On Woody Guthrie’s Centennial, Celebrating the Life, Politics & Music of the “Dust Bowl Troubadour”

Democracy Now*

Woody Guthrie

HAVANA TIMES — Today a Democracy Now! special on the life, politics and music of Woody Guthrie, the “Dust Bowl Troubadour.” Born a hundred years ago on July 14, 1912, in Oklahoma, Guthrie wrote hundreds of folk songs and became a major influence on countless musicians, including Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs.

While Guthrie is best remembered as a musician, he also had a deeply political side, speaking out for labor and civil rights at the height of McCarthyism.

Amidst commemorations across the country marking Woody Guthrie’s centennial, we’re joined by Guthrie’s daughter, Nora Guthrie, author of the book “My Name Is New York: Ramblin’ Around Woody Guthrie’s Town”; his granddaughter Anna Canoni; and musician Steve Earle.

We hear stories from Woody Guthrie’s family life and his time in New York City, where he lived from 1940 until his death in 1967 after a long battle with Huntington’s disease. Guthrie’s wife Marjorie later dedicated her life to finding a cure for the disease, inspiring young doctors to pursue genetic research and founding what became the Huntington’s Disease Society of America.

Earle, a three-time Grammy winner, performs two of Guthrie’s songs and discusses how the singer inspired him as a musician and activist. “I never separated music and politics, which kept bringing me back to Woody, over and over and over again,” Earle says. “I still don’t consider myself to be a political artist; I’m just an artist that — I think like Woody was — that lives in really politically charged times.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Commemorations are being held across the country this year to mark the hundredth anniversary of the birth of one of the country’s greatest songwriters, Woody Guthrie. Born on July 14th, 1912, in Okemah, Oklahoma, Guthrie wrote hundreds of folk songs, including “This Land Is Your Land,” “Pastures of Plenty,” “Pretty Boy Floyd,” “Do Re Mi” and this song, “The Ranger’s Command.”

WOODY GUTHRIE: [singing] But the rustlers broke on us in the dead hours of night;
She ’rose from her blanket, a battle to fight.
She ’rose from her blanket with a gun in each hand,
Said: Come all of you cowboys, fight for your land.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: A rare 1945 video recording of Woody Guthrie. Known as the “Dust Bowl Troubadour,” Guthrie became a major influence on countless musicians, including Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs. While Woody Guthrie is best remembered as a musician, he also had a deeply political side. At the height of the McCarthy era, Guthrie spoke out for labor and civil rights and against fascism. He died in 1967 after a long battle with Huntington’s disease. But his music lives on.

AMY GOODMAN: Over this next hour, we speak with Woody Guthrie’s daughter and granddaughter, and we’ll be joined in studio by the Grammy Award-winning musician Steve Earle. But first, Woody Guthrie, in his own words, being interviewed by the musicologist Alan Lomax.

ALAN LOMAX: What did your family do? What kind of people were they, and where did they come from?

WOODY GUTHRIE: Well, they come in there from Texas in the early day. My dad got to Oklahoma right after statehood. He was the first clerk of the county court in Okemah, Oklahoma, after statehood, as he is known as one of them old, hard-hitting, fist-fighting Democrats, you know, that run for office down there, and they used to miscount the votes all the time. So every time that my dad went to town, it was common the first question that I ask him when he come riding in on a horse that evening, I’d say, “Well, how many fights did you have today?” And then he’d take me up on his knee, and he’d proceed to tell me who he is fighting and why and all about it. “Put her there, boy. We’ll show these fascists what a couple hillbillies can do.”

ALAN LOMAX: Where did you live? On a farm?

WOODY GUTHRIE: Well, no, I was born there in that little town. My dad built a six-room house. Cost him about $7,000 or $8,000. And the day after he got the house built, it burned down.

ALAN LOMAX: What kind of a place was Okemah? How big was it, when you remember it, when you were a kid?

WOODY GUTHRIE: Well, in them days, it was a little town, about 1,500, and then 2,000. A few years later, it got up to about 5,000. They struck some pretty rich oil pools all around there—Grayson City and Slick City and Cromwell and Seminole and Bowlegs and Sand Springs and Springhill. And all up and down the whole country there, they got oil. Got some pretty nice old fields ’round Okemah there.

ALAN LOMAX: Did any of the oil come in your family?

WOODY GUTHRIE: No, no, we got the grease.

AMY GOODMAN: Woody Guthrie being interviewed by the musicologist Alan Lomax.

Well, as we mark Woody Guthrie’s centennial—his birthday is this Saturday—we’re joined here in our New York studio by three very special guests. Nora Guthrie is Woody Guthrie’s daughter. She’s president of both the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives and Woody Guthrie Publications. She’s also author of the brand new book, My Name Is New York: Ramblin’ Around Woody Guthrie’s Town. It’s published by powerHouse Books.

