RICHARD POLENBERG: So although Woody Guthrie wrote the lyrics to Deportee, the song that Jan sang with us before, he didn't attempt to put it to music. That was done a few years later by a man named Martin Hoffman. And the first time Woody Guthrie ever heard the song Deportee was in March 1956 at the Pythian Hall in New York City at a concert to raise money to help support his children.
Well, at the time, I was 18 years old. I was in college, and I went to that concert. And Lee Hayes performed, and the Reverend Gary Davis, and the Marjorie [? Mozzia ?] Dance Group were performing at the concert. And as Pete Seeger led the audience in singing This Land is Your Land, he motioned to the balcony.
And Woody Guthrie stood up. He was wearing a sport jacket with an open-necked shirt. And he was swaying unsteadily. Huntington's disease had gone pretty far by then. And he tried to wave somewhat to the audience, as everybody, of course, broke into applause.
His unsteadiness was, in fact, the consequence of Huntington's Disease, the hereditary illness that had caused his mother's death. It was named for Dr. George Sumner Huntington, who described its pathology in the late 19th century. It's a degenerative disease marked by a gradual loss of brain function.
It used to be called Huntington's Chorea, chorea from dance, as in choreography, because one of its symptoms is uncontrolled flailing of the arms and legs, which becomes increasingly severe as time goes on, and slurred speech. How much of Woody's troubles in the late 1940s and 50s were the product of Huntington's-- how much of alcoholism, how much of his natural orneriness-- it's probably hard to tell. Maybe a combination of all three. But a-troubles there were plenty.
In 1948, he wrote a number of sexually explicit letters to a young woman, actually Lefty Lou's sister, Mary Ruth Crissman, which so frightened her that she turned them over to a US attorney and pressed charges against him for sending obscene letters through the mail. He was convicted and sentenced to six months in prison.
He commented, my judge can't even say the word sex without thinking the word maniac. He served just 10 days of that sentence, when his lawyer got the judge to commute the sentence on the basis of his wartime contributions in the Merchant Marine.
In the early 1950s, he was in and out of hospital, sometimes for medical problems, often for erratic behavior, once even for assaulting his wife, Marjorie. In September 1952, a diagnosis of Huntington's was finally made. And by the end of the year, he knew he had the illness.
Looking in the mirror-- looking at himself in the mirror, he wrote, quote "All seems hopeless, just plain hopeless. Face seems to twist out of shape. Can't control it. Arms dangle all around. Can't control them. My hands wave around in odd ways. I can't stop. What if I do break and go down? They can't help me here."
Since there was no treatment, he was released that month. And the next two years, 1952 to 1954, were terribly sad ones. He met a young woman. She was 20 years old-- Anneke Van Kirk Marshall, who left her husband to be with him. She became pregnant. Friends arranged for a divorce between Woody and Marjorie so he could marry Anneke.
In June 1953, again, it happened. Lighting a fire for a barbecue, he spilled gasoline on his right arm. It caught fire. His arm went up in flames, and he suffered unimaginably painful burns.
When their child was born in January 1954, Anneke got a job. But he couldn't care for the baby. By the summer, he was arrested as a vagrant and jailed. And she would divorce him in 1956 and placed the child for adoption.
Meanwhile, he checked back into Brooklyn State Mental Hospital. And that's December of 1954, he wrote, Huntington's Chorea means there's no help known in the science of medicine for me. And he added, maybe Jesus can think up a cure of some kind.
Perhaps the only positive result of Woody's illness was that the FBI decided to leave him alone. The FBI file is now available on Woody Guthrie. And they were looking at him in 1941 and again in the late 1940s. And in the 1950s, they kept tabs on his medical condition, noting that he'd been diagnosed with Huntington's.
One of the staff physicians at Brooklyn State, not overly scrupulous about doctor/patient confidentiality, told the FBI that it was a deteriorating disease in which the periods of emotional unbalance get longer until a patient is finally a hopeless mental cripple and finally dies. That didn't stop the FBI from retaining him on its security index through 1954. And only in 1955 did they finally remove him from this on the grounds that he was no longer a threat because of his illness.
In 1956, he checked himself out of the hospital, was picked up for wandering aimlessly on a highway, untidy and unkempt in New Jersey, and was committed to another hospital, this time Greystone Park in Morris Plains. He called Greystone "Gravestone."
He remained there for six years, his conditioning worsening by the day. He got out on Sundays when friends took him to their homes in East Orange, where they would sing together and play for him. And among the visitors in January 1961 was Bob Dylan. Woody said of him, that boy's got a voice. Maybe he won't make it with his writing, but he can sing it.
In his most recent autobiography, Chronicles, Dylan describes the impact on him at the age of 18, when a friend gave him Woody Guthrie's records. He listened, he said, as if in a trance.
And I'm quoting Dylan. "When I first heard him, it was like a million megaton bomb had dropped. All these songs together one after another made my head spin. It made me want to gasp. It was like the land parted. It was like the record player itself had just picked me up and flung me across the room. The songs had the infinite sweep of humanity in them."
So it was only fitting, as Dylan writes, that the first song I'd wind up writing of any substantial importance was written for Woody Guthrie. He wrote Song to Woody to the tune of 1913 Massacre. And Michael is going to play it and sing it.
[MUSIC - "SONG TO WOODY"]
MICHAEL: (SINGING) Out here 1,000 miles from my home. Walkin' a road other men have gone down. I'm seein' your world of people and things. Your paupers and peasants and princes and kings.
Hey, Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song about a funny old world that's a-comin' along. Seems sick and it's hungry, and it's tired and it's torn. It looks like it's a-dyin', and it's hardly been born.
Hey, Woody Guthrie, but I know that you know all the things that I'm sayin' and many times more. I'm singing you this song, but I can't sing enough. 'Cause there's not many men that have done the things that you've done.
Here's to Cisco and Sonny and Leadbelly too. And all the good people that traveled with you. Here's to the hearts and the hands of the men that come with the dust and are gone with the wind.
I'm leaving tomorrow, but I could leave today. Somewhere down the road some day, the very last thing that I want to do is to say I've been hittin' hard travel too.
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Join historian Richard Polenberg in a lecture and concert of the life and songs of Woody Guthrie.
This video is part 15 of 17 in the Woody Guthrie: His Life, Times, and Music series.