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Nora's News Archives

 

June/July 2003


Welcome to Nashville, Woody!

FIFTY years after the idea was first proposed, and subsequently rejected, Dad finally got to sing at Music City's Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ole Opry! (check our NASHVILLE link for details)

Along with a host of events including in-school programs, gallery exhibits, in-store and club concerts, a film festival, etc. we were particulaly happy to arrange a rare exhibit of one of Woody's own guitars set beside the original "Pastures of Plenty" lyrics at the Country Music Hall of Fame. The 1940 guitar was generously made available by Jim Kalmenson and the WG Archives collaborated with offering the lyrics. The Museum also curated an exhibit of Kathy Jakobsen's original oil paintings for her book "This Land Is Your Land" (Little, Brown & Co).

I wrote the following for the NASHVILLE SINGS WOODY! program notes. The concert was held at the Ryman Auditorium on Feb. 5th, 2003 to raise funds to support the WG Foundation and Archives. Additional articles for the program were written by Kari Estrin (producer), James Talley (Nashville musician), Nashville writer and critic Bill Friskics-Warren and author and critic Dave Marsh.

His Pure Love of People …
Nora Guthrie

A lot of you discovered my father way before I did. Most of you discovered him through your connection to Bob Dylan's music. Before that, there were people who discovered him through Pete Seeger. And before that, there were his friends who discovered him on the road, at union halls, or in bars. But for me, there was a barrier that kept me from knowing him. Huntington's Disease.

The disease was a most  powerful camouflage, concealing his true nature from my eyes. As much as I tried to penetrate the man beneath the symptoms, I couldn't. The flailing, frightening display of Huntington's Disease always won. As a little girl I hated Huntington's Disease and I hated the way my father wore it – the dirty clothes, the smell of rotten, spilled foods and uncontrolled body fluids. I feared the hospital visits and was repulsed by the other patients in the psychiatric wards where he was placed, the doctors not knowing where else to put him. I was embarrassed to walk down the street with him, people staring at us with distain thinking he was a filthy drunk.

In contrast, my mother always seemed to dance down the street, laughing and chatting away as if we were the most normal of families as we pulled into a roadside diner for a Sunday burger.  At home, she kept busy playing him records as she washed and sewed his clothes and fed him high caloric foods to get him through another week in the hospital. My brothers, smartly, took up guitars and other instruments to pass the time with him, replacing conversation with music. But I never found a way to connect. I would have liked a hug, something his uncontrollable arms could not perform. Or a conversation, something his slurred speech and distorting lips could not deliver. I wanted advice, but couldn't ask for something he couldn't physically give. I couldn’t think of anything to do, and he couldn't do anything, for me.

The years went by and I danced the locomotion and sang along with the Shirelles, then the Beatles. I ran out of the house on Sundays as others ran in. They played music for my father and sang his Dustbowl ballads and other folk songs back to him, which he genuinely loved. I became a dancer, rather than a musician. I discovered rock and roll, and jazz, and avante guard theatre and always kept at least a mile (or more) away from the exploding folk music scene of the '60s. Family ties, family friends and sporadic, required Guthrie Tribute events, demanded only the bare minimum: that I remember at least the chorus of This Land Is Your Land.

In 1992, twenty five years after his death, I went to Harold Leventhal's office to help out. Harold placed me in a tiny room at a desk alongside all the boxes and files of my father's writings. I licked envelopes, typed labels and filed. Then one day, I decided to look inside one of the boxes. I pulled out an old notebook. My father had sprawled the title, "Short Hauls" across the marbled cover with a wild, abandoned brush stroke of purple ink. "Cool!" I thought, surprised by it's lively, humorous cover. I opened the notebook and began to read.

It was a piece called "I Say To You Woman and Man". It began:

"I'll say to you, woman, come out from your home and be the wild dancer of my breed."

