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Looking for Woody

If I now put myself in Dave Huehner’s 1948 Studebaker heading for San Francisco, from Champaign, Illinois, in 1961 I remember studying its single blue front fender which pointed us West while Whitman whispered:“ The only home of the soul, is the open Road.”

The world is open to you when you’ve a hundred bucks to cover the gas, and just room enough to sleep in the car.  This assault on Chance was soon over; but the memory stays with you like the taste and smell of days driving the desert in one hundred degree heat.

Dave and I were to stop over in Okemah, Oklahoma, birthplace to Woody Guthrie whose book, Bound for Glory, with Kerouac’s On The Road, had been our Bible.

That same year Woody’s sidekick Jack Elliot had been stranded in Champaign where Dave worked to repair the transmission that had left Elliot and a French girlfriend homeless and broke.  Elliott had traveled Europe with Derroll Adams, a banjo picker, and the two were still legends there. He’d survived with just a guitar.  What else could have washed him up in this bleak backwater but a combination of wanderlust and the simple mad random crapshoot of existence?  Whom, of all we knew, would have considered wandering the Continent in a Beater, without money, avid to show a French lover the “real America?” Life was meant to be lived by people like this.

Jack was expert at an esoteric Americana which included the Peterbilt Truck; sailing, and the pleasures of a Chinese Junk he had waiting in Long Island harbor. We’d first heard him flat-picking on a ten inch LP, which included his impeccable version of The Ballad of Jesse James.  Elliott was a superb mimic, and did Guthrie so well his vocals were indistinguishable from the Masters.

The glue in all of this was the fledgling American Folk scene that had Woody Guthrie epicenter and the two red Stinson LP’s he had done with Cisco Houston had made me a convert in moments. It wasn’t just the singing, the guitars, the songs: there was something deep within those grooves inexplicable, enchanted, and freeing.

Poor with no prospects and a drop out : Guthrie offered me a lifeline and a guide to survival. I had majored in five-string banjo to the exclusion of anything academic and I’d traded the stilted, bleak University existence for something joyous and heartfelt.

Dave and I plotted survival tactics as we angled the Studebaker on to the Two Lane. We left behind one Archie Green, fledgling folklorist and authority on mining songs. He had been mentor/advisor to us and had founded the University of Illinois folksong club.

It was Archie who had introduced me to Aunt Molly Jackson, a Kentucky radical, forced from her home and exiled by the mining interests during the Union strife in Harlan and Hazard counties in the early 30’s. Aunt Molly had known Woody, and was part of a New York Left colony whose history has yet to be written. Alan Lomax described her as “deeply radical.”. Jackson laid out her own history in the lyrics to a song, which became a Union anthem.

“I am a Union woman, as brave as I can be
And I don’t like the bosses and
The bosses don’t like me.
Join the CIO boys, Join the CIO

The boss he rides a big white horse
While we walk in the mud
Their flags the old red, white and blue
And ours is dipped in blood.

The boss he come to my husband
And this is what he said: Bill Jackson
I can’t hire you, sir. Your wife’s a
Russian Red.
Which side are you on boys?”

They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You either be a Union man
Or a scab for J.H. Blair
Which side are you on boys?”

Jackson had toured America singing and agitating for the United Mine Workers, and the Communist Party. Her activities ended with the Red-baiting 40’s, and she moved to California where she died in obscurity.

Guthrie and Jackson’s songs provided the unwritten, unsung history of the American working Class; a story which has since disappeared midst the mercantilist frenzy of our time.

My great great grandfather had been a dirt farmer in Ducks Pond, Tennessee. Decades later my uncles (his grandsons) took me to the Colonial graveyard where their father had taken them years before; in order to lay the tombstone he had saved for all of his life. It bore his parents names:  Frank and Missouri Pearson Leming