Finding Guthrie in Manhattan

A small museum for a wandering minstrel.

By Kathleen Sampey

NEW YORK -- Standing before a New York audience in 1963, Bob Dylan gave a rare, spoken tribute to his musical hero: "And where do you look for this hope that you're seekin'?" he asked. "You'll find Woody Guthrie in the Brooklyn State Hospital."

Guthrie died four years later, but his memory lives on at the Woody Guthrie Archive.

In adjoining offices on West 57th Street not much bigger than two cubicles, the archive contains about 10,000 artifacts related to the folksinger, who gave a voice to the down-and-out in the 1930s and '40s with songs praising labor unions, Jesus Christ, and "Pretty Boy" Floyd.

On every wall, Guthrie's earnest yet puckish countenance stares down from posters and photos. True to his spirit, you don't need any "do re mi" to visit -- the archive is available by appointment for free. "A lot of young guys show up with their guitars," archivist George Arevalo said. "They're interested in mining the song lyrics for inspiration. "We get writers, researchers, journalists, and students doing dissertations. We had one young guy come up who was writing a book on famous dishwashers. And wouldn't you know, Woody was once a dishwasher."

Guthrie was plenty more: social crusader, essayist, painter, environmentalist, recording artist, and influence to a generation of folk-rock artists from Dylan to Bruce Springsteen and more.

Born in Okemah, Okla., in 1912, he traveled the country during the Depression, playing a guitar that had the slogan "This machine kills fascists" pasted onto it.

The songs he wrote and sang with his reedy tenor, including "Do Re Mi," "Dust Bowl Blues" and "Union Maid," were a testament to the suffering he witnessed among the poor and the powerless. Those and other recordings of Guthrie performing solo and with contemporaries such as Pete Seeger and the Weavers are part of the archive, and can be sampled.

Joe Klein, author of Woody Guthrie: A Life, called Guthrie the patron saint of teenage rebelliousness.

"There's always someone who's sick of the way things are in town who hops a train and heads west," Klein said. "That is a very classically American image. He and Leadbelly [ Huddie Ledbetter ] together are the fathers of rock and roll and gangster rap."

The bulk of the Guthrie archives came from the singer's business manager, Harold Leventhal, who was given numerous boxes of Guthrie's doodlings, musings and unpublished lyrics by the second of Guthrie's three wives, Marjorie, in 1961. The boxes sat in Leventhal's office, where the archive is now organized, until the early 1990s.

Starting with a $100,000 donation from recording artists and companies, Leventhal and Guthrie's daughter Nora hired Arevalo. With their assistant, Amy Danelian, they began organizing and restoring the works. The archive opened in April.

Among the most requested items for viewing is a framed sheet of paper with the original handwritten lyrics to Guthrie's most famous song, "This Land Is Your Land." It shows the original title and chorus, "God Blessed America." The title and some lyrics were crossed out and reworked, and the piece is signed "Woody G., Feb. 23, 1940."

For Nora Guthrie, who was 17 when her father died, organizing the archives allowed her to get to know her father, who had been ill all her life.

"You know how you never think your parents are really interesting?" she asked with a laugh. "I knew he was famous, and people liked his songs. But my first impression when going through the archives was that this guy had something, especially in his thoughts about women. For a long time, he had mostly been a 'guy' thing."

She was particularly touched by a poem, "I Say to You Woman and Man," which her father wrote when the family lived in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn in the mid-1940s, before she was born.

"In it he basically tells the woman that she has a lot of power and a lot of juice and lot of beauty, and that she should go out there and go for it," Nora Guthrie said. "He says go dance, your life, your politics, your music, your voice."

The archive is rich with personal glimpses of her father. Some 600 of his artworks, done in marker and watercolor on everything from construction paper to paper towels, can also be viewed. They are so fragile that Arevalo wears white cotton gloves to handle them.

Several are serious studies of the human form; others are bawdy cartoons of the same. Still others are loving portraits, such as the pencil sketch of his oldest daughter drawn in the Guthrie home in Coney Island. "Cathy's Got the Mumps" was dated 1946, the year the little girl died in a fire. The tragedy was one of many in Guthrie's life. His sister also died in a fire; a son died in a car accident; his mother succumbed to Huntington's disease, a genetic neurological disorder that took 15 years to kill Guthrie and, later, two of his eight children.

And in the 1950s, Guthrie was blacklisted, which prompted a typically glib response: "I ain't a Communist necessarily, but I been in the red all my life."

Arevalo said that many private collectors and auction houses have approached Nora Guthrie, hoping to buy portions of the archive, but were rebuffed. The archive is a national treasure, and should be preserved as such, he said.

In conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution, the archivists are putting together a Guthrie traveling exhibit to open in Sacramento, Calif., in March. It's part of a fund-raising effort to expand and preserve the archive.

Arevalo's wish list includes transferring some of the 8mm home movies of Guthrie to video for use in the traveling exhibit. And he hopes to digitize the 700 photographs in the archive so visitors can call them up on a computer.

As for Guthrie's social and musical legacy, his daughter wants people to recognize that "in his time he was more of a rolling stone. But that stone has stopped and turned into a foundation for other people to build on."


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Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:42:23 EDT