And we’re joined by Anna Canoni. She’s Woody Guthrie’s granddaughter.

And Steve Earle is with us, the musician, actor, author, activist, three-time Grammy Award-winner, performing here in New York at WoodyFest, a three-day concert in celebration of Woody Guthrie’s birthday at the City Winery. His recent novel and album share the same name: I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Nora, you’re the daughter. Tell us about Woody’s early years and the significance of your father, Woody Guthrie.

NORA GUTHRIE: Well, he grew up in Oklahoma, in a little, small town, in Okemah, 1912. And he actually came from a relatively middle-class family. They were in the real spirit of kind of what we’d call entrepreneurs now. His dad was kind of raring to go, make a success of himself. And his mother was of Scotch Irish descent. And it’s really from his mom that he learned how to write ballads. She sang all the long ballads from the old country to him. And spent a couple of years there. Their life quickly began to fall apart. The house burned down. They lost all their money. Illness and fires kind of followed him around. He lost his sister in a fire, etc.

By the time he was about 14, he was kind of on his own, living in a gang house with a bunch of other kids on their own. And that’s when really he began to kind of, I want to say, become conscious of the world around him and all the troubles he was seeing. And he moved up to Pampa, Texas, after a couple of years of living with the kids in the gang house, right at the time when the great Dust Bowls were at their worst. And he was living in Pampa when the great dust storm of 1935 took place.

And again, I bring these up only because they’re wake-up calls. And sometimes it seems that, as human beings, we need these kind of catastrophic wake-up calls to realize and to begin asking who we are, why we’re alive, and what we can do about it. That was the beginning of his journey. He migrated to California with a couple of hundred thousand other people, the largest migration in the history of the United States. And what he discovered when he left his small circle of life in Oklahoma and Texas was that the world was not what he thought it was. And when they tried to cross over to the California border for jobs, they were all stopped by state troopers and vigilante groups who didn’t want the influx of all of these people who had lost their farms where they had lived for generations. So, again, it was like, one step after the next, a series of wake-up calls.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I want to turn to an excerpt of an interview with Woody Guthrie in 1949 at the Newark, New Jersey, YMCA. In this clip, he describes making early childhood political speeches.

WOODY GUTHRIE: At the time that I was born, the year 1912, my father was a sort of a hard, fist-fighting, Woodrow Wilson Democrat. So Woodrow Wilson was nominated that same year. And at the age of about four or five years old, long time before I went to school, I remember my dad used to teach me little political speeches and rhymes. And I’d climb up in the hay wagon around all the political meetings and rallies they had on the streets, and I’d make my little speeches. And it might be that I turned out now that where I don’t believe the speeches anymore and make speeches just the opposite.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: When did he first begin singing and songwriting?

NORA GUTHRIE: He started early on, actually, in Pampa, Texas. He had his first little band, the Corn Cob Trio, and then later the Pampa Junior Chamber of Commerce Band. But in those days, he was mostly influenced by the music he had heard on the radio, actually. And I have to giggle, because he did what every 19-year-old kid does: he forms a band to get a girlfriend. And that was just the impetus behind the whole thing. The early songs that he was writing were kind of dance band music. He played for socials, church socials, you know, local happenings, for the fun of it, actually. And it didn’t occur to him that music could be expanded from then—from that perspective until he got to Los Angeles.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happened in Los Angeles?

NORA GUTHRIE: He was introduced to the labor movement, actually, to the political movement, which was pretty active in Los Angeles that time in the late ’30s. Now, I have to go back. All along the way, he had already played with the idea of songwriting, like I said, but more kind of silly songs about—that any 17- or 18-year-old would do. But as he was traveling along, particularly when he had those issues at the border trying to go into California and a couple of other things, the vigilante groups that he ran into that were trying to keep the Okies and Arkies out of the state of California, a couple of other incidents inspired him to start writing a couple of verses on his own. But again, he’s only 20-something years old—pretty young kid. So he’s writing in a notebook, and he keeps track of things, the stories of the vigilantes, the stories of crossing the border, and songs like “California is a Garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see / But believe it or not, you won’t find it so hot / If you ain’t got that do re mi,” “Vigilante Man,” things like that, “Pretty Boy Floyd.” So he brings some of these verses and tunes to California, when he gets his first radio show.

AMY GOODMAN: Steve Earle, I’m wondering if you could talk about the significance of Woody Guthrie in your life.

