Woody Guthrie would be 99 today

by Mark Dvorak

Thursday, July 14 is the birthday of Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, born in Okemah, Oklahoma, 1912. Woody Guthrie was an American song writer who also wrote books, had a newspaper column and hosted a couple of radio shows. Guthrie’s best songs endure as living documents of the times in which he lived and of the places he had worked. 

“All you can write is what you see,” said Guthrie once, and it is said that he wrote over a thousand songs in his lifetime. “But those,” said Guthrie friend Will Geer, “would only be the ones he took the time to write down.”

Guthrie’s life was filled with tragedy. His father lost all of his money and their home in Okemah was destroyed by fire. His sister and later, his daughter each died in a house fire. His mother suffered from mental illness and had to be institutionalized. It is now believed she may have had Huntington’s chorea, a degenerative disease which eventually had Woody in and out the hospital for fifteen years.

By September 1967, Guthrie’s condition worsened and on October 3rd of that year he passed away. Joe Klein’s excellent biography, A Life (Ballantine, 1980), closes with the following passage:

Within a week after Woody Guthrie died, Marjorie received a drab olive canister from the crematorium - his ashes. It looked like an institution-size can of beans. Much to the dismay of the children, she decided that they should all go out to Coney Island together and spread Woody’s ashes to the winds there, over by the jetty that separated Coney Island from Sea Gate - Woody’s favorite spot on the beach. 

Arlo and Nora didn’t want to go. They were opposed to any sort of ceremony, no matter how informal. But Joady said, “Well look, we’ve got to do something with the ashes.”

And so they went.

There were, however, several logistical problems to be solved before Woody’s ashes could be spread to the winds... like figuring out how to open the can. After some discussion, Marjorie located a beer-can opener and pried several holes in the top, but for some reason - none of them could quite understand why - the ashes just wouldn’t pour out when they reached the jetty and were standing there at the end of it, on the rocks, with the sun shining and the wind blowing dramatically.

“It’s not coming,” Arlo said, waving the can about. “What should I do?”

No one had any ideas, and he just heaved the can out into the ocean, where it bobbed insistently and, for a moment, seemed to be heading back toward the jetty rocks - was the tide coming in? - before it finally surrendered and went under. Marjorie and the kids stood there not knowing what to do next, staring now at the empty ocean, at the spot where the can had gone down, the wind whipping in their faces.

“Well,” Marjorie said, trying to imagine what Woody might suggest under the circumstances. “Why don’t we go to Nathan’s and have a hot dog?”


Join MD for the Woody Guthrie Folk Jam @The Chicago Folk & Roots Festival, Saturday, July 9, 1 pm in Chicago. 

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