Winter 2005



Leah Caracappa

By the look of the license plates on the trucks, vans and SUVs that pull up in a dusty open field outside the "Pasture of Plenty" campgrounds outside Okemah, OK each July, the thousands of "Woody-Heads" who descend on this little town in the heartland of the American West are pretty much a local bunch -- Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma, Oklahoma.

There is little to indicate that, among the thousands of western 'locals' hooting hollering sweating and singing along at the annual Woodie Guthrie festival, there are among them a sprinkling nationwide assortment of people -- people from New York and Boston to California and Ohio -- whose love for this touchstone figure from the first half of the twentieth century remains undiminished despite the time and distance which American culture has placed between itself and the Depression-era Dust Bowl years he chronicled in folk song after folk song.

Or, for that matter, that more often than not the "main attractions" headlining the festival have strong connections -- as did Woody Guthrie himself -- to the New York area.

I myself counted among them on year the likes of Pete Seeger, a New Englander who spent decades championing the folk music and the progressive issues that are so frequently the subject of that music -- who has lived upstate New York along the Hudson for many years, and his musical career blossomed in Manhattan.

Or how about "Rambling Jack Elliot," the gruffest cowboy-est hitchhiking-est fellow you could imagine from his stage presentation? He was born in Brooklyn and raised by a family whose head was a Jewish dentist. (A boy of twenty in 1951 when he showed up at Woody's door in Coney Island, he formed a relationship that saw them together as mentor and student for more than a few years and "Ramblin Jack" become an uncanny vocal imitator of Guthrie. Elliot went on to hang with the Beats, reading Kerouac's On The Road manuscript with him and turning up from Greenwich Village to San Francisco.)

And then there's Arlo Guthrie, the beaming father figure to the gentle rainbow trans-national hippy era he represents, with his long flowing white hair and his genial manner. Arlo, it turns out, was born in Coney Island, in the Mermaid Avenue home that his father Woody lived in for much of the 1940s.

That Mermaid Avenue connection has been receiving more attention of late, in large part because of an album of Woody Guthrie lyrics set to music by British folk-rocker Billy Bragg, and recorded in 1999. The songs on that CD are only a small sampling of an enormous number of lyrics the prolific Guthrie penned while living in Coney Island. Never set to music, the lyrics were tossed into a trunk and lay there undisturbed for nearly fifty years, when Guthrie daughter Nora worked up a plan with Bragg to set some to music and record them.

You might think of him as riding a boxcar through Kansas, or rambling along the Columbia River or Coulee National Dam. You might think of him singing dust bowl ballads to Okie farmworkers in California's Central Valley, or banging about Texas, Oklahoma or Arkansas in search of the American spirit. You might even imagine him in some dusty cow town, or in Kansas City stockyards, or wandering with his guitar slung over his back in Sacramento, Missoula, Santa Fe.

But what was the rambling country-boy Woody Guthrie doing in Coney Island?

It seems Woody showed up in New York in the early 1940s after a troubled radio career in Southern California -- and his first marriage -- failed. The story of his desperate cross-country trek is the stuff of legend, as he he followed his friend Will Geer east threadbare as the most hard-luck drifter you might imagine. That odyssey reached its culmination int he middle of winter as Guthrie, carless and with scarcely a nickel in his pocket, nearly froze to death on a Pittsburgh bridge before being rescued by a passing ranger.

Scarcely a few months later the folk singer had made it to Manhattan, and his fortunes rapidly were reversed. Guthrie found unanticipated celebrity in New York's burgeoning folk scene, championed by music collector Alan Lomax and Pete Seeger, among others, for his authenticity and veracity. Guthrie, along with Seeger, formed the nucleus of the Almanacs, a group with a varying roster that wrote and performed union songs for rallies and concert bookings.

They popularized the "hootenanny" in New York City, recreating and reinventing this form of musical get-together. Guthrie penned a highly regarded autobiography during this period, and became a well known figure.

Flush with success, Guthrie remarried and settled his new family in Coney Island at the Mermaid Avenue house. While there he entered and exited his "anti-fascist" patriotic phase, writing and performing many songs about the war effort and serving tours of duty in the armed services.

This period was one in which Guthrie's hereditary illness began to catch up with him, however, along with advancing age. Thus, the lyrics from the period reveal a different Woody Guthrie than that "rambling, justice seeking" wiry fellow that one might commonly associate with the man.

But the spark is still there. One song is an innocently charming song in praise of the strength of women, oddly prescient to the renewed struggle for women's rights that would come a decade or so after he wrote it.

And the union influence still lingers. For example, it was at Mermaid Avenue that he wrote a humble "I guess I planted some long lonesome seed of a song...(that) joined up with the rest of them and grows/It's such a little song it don't compare/With all your big ones you hear everywhere/But when it dawns way in the back of your mind...Union Son. Union battled./All added up. Won us all what we got now."

Guthrie also wrote an introspective, troubled piece, which reflects on the growing anti-Communist hysteria in America, and how it might effect him. In "Eisler on the Go," Guthrie asks himself what he would do if Congressional house investigators called him "I don't know what I'll do/Eisler's on the go, Eisler's on the move...Eisler in the jailoe, Eisler back at home/ Rankin scrach his head and cry/and I don't know what I'll do."

But it was during this time that Woody composed Songs to Grow On, a collection of children's songs And he wrote other wistful, non-political songs -- reminiscences about his youth, for example, like "Way Down In The Minor Key," where he recollects having a girlfriend down by the 'holler tree' and taking walks along the 'buckeye creek."

It was not so many years ago that visitors to the Woody Guthrie festival at Okemah were greeted by signs put up by local townspeople saying "Go Home Communists." Those days seem long gone now -- this year, shop windows and the main drag into town had signs saying "Welcome Woody Fans," and there is a statue in the town to Okemah's favorite son.

"We have fallen down the Woody Guthrie rabbit hole, soaking in his music, words, and spirit," wrote Ellis Paul -- who has performed some of the Bragg/Guthrie pieces -- on his message board while touring with Sara Lee Guthrie and others, prior to a previous year's festival. "His ideas were simple and common sensed, but reveal broad communal concepts."

And Steve Earl, the rocking contemporary singer, has high praise for Woody Guthrie in The Nation: "Admittedly, the intersection of space and time at the corner of July 14, 1912, and Okemah, Oklahoma, was a long shot to produce anything like a national treasure," he writes. "Woody was born in one of the most desolate places in America, just in time."

Coney Island continues to be, perhaps, one of the most odd locations in America -- home to derelict amusement arcades, garish sideshows and the continuing allure of salt brine, taffy and old pier planks baking in the sun. Yet it is that people in the humble reaches of the place may state with pride that a great American named Guthrie lived among them for some of the last few years of his life, continuing to produce in his Mermaid Avenue home works that resonate in the American heart from New York to Okemah, Oklahoma.




Poetrybay seeks fine poetry, reviews, commentary and essays without restriction in form or content, and reserves first electronic copyright to all work published. All rights to published work revert to the author following publication. All Email submissions should be in body of email text.

To submit poems write to:

PO Box 114 
Northport NY 11768
or email us at

send comments to

first electronic copyright 2004 poetrybay. 
all rights revert to authors

website comments to