Woody Guthrie: Notes of Hope

As I mentioned Thursday, Woody Guthrie would be 100 years old today. But, you know, calculating birthdays like this is a little strange. Turning 100 after you’re dead really isn’t much of an accomplishment. Anyone can do it. No, it’s just an excuse to celebrate someone we admire.

I’ve been a fan of Woody’s ever since I was in grade school, when we use to sing his songs in Music Class. My favorite was “Roll On, Columbia,” a fun song to sing in a group. That was long before I had ever heard of Pete Seeger or Bob Dylan or Alice’s Restaurant.

Now if you are an admirer of Woody Guthrie, you don’t need me to tell you why he matters. You already know. And if you are not a fan, and wondering what the big deal is, I suggest you listen to some of his recordings, and read Joe Klein’s biography, Woody Guthrie: A Life.

Klein not only captures the spirit of Woody’s life, but also the tragedy. Woody was a fountain of nervous and creative energy. He couldn’t sit still to save his life, couldn’t stay in one place for long, always talked up a storm, wrote incessantly – thousands of songs, 2 or 3 letters a day, books – and a man possessed of an indomitable spirit. Yet, that restless, creative mind, and that spirit, was diminished by Huntington’s Chorea, which was “to rob him of his precious ability to sing, to write, to make music.”

In 1940, for his song “This Land is Your Land,” Woody wrote:

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back . . .

“Note of Hope” is a new 12-track collection*

In December 1954, after he was diagnosed with the first stages of the disease, which had caused him to exhibit bizarre behavior that many interpreted as drunkenness, Woody wrote this:

Huntington’s Chorea
Means there’s no help known
In the science of medicine
For me . . .

So, in the end, the man whose name, to me, is synonymous with “hope,” was robbed of even that, perhaps his most precious quality of all.

From the ravages of Huntington’s Chorea, Woody lost control over his body and mind, and was hospitalized and bedridden the last 13 years of his life, but that’s not how we like to remember him. And it’s not how he would like to be remembered. We like to think of Woody as that rambler and hard traveler, always singin’, always dreamin’, as he described himself at the end of his book Seeds of Man, about a 1931 trip through Texas with his uncle Jeff in search of a silver mine, when he was 19 years old:

I took my first good long backwards look while the whistling of the breeze and the sporting of the winds yelled at me louder through the suction of the Slick Rock Gap. Sam Nail told us that this wagon trail out of here to the north towards Alpine would save us more than forty miles of dagger walking. I commenced trickling tears down both of my cheeks as I turned my face away from the Rough Run Valley, the Hen Egg, the Chisos, the Christmas Mountains, the Saw Tooth, the Santa Rosas . . .

I commenced to walk along past an old sign, scribbled on the fan of a blown-down windmill, which said, “Rock Canyon Ranch, 15 mis.,” with a little wiggly ground rattler arrow shooting towards the ranch. I commenced laughing at my own silly self as I flumped my guitar in a crazy banging which made no tune nor sense. My bangy laughing echoed back down in both my ears while I walked my first few steps on through the Slick Rock Gap.

I laughed so hard that I had to drag my feet like a cripple, I was thinking of something so funny that human words, human songs, can’t quite run and catch it . . .

I’ll skip Tucson and the Gonzalezes this trip. I’ll head on back up to Pampa and make friends again will all of my relatives laughing at me. I’ll save up, all of us will put up, and we’ll make another stab at this country down in here. Maybe, maybe that pretty, peachy, big-eyes, curly-headed Riorina will still be down here when I come back with a little more sense. I made so damn many mistakes on this run, I . . . I couldn’t stand up and look her straight in the eyes. Hyooee. Hyooee . . .

I just hope this one hope this morning, which is, I want to hope that Eddie Stoner is having better luck, or at least just as good, down along the muddy pool with Luisa and that Rio Rattler River, and with Ole Man Rio’s greeny wool blanket somewhere around.

(From Seeds of Man: An Experience Lived and Dreamed © 1976, by Marjorie M. Guthrie)

We remember Woody Guthrie for his notes of hope, those simple but magnificent songs that have inspired generations of American and people all around the world. And we remember him for a life lived and experienced as beautiful and troubled and complicated and free as life really is. We remember Woody Guthrie for his pride in America, for his belief that this country could always be better than it was, for his love of humanity, for his devotion to working folks and folks who had no jobs and no home, and for his fidelity to hope. We remember Woody Guthrie.

Other posts about Woody Guthrie on The Endless Further can be found here, here, here and here.

