WOODY AND ME
When I was little (say, six years old) my mom decided that I should
learn "proper" dance. First she tried me in a ballet class, but the
classical ballet positions hurt my ankles (warning of things to come)
and I didn't like them. So then she enrolled me in a Modern Dance class
taught at the local Y. The lady who ran the class was named Marjorie
Mazia, and I heard the name mentioned so often around the Y that I
Sometimes Ms. Mazia would have a musician come in to play for the
class. He didn't play piano, as I'd expected, but 6-string guitar. He
also didn't play Classical music but folk-tunes, lively little kids'
songs that little kids couldn't resist dancing to. He was short and
skinny, had bushy black hair and peculiar eyes; in shadow they seemed
indeterminate dark, but in the light they were distinctly silver. I'd
never seen silver eyes before, so I remembered them.
I was the smallest kid in the dance class, so of course I got picked
on. Ms. Mazia didn't notice a lot of the bullying, but the little
silver-eyed man with the guitar always did. When the other kids started
picking on me, he'd play a lively tune and the other kids would leave
off bullying me to go and dance instead. I was exceedingly grateful to
that little silver-eyed man and his songs.
Eventually Mom decided that I'd learned enough Modern Dance to be
fashionable, so she took me out of the dance class and sent me off to
the Brownies instead. After that it was piano lessons (which I was
never good at; the keyboard just wasn't my instrument), and then
ballroom dancing, and fashion school, and so on.
Unfortunately for Mom's plans to make me a Proper Lady, I fell in
love with folkmusic. After years of trying to make me give up "that
awful cowboy music", Mom eventually relented and bought me a guitar --
which I took to like a duck to water. I also began studying folkmusic
seriously, working my way through the local library and music stores,
and learning to play and sing the songs I discovered.
Inevitably, studying American folkmusic, I came across the name of
Woody Guthrie. I read his biography ("Bound For Glory" -- definitely an
American classic), I heard Folkways recordings of his singing, and
collected books of his songs. Eventually I came across a collection of
his children's songs, and that's when the revelation began. I
*recognized* those songs; I'd heard them ten years before, if only I
could remember where. Then I came to the last page in the book, which
mentioned that for recording permissions for the songs one should write
to... Marjorie Mazia, address following.
So that's who the little silver-eyed man had been.
Well, after all he'd done for me when I was an undersized picked-on
kid -- never mind his contribution to American folkmusic -- I thought I
should go and thank him.
It took me a lot of searching to discover just where Woody Guthrie
was: in Kings County Hospital, New York City -- dying of Huntington's
Chorea. I researched the hospital -- typical New York county hospital
for the indigent -- and the disease -- hereditary, progressive, and
incurable -- then took my guitar and a satchel-full of songs and hopped
on the bus to New York City.
Since I lived in a town right next door to Newark, New Jersey, at
the time, it took about an hour to ride into NYC and then another hour
on the subway to reach Kings County Hospital, and then another half-hour
searching and asking the nurses before I found the ward that Mr. Guthrie
lived on. There I went, sobered by the sights of the typical New York
county hospital for the indigent and realizing that it could have been a
helluva lot worse, until I reached the right ward. There an attendant
replied to my question: "Oh yes, everybody knows Woody. He had another
guest with a guitar in here just last month. He's out on the sun-porch,
that way." **Just last month?* I wondered, as I made my way toward the
sun-porch. **Nobody more often than once a month?*
Out on the sun-porch were some steel-and-plastic lounge-chairs, and
on one of them lay an emaciated man with gray -- bushy -- hair,
apparently asleep. The hair was right, save for the color, but I
couldn't recognize anything else, not even from his photographs. I
stepped up and asked politely: "Woody Guthrie?" The emaciated man
twitched, sat up, and opened his eyes.
His eyes were silver. That's when I recognized him.
So I sat down on a facing chair and told him who I was, where I'd
first met him, why I had reason to be grateful to him, and about how I'd
come to be a folksinger. He listened, watching keenly. I could see the
clear intelligence in his eyes -- and I could also see how badly the
disease had ravaged him. He twitched constantly. He had to pin his
right hand under his thigh to keep it from twitching up and hitting
himself in the face. He couldn't speak, except to nod roughly for
"yes", grunt for "no", and point roughly -- with his left hand -- for
whatever he wanted. I struggled to pick up hints, guess, try to
understand. He'd point, and I'd ask: "What do you want? Is it this?"
And he'd either grunt "no" or nod "yes". We managed to communicate that
way. I sang the minor-key version of his "Pastures of Plenty" and asked
him if he liked it, and he nodded "yes" and managed a twitchy smile. I
sang half a dozen of his songs, then switched to songs of my own, and he
liked those too. I stayed until closing time, when the orderly came and
told me that I had to leave. Woody managed to lever himself to his
feet, took my hand and led me down to the door -- staggering, obviously
struggling to keep upright. At the door he managed to control his right
hand long enough to clasp my hand in both of his, then stepped away and
waved goodbye. I waved back, and the door closed between us. I took a
step toward the stairs, and then heard the thump as his muscle-control
gave way and he fell against the other side of the door, and I realized
what that brief walk and handshake had cost him.
I went home, thought for a long while, and determined to go back
again -- which I did, every weekend that I could get away to New York --
up until the time I left for college. I did what I could for him; got
him a toy typewriter that could be operated with one hand, but he
couldn't even use that. I wrote a letter to SING OUT!, asking folkies
to come visit Woody and let him know what his music meant to them, but
Ms. Mazia wrote another letter saying not to visit -- primarily because
she didn't want contemporary folkies to see how badly ravaged he was.
No matter what, I visited whenever I could: told him news of the
folkmusic scene, sang his songs and my songs, and struggled to
communicate with him.
And a weird thing happened; striving to understand him, to reach
the still-keen mind under the disease, I sharpened my psychic talent. I
got to where he could point in a general direction and I'd get him
whatever it was he wanted, without having to wait for the "yes/no"
signal. It went beyond that; he could make a vague motion with his
workable hand, and I understood which song he wanted or which piece of
news, and I'd give it to him. And yes, he understood what was
happening; once he pointed to his forehead, then to mine, and grinned
-- and I told him everything I knew about psychic phenomena, and he
smiled again. He knew.
Nonetheless, he got steadily weaker. When I went away to college
and could only come see him during vacations, I could see the disease
progressing. He lost the ability to stand, then to sit up, then he lost
control of his left arm too. He was dying, and we both knew it. At the
end, he could communicate only by rolling his eyes -- and by psychic means.
Finally, at the beginning of my second year in college, I saw a
newspaper headline announcing that Woody Guthrie, famous American
folksinger, had died two days previously. There was a memorial service
planned, but there was no way I could get to it. So I held my own
private service; I turned off the lights, lit a candle, and played all
of his songs that I knew -- one after the other. It was dawn when I
I was just putting down my guitar when my cat wandered into the
room, looked up at me and gave a plaintive "Meow?" -- and I knew what
the cat meant. That's when I knew that Woody's other gift was still
This is why I claim that I was initiated into the Bardic Order,
American branch, by Woody Guthrie.