from The Rake
April 2004 / www.rakemag.com
Dust Bowl days in Oklahoma to the Columbia River in Washington
state, Woodrow Wilson Guthrie (1912-1967) ramblied a million
miles by foot, thumb, boxcar, and in Liberty Ships - freighters
hastily constructed for merchant-marine service during World
War II. He wrote copiously along the way, "with his guitar
hung around his neck like a tire iron on a rusty rim,"
as John Steinbeck described him: "This Land Is Your Land,"
"Roll On Comumbia," "So Long It's Been Good
To Know You," "Hard Traveling"...in 1941, he
turned out twenty-six songs during a thirty-day stint along
the Columbia. Woody also composed songs for children and a
full-length novel, Bound for Glory, before falling
victim in 1956 at age forty-three to Huntington's Disease.
This incurable genetic disorder, which causes the victim not
only to lose control of his body but also his personality
in sometimes violent episodes, silenced Woody's voice and
eventually ended his life. It's an indication of his passion
that long before his death he became, in the words of Studs
Terkel, "one of a handful of the world's greatest all-time
balladeers." To commemorate the release of Ramblin'
Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie by Ed Cray,
the first major biography of Guthrie in almost twenty-five
years, we offer our own ramblings, with John Hammond, Lee
Hays, Bob Dylan, and Woody Guthrie himself.
Glover, Brooklyn, New York, 1962:
In forty-odd years in music,
as writer and performer, I’ve met, interviewed, and
played with a lot of people who went on to become household
names. But there were only two I was in awe of: Muddy Waters
and Woody Guthrie. Even in 1962, Guthrie already had attained
near-mythic status. Early in May that year I took my first
trip to New York City to visit my partner Dave Ray, and also
hooked up with former Minnesotan Bob Dylan. One day Bob asked
if I’d like to go along with him to visit Woody at the
Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn. Even though I was heavy
into blues at the time, almost to the exclusion of any other
music, I jumped at the chance. We met on Bob’s doorstep
on West Fourth Street in Greenwich Village, and climbed into
the car of another blues man, John Hammond. (Hammond was still
in college then; it would be a year before he appeared at
the Newport Folk Festival and recorded the first of twenty-nine
albums of classic blues tunes.) Even though Bob couldn’t
find the hospital’s address, we headed for the wilds
of Brooklyn anyhow; after making several wrong turns and receiving
heavily accented, misguided directions, we wound up at a gray
stone three- or four-story building. It was set back from
the street, the windows covered with heavy wire mesh.
led us in, since his name was on the visitors list. An attendant
escorted us through a couple of set of heavy, locked doors
to a second-floor day room. Woody’s name was called
and eventually, down the hallway shuffled a short, wiry guy
wearing pajamas open to the waist, and worn cowboy boots cracked
with age. His hair was a shock of gray Brillo; his skin, weather-beaten
and chiseled. His arms jerked spasmodically, and occasionally
tics contorted his shoulders. It was a struggle for him to
talk, but despite his strangled words as Bob introduced us,
his eyes were piercingly alert.
Woody led us down the hall to his room. He sat on his bed,
we sat on the other. Bob asked how Woody liked the record
he’d dropped off on a previous visit (his debut Columbia
album Bob Dylan, containing “Song to Woody”).
“It’s a good ‘un,” Woody replied.
Bob borrowed John’s guitar and we all sang a couple
of Woody’s songs for him.
After “Hard Travelin,” Woody said, “Should
be faster.” I pulled out a harp and played along on
a couple more. During “Pretty Boy Floyd,” Woody
tried to sing along, but his pitch was wavering. He reached
in his boot and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, and after
much difficulty got one in his mouth. John and I reached for
our lighters, but Bob shook his head at us. So we watched
for several minutes as Woody fought to control his arms long
enough to get a match lit and get the fire up to the cigarette.
He finally did. He took a deep drag, with a lightning-bolt
look of triumph in his eyes.
Altogether we stayed about an hour, and as we left, Bob promised
to be back. We didn’t talk much in the car on the long
drive back to the Village. The force of Woody’s presence
still hung in the air, and it said more than words could.
