By the look of the license plates on the trucks, vans
and SUVs that pull up in a dusty open field outside
the "Pasture of Plenty" campgrounds outside
Okemah, OK each July, the thousands of "Woody-Heads"
who descend on this little town in the heartland of
the American West are pretty much a local bunch -- Oklahoma,
Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma, Oklahoma.
There is little to indicate that, among the thousands
of western 'locals' hooting hollering sweating and singing
along at the annual Woodie Guthrie festival, there are
among them a sprinkling nationwide assortment of people
-- people from New York and Boston to California and
Ohio -- whose love for this touchstone figure from the
first half of the twentieth century remains undiminished
despite the time and distance which American culture
has placed between itself and the Depression-era Dust
Bowl years he chronicled in folk song after folk song.
Or, for that matter, that more often than not the "main
attractions" headlining the festival have strong
connections -- as did Woody Guthrie himself -- to the
New York area.
I myself counted among them on year the likes of Pete
Seeger, a New Englander who spent decades championing
the folk music and the progressive issues that are so
frequently the subject of that music -- who has lived
upstate New York along the Hudson for many years, and
his musical career blossomed in Manhattan.
Or how about "Rambling Jack Elliot," the
gruffest cowboy-est hitchhiking-est fellow you could
imagine from his stage presentation? He was born in
Brooklyn and raised by a family whose head was a Jewish
dentist. (A boy of twenty in 1951 when he showed up
at Woody's door in Coney Island, he formed a relationship
that saw them together as mentor and student for more
than a few years and "Ramblin Jack" become
an uncanny vocal imitator of Guthrie. Elliot went on
to hang with the Beats, reading Kerouac's On The Road
manuscript with him and turning up from Greenwich Village
to San Francisco.)
And then there's Arlo Guthrie, the beaming father figure
to the gentle rainbow trans-national hippy era he represents,
with his long flowing white hair and his genial manner.
Arlo, it turns out, was born in Coney Island, in the
Mermaid Avenue home that his father Woody lived in for
much of the 1940s.
That Mermaid Avenue connection has been receiving more
attention of late, in large part because of an album
of Woody Guthrie lyrics set to music by British folk-rocker
Billy Bragg, and recorded in 1999. The songs on that
CD are only a small sampling of an enormous number of
lyrics the prolific Guthrie penned while living in Coney
Island. Never set to music, the lyrics were tossed into
a trunk and lay there undisturbed for nearly fifty years,
when Guthrie daughter Nora worked up a plan with Bragg
to set some to music and record them.
You might think of him as riding a boxcar through Kansas,
or rambling along the Columbia River or Coulee National
Dam. You might think of him singing dust bowl ballads
to Okie farmworkers in California's Central Valley,
or banging about Texas, Oklahoma or Arkansas in search
of the American spirit. You might even imagine him in
some dusty cow town, or in Kansas City stockyards, or
wandering with his guitar slung over his back in Sacramento,
Missoula, Santa Fe.
But what was the rambling country-boy Woody Guthrie
doing in Coney Island?
It seems Woody showed up in New York in the early 1940s
after a troubled radio career in Southern California
-- and his first marriage -- failed. The story of his
desperate cross-country trek is the stuff of legend,
as he he followed his friend Will Geer east threadbare
as the most hard-luck drifter you might imagine. That
odyssey reached its culmination int he middle of winter
as Guthrie, carless and with scarcely a nickel in his
pocket, nearly froze to death on a Pittsburgh bridge
before being rescued by a passing ranger.
Scarcely a few months later the folk singer had made
it to Manhattan, and his fortunes rapidly were reversed.
Guthrie found unanticipated celebrity in New York's
burgeoning folk scene, championed by music collector
Alan Lomax and Pete Seeger, among others, for his authenticity
and veracity. Guthrie, along with Seeger, formed the
nucleus of the Almanacs, a group with a varying roster
that wrote and performed union songs for rallies and
They popularized the "hootenanny" in New
York City, recreating and reinventing this form of musical
get-together. Guthrie penned a highly regarded autobiography
during this period, and became a well known figure.
Flush with success, Guthrie remarried and settled his
new family in Coney Island at the Mermaid Avenue house.
While there he entered and exited his "anti-fascist"
patriotic phase, writing and performing many songs about
the war effort and serving tours of duty in the armed
This period was one in which Guthrie's hereditary illness
began to catch up with him, however, along with advancing
age. Thus, the lyrics from the period reveal a different
Woody Guthrie than that "rambling, justice seeking"
wiry fellow that one might commonly associate with the
But the spark is still there. One song is an innocently
charming song in praise of the strength of women, oddly
prescient to the renewed struggle for women's rights
that would come a decade or so after he wrote it.
And the union influence still lingers. For example,
it was at Mermaid Avenue that he wrote a humble "I
guess I planted some long lonesome seed of a song...(that)
joined up with the rest of them and grows/It's such
a little song it don't compare/With all your big ones
you hear everywhere/But when it dawns way in the back
of your mind...Union Son. Union battled./All added up.
Won us all what we got now."
Guthrie also wrote an introspective, troubled piece,
which reflects on the growing anti-Communist hysteria
in America, and how it might effect him. In "Eisler
on the Go," Guthrie asks himself what he would
do if Congressional house investigators called him "I
don't know what I'll do/Eisler's on the go, Eisler's
on the move...Eisler in the jailoe, Eisler back at home/
Rankin scrach his head and cry/and I don't know what
But it was during this time that Woody composed Songs
to Grow On, a collection of children's songs And he
wrote other wistful, non-political songs -- reminiscences
about his youth, for example, like "Way Down In
The Minor Key," where he recollects having a girlfriend
down by the 'holler tree' and taking walks along the
It was not so many years ago that visitors to the Woody
Guthrie festival at Okemah were greeted by signs put
up by local townspeople saying "Go Home Communists."
Those days seem long gone now -- this year, shop windows
and the main drag into town had signs saying "Welcome
Woody Fans," and there is a statue in the town
to Okemah's favorite son.
"We have fallen down the Woody Guthrie rabbit
hole, soaking in his music, words, and spirit,"
wrote Ellis Paul -- who has performed some of the Bragg/Guthrie
pieces -- on his message board while touring with Sara
Lee Guthrie and others, prior to a previous year's festival.
"His ideas were simple and common sensed, but reveal
broad communal concepts."
And Steve Earl, the rocking contemporary singer, has
high praise for Woody Guthrie in The Nation: "Admittedly,
the intersection of space and time at the corner of
July 14, 1912, and Okemah, Oklahoma, was a long shot
to produce anything like a national treasure,"
he writes. "Woody was born in one of the most desolate
places in America, just in time."
Coney Island continues to be, perhaps, one of the most
odd locations in America -- home to derelict amusement
arcades, garish sideshows and the continuing allure
of salt brine, taffy and old pier planks baking in the
sun. Yet it is that people in the humble reaches of
the place may state with pride that a great American
named Guthrie lived among them for some of the last
few years of his life, continuing to produce in his
Mermaid Avenue home works that resonate in the American
heart from New York to Okemah, Oklahoma.