Monday, May 26, 2008

Bob Dylan Week (III) -- Singing for Woody

from "Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie," by Bob Dylan

When yer head gets twisted and yer mind grows numb
When you think you're too old, too young, too smart or too dumb
When yer laggin' behind an' losin' yer pace
In a slow-motion crawl of life's busy race

Like John Steinbeck, in The Grapes of Wrath, Woody Guthrie put a human face to the devastation of the dust bowl of the 1930s. He portrayed in song the plight of the Okies as they were uprooted from their farms and headed westward to California to work in the fruit groves. During the Great Depression, Guthrie's empathy for the plight of the workers led him to socialist politics, and even a flirtation with communism, as a possible means to remedy what appeared to be both a material and moral collapse of American capitalism.

Bob Dylan was inspired by Guthrie's life story, as he read it in Bound for Glory, and he was deeply moved by Guthrie's recordings. As Robert Santelli put it in The Bob Dylan Scrapbook: "He became a Guthrie disciple overnight, falling in love with the folk singer's simple songs and complex themes, and also with the notion of being a troubadour, a musical hobo who experienced things most other men could only dream about." (p. 13)

By late 1960, Guthrie was confined to a hospital bed. He had been diagnosed in 1952 with Huntington's chorea, a devastating and slowly progressive disease that attacks the muscles and the central nervous system. If Bob Dylan was going to meet his new idol, he felt he was going to have to do it quickly, and so he left the University of Minnesota and headed for the Big Apple. En route, he made brief stops in Madison, Wisconsin (where he saw Pete Seeger perform), and Chicago, before finally making his way to Greenwich Village in early 1961. Greenwich village, like Minneapolis, provided a rich coffee house and folk music scene, only much more so.

Dylan wasted little time upon his arrival in New York before going (unannounced and uninvited) to visit the Guthrie's home in Brooklyn. A few days later he showed up (unannounced and uninvited) to the hospital and asked to see Woody. Woody, though unable to talk very well, was still able to understand. For the next several weeks, Dylan visited his adopted mentor frequently, and played Guthrie's own songs back to him, accompanying himself on the guitar. Not only did he sound like Woody, he even began to dress like Woody.

In the meantime, Dylan also seized every opportunity (and there were many) to play at open mic nights in the Greenwich Village coffee houses. He was quickly becoming a fixture in the local folk music scene. By April, 1961, Dylan was even given the opportunity to open for John Lee Hooker, at one of the Village's more popular clubs, and in June he was invited to play harmonica on Harry Belafonte's Midnight Special record. He did the same for folk singer Carolyn Hester, and his playing was enthusiastically reviewed. As quickly as that, it seems, Bob Dylan was offered his own recording contract with Columbia Records.

Woody Guthrie, requiring round the clock care, was confined to hospitals for another six years. Born July 14, 1912, he passed away on October 3, 1967, at the age of 55.

The closing lines from Dylan's "Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie":

You can either go to the church of your choice
Or you can go to Brooklyn State Hospital
You'll find God in the church of your choice
You'll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital

And though it's only my opinion
I may be right or wrong
You'll find them both
In the Grand Canyon
At sundown

1 comment:

Songfacts said...

I didn't know Dylan visited Woody when he was sick. Guthrie was a real interesting guy. We had a great chat with his granddaughter Anna recently: