Woody Guthrie at Folk Alliance 2016
Dateline, Kansas City, February 17, 2016; “We’re very sorry, Mr. Guthrie, but all the showcases have been taken.” “That’s OK; I wasn’t expecting to be here. I was sleeping under a railroad bridge in Cupertino, California when I overheard a hobo singing:
Going to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come
Going to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come
Got some crazy little women there
And I’m a-gonna get me one
So I hopped the next fast freight and here I am. I don’t have a cell phone or I would have called. No need to put me on; I know you have lots of talent here. Take it easy, but take it!”
And that was the last they saw of him. Guthrie was heading for New York City to see his old friend Pete Seeger. But it was quite a week at the 28th annual Folk Alliance—over a thousand musicians—one for every song Woody had written—from 20 countries in attendance hoping to catch the eyes and ears of various promoters and booking agents on a par with SXSW. Folk singers every one of them—who had never sung on a picket line, in a hobo jungle or for a demonstration in their lives, since that would take precious time from their open mics, house concerts and coffeehouse and college shows, and no one was taping them for live-streaming around the world; hard travelin’ as someone once said.
By the time Woody got to New York the Folk Alliance was in full swing, where tons of business cards were exchanged, and promo packages, EPs, CDs and smiling Head Shots with flaming new guitars proffered. It was the Grand Central Station of modern folk music, which had somehow turned into a big business of performers who aspire to nothing so much as a spotlight on The Voice or America’s Got Talent, which they might parlay into a recording contract as the New Woody Guthrie. Times have changed, as Dylan said.
Meanwhile, back at a psychiatric rehab facility in Los Angeles, a different kind of folk singer was taking a 43 year-old Gibson out of a well-traveled guitar case with an Amnesty International and KPFK sticker plastered proudly on the front—getting ready to entertain some old Vietnam veterans in wheel chairs and walkers on psych meds who looked forward to him coming every month for their birthday party. He sings all over the city at similar facilities and adult day care centers for Alzheimer patients and grassroots neighborhood organizing campaigns to lower our carbon footprint and peace and justice rallies to free Leonard Pelletier and remember Oscar Romero—the assassinated El Salvadorian Archbishop who stood up to the Death Squads during Reagan’s effort to aid the Contras in Nicaragua and corrupt dictatorships in El Salvador. Not a day went by that he didn’t put music in the service of some larger social goal where his only weapon was a song. Oh, he also led a folk music club to perpetuate traditional music—songs for the most part with no copyright on them anyone could sing for free without paying royalties—spirituals, blues, sea shanties, cowboy, train and Wobbly songs in the Great American Song-bag. And he sang for children too, on the best-known kids show on L.A. radio—Uncle Ruthie’s Halfway Down the Stairs on KPFK—where the subscription drive coordinator had given him the sticker for his guitar case.
Have Guitar, Will Travel he put on a card once—with a phone number to hand out should anyone wish to hire him. His most recent booking had him driving north to Santa Clarita to sing Woody’s Dust Bowl Ballads at the opening of a library exhibit for a new novel based on the story of Dorothea’s Lange’s classic photograph Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California 1937. He sang for two hours and told them the story of Woody, Lange, and in passing John Steinbeck as well—whose novel Grapes of Wrath Woody adapted into the Ballad of Tom Joad. He sang all 17 verses of it—not a chorus or refrain to slow the story down. And he got paid for it too, $200! Woody, still supporting folk singers, 49 years after he died of Huntington’s Disease. No wonder he couldn’t get booked at Folk Alliance—it might remind them who made them, whose slim shoulders they were standing on.
When Woody hit the Holland Tunnel in New York City he found out that Pete had died, by overhearing a conversation of two musicians heading up to Beacon for a tribute concert. Somehow he had missed the news when it happened on January 27, 2014. So he decided to change his plans and head up to Beacon to pay his respects to Toshi. Then he found out that Toshi too had died, just six months before Pete. Suddenly he felt more lonesome than he had in a long time—living in a world without Pete and Toshi. So he wished the traveling musicians well and got off at the next stop, crossed over the subway bridge and got on the train bound for—well, not glory exactly—but Greenwich Village, where he thought of dropping in on Marjorie, his second wife and true love of his life. Her name was no longer on the mailbox of their apartment and when he asked a number if she had moved, was told that Marjorie too had died. I guess I’ve been gone too long, he thought—what year is it, anyway? Then he picked up a copy of the New York Times and discovered it was 2016. “Holy mackerel,” he thought, “I must be over a hundred years old. No wonder no one remembers me.” I better go see Harold and find out what happened.” That was Harold Levanthal, who managed his occasional bookings before he got sick.
