The closest I got to Woody Guthrie was the morning I quickly shuffled through his personal letters, while a vigilant lady kept a beady eye on me, in a small room in a New York office block.
The office belonged to Harold Leventhal – the legendary music manager who’d worked with Benny Goodman, Pete Seeger, and Guthrie himself. His staff had maintained the folksinger’s archive for decades after Guthrie’s death, and I visited there in 2003 to undertake some research as part of a writing project I’d planned.
My groundwork came to naught, but I did enjoy an hour immersed in manuscripts of Guthrie’s lyrics, letters, and notes (and briefly encountered Leventhal himself). Looking back, the ride up an old escalator to a small room in an ageing Midtown building was the culmination of a journey I’d been on for a few years.
Bruce Springsteen once commented that when he heard the opening of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ for the first time, “that snare shot…sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind”.
My snare shot was the first few fingerpicked bars of ‘This Land Is Your Land’, recorded by Guthrie in 1944 and which I heard for the first time – and listened to heavily afterwards – in my rented room on Cadogan Road in Dublin in the late 1990s.
Every verse hit home, not least the last:
Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me
I’ve long since lost the CD that contained that track (and others, including a great Cisco Houston version of ‘Deportee’) – probably because I moved on from it so quickly. Within months, I’d picked up and devoured whatever budget-priced collections of Guthrie’s music I could afford.
Shortly afterwards, on a trip to New York, I came across a copy of ‘Bound For Glory’ at Biography Bookshop on Bleecker Street, five minutes’ walk from ‘Alamanac House’, the apartment Guthrie used as a writing space with Pete Seeger and others in the 1940s.
All the while, I played and sung Guthrie songs on my battered Hohner acoustic guitar – at parties in Dublin, at cook-outs on the shores of Lake Tahoe, and – an occasion which sticks out in my memory – far above New York’s pavements on the balcony of an Upper West Side apartment I crashed at on another brief visit to the city in the 90s.
So Woody Guthrie meant a lot to me back then. He still does – a small part of me takes heart in the fact that every time I see the mighty flow of water which runs 10 minutes from my home in Portland, my first thought is ‘Roll On, Columbia’.
Guthrie’s been back in my mind in recent days, as the 50th anniversary of his death approaches, next Tuesday.
I’ve also seen more of him in recent times – in the humanity displayed by those who comforted the dying and helped the survivors after the Las Vegas shooting, and in the actions of citizens helping one another in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.
Like Guthrie’s writings, the practice of people simply helping one another – whether they be lifelong neighbors or complete strangers – stands in contrast to the rancor of partisan politics and the seemingly-constant slew of bad news.
Such actions, like the best of Woody Guthrie’s songs, offer hope.
As the folksinger himself wrote of his life’s work:
I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work.
So next Tuesday I’ll listen or strum a few, remember Woody, and keep the hoping machine running.