“Just What In The Hell Has Gone Wrong Here Anyhow?” Woody Guthrie and the American Dream

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Guthrie survived, and by the time the war was over he had become a national figure, not nearly of the stature of Bing Crosby, say, but still one with a steady following of those who either assented to his vision of a better America or who merely cottoned to his talent and his twangy voice. And now the bitterest of ironies: it was at this time of his life that the disease he had carried within him like a time bomb chose to express itself. In the late forties, he developed a strange, lopsided walk, and his speech occasionally slurred. He had been a hard drinker for much of his life, and the symptoms were attributed to alcoholism. Marjorie Guthrie, who now directs the Committee to Combat Huntington’s Disease out of a small office in New York City, remembers with understandable regret that “We just didn’t know enough about the disease in those days. It was only in retrospect many years later that I could see that what was happening to him had nothing to do with his drinking.” For several years, as the disease continued the agonizingly slow deterioration of his nervous system, Guthrie signed himself in and out of hospitals as an alcoholic. His problem was not correctly diagnosed until, Marjorie recalls, 1954, and by then it was too late to do what little could have been done to delay the inevitable. In 1965 he was transferred from Brooklyn State Hospital to Creedmore State Hospital on Long Island. He never came out again.

In 1966—in the hospital—he was presented with the annual Conservation Service Award by Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. “Yours was not a passing comment on the beauties of nature,” Udall wrote in the citation, “but a living, breathing, singing force in our struggle to use our land and save it, too.”

On October 3, 1967, Woodrow Wilson Guthrie died.

Throughout that short and crowded life, in whatever medium or setting—between the covers of books, the lines of newspaper columns, over the radio, or in bars or union halls—Guthrie’s intention was quite literally to sing for the silent ones. He had listened long and well to their talk, the accents, rhythms, and themes that fell casually from their lips and were lost. Their gift of spirit, he thought, was in their talk, and that talk put pictures in the poet’s mind. Listening to a tubercular drifter’s sandy, broken voice on some swirling Tucson street corner, “Lots of things went through your mind when he talked-wheat stems and empty cotton stalks, burnt corn, and eroded farm land.”

These were the dark, faceless, shifting “strangers” seen at the edges of the cities, along the tracks and highways, in the fields. He sang them, their fractured narrative: gone with the seasons and the wind. Under a bridge out of the hard rain, an anonymous bindle stiff once shared his blanket with the minstrel but was gone in the morning before Guthrie ever saw his face or heard his name. “Tell me, / What were their names, tell me, what were their names,” he sang in “The Sinking of the Reuben James.”

I think here of an anecdote told by the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova out of the years of the Stalinist purges when she and other mothers and wives would wait day on day outside the gates of the prisons for word of those within. Once in that blue cold a woman recognized her and whispered a question in her ear: “Can you describe this?” And Akhmatova answered her, “Yes, I can.”

This then was Woody’s gift: to be able to describe the conditions, to give them shape, to sing for those millions who would never hear themselves, never get on the air or into print except as statistics.

And so to have this ability and to have the opportunity was a gift that imposed heavy obligations. Like his people, the minstrel was in perpetual debt. “The amount that we owe is all that we have,” he observed once. And then went on to say that he had borrowed his words from his people, that the songs he sang were not his but theirs: “The only story that I have tried to write has been you.” He wanted to mail himself like an urgent letter loaded with postage to those who otherwise would not read, to be like a wind-sent newspaper clipping that has a message and a picture of a man:

“And it was blow little paper, blow! Twist and turn and stay up as long as you can, and when you come down, come down on a pent-house porch, come down easy.… Come down and lay there in the rain and the wind and the soot and the smoke and the grit.… But keep on trying to tell your message, and keep on trying to be a picture of a man, because without that story and without that message printed on you there, you wouldn’t be much. Remember, it’s just maybe, some day, sometime somebody will pick you up and look at your picture and read your message, and carry you in his pocket, and lay you on his shelf, and burn you in his stove. But he’ll have your message in his head and he’ll talk it and it’ll get around.”