But when he got to the old office on W.57th St he was surprised to see a placard on the door that said “Woody Guthrie Children’s Trust Fund and Archives.” The kind lady in the office didn’t recognize him either, but advised him that Harold had passed away a couple of years before. “However Norah is here in the back, going through some boxes. You might talk to her.” That’s when he discovered that his daughter was still amongst the living, and when he saw her he couldn’t help but cry. “Baby doll, it’s your old man! You look so beautiful!” Oh my God, what a reunion. Norah started showing him through the Woody Guthrie Archives, the thousands of lyrics she had painstakingly organized that he’d written without even adding a tune or indicating how they should be sung. “Daddy, I’ve been sending them to musicians all over the world to add their own music to them, and there have been a dozen albums of your songs released over the last fifty years. You’re better known now than when you were alive.”
And that’s when Woody found out the unthinkable: he too had passed on. “I guess I better get going now honey; I must have missed a train stop somewhere along the way. When I looked up at the sign it said, “Bound for Glory” and I didn’t want to get on yet. But now I must. I still want to find Pete and Toshi, and I guess they’re up in Heaven with Lead Belly. You take care, little darlin’ and wrap your arms around Joady and Arlo when you see them and tell them I love them. Will you do that for your old man?”
“Oh daddy, I will. They won’t believe it when I tell them you were here. But Arlo has told me some strange and wondrous stories too, and I don’t believe everything he says either.”
“One more thing, Norah; have you seen that skinny kid with the Huck Finn cap who used to visit me in the Brooklyn State Hospital?” “What was his name?” “You mean Bobby Dylan, daddy.” “Yes, we stay in touch once in a while. He’s never forgotten you either. In fact, he just sold all his papers to the new Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, just so they would be near you and the Native American Nations you wrote about with Uncle Jack, the song Oklahoma Hills. He has always honored your legacy.” That bit of news brought a big smile to Woody’s weather-beaten face.
Then he gave Norah one last long hug. “So long, honey; it’s been good to know you.” “So long, daddy; I love you.” “I love you too, honey.” And with that he slung his guitar over his shoulder and disappeared, just as mysteriously as he came.
Folk Alliance 2016 was just wrapping up, with a whole new crop of folk singers bent on being discovered and making a name for themselves. They were still handing out business cards as the last promoters, record companies, publishers, presenters, agents, managers, music support services, manufacturers and everyone else that works in the folk world closed their briefcases and headed for the parking lot. It was a wonderfully successful five-day conference. One booking agent—the last to leave—stopped at the desk and asked, “Did you happen to see that curly-headed little guy who wandered through here a few days ago? He didn’t look like he belonged, but he had an interesting face.” The desk clerk nodded, “No; I know who you mean, but I didn’t recognize him either. He didn’t leave his name. His voice had kind of a flat, Midwestern twang. Maybe he’ll come back next year.”
As the agent turned to say goodbye, he added, “So long, it’s been good to know you!”
P.S. On a more serious note, (the late) Elaine Weissman (who with her husband Clark co-founded Folk Alliance) Lifetime Achievement Awards were presented to Woody Guthrie compadre Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (living); Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee (memorial).
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Saturday May 14 at 3:00pm Ross Altman presents Songs of the ‘60s at the Santa Monica Public Library, 601 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica, CA 90401; sponsored by Topanga Banjo-Fiddle Contest Free Family Concerts
Sunday May 15 at 4:30pm on the Railroad Stage Ross Altman performs his new show When a Soldier Makes It Home: Songs for Veterans and Their Families at the 56th annual Topanga Banjo-Fiddle Contest and Folk Festival.
Sunday May 22nd at 1:00pm Ross Altman presents Songs of a Red Diaper Baby Boomer; a workshop of songs of, by and for the Old Left—from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to the Blacklisting of Pete Seeger and the Weavers—at the Claremont Folk Festival, the Folk Music Center, 220 Yale St., Claremont, CA 91711; 909-624-2928.
Saturday June 25 at 2:00pm at the Allendale Branch Library in Pasadena Ross Altman performs a program of his baseball songs in tribute to the national pastime; 1130 South Marengo Ave. Pasadena, CA 91106 626-744-7260; sponsored by the Baseball Reliquary; free and open to the public.