Friday, March 21, 2014

This land is your land - Woody Guthrie


Sometimes on my travels to the USA I have had the opportunity to step outside of the politics and meet new people and make new friends. On my first travels coast to coast in 1994 some friends in the New York Police Department took a group of us to Ellis Island in an NYPD police launch. It was a poignant visit as we looked at the glass cases containing thousands of artefacts belonging to the millions who passed through its halls.
A blackthorn walking stick. A piece of delft shaped as Ireland. Cups and saucers and ornaments. A little piece of linen with the four provinces stitched to it. The small pieces of memorabilia of home carried by immigrants braving a dangerous crossing of the wide Atlantic on their way to a strange land where they hoped for a new and better future.

Annie Moore, a 15 year old from Cork was the first immigrant to be processed there. Many of the millions more who were to land at Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954 were Irish.
Years later I walked with friends in San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge. Later still they brought me to see the magnificent giant sequoia trees. Hundreds of feet high and some of them thousands of years old. Several years ago I travelled to upstate New York and met one of my heroes Pete Seegar, who died recently. These have been brief interludes in normally busy schedules.

On Saturday, a few hours before I was due to catch my flight home, my friend Todd arranged for me to meet Nora Guthrie, the daughter of Woody Guthrie, another of my heroes – and a contemporary of Pete Seegar.  
For those who have never heard of Woody Guthrie or listened to his music, he was a legendary folk singer, song writer, poet, author and political activist. He wrote and sang songs of his experience of the Great depression of the 1930s and of the impact on ordinary families of the Dust Bowl migration that followed. As a young man he was one of those who hitchhiked and rode freight trains across the United States. His observations of the brutalities and injustices of those times and of his radical politics are often reflected in his songs. Perhaps one of his most famous songs is ‘This land is your land.’

In the fourth and sixth verses – which are not always sung - Woody protests against inequality.

As I went walking, I saw a sign there,

And on the sign, it said "no trespassing." (Another version uses "Private Property")

But on the other side, it didn't say nothing!

That side was made for you and me.


In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;

By the relief office, I'd seen my people.

As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,

Is this land made for you and me?


His music and writing influenced generations of musicians including Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Paxton, Billy Bragg and countless others.

Recently Todd attended the launch of a book entitled ‘Woody Guthrie’s Wardy forty’. It is a book principally of photographs but with the words of Nora and others recounting the circumstances of Woody’s time in Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital and his remarkable and courageous battle against the debilitating and ultimately fatal Huntingdon Chronea disease. Symptoms include involuntary movements, cognitive loss and behavioural disturbances. The book also tells of his family’s determination to support him.

The book came about by chance. The author, Phillip Buehler, is a photographer who has long had a fascination with derelict buildings. One of his projects involved visiting Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in New Jersey. Buehler climbed into the abandoned building through a broken window. In what had been the hospital’s darkroom he found patients’ intake and discharge photographs, as well as ward journals. There were no names just numbers. After searching the internet he discovered that Wood Guthrie had stayed there and that Bob Dylan had visited him in the hospital in 1961.

A note written to his wife Marjorie in 1956. Eisenhower was running for the US Presidency.

Buehler contacted Nora, found Woody’s case number in the Wood Guthrie Archives and returned to Greystones where he recovered his admittance photo and details of his condition. Woody was originally kept in Ward 40 – hence the title of the book. Buehler recalls how Woody’s manager Harold Leventhal and Fred Hellerman, who along with Pete Seegar was a member of the blacklisted group The Weavers, “came to visit Woody at Greystone. When they asked how he was doing. Woody answered:

‘You don’t have to worry about me. I’m worried about how you boys are doing. Out there if you say you are a communist, they’ll put you in jail. In here, I can get up there amd say I’m a communist and all they’ll say is ’Ah he’s crazy.’ You know this is the last free place in America.’
Ten years later this amazing book has been published. It tells a part of the Wood Guthrie story never told before. It reveals the horror of Huntingdon Chronea disease.  and how at the end Woody couldn’t speak but it is also a story of enormous courage by his wife Marjorie and his children Joady, Arlo and Nora who visited him every week, occasionally took him out of the hospital and loved him and cared for him.
Woody Guthrie was born on July 14th 1912 and died on October 3rd 1967.

Woody with Joady, Arlo and Nora

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