Woody Guthrie at 100: The Brooklyn chapter

August 10, 2012 By Carl Blumenthal For Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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Jeff Place, chief archivist of the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, declared that Woody Guthrie “was a supernova who came through rapidly, but in the short time he was around he influenced everything after.” Given the coincidence of Guthrie’s 100th birthday (on the 14th last month) with the current political and economic stalemate, his musical legacy may be like the welcome return of a heavenly body.

Except for his World War II service, Woodrow Wilson Guthrie lived in the New York-New Jersey area from 1940 until his death at the age of 55 in 1967, more than half that time in Brooklyn. Unfortunately, he spent most of his last years at Brooklyn State Hospital (now called Kingsboro Psychiatric Center) in East Flatbush, incapacitated by the genetic, neurological disorder Huntington’s chorea.

Famed as the Okie troubadour of “This Land is Your Land” and the author of the autobiographical novel “Bound for Glory,” Guthrie was rendered immobile and wordless in the end. In fact, his physical and mental decline lasted much longer than the decade in which he produced an incredible 3,000 songs. The few recorded include “Union Maid,” “Do Re Mi,” Pretty Boy Floyd,” “The Ludlow Massacre,” “The Sinking of the Reuben James,” and “Pastures of Plenty.” Another irony: Though not a Party member, the Communist-inspired Guthrie, unlike his comrade-in-song Pete Seeger, was never blacklisted because by the 1950’s the FBI deemed him too ill to be dangerous.

The Brooklyn chapter in Woody’s story began in 1945. After his discharge from the army, he returned to his second wife, Marjorie, and two-year-old daughter, Cathy Ann, at 3520 Mermaid Ave., Apt. 1R, in Coney Island. Even though he had three children with his first wife, Mary, Guthrie was about to settle down for the first time in his life. For the next seven years, he lived first on Mermaid Avenue near Sea Gate, and then at 49 Murdock Court, Apt. 1J, across Ocean Parkway from Coney Island Hospital.

In spite of his celebrity within left-wing circles, Woody never made much money until Pete Seeger’s group, The Weavers, recorded his “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Ya” in 1950. As one of Martha Graham’s top dancers and teachers, Marjorie Guthrie was the bread winner of the family. Hence, Woody was a stay-at-home dad, who played enthusiastically with his kids after Cathy Ann died in a fire, Arlo, Joady, and Nora were born but found plenty of time to create songs, fiction, illustrations, and “hoosis” from recycled materials.

He was so much a child in spirit that such songs of his as “Howja Do,” “Riding in My Car,” “Bling Blang,” “Put Your Finger in the Air,” and “Hoodoo Voodoo” became nursery school classics during his lifetime. Indeed, according to one of his biographers, Ed Cray, Pete Seeger declared in 1998 that Woody would be best remembered for his collection “Songs to Grow On” as well as “This Land is Your Land.”

Sadly, the music he composed for adults during this Brooklyn period generally fit into a well-worn groove. Perhaps with the children’s songs, initially composed to simply amuse his kids, he felt less pressure to outdo himself, or maybe Huntington’s disease was already affecting the more complex modes of creativity needed to please folk fans.

One exception was “1913 Massacre.” Another was “My Name is New York,” which is also the title of a recently published walking guide to Woody’s Gotham haunts produced by his daughter Nora and the Woody Guthrie Archives (see www.woodyguthrie.org for orders). While maintaining the heroioc narrative that Woody rambled to the end, including the spreading of his ashes off Coney Island by his family, Nora Guthrie and her collaborators do not shy away from the character flaws that were eventually compounded by Huntington’s.

Now, Occupy Wall Streeters are strumming and singing his tunes at demonstrations. just as politically engaged musicians over the last 50 years, from Bob Dylan and Joan Baez to Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp, have embraced Woody Guthrie’s music and legend as a man of the people who always fought for the downtrodden. However, few of his current admirers probably realize, as his biographers have documented, that Woody admired Stalin without question and was a notorious womanizer, even though he decried propaganda in music and valued the abilities of his many sister performers.

Thus, one question is whether this Woody Guthrie revival will be based on a more complex view of the man and his music. Not just his foibles but his suffering, both of which lend themselves to a spiritual expression in American music, whether it’s called gospel, old-time or roots. (Not only did he and his mother die agonizing deaths from Huntington’s but a sister and daughter perished in fires.)

Eli Smith, host of the online Down Home Radio Show and producer of the Brooklyn Folk Festival, which included a Woody Guthrie tribute last May, told this reporter “Woody Guthrie is not being remembered as the radical artist that he was or as the authentic old time hillbilly musician that he was. The radical message of his songs and of his life is often overlooked and his music is usually rendered in a way that is not in keeping with Guthrie’s own radically down-home aesthetic.”

Smith singled out a stanza that is usually omitted from “This Land Is Your Land:”

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted, it said private property;
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing;
That side was made for you and me.

He added, “I think Woody Guthrie maintained a strong personal spiritual side, although he had rejected Christianity. I think he identified strongly with the Preacher Casy character in “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck.  To quote Woody’s song “Tom Joad,” which summarizes the book in the form of a ballad set to the folk tune “John Hardy,” as recorded by the Carter Family, Woody has Preacher Casy saying ‘Everybody might be just one big soul, well it looks that way to me…’ which has an almost Eastern religious thing going on and also expresses the idea of human solidarity.”

Finally, Eli Smith said, “I look forward to taking part in a big Woody Guthrie tribute at Brooklyn College on Sept. 22, along with Arlo Guthrie, Steve Earle, Billy Bragg and others, organized by Woody’s daughter Nora.”

Smith also touted the following Brooklyn musicians playing Woody’s material: Ernie Vega, Jessy Carolina, Stephanie Jenkins, Mamie Minch, Jesse Lenat, Cal Folger Day, John Cohen, Bob Malenky and more. The Jalopy Theatre, at 315 Columbia St. (718-395-3214), where many of these folks perform, is not only the site of the annual Brooklyn Folk Festival in the spring but also a place fans can go throughout the year to decide whether a many-faceted Woody fits the current bill for political and personal growth.

For a sample of Guthrie’s greatest tunes, go to www.downhomeradioshow.com, “Woody Guthrie at 100.”

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