STEVE EARLE: Well, I’m—he kind of invented my job. I found out about Woody Guthrie the same way a lot of people my age did: you know, through Bob Dylan. And, you know, I mean, like I’m only—I’m 57, so my first Bob Dylan records were actually relatively late ones, and I backtracked through—I had a drama teacher in high school who gave me a couple of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the second Dylan record. So that was the first time I ever heard what—I mean, I had heard Woody Guthrie by that time, and I had heard, you know, the Bob Dylan records I knew, the ones that I had bought as they came out, but that was the first time I made the connection between just how much, in the early going, you know, Bob Dylan was Woody Guthrie and how important Woody had been to Bob. I understood that connection when I started—when I heard those early records for the first time.

So, you know, it’s 1969. I’m 14 years old. The Vietnam War is going on. I’m not a candidate for a student deferment. As I got older, my friends started getting drafted. And I started out playing in coffeehouses because I wasn’t old enough to play in places that served liquor. And the one coffeehouse in San Antonio, Texas, was a pretty politicized environment. So I heard of—you know, these people quoted Woody Guthrie chapter and verse. They were the—the local underground newspaper was published upstairs. So I never separated music and politics, which kept bringing me back to Woody, over and over and over again, over, you know, writing songs. And I finally went to Nashville when I was 19. And I was trying to make a living playing music. I still don’t consider myself to be a political artist; I’m just an artist that—I think like Woody was—that lives in really politically charged times. And when I started playing, the war was going on. And now, I think these songs become, I think, you know, more relevant every second in the times that we’re living in right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Steve, I was there last night at the City Winery when you played Woody’s song “Deportees.”


AMY GOODMAN: I was wondering if you could do our break live by playing that song.

STEVE EARLE: Yeah, yeah. This song’s like—I don’t know. This song, it becomes more important to me all the time, just because I come from occupied Mexico, so…

[singing] Crops are all in, the peaches are rotting,
The oranges are all packed in their creosote dumps;
They’re flying us back to the Mexican border
To take all our money to wade back again.

Goodbye to my Juan, farewell, Roselita,
Adiós mis amigos, Jesús y María;
You won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane,
All they will call you will be “deportees.”

Now, my father’s own father, he waded that river,
They took all the money that he made in his life;
My brothers and sisters worked in the fruit trees,
They rode the trucks ’til they took down and died.

Goodbye to my Juan, farewell Roselita,
Adiós mis amigos, Jesús y María;
You won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane,
All they will call you will be “deportees.”

Well, the sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon,
A fireball of lightning, and shook all our hills,
Who are these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio says, “They were just deportees.”

Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?
To fall like dry leaves to rot on the topsoil
And be known by no name except “deportees”?

Goodbye to my Juan, farewell, Roselita,
Adiós mis amigos, Jesús y María;
You won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane,
All they will call you will be “deportees.”

AMY GOODMAN: Wow! What a break! Here on Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Steve Earle, live in our studio, the three-time Grammy Award-winning artist, Guthrie-inspired musician. As well, we’re joined by Woody Guthrie’s daughter, Nora Guthrie, who runs the Nora Guthrie—the Woody Guthrie Archives, and Anna Canoni, who is his granddaughter, who works at the Archives, as well.

When you listen to “Deportees,” about this crash, Anna, in—when was it?—1948, near Los Gatos Canyon, 20 miles west of Coalinga in Fresno County, where the people being deported were killed, your thoughts about your grandfather?

ANNA CANONI: Well, I play that song for my kids—I sing it, I don’t play. But I sing it for my kids every night as they go to sleep, which is an interesting way to put your children to sleep, I would like to say. There’s children’s songs that Woody does, but I put my kids to sleep to “Deportee,” “My Peace,” some of the other materials.

But I’m constantly learning about Woody. I feel like he’s still evolving, because we’re still learning more and more about him. So, I was raised knowing who my grandfather was in terms of being a songwriter. Back then, in the early ’80s in Howard Beach, Queens, not a lot of my friends knew, so it’s not like he was a superstar. It was more that he had something to say that was very important, and I was raised on all of his music. Then I started working for my mom at the Woody Guthrie Publications office about 10 years ago. And I’m just learning more and more, and I’m loving more and more about who my grandfather really was, by reading journals and putting out books and learning, researching in the Woody Guthrie Archives.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, you mentioned Howard Beach. I’d like to ask Nora about this, because Woody Guthrie is the quintessential poet of the American heartland, yet he spent a considerable amount of his life in New York City, and not just in Manhattan, but Sea Gate and Coney Island, Howard Beach. Talk—and you’ve actually put out an entire book on Woody in New York City. Could you talk about how he got here and some of the places that he called home while he was here?

