One wonders if Woody Guthrie would recognize the city commemorated on this set. Once a beacon of opportunity, in the time since Guthrie’s death in 1967 New York City has transformed itself and been transformed a few times over, and the oligarchic threat that inspired him to write “This Land is Your Land” is now a characteristic feature of America and its most iconic city. In an interview with Rolling Stone Nora Guthrie jokes that, in the song that both debuts here and lends its name to this revelatory project, Woody sang about a town once comprised of “‘Folks, bums, mansions, and slums’ . . . Now, it’s rich folks, rich folks, rich folks, bums, mansions, mansions, mansions, slums.” She concludes that “I think he’d have left town by now.”
Fortunately for us, his ancestors, and his spirit, continue to inhabit the beautiful and contradictory space that is modern New York City and its surroundings, and the foundation that the Guthrie family created in his name has produced this wonderful travelogue, My Name Is New York: Ramblin’ Around Woody Guthrie’s Town. Originally published as a pocket-sized paperback in 2013, this audio-book version improves upon the print model by including both a collection of reminiscences from key figures in Guthrie’s life and a collection of songs, many of them previously unreleased or recorded.
Framed as a guided tour of the places and neighborhoods Guthrie once called home, one doesn’t need to travel to New York City to enjoy the journey (though, I’d like to personally encourage Mayor De Blasio to purchase a hundred or so of these audio-books to loan out to tourists and residents; wouldn’t that be a Woody Guthrie-like gesture?). Most of the crash pads and homes described here are gone, including the West 43rd Street apartment where he composed “This Land Is Your Land” (it’s now an Apple store) and the famous Mermaid Avenue home where he spent seven of his probably happiest years, playing on the beach with his three children from his second wife, Marjorie (who provides commentary within the set), and which was made famous by the three collections that Billy Bragg and Wilco have released of the songs he composed there. Wandering through the Georgia woods as I listened to these discs, I found myself easily transported through space and time, carried away by Nora’s welcoming narrative tone, the song snippets, and the inspiring and melancholy reminiscences of Guthrie’s friends and family.
This is a uniquely curated oral history, organizing Woody Guthrie’s creative life via the succession of spaces he occupied during the 27 years he lived in and around the city. Nora Guthrie smartly chooses to include not only Woody’s abodes, but also the assorted places where he crashed on a couch. The story begins in one such crash pad, the 59th Street apartment of Will and Herta Geer, actors and activists (Will became best known as Grandpa Walton on television), where Guthrie arrived in February 1940. He stayed only a week or so, but long enough for the Geers to introduce him to a number of fellow activists and performers and to arrange his first New York performance, at a benefit concert where he met Alan Lomax, Huddie Leadbetter, and Pete Seeger. Seeger’s stories, interspersed throughout the collection and themselves worth the price of admission, were collected from among the final interviews he gave before his passing earlier this year.
In all we are guided through 19 locations, each with a collection of memorable stories and reminiscences, including contributions from Bob Dylan, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, and Arlo Guthrie. Bess Lomax Hawes describes being evicted from the second “Almanac House” and working with others to remove all furnishings, the last to be cleared from the space being a chair, table, and typewriter at which Woody still sat, furiously composing yet another song. Arlo Guthrie describes the day Bob Dylan visited their 85th Street House and fondly remembers the parade of unkempt, hairy, and guitar-toting characters that came to pay their respects to Woody, describing himself and his siblings as “the monks of the monastery”. The story ends with the family’s poignant and comical attempt to disburse Woody’s ashes at sea near the 37th Street jetty off Coney Island. Nora Guthrie describes watching the cremains sink beneath the surf, then walking with her family to Nathan’s for some hot dogs, her words trailing off as Phil Ochs’ “Bound for Glory” provides a coda.
The accompanying music CD, with its 16 cuts (all of which are heard in fragments as the stories progress) is almost an afterthought, but a wonderful one. It includes Woody’s first recorded version of “This Land Is Your Land”, along with the complete “Tom Joad” and “My Name Is New York”, which, despite its rough, home demo recording, should be counted with the classics of Guthrie’s canon. The collection offers a balanced mix of Guthrie’s home demos with contemporary performances of songs for which only manuscript copies exist. The producers, Michael Kleff and Steve Rosenthal along with Nora Guthrie, do a particularly fine job of blending all the performances together, so that the modern tracks do not jar the listener’s ear in transition from the home recordings, with the final song, the poignant “Go Down to the Water”, supplied, fittingly, by Billy Bragg and Wilco, who have worked so closely with the Woody Guthrie Archives to bring to life so many of songs previously limited to paper copies. Listeners will return most repeatedly to this disc, of course, but will also, I suspect, find themselves reaching for the first two discs now and again, because everyone loves a good story, and these discs are full of ‘em.