Charlie Maguire, Croton-on-Hudson,
Lee Hayes was a singer and songwriter with considerable show-business
savvy, which he used to mentor young people – this may
have been his true calling – whether they were destined
for the stage or not. He knew absolutely everybody; his Rolodex
ran from Steve Allen to Joan Baez to Olympic gold medalist
Mark Spitz. Lee and I used to practice “educated loafing,”
as he liked to call it, from cushy chairs at his cottage in
Croton-on-Hudson, about thirty miles north of New York City.
I was with him the day the UPS man delivered an award for
“one million for-profit performances” of “If
I Had a Hammer,” which he co-wrote with Pete Seeger
during his days on America’s Hit Parade with The Weavers.
paid his dues, and he knew Woody intimately. Because Guthrie
literally wrote the book about being a traveling songwriter,
I felt the need, as one of “Woody’s children”
(as Lee would later dub me and many others), to check in with
Lee from time to time on the status of my “education.”
Learning the folk singer/songwriter trade is a lot like learning
to be a plumber, except that it pays a whole lot less. You’d
start off as an apprentice, then a journeyman; then you learned
from the masters on the way to becoming one yourself…maybe.
That’s what it means to live in the folk tradition.
told his Woody stories, he would look straight ahead and take
you back with him. He always added a warning, king of like
the labels you see on cigarette packages. Recalling Woody’s
performances, he’d tell how the man “rode herd
on an audience. He never let them get too far away. He’d
cajole them, laugh with them, or insult them, but he never
let them stray too much.” On the virtues of being a
good houseguest, he recalled the time “Woody stayed
at my apartment and read through my entire library in about
two weeks. He’d write little review of each book and
stick them between the pages; I found them for years afterward.”
Then the downside: “One day during that same visit he
paid me back by passing out drunk on my new couch and wetting
himself during the night.”
happier incidents, like the times he, Woody, and folk singer
Cisco Houston had a square meal and a full bottle to contemplate,
Lee would turn and look at me with a grin: “And do you
think Woody and Cisco would just drink a little and save the
rest for another day? Hell no! It was the Depression and nobody
saved anything. They’d drink it all up in one sitting,
all the time singing the same song over and over.” Then
came the warning: “Now that’s the way Woody was,
but don’t let me hear about you behaving like that!”
in the wake of a number of wonderful books, collected works
and memoirs on Woody’s ways, Ed Cray’s brand-new Ramblin’ Man: The Life and Times of Woody
Guthrie is a streamlined, strongly narrated
history. Although the book jacket touts Cray’s access
to “thousands of letters” in the Guthrie archives
and his “interviews with seventy people close to Guthrie,”
the book itself bears frustratingly little evidence of new
material. Cray seems to draw inspiration from the benchmark,
Joe Klein’s 1980 Woody Guthrie: A Life.
Now in paperback, Klein’s biography still seems both
deeper and wider than Cray’s, offering first-person
accounts and even some of Woody’s more obscure writings.
Here are some other suggestions for books and recordings from
Cisco & Me: Seamen Three in the Merchant Marine
by Jim Longhi. A favorite among those who measure their Woody
lore by the shelf-foot, it covers his war years (he survived
three ship sinkings in 1943-44).
Hard Travelin’: The Life and Legacy of Woody
Guthrie, edited by Robert Santelli and Emily
Davidson. Some of the best writers in the field explore Guthrie’s
talent as a visual artist, his impact on rock ‘n’ roll, and radicalism (personal and political).
Born To Win by Woody Guthrie, 1965.
A top-notch collection of prose and poetry edited by New
York Times critic Robert Shelton. Read Woody on everything
from singing to sex (sometimes both together, as in “My
This Land Was Made for You and Me: The Life and
Songs of Woody Guthrie by Elizabeth Partridge.
This National Book Award finalist for children’s literature
has more previously unpublished photos of Woody than Klein’s
and Cray’s biographies put together.
Library of Congress Recordings. From 1940, a good overview of Woody’s life before he
went to New York City.
The Asch Recordings. Most recorded
in 1946, featuring Cisco Houston, Lead Belly, and Sonny Terry.
Mermaid Avenue and Mermaid
Avenue: Vol. Two. Woody’s daughter Nora
encouraged contemporary musicians to comb through unpublished
Guthrie lyrics; these collaborations between Billy Bragg and
Wilco were one result.
* Thank you to The Rake, Tony Glover, and Charlie Maguire for
allowing us to publish this piece.
For more information on The Rake, visit www.rakemag.com