NORA GUTHRIE: Yeah. He came to New York in 1940. He hitchhiked across and arrived here on February 16th, 1940. And he came at the invite of Will Geer, who was an actor, a friend that he had met in Los Angeles. A lot of people know him as Grandpa Walton. And he was starring in a show in New York, and he liked Woody’s music, and he said, “You ought to come to New York. They might like you here.” And so, that’s what he did. He hitchhiked across, and he came to New York. And as a matter of fact, he stayed at a little boarding house on 43rd Street and Sixth Avenue. That’s where he hooked up.

And the first three songs he wrote, the first week he was in New York—he had traveled across the country, and he was looking out this window at the little hotel room, and he was remembering his journey. And he sat down and wrote “This Land Is Your Land” that first week in New York. And a lot of people don’t know that he wrote “This Land” — they assume that he wrote it out in the Midwest someplace, but it’s really a New York song. It’s about the result, the culmination of that journey, and how he puts it together, and the lyric, in this boarding house—which, I have to say, right now, you know what stands on that corner? New York Trivial Pursuit question: 43rd and Sixth, southwest corner? Bank of America headquarters.

AMY GOODMAN: Woah! Wow! Let’s stay in 1940, Woody Guthrie appearing on a New York radio program featuring the folk singer Leadbelly.

RADIO ANNOUNCER: Good afternoon. Your municipal station presents another in the series, “Folks Songs of America,” featuring that great Negro folk singer of Louisiana, Huddie Ledbetter, better known to you as Leadbelly. And Leadbelly has as his guest today the dustiest Dust Bowler of them all, Woody Guthrie of Oklahoma.

WOODY GUTHRIE: Well, I think now we’re going to sing you one. Here’s a song here that has to do with a book and a motion picture that come out here a while back by the name of The Grapes of Wrath, wrote down by a man, John Steinbeck, who threw the pack on his back and went right out amongst the people to see just what is going on in the United States. And it just so happened that he hit a jackpot, because he knew what—where he was going and knew what he was writing about. So, I didn’t read the book, but then I seen the picture three times. And I come home, and I sat down. I wrote up a little piece about it. The name of this is “The Ballad of Tom Joad.”

[singing] Tom Joad got out of that old McAlester Pen
There he got his parole
After four long years on a man killing charge
Tom Joad come a walking down the road, poor boy
Tom Joad come a walking down the road

It was there he found him a truck driving man
There he got him a ride
Said: “I just got a-loose from the old penitentiary
Charge called Homicide, poor boy, it was a charge called Homicide.

AMY GOODMAN: That clip of Woody Guthrie from 1940 comes courtesy of the Down Home Radio Show. Now, “Tom Joad,” in your book, My Name Is New York: Ramblin’ Around Woody Guthrie’s Town, 57 East Fourth Street, sixth floor, wrote this. Pete Seeger brought him over to write this song. Describe the situation and then the quote of John Steinbeck when he heard this remarkable song.

NORA GUTHRIE: Well, Woody needed a typewriter to write this particular song, and Pete had a typewriter. And they—he was living on Fourth Street in the East Village at the time. And he spent all night at the typewriter. And Pete was hanging around with him. Pete finally said, “I got so tired.” Woody had a jug of wine. Pete went to bed, and he woke up the next morning, and there was the 16-verse “Ballad of Tom Joad” in the typewriter, and Woody was asleep under the table.

And it was a wonderful consolidation of Steinbeck’s book, The Grapes of Wrath. And Woody was very, very moved by the character of Tom Joad and closely identified with him personally as a young man. He felt that—he wished he could have said, “That’s where I’m going to be, Ma,” which is really out of the book, when Tom Joad ends and he says, “Wherever people are fighting for their rights, wherever people ain’t free, that’s where I’m going to be, Ma.” And that became kind of Woody’s mission in life, as well. Of course, when John Steinbeck heard about the song, he cussed him out and said, “God, that son of a B—-! He put down in 17 verses what it took me two years to write.”

AMY GOODMAN: The power of music. Well, let’s talk about the musicians who worked with Woody. We interviewed Pete Seeger on Democracy Now! a couple years ago, who talked about Alan Lomax and Woody Guthrie.

PETE SEEGER: Well, Alan got me started, and many others. He’s the man who told Woody Guthrie, he says, “Woody Guthrie, your mission in life is to write songs. Don’t let anything distract you. You’re like the people who wrote the ballads of Robin Hood and the ballad of Jesse James. You keep writing ballads as long as you can.” And Woody took it to heart. He wasn’t a good husband. He was always running off, but he wrote songs, as you know.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you remember when you first met Woody Guthrie?