*On September 27th, 429 Records will release “Note of Hope,” a celebration of Woody Guthrie, based on many of his unpublished writings, featuring Rob Wasserman in collaboration with Jackson Browne, Ani DiFranco, Kurt Elling, Michael Franti, Nellie McKay, Tom Morello, Van Dyke Parks, Madeleine Peyroux, Lou Reed, Pete Seeger, Studs Terkel, Tony Trischka, and Chris Whitley


Promise of Hope (video)

Hope seems like a good theme for this week. This is a song I wrote and recorded in early 2002, just a few months after 9/11. It’s not going to rival anything Dylan or Elvis Costello have ever written, but I’ve heard worse. As for the video portion, I put together last evening on the spur of the moment.

Lyrics below. For email subscribers, here is a link.

Promise of Hope

I woke up one morning
And the world had turned around
There was fire and buildings tumbling down
Fear had taken the high ground
But I held on to a promise of hope

There’s a shadow in the space of where we’ve been
And voices that say we can’t go back again
The horizon seems as lost as the world we’re in
Searching for a promise of hope

We need hope to guide us
We need a promise to carry us home

Sometimes I feel like I’m out here all alone
But if I see you walking by I’ll help you carry your load
Together somehow we’ll get down this road
We’re headed for a promise of hope

We need hope to guide us
We need a song to carry us home

David Riley


The Necessity of Hope

I read a post by a Buddhist blogger yesterday that really had me scratching my head. Not literally, of course, but figuratively. According to this guy, hope is a bad thing. It’s just another form of craving, an illusion that inhibits our spiritual growth. Pardon me, but that is complete nonsense. Another case of confusing the relative with the ultimate.

Merriam-Webster defines hope as “to cherish a desire with anticipation.” Well, there we have two words that have a negative connotation in Buddhism: desire and anticipation. But that’s in the ultimate sense. Sure, desire is bad when it leads to clinging but some desires are positive. Same with anticipation. Living in the present moment is an ideal, a frame of mind. Not a prison. Anyone who doesn’t think about the future to some extent, harbor a few healthy desires, and occasionally have some anticipation is only leading half a life.

Ultimately, we do not want to be constantly dwelling in anticipation, but the future is real. It will come and there is no avoiding it.  By the same token, if you don’t look back and learn from the past, you are missing out on great opportunities for growth. The past and the present both exist in the present moment, as we presently experiencing the effects from the past and making causes for the future. Dogen said, “We cannot be separated from time . . .  we, ourselves are time . . .”

In the relative, conventional world, we need hope. Without hope, we fall prey to pessimism that leads to negative states of mind. I don’t see hope as a big dilemma. The real problem is that too many people in the world don’t have any. Whether it’s a case of suffering in a third world country or in Beverly Hills, lives devoid of hope in this modern age are far too prevalent.

Hope contributes to a positive outlook on life and if that sounds too “new age” or something that’s too bad. Unless you have some sense of optimism for the future, life can be very bleak. It is through pessimism and negative thinking that we create a lot of our suffering. Hope is a necessary ingredient for a  satisfied, peaceful life, and it’s sad to me that there are some Buddhists who want to twist it around into something to avoid.

The Buddha way is the Middle Way. The balance between extremes. There’s no question that too much hope can be harmful. Living for the future excessively is not healthy. But to abandon hope and live only in the present is not the way to go either. Hope reinforces the ego only if you let it. The idea that it represents some form of control that we don’t actually have is wrong. The whole point of Buddhism is to train our minds so that we can control our thoughts, words and deeds and gravitate to wholesome states of mind and not dwell in unwholesome states. We want control and if that is just an illusion then there’s no sense in practicing Buddhism. We might as well give up.

It doesn’t matter if what you hope for will come to pass or not. The important thing is to have hope. Without it, practice as a Bodhisattva would be impossible. A Bodhisattva hopes to liberate all living beings, but it will never happen. Someone will always be suffering somewhere. The point is that with a balanced sense of hope we can aspire to this great goal and have the confidence and courage to pull ourselves and a few others out of life overshadowed by suffering and into life bright with optimism and a measure of peace.

I don’t know what else to say about this subject, so here’s some words by a few people who say better than me:

Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.

Thich Nhat Hanh

The fact that there is always a positive side to life is the one thing that gives me a lot of happiness. This world is not perfect. There are problems. But things like happiness and unhappiness are relative. Realizing this gives you hope.

Dalai Lama

It is not true that the world always has to be a mess and vale of misery. It can be beautiful and meaningful, and the human life form is a wonderful opportunity to reach the highest fulfillment imaginable . . . The Buddha’s Noble Truth of Suffering means that life dominated by misknowledge will always be unsatisfactory, but that is not a final destination; it means that we can develop wisdom to eliminate misknowledge and then live free in bliss and share that bliss with others . . . never give up. We live in hope, as the realistic way to live.

Robert Thurman

Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow.

Albert Einstein

A man with a grain of faith . . .  never loses hope, because he ever believes in the ultimate triumph of Truth.

Mahatma Gandhi