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Spring/Summer 2004


Rambling Men
from The Rake
April 2004 / www.rakemag.com

From the 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.


Tony 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.

Bob 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, NY 1972:

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.

Lee had 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.

When Lee 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.”

In describing 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!”

Following 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 our collections:

Woody, 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 Best Songs”).

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


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