PETE SEEGER: Oh, yeah, I’ll never forget it. It was a benefit concert for California agricultural workers on Broadway at midnight. Burl Ives was there, the Golden Gate Quartet, Josh White, Leadbelly, Margo Mayo Square Dance Group, with my wife dancing in it. I sang one song very amateurishly and retired in confusion to a smattering of polite applause.

But Woody took over and for 20 minutes entranced everybody, not just with singing, but storytelling. “I come from Oklahoma, you know? It’s a rich state. You want some oil? Go down in the ground. Get you some hole. Get you more oil. If you want lead, we got lead in Oklahoma. Go down a hole and get you some lead. If you want coal, we got coal in Oklahoma. Go down a hole, get you some coal. If you want food, clothes or groceries, just go in the hole and stay there.” Then he’d sing a song.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Pete Seeger describing Woody Guthrie. Talk about when they tried out, Nora, at the Rainbow Room.

NORA GUTHRIE: Well, he hooked up early on with Pete Seeger and a couple of other musicians. They were living and working together as the Almanac Singers. And historically, it’s very important because it was the first communal group to form a folk music band, so to speak, that evolved into everything we know, from the Kingston Trio to Weavers, etc., Peter, Paul and Mary—all grew out of that little seed core idea.

But they were kind of getting kind of popular in New York. Their folk music was kind of new. It was a little bit of a buzz happening around town. And they got a chance to audition, even at the Rainbow Room. And people loved them. Bess Hawes laughs and says, “Every time we sang a song that put them down, the rich people loved it, because there’s nothing more they love than having a sense of humor about themselves, unless then you get to the next step—you get serious—and then they stop laughing.”

Anyway, they did this audition at the Rainbow Room, and they were very popular. And the people said, “Oh, you guys are great.” And they wanted to dress them up as hillbillies, with little bonnets, and “You, wear a thing and sit on a pile of hay, and we’ll do hillbilly music, and New York City elite will just love it.” And Woody kind of freaked out and said, “I’m not going to do this.” And the rest of the Almanacs were going, “Why not? This is a great-paying gig.” And Woody says, “I’m not going to make fun of my people.” And they said, “But they’re going to pay a lot of money. We’re going to be a star in New York.” He said, “I’m not going to make fun of my people. And that’s what they want us to do. They want us to be up here so that they can laugh at us, instead of listen to us.”

And he started writing songs on the spot. He was a very good improviser. And he says, “At the Rainbow Room, the soup’s on the boil. They stir their salad with Standard Oil, in New York City.” And he totally blew the situation. And they escaped down the elevator 60-something floors. And—


NORA GUTHRIE: Yeah, well, you know, people don’t understand how hard it is to do things like that, especially when you need money, you’re hungry. They were a very poor little group. And I think Woody kind of taught a lot of people, Steve, how to say no.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Steve, precisely about that, his ability—his importance, in terms of merging politics and music. On his guitar, he had “This Machine Kills Fascists.”

STEVE EARLE: Several guitars, including some that didn’t belong to him. It was—there were a few.

AMY GOODMAN: It was written right over the guitar?

STEVE EARLE: Well, yeah, it was actually—it’s several. Sometimes it was written on the surface of the guitar. There’s several signs that he had made that were put on other guitars, you know. There’s a whole thing of like—I’m kind of a guitar collector, and I’ve spent a lot of time trying to track down the history of various guitars that Woody Guthrie was photographed with, because there’s about five or six of them that he was photographed with. And some of them consistently—one guitar is one Gibson that belonged to him. There’s—I know one of them, there’s a Martin that he’s photographed over and over again, and he even has artist’s model based on it, but it was not his guitar. It was Will Geer’s wife’s guitar that he borrowed and kept for a very long time.

So, it’s—you know, the whole thing about—a lot of it has to do with just who Woody was and how Woody was. I mean, I don’t think—you know, he was a professional entertainer. He had a radio show that was extremely successful. Now, he had bosses that allowed certain—you know, him to get away with a certain amount because of their own political convictions, and there was a lot going on. He got—his audiences, at that point, were—you know, were—it was the labor movement. So that sort of—he’s becoming Woody Guthrie at that point. So by the time he arrives in New York City, he’s Woody Guthrie, and he knows he is. And it’s one of those things. I think he made decisions that—you know, you could make a different decision and make more money, but I think there’s a point in which you realize, OK, I’ve got this audience, and I’m going to keep this audience, and I’m going to be able to look at myself in the mirror, if there are certain lines that I draw for myself as I go along and identify who I am as an artist that I don’t cross. And that can change. It’s not necessarily a static thing. Times change. What’s important to you changes. But I think—I think just, you know, money isn’t—he wasn’t doing this for money. He wasn’t—he was doing it because it happened. He became who he was as a performer as organically, I think, as anybody can, you know, come up with a career plan. It sort of happened, and, you know, a lot of it’s who he was, who he was born in. And most of it, I think, is—as artists, is who we become as whatever, you know, the world presents to us and that we travel through, the paths that we travel.

