Personal history... but personal history is never a single memory, a single incident. Events overlap. Moments become associated with other moments, or trigger further memories. So I note from the almanacs that September 3rd 2001 was the date of Woody Guthrie's death – and so many very different memories flood in, and inter-connect, that I hardly know where to begin; but I can at least begin by questioning that date, and wondering how the almanacs can get it quite so badly wrong: Woody Guthrie died on October 3rd, 1967 (and was born on July 14, 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma, so they don't get that get-out either).
First, Bunjies Coffee House & Folk Cellar, at 27 Litchfield Street, just off Charing Cross Road by Cambridge Circus, on the edge of Soho and the theatres of Shaftesbury Avenue. London's answer to Gerde's Folk City. I started going there around 1971, but didn't dare bring a guitar and do the intermission slot until 1973, and even then only when Richard was available to do the singing. Our repetoire was almost entirely people who had themselves played there at some point, including Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, David Bowie, Cat Stevens, Ralph McTell, none of whom alas we ever heard live there. There was one guy, whose name I have long forgotten, who had a regular weekly spot, and specialised in Woody Guthrie impersonations, of which the stand-out song was Deportee - click the title for the lyric; or here to hear Woody singing it.
Speaking of Dylan, Guthrie was the ostensible reason for his going to New York in 1960, to visit the sick man at the Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in New Jersey where he was dying very slowly of Huntington's Chorea. So obsessed was Dylan, after reading Guthrie's autobiography "Bound For Glory", that he even told audiences at Cafe Wha? in Greenwich Village that he had "been travellin' around the country, followin' in Woody Guthrie's footsteps", when actually he'd been spending a few months in the green pastures of the University of Minnesota. As a guitarist and songwriter, I grew up on early Dylan, which inevitably included all the Guthrie songs, and all the Guthrie imitation-songs, though I never attempted a cover version of the extraordinary "Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie" which he wrote long before the great man needed an epitaph.
My repertoire did, still does, include a version of Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land", though the song was transformed for me for ever when I heard Ray Wheedon, around a campfire in Gaberone, Botswana, in July 1978, render the song in a most sublime translation into Setswana, and all the local Motswana in the neighbourhood heard us singing it - sound travels a long way at the edge of a small and undeveloped town, which Gaberone then still was - and the next thing we knew there were dozens, literally dozens of people, young and old, come out of their rondavels and their small breeze-block apartments, to clap and try to learn the words, so they could join in; and then stayed for the rest of what had by now ceased to be a six-person barbecue and become a village festival. Lots more Guthrie that evening, but only that one in Setswana.
Somewhere along the years I had the idea, which no doubt a dozen other people had already had, but not thought it good enough to take further, to swap the order of the words, and make a very different kind of song out of "This Land". So, one very specific evening in 2012, the evening of President Obama’s 2nd inauguration (January 21st, unless the almanacs have this one wrong as well), on which he announced plans to introduce a "Dream Act" that would end the era of the Deportees for good, by enabling all those illegal immigrants from Mexico to become full citizens at last. The response from the right-wing media that evening was positively despicable (no change there then), and as I generally do when I’m angry with my fellow human creatures, I turned to satire, and wrote the song at last - including a suggestion which, to my chagrin, Donald Trump would make one of his election pledges just two years later. "Let's build a fence to divide our nations, from Acapulco to the Apalachians..." And I was only joking! "That Land Is Your Land..." - click here for the full song.
Two years before that, Nina and I took a week's holiday together, to travel north and south of San Francisco, into wine country to the north, into Steinbeck country to the south - Cannery Row, Monterey Bay, Big Sur, Salinas. Guthrie country too of course - the characters in "East of Eden" and "Grapes of Wrath" are all exiles from Guthrie-land, and he himself set the story of Tom Joad to music: reciprocal art. On the way home, the highway took us through Los Gatos Canyon, "through the artichoke and strawberry valleys to Santa Cruz, the Weston-Super-Mare of California" as I noted in my diary that evening; "over the Santa Cruz mountains, playing Deportee", which I had set up on my CD before we got there, so that I could hear it when we did: the song is sub-titled "Plane Crash in Los Gatos" because it was here that "The skyplane caught fire... The great ball of fire that shook all our hills". We took a detour to the summit, where the fine houses sit among the redwood estates, and played the song a second time before driving on.
I would write out the whole of Dylan's "Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie", they being the most apposite of epitaphs; only they are far too long (I've put in a hyperlink to them above). The last thoughts of all are magnificent though:
"... and where do you look for this hope that yer seekin'
Where do you look for this lamp that's a'burnin'
Where do you look for this oil-well gushin'
Where do you look for this candle that's glowin'
Where do you look for this hope that you know is there
And out there somewhere
And your feet can only walk down two kinds of roads
Your eyes can only look through two kinds of windows
Your nose can only smell two kinds of hallways
You can touch and twist
And turn two kinds of doorknobs
You can either go to the church of your choice
Or you can go to Brooklyn State Hospital
You'll find God in the church of your choice
You'll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital
And though it's only my opinion
I may be right or wrong
You'll find them both
In the Grand Canyon
Huntington’s Chorea, which killed him finally in 1967, is a bitch of a disease. It causes involuntary muscle movements and spasms which must be like perpetual prodding from an electrically charged bolt. Today they would use phenothiazine, but back then only patience and visits from friends were any use, and even that could only help the spirit, not the body.
Other than Michael Moore with his splendid documentaries, is there anyone doing in today’s America what Guthrie did in his day, Dylan in his? And if not, is it a surprise that there is now Donald Trump?
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