By Robin Wheeler
My friend and Oklahoma travel partner Aimee Levitt published some excellent Woody Guthrie coverage culled from our trip for St. Louis’ Riverfront Times. Makes for an excellent primer for those wanting to learn more about Guthrie. And it’s just damn good writing.
I’ve already written my professional and somewhat unbiased takes from the University of Tulsa’s Woody 100 symposium and the first This Land is Your Land tribute concert. I’m still trying to process and convey the emotional impact of the weekend in Oklahoma.
Right. Who comes away from an academic symposium all emotional? I do. It’s a powerful thing, being in a room with so many people who care about the exact same minutia you do. We’re all conductors of energy, and by the end of the day it felt like we could stage a populist revolution, Okie-style. And I wish we had. But we were pretty tired. The will was there, though.
With our brains full, Aimee and I skipped the final panel – an artists’ roundtable – and made a last-ditch trip to the Gilcrease Museum, which was hosting a Guthrie-related exhibit. I hadn’t done much research on it. Not that it would have been difficult, since the museum has the collection online.
I had no idea what to expect, which made it all the more amazing.
I’m a sucker for musician museum exhibits. And I’m really lucky that two of my best friends live in the Cleveland area, giving me an excuse to hit the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame to see special exhibits of artifacts from some of my most beloved artists – Springsteen, The Clash, U2, and last year’s Women Who Rock collection.
Handwritten lyrics kill me. Seeing the paper, the scratch marks, the doodles and scratch-outs and eraser-bleered streaks left behind by creative minds I admire gives me hope. It shows the struggle of all artists, that no one gets it right the first time. We trip over words and thoughts, scrawl them on napkins, wad them up and throw them away, fish them out, write some more.
In 2006 I turned 34 years old standing over a glass case in Cleveland, my fingers hovering above the paper bearing Joe Strummer’s “London Calling” lyrics, crying onto the display. The physical, written words sometimes get to me as much as the meaning behind them.
The Guthrie exhibit, which will be traveling to museums in conjunction with other Woody 100 events, was on par with the soul-stirring exhibits I’ve seen at music museums. I anticipated plenty of Woody-related art: a series from the “Bound for Glory” author photo shoot, paintings of the artist, and lots of Woody’s doodles, drawings, and cartoons.
But there was also his clothing, including a tiny t-shirt he wore during a spell of his 15-year hospitalization with the Huntington’s Disease that eventually killed him. Guthrie was a tiny fellow, but that shirt – white, dingy, bearing the name of the hospital, and looking like it would be a good fit for my eight-year-old daughter – broke my heart. Even compared to his plaid work shirts in the next display case, holes mended by his wife Marjorie, the hospital t-shirt illustrated just how Huntington’s devoured him.
One of the symposium speakers talked about how Guthrie had pristine handwriting. When his writing became sloppy, he knew something was wrong. That was how Huntington’s first showed itself. Looking at Gurthrie’s displayed journals and lyrics, the sudden degeneration shows. It’s stark and sickening. But it didn’t stop him. Even when he could barely scrawl, he kept writing. Even when his hospitalized frame of reference led him to writing notebooks filled with lyrics about nurses, he kept writing.
A few years ago at the urging of my friend Annie, I started a Twitter account for my verbose and precocious kid. Guthrie did the late 1940′s equivalent: he kept an annual journal for each of his children, documenting what they said. One notebook on display – his daughter Cathy’s sayings from 1947 – is mostly empty. She died unexpectedly a few days after he started it. But the notebook still exists, preserved under the tutelage of Cathy’s sister Nora in the Woody Guthrie Archives, along with the other notebooks their father kept.
Guitars on display, seeing the strings touched by his hands, making the music. Loathing the glass that separates. This is exactly why the glass exists: because of people like me who just can’t get close enough and require a physical barrier.
The final typed manuscript for “Bound for Glory” was there. I recognized the words on the pages displayed.
But the lyrics … my museum weakness, and this was the mother of all modern music lyric collections. “Union Maid”? I giggled. “California Stars”? I jumped up and down. Right there in the museum. Jumped up and down like an unhinged little kid.
We only had an hour to run through the exhibit before the museum closed. Not an easy task, and I did a lot of zig-zagging through the last room, manic to see everything. So much so that I almost missed the most important part:
“You saw the lyrics to ‘This Land is Your Land,’ right?”
Thanks to Aimee for looking out for me, because I almost missed the single vertical display in the center of the last room, displaying nothing but one yellowed page, tightly written verses, only a few scratch-outs. The only known draft of “This Land is Your Land.”
My gut reaction was to throw my arms around the display case and hug it. I refrained, but on my most primal, emotional, human level, that’s what I wanted to do. While other songs have elicited over-the-top emotional reactions from me, this is the only one that moved me to think a physical show of love for a piece of paper was reasonable.
The things I noticed once I came to my senses and could start to process what I was seeing:
- Original draft. This is the only known draft he made of the song. It was found in a notebook five years after his death. See the note at the bottom of the page? Original draft. This is how the song came out of him. Pure and straight-forward. He intended it to be a response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” but was later asked to make it less obvious. Hence the change in the title. But that’s it. Who writes something so right in one take? Woody Guthrie, apparently. As a writer, this floors me. I can’t even get my grocery list this pristine in one try.
- The nearly-lost verses. Before Woody’s death the song had been adopted as a patriotic anthem by people who opted to drop the third and fifth verses because they paint a rather ugly, but accurate, picture of America. Woody made sure he taught those verses to his son Arlo so they wouldn’t be lost. And with this paper preserved, they never will be. Arlo’s done a fine job of preserving the song’s integrity, and his sister Nora a fine job of preserving where the words originated.
- The message following the final verse. “*All you can write is what you see.” Just typing those words now, three weeks after seeing them in person, and I break into gooseflesh. If anyone was going to sum up my life in one simple sentence, of course it would be Woody Guthrie, nearly 30 years before my birth. That one sentence sums up my purpose in life. It sums up my inexplicable fixation with Woody.
All you can write is what you can see.
Convey the truth. When someone tries to edit that truth, teach your children to sing it and preserve it. Because if it’s the truth, it’ll still be the truth in 70 years. It’ll still be important. It’ll still be heard.
In January, 2009, Guthrie’s friend and contemporary, Pete Seeger, with his grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger and Bruce Springsteen, led a choir and an enormous crowd in “This Land is Your Land” on the Mall in Washington D.C. on the occasion of Barack Obama’s presidential nomination.
Seeger didn’t omit the verses. And he smiled a smile of pure, unadulterated joy as he sang ‘em.