AMY GOODMAN: Our next break, Steve, it’s your choice.

STEVE EARLE: Oh, I think the one—I don’t think I have any doubt about that, for this.

[singing] I was standing down in New York town one day,
I was standing down in New York town one day,
I was standing down in New York town one day,
Singing hey, hey, hey, hey.

Yeah, I was down on luck and didn’t have a dime,
I was down on luck, didn’t have a dime,
I was down on luck, didn’t have a dime,
Singing hey, hey, hey, hey.

Every good man gets a little hard luck sometimes,
Every good man gets a little hard luck sometimes,
Every good man gets a little hard luck sometimes,
Singing hey, hey, hey, hey.

Yeah, now, I’m gonna ride that new morning railroad,
I’m gonna ride that new morning train,
I’m gonna ride that new morning railroad,
Singing hey, hey, hey, hey.

Down and out and he ain’t got a dime,
Down and out and he ain’t got a dime,
Down and out and he ain’t got a dime,
Singing hey, hey, hey, hey.

Hey, hey, hey, hey,
Hey, hey, hey, hey,
Hey, hey, hey, hey,
Hey, hey, hey, hey.

AMY GOODMAN: Steve Earle playing Guthrie, “New York Town.” This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we continue our special today marking the hundredth anniversary of the birth of one of the most important folk singers of our time. Celebrations are being held around the world. Born on July [14th], 1912, from California to the New York island, including here in New York City, where Steve Earle, among many musicians, including Billy Bragg, is performing at WoodyFest at the City Winery. A Woody Guthrie Folk Festival is also taking place in Woody’s home town of Okemah, Oklahoma.

Our guests are Steve Earle, the three-time Grammy Award-winning musician, and Woody Guthrie’s daughter Nora Guthrie, president of both the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives, and his granddaughter, Anna Canoni, who works at the Archives, as they preserve Woody Guthrie’s memory.

That song, “New York Town,” what does it mean to you, Nora? When did he write it?

NORA GUTHRIE: How to catch a cab. “Hey! Hey! Hey!” Well, Woody wrote a ton of stuff. He wrote over 600 songs. He was in New York City from 1940 until he passed away, 1967. And a lot of people don’t think of him as a New Yorker, but that was really his home town for most of his life, actually. He was 27 when he came to New York. That’s when he wrote “This Land Is Your Land.” Can you imagine? Twenty-seven.

AMY GOODMAN: Twenty-seven.

NORA GUTHRIE: Steve, what were you doing when you’re 27?

STEVE EARLE: I wasn’t writing “This Land Is Your Land.” I was writing songs, though.

AMY GOODMAN: And was that the name of it? Was that the name of the song?

NORA GUTHRIE: Originally—

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the forbidden verses?

NORA GUTHRIE: Originally—originally, it was titled “God Blessed America” because originally it was a kind of quasi-parody of Irving Berlin’s song “God Bless America,” that was popular that year. Kate Smith had a hit song with it. And I never considered it anti-Berlin, and I refuse to consider it anti-Berlin. I know a lot of people have made a big thing of that. But I think it’s an extension of “God Bless America,” because one is the voice of an immigrant who’s coming from a really hard time in Russia, and he’s really glad to be here, and the other is when you’re born here, and it’s the next extension. It’s chapter two of a song about America. So that’s—anyway, nobody asked, but that’s my thoughts about it. But—so he wrote a ton of stuff here in New York City. That was one of the—he used to busk along the bars on 10th Avenue, Ninth Avenue and 10th Avenue on the West Side there. And—

STEVE EARLE: When the docks were still there. Those were—

NORA GUTHRIE: The docks—

STEVE EARLE: Those were sailor bars down there in those days.

NORA GUTHRIE: Yeah, they were all sailors and guys who worked on ships, etc. The Cunard Lines were coming in from Liverpool in those days also, which is—that’s another story, the connection of rock ‘n’ roll and the Beatles and Lonnie Donegan, because that’s how the Beatles heard about Woody. They used to go to Lonnie Donegan shows in Liverpool, and he was singing Woody and Leadbelly tunes.

STEVE EARLE: “Rock Island Line” was his biggest hit, which was a Leadbelly tune.

NORA GUTHRIE: Right, and he did “Roll On Columbia.”

