access to the Woody Guthrie archive and write his biography. How were you chosen?

EC: On April 21, 1998, there was an article in The New York Times that said “Woody Guthrie Archive Opened.” I said, “Gee, wouldn’t that make a good biography.” But I thought, “There are 20 guys lined up outside the door already.” So I shrugged and threw the idea over. I went home and this is the importance of having a smart wife and my wife [family therapist Diane Kovacs] said, “Hey, did you see that article about Woody Guthrie? Wouldn’t that make a great book?” And I said, “There are probably 20 guys in line already.” And she said, “How do you know, and what do you have to lose?” So I called up the archive and sent my last two biographies. Ten days later, the head of the archive said yes. Just like that. Overnight, I wrote a 13-page book proposal and sent it to my agent. And then a dozen publishers turned it down.

AE: Why?

EC: Whatever reasons publishers turn books down. I then sent it to Norton, the publisher of my first biography. The editor in chief is a very taciturn New Englander by the name of Starling Lawrence. I called him a couple of days later and Star said, “There’s something here.” Which was his loquacious way of saying “We’re going to buy it.”
This is a cautionary tale for everybody on campus who has not yet published a book. Don’t give up.

AE: “Rambling Man” is full of surprises. Who knew that “This Land Is Your Land” began as a song about class disparity, written in response to Kate Smith’s hit version of “God Bless America”? What surprised you most about Guthrie?

EC: There were a number of discoveries or illuminations. Guthrie’s personal life was marked by tragedy. His beloved older sister was burned to death when Woody was seven. His mother, ill with Huntington’s chorea, threw a lantern at his father and burned him from the neck to the groin. Woody was 13, and effectively lost both his mother and father. Later, Woody lost a child to fire. This beloved daughter was what the British call a chime child, a marvelous child who inspired Woody to write all these incredible children’s songs, which I would argue, and Pete Seeger agrees with me, probably will be Woody’s lasting contribution. There isn’t a nursery school in the country that doesn’t have Woody Guthrie’s “Songs to Grow On” and “More Songs to Grow On.” They are just fabulous, full of funny lines and words, and written from a child’s point of view.

AE: I’m surprised no one has made them into a children’s musical.

EC: There’s a thought. Woody is so rife, so unbelievably fecund in his writings. The archive has about 10,000 pages of mostly unpublished material. Just cherry-picking, you could do at least three evenings of a one-man show and never repeat yourself. It’s not just poems and songs, it’s recounting of discussions, arguments he hears in bars, reminiscences. It’s rich with Woody’s characteristics: his sheer, loyal patriotism and love of the land, his optimism and his humor. Even when he was writing his protest songs, there was humor in them. His eternal optimism was a characteristic he got from his father.

AE: Which is remarkable, given all the tragedies.

EC: No question about it. It’s also important to understand that Woody Guthrie was not some rube, some natural-born poet who just fell off the turnip truck in the big city. Woody Guthrie was raised in a middle-class home. His father was a land broker who went broke in the Depression following World War I. As Woody once said, he lost a farm a day for 35 days. But Woody was very widely read. He was particularly interested in religion and specifically the Eastern religions. The hick was his stage role. He was always the trickster, the rube who would get the best of the city slicker.

AE: Has anyone asked you to teach a class on Woody Guthrie?

EC: No. I’d love to work out a multidisciplinary approach to this. If American Studies wants to ask me, I’m open to it.

AE: Your style is to write 1,000 words a day, edit it the next morning and move on. How do you get those 1,000 words down, day after day?

EC: I stare at the computer until drops of blood pop out on my forehead. That’s stealing a line from the journalist Gene Fowler. Actually, it’s a matter of craftsmanship more than brilliant creativity. I don’t try to be a stylist. I try to be a storyteller and, using journalistic standards, move the story. I don’t like to stop for description. I don’t try to turn a phrase. In the case of Woody Guthrie, the less I try to show off as a writer, the more he stands out as a brilliant creator. Writing about the Columbia River, he wrote: “In the misty crystal glitter of her wild and windward spray…” It’s a lovely, poetic line. And he’s full of them.

AE: Tell me about the Center for the Biography that you hope to establish at USC.

EC: USC Annenberg School for Communication Dean Geoff Cowan has agreed to fund a framing committee meeting next spring. I hope to invite five professional writers and five academics who teach biography. Only about 20 percent of American colleges and universities teach biography as a result of historians turning away from the “great man” theory in the ’60s and toward social history. But there are real problems in writing biography that deserve serious consideration.

AE: You’ve written about folk music, bawdy songs, the Levi Strauss company, major news stories and great men. Is there a common thread to your subjects?

EC: Yeah, pay me for it! [He laughs.] The real thread, and it took me 15 years to figure it out, is that my biographies are my effort to understand my own life and times. I came of age in the second World War, and Marshall was a big hero. I came to California in 1940, and Earl Warren was elected governor in ’41. It was he who shaped this state and the university that I attended [UCLA]. In the ’60s, I spent seven years working for the American Civil Liberties Union. Earl Warren was our great godhead. And the Woody Guthrie book was a reflection of my interest in folk music. At UCLA, I had a teacher, the late Wayland Hand. He taught me scholarship, which got me published in folklore journals when I was a sophomore. I can’t bear to read those early articles, but I’ve retained that interest. I still write the occasional review for the Journal of American Folklore.

AE: Are you working on another biography now?

EC: I have an idea, but I’m not sure I’m going to do it. Any biography for me takes two and a half years to research and two and a half years to write. If I found a worthy writer to take it on, I’d give the idea up.

AE: So is the Center for the Biography a way to find a writer for this project?

EC: No. The center is a way to replace the hole left by not writing a book.