Dave Powell

Part Six: My Name is New York

Mary Guthrie knew before the family made it back to Pampa that her marriage to Woody was over. Woody left his life in Texas behind and headed back to New York to look for work. He fell in again with the Almanac Singers and toured with them through the Midwest and a few western states. In December of 1941 the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor thrust the United States into World War II. 


About a month later Woody met a dancer named Marjorie Mazia while she was visiting the Almanac House, a sort of artist colony the band had established in the city. She was married at the time (so was he), but they kindled a romance and eventually got married to each other in 1945. Marjorie provided Woody with stability, encouragement, and unconditional support for his work, encouraging him to publish his semi-autobiographical novel Bound for Glory in 1943 (which received a good deal of critical acclaim) and helping him keep his songwriting and drawing juices flowing as well. With Marjorie Woody would have four more children, in addition to the three (Gwen, Sue, and Bill—Will Rogers Guthrie—he had had with Mary): Cathy, Joady, Arlo, and Nora. 

With World War II raging in 1942, Woody began to write anti-war songs with an intensity that matched his disdain for fascism, including “All You Fascists Bound to Lose” and “The Sinking of the Reuben James.” Woody conceived of the song initially as list of all 86 men who had died when the Nazis torpedoed and American ship off the coast of Ireland in 1941. Eventually he pared the chorus down to something more memorable: Tell me, what were their names? Tell me, what were their names? Did you have a friend on the good Reuben James?”  Along with his friends Cisco Houston and Jimmy Longhi, Woody joined the U.S. Merchant Marine and found himself very much in harm’s way playing for and entertaining the men who served with him.

When the war was over, Woody returned to New York and tried to settle down with his family—but he would be haunted again by old demons. He poured himself into fathering his oldest daughter with Marjorie, whom they named they Cathy but he called “Stackabones,” in a way that he never had with his other children. In March of 1943, just a few months after Cathy was born, the family moved to 3520 Mermaid Avenue at Coney Island in Brooklyn. In 1946, Woody released an album of songs for children called Songs to Grow On. In the notes accompanying the album he wrote:

“Now I don’t want to see you use my songs to divide nor split your family all apart. I mean, don’t just buy these records and take them home so your kids can play around with them while you go off and do something else. I want to see you join right in, do what the kids do. Let your kids teach you how to play and act these songs out…Please, please, please don’t read nor sing my songs like no lesson book, like no text for today…Let them be a little key to sort of unlock and let down all your old bars. Watch the kids. Do like they do. Act like they act. Yell like they yell. Dance the way you see them dance. Sing like they sing. Work and rest the way kids do. You’ll be healthier. You’ll feel wealthier. You’ll talk wiser. You’ll go higher, do better, and live longer here amongst us, if you’ll just only jump in here and swim around in these songs and do like the kids do. I don’t want the kids to be grownup. I want to see the grown folks be kids.”[1]

The domestic bliss Woody sometimes experienced at this time wasn’t meant to last, however. His behavior was already becoming more erratic, and tragedy lurked just around the corner. On February 6, 1947, Cathy celebrated her 4th birthday; the following Sunday, as Woody played for an audience of union member in Elizabeth, New Jersey, a fire erupted at the Guthrie home on Mermaid Avenue, eventually claiming Cathy’s life.[2] Cathy’s death shook Woody to his core. In many ways, he never recovered.

As his physical and mental health began to deteriorate, Woody’s writing became increasingly erratic. He did, however, produce one more great song in his life. On January 28, 1948, a plane crashed into Los Gatos Canyon in California, killing 32 people on board—4 Americans and 28 migrant farm workers who were in the process of being deported back to Mexico. When the New York Times published a story about the crash, it printed the names of the four Americans killed but only listed the others as “deportees.” Sensing that they had been denied their humanity in death, Woody wrote a poem—at this point he was producing plenty of words on pages but not often turning them into songs; it would be up to later generations of artists like Billy Bragg & Wilco and Jay Farrar, Anders Parker, Will Johnson, and Jim James (working as New Multitudes) to put some of these words to music—that would later become the song “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos).” It has been recorded by everyone from the Byrds to Bruce Springsteen, by the neo-traditionalists Old Crow Medicine Show and Los Texmaniancs, working with Lyle Lovett. It was, indeed, his last great song.

Things unwound for Woody from there. In 1954 he checked himself into Brooklyn State Hospital. In 1956 his father, Charley died; that same year, Woody was finally diagnosed with Huntington’s disease. On March 17, 1956, a benefit concert was held at Pythian Hall in New York to raise money to help Woody’s children. The concert, which featured the Almanac Singers and many of Woody’s other proteges, ended with a rousing rendition of “This Land is Your Land,” sung by the entire cast. As the song ended, according to Klein:

“The spotlight swung suddenly to the balcony and settled in a spidery little man with salt-and-pepper hair who struggled to his feet and saluted the audience with a clenched fist—a perfect gesture, quite in keeping with the defiant spirit of the evening. Pete Seeger, tears streaming, began the first verse of “This Land” again, and now the entire audience was up and cheering the man in the balcony, and singing his song. Years later, Seeger and others would look back on the evening as an important moment in the rebirth of the folk music revival. It was more than that, though: it was the beginning of Woody Guthrie’s canonization.”[3]

Continue to Epilogue

[1] Klein, p. 326.

[2] Klein, pp. 347-50.

[3] Klein, pp. 431-32.

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