STEVE EARLE: Yeah, he did.

NORA GUTHRIE: “Big Grand Coulee Dam,” he did. And the little Beatles—they were all like 14, 15, 16—they were in the audience listening to Lonnie Donegan. So there’s this incredible musical history lineage between Woody, the Upper West Side and the docks, where he’s singing songs like “Hey, Hey, Hey” for a nickel in a bar to get—to get a drink, basically. So, that’s another story.

AMY GOODMAN: Woody, in the last 15 years of his life, got very sick.


AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about his struggle with Huntington’s disease?


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And it’s also a disease that claimed his mother’s life, as well.

NORA GUTHRIE: Right, his mother was institutionalized when he was about 12 years old. She had an unknown disease, and she was falling apart, basically. And they figured it was all the troubles that the family was having with losing their money and the Depression, dust. She was put in an insane asylum, actually. They didn’t know what to do with her. And she passed away there. Woody never saw her again.

And in the late 1940s, Woody suspected that something was wrong with him, as well. And his behavior started changing. He was having trouble walking, things like that. And at the time, nobody really knew what it was. His friends thought he was drinking a lot, and they kind of started staying clear of him, because they thought he was a bad influence. And a lot of the anecdotal history that you still hear around town is what a drunk he was, he was a womanizer, da-da-la-da-da-la-da. But all this is really related to Huntington’s disease, including hypersexual behavior, things like that. Now they know. Anyway, long story short, he was finally diagnosed around 1952. All they could do was diagnose you. They said, “Well, you have Huntington’s, but we don’t have any clue what to do about it.”

AMY GOODMAN: It makes you lose control.

NORA GUTHRIE: It’s a neurological disease, and it affects body, mind, everything. Like I just said, emotionally, psychologically, he started changing. He really started falling apart, actually, and caused a lot of problems in the family, obviously. Nobody knew. He was just crazy. Anyway, so he was diagnosed. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Institutionalized?

NORA GUTHRIE: He self—he put himself in a hospital, after he—he wandered around the country. He tried to hold on to whatever life he had. He was kind of running away from it, probably, hitchhiking around the country, dropping in on old friends in Oklahoma and California. And finally, he got a grip on himself and realized he would be hospitalized. And he did live for 15 years in different New York City hospitals.

AMY GOODMAN: Like Greystone out in New Jersey.

NORA GUTHRIE: Yeah, and ironically, it was also a psychiatric ward. Greystone was the largest psychiatric ward on the East Coast. It had like hundreds of thousands of people or something in it.

AMY GOODMAN: Just outside Morristown.

NORA GUTHRIE: Yeah. And he was in a—just like his mom. They didn’t know what to do with him, and he was put in a psychiatric ward with 50 other patients. One of the symptoms of Huntington’s, like you can’t—you lose control of your arms, etc. And, you know, in these institutions, they would walk around and drop a plate of food in front of your bed. It was like kind of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest here. And he couldn’t get the fork to his mouth. My mother had to pay other patients to feed him.

AMY GOODMAN: Your mother was?

NORA GUTHRIE: Marjorie Mazia Guthrie, who—a lot of people in your audience might know her from the Martha Graham Company. She was quite well known in the dance world in New York City in those years. She was Merce Cunningham’s teacher. She was Erick Hawkins’ teacher. Anyway, our house was Leadbelly to the left and Martha Graham to the right, and other people in front and back.

AMY GOODMAN: Where was—wait, John Gotti, too?

NORA GUTHRIE: John Gotti lived right over there.

AMY GOODMAN: He was your next-door neighbor?


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was in Howard Beach.

NORA GUTHRIE: In Howard Beach, right.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Absolutely.

NORA GUTHRIE: Right, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And who was your Hebrew teacher?

NORA GUTHRIE: Yeah, my grandmother was a Yiddish poetess. This is another story, Amy, but she was like a well-known Yiddish poetess. And she had written her story of her life in Hebrew, and my mother wanted us to be able to read her story. So she thought—and, by the way, we’re not religious. On my birth certificate, under religion, it says, “All or none.” Anyway, but one of the cultural aspects was that we should learn Hebrew to read my grandmother’s stuff. And so, my mom hired a local rabbi, who was from the synagogue a couple blocks away. He was a young guy in his twenties or something, seemed kind of sweet and quiet, actually. And she hired him for a couple of months to teach us Hebrew. I actually have home footage of him in the house. We’re sitting around the table like this. Anyway, it was a disaster, and we were not very good. And he got really upset and said to my mother, “The Guthrie kids are not taking Hebrew seriously.” And he was right.

AMY GOODMAN: And he was?

