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 . . .
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:
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.
*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