Dr. Benjamin Filene

  • History
  • Asssociate Professor, 2010
  • Professor, 2015
Benjamin Filene

Woody Guthrie: A Life by Joe Klein

Can one life matter? Joe Klein’s book about Woody Guthrie shows how one person can make a difference in history and, as well, how studying a single life can open up a world of insights for historians. If Woody Guthrie’s life had been scripted for a movie, no one would believe it (Klein, more aptly, likens it to Shakespearean tragedy). Today, Guthrie is known mainly for writing This Land Is Your Land, but he saw himself as a crusader for the power of folk songs to change the world. By 40, though, Guthrie was afflicted with Huntington’s chorea, a neurological disease, and he spent the last dozen years of his life in the hospital, writing lyrics he couldn’t sing.

Klein’s book helped me recognize that history draws its power from stories. Before coming to UNCG to run the Master’s program in public history, I worked in history museums. Whether in museums or universities, my goal is to make history matter to public audiences. If, like Klein, we become good storytellers, maybe we can help ordinary people recognize that their own stories count as history and, perhaps, that they themselves can become history-makers.