NORA GUTHRIE: And he left. He quit. Evidently, he quit America, as well, and ended up in Israel. And his name was Meir Kahane.

AMY GOODMAN: And Meir Kahane ended up being assassinated in Times Square.


NORA GUTHRIE: Yeah. But he was a tough guy.

AMY GOODMAN: So, John—John Gotti—

NORA GUTHRIE: He was like passive-aggressive.

AMY GOODMAN: Rabbi Kahane. Then you went on to live in Chappaqua. Your neighbors are the Clintons.

NORA GUTHRIE: Yeah, I moved up to Westchester like really 20-something years ago, after living in around all the boroughs, went to Elisabeth Irwin High School, where a lot of your friends from last night went—Johnny Hammond and a lot of—

STEVE EARLE: Yeah, it was a—there is a big Elisabeth Irwin reunion last night there at this, yeah.

NORA GUTHRIE: Well, it’s right across the street from City Winery.

STEVE EARLE: I played—friends of mine that have a child at E.I. now asked me to do—they were—the kids put together a coffeehouse as a fundraiser for—at E.I., and I played in that little auditorium at E.I. And it was pretty—you know, I knew you by that time, so—you know, by the time I did that. And I just talked to people that I knew that had gone to school there. And, you know, that stage—you know, like Leadbelly was definitely on that stage. I know that for a fact.

NORA GUTHRIE: My dad played there.

STEVE EARLE: Yeah, and I wondered whether Woody actually played there or not.

NORA GUTHRIE: My father played at Elisabeth Irwin in 1949. But it’s an historically very important school, actually, because it was—a lot of blacklisted teachers worked there, people who couldn’t get work anyplace else in the ’50s. And so, like my music teacher was Victor Fink, who’s Janis Ian’s father. People that went to the school—Angela Davis went there. The Rosenbergs’ kids were there. Arthur Miller’s kids were there. Norman Mailer’s kids were there. Woody Guthrie’s kids were there. So it was a very interesting school to go to. But, anyway, I did move up to Westchester.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about the impact on the family of your father’s battle with Huntington’s. Eventually your mother began an effort to eradicate Huntington’s.

NORA GUTHRIE: Right. When my dad died, they held a concert at Carnegie Hall. And actually, that was the concert that Dylan came out of retirement. He had been in the motorcycle accident and came out of retirement and says, “I got to do this.” And that was a wonderful—the band was there and Dylan and a whole bunch of other people. My brother was just starting out. He must have been like 20 or something at the time.

But at that point, my mother was an—she was an incredible woman. She really deserves a network television show just to talk about her or something. I don’t know. But she kind of put her foot down and gathered us all around the table. I was 21. And the day after I turned 21, she said to us, “Are you all OK? You’re 21 now. Can you take care of yourselves? You’re OK?” And we all went, “Yeah, Mom. What’s up?” And she said, “I have to go find a cure for Huntington’s disease.” And we went, “Oh, OK. It’s OK with us.” And that’s when she put an ad in the New York Times the next day and said, “If anyone knows anything about Huntington’s disease, call Virginia-80249.” And one person called. And they met for tea. They put the ad in again. Three people called. They met for tea.

Long story short, she founded all the organizations that began Huntington’s disease research, which is now at the forefront. All the doctors and researchers that are at the forefront of genetic research right now were my mother’s babies. She—not literally. But she would go around to all the medical schools and talk to the students and say, “Why go into plastic surgery, when you can go into genetic research?” Again, why do you have to make money when you can do something for humanity? So, she is really the godmother of so much of the research that’s happening now.

One funny story, since Anna’s here. When I was pregnant with Anna—

AMY GOODMAN: We have 20 seconds.


AMY GOODMAN: Tell it quickly.

NORA GUTHRIE: I said, “Mom, I’m going to have a baby.” She said, “I have to go to Australia to find out about Huntington’s disease.” I said, “But I’m going to have a baby!” She goes, “It’ll be fine. Don’t worry.” You know, so—

ANNA CANONI: Everyone does it.

NORA GUTHRIE: —she wasn’t there for it. I said, “Everyone’s there for the birth of their first grandchild.” And she had to go to Australia to make a speech that night. But it was that kind of life, you know, where you really, as children and everything, you kind of learn to give it up for humanity.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, on that note, I want to thank you both very much for being with us. We’re going to continue our post-show just after this break, and you can go to democracynow.org. Thank you to Steve Earle and to Anna Canoni and to Nora Guthrie, president of both the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archive. If you want to get a copy of today’s show, as well as our July 4th show, marking this hundredth anniversary of the birth of one of the country’s greatest songwriters, Woody Guthrie, born on July 14, 1912, you can go to democracynow.org.

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