"Woman"! I had never heard him say that word before. And "wild dancer"!  Being that he was unable to speak for so long, I had only heard his
words through his songs. Words like "dustbowl", "refugee" and "hard travelin'". I had assumed that this was the only thing on his mind, the only
thing he knew anything about. I read on: "I'll say to my man come out of your walls and move in your space as free and as wild as my woman.". This was hardly the language of a Dustbowl Balladeer! This was sounding like…. a poet.

"I say to my woman dance out of our home.
Dance out and see fighting.
Dance out and see people.
Dance out to run factories.
Dance out to see street meats.
Dance out in the deep stream.
Dance out to your vote box.
Dance down to your office.
Dance over to your counter.
Dance up your big stairs.
If your husband gets jealous, dance out to new lovers.
If your man keeps your heat tied dance out and untie it."

It's hard to describe what happened to me as I read this little poem. Like a chick slowly tapping it's way out of a shell, the words delicately chiseled away at my own. With the final tap, a voice said, "Oh my God… there it is". I gazed with love at my father. I felt as if it were my wedding day and my father was dancing that dance with me. He was the Trickster, laughing with undisguised pride as he twirled me around whispering, "Now you got it!" You see, I had spent my life becoming that wild dancer. I had run out to see the action on the streets of Brooklyn and Queens. I had heard and loved the music of my generation.  I had met people and created dances with them. I had cradled and kissed children. I had found that vote box, and that office, and had climbed so many, many flights of stairs along the way! And I had found out how to untie my heat.

I put down the notebook and rewound the film. With an almost perverse, comical slant, I see myself again as a child. But this time, I am fleeing the house as Huntington's Disease chases me out to the streets where my own life is waiting. The very streets where, (I got it!) he wanted me to go. The streets that he loved, where he had always gone, to listen, to create; "Go dance!", now took the place of the fantasized "Do your homework!" and revealed itself as my father's firm instruction. With awe-inspiring force, it had bypassed all the physical debilitations of Huntington's Disease. Somehow, my father's message to me had gotten through loud and clear, and though I had not heard it with my ears, I had heard it. What a beautiful, exquisite joke. It was so damned funny I had to cry.    

I understood that all the discoveries I was about to make, sifting through 15,000 pages of his writings and songs in the boxes and files, and the work I was setting out to do, would be made with a new perception. I saw how alike we were and recognized our similar passions for the streets and it's people. So it wasn't the guitar, it wasn't the Okie roots, it wasn't the road nor the ramblin', not even the music that connected us. All of his work, all of his songs, his stories, his art, everything he did grew up and blossomed out from one single stem; his pure love of People. It was the people he had met in the streets that unearthed, harvested, grew up and inspired his own deepest creative seeds. People fertilized him with their honest feelings and stories. And in return, he created everything to feed them. This is all he wanted me to know. And though at times I still fumble the verses of This Land Is Your Land, ultimately, this is all I need to know about him.

Sometimes, the work I now do with the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives, working with musicians, writers, filmmakers, students, journalists and scholars, takes me back to rediscover his songs and his roots in American folk music. Sometimes it takes me to other countries and I hear their language, their music, or taste their food. I still get to see street action filled with street voices sounding their own rhythms and rhymes. Some days I race up long staircases to office workers and we chomp down tuna sandwiches with coleslaw on the side and I listen to their jokes, their ideas and stories. I still get out to dance their dances; swing, salsa, lindy, reel, tap, hip-hop and hora.  Sometimes I get into their politics, and sometimes I get into their spirit. And everywhere, I am with him.  I try to deliver my father's simple wish for me, and for all of us.

"Dance in your own way.
Sing your own song.
Whoop your own kind of a yell in the start and in the finish of your own dance….
Go dance, both of you. Go dance"

Note: Since the day I discovered the word "woman" in his notebook, I’ve discovered many more surprising words in his letters and diaries equaling his more familiar "dustbowl" vocabulary; play, write, draw, dream, wake up, howdy, so long, sing out, think, fight, teach, kiss, touch, giggle, howl, holler, cry, pray. But after ten years of pouring over his life's work I can tell you what his favorite word was. His favorite word was Union.

Nora Guthrie
November 19, 2002
New York City

 

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