When I went to see Nora Guthrie speak about her father Woody this afternoon, she began describing her father’s legacy with a little story about him going to New York City for the first time in the early spring of 1940.
“On the first night he was there, he wrote a song called ‘Government Road,’” she began. “On the second night, he wrote a song called ‘Jesus Christ.’ On the third night, he wrote a song called ‘This Land Is Your Land.’ And on the fourth night, he wrote a song about women’s hats.”
“And I think that,” she said proudly, “says it all: Politics, spirituality, America, and women.” It’s true – Woody’s mind was as far-reaching and all-encompassing as the pastures of plenty he famously sang about. It made me think of Andy Warhol’s “Pop idea,” which he would articulate some two decades after Woody’s trip to New York City that “anyone could do anything – so naturally, we were trying to it all.”
In fact, Nora Guthrie practically paraphrased Warhol’s words, explaining how she felt society was all about focus, focus, focus. She felt that her father was a man who didn’t worry about focus. He simply did whatever he wanted – writing stories, drawing, and playing music. He was a sort of Tom Joad/Renaissance Man.
The cruel irony was that, by the time Nora Guthrie was old enough to have memories of her father, he was already suffering from Huntington’s Disease. Her role to her father was one of a caretaker. Because of the disease, Woody could not control his limbs and it was very difficult for him to speak, and when he did, it wasn’t about Communism or fascism, it was usually to ask for food or drink. When your body is uncontrollably shaking and twitching, she explained, you are constantly burning calories.
There was music all around when she was growing up, she remembered, just none of it came from her father. She recalled the likes of Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs coming to the house to visit with Woody and the family, and when they did, his requests were always the same: Woody wanted to hear his own music. I had always read this, and took this as some reflection of Woody’s self-importance (there’s the legend that when Woody heard one of Dylan’s earliest compositions, he said that Dylan wasn’t much of a songwriter, but he had a great singing voice). Maybe so, but Nora had a different spin on things. She saw it her father’s confirmation that his music would live on, that he had started something that would outlive him and everyone else.
Not everyone got this. But people like Bob Dylan did. “When you came to see my father,” Nora explained, “you came to serve him. It wasn’t a question of what he could do for you. It was a question of what you could bring to him. And usually, that was a chance to hear his own music.”
It is unclear just how much, if any, of Woody Guthrie owned of his own records. I should’ve asked, but didn’t think to. And we know that he was too sick to play guitar or sing his own music. So when a kid came along like Bob Dylan, who was basically a walking Woody Guthrie jukebox, it only makes sense that Woody wanted his own music to be played.
For, unlike people today, Woody Guthrie had no iPod. But he had a Bob Dylan. Which is much cooler. An iPod can play back and preserve your songs, true, but a Bob Dylan can do all of that, plus take influence from it to form his own music, and in turn inspire others to do the same.
I, for one, would love to go back in time and listen in on some of the afternoons where a young Dylan was playing for his idol, but I can’t – I know of no known recordings of it.
But maybe that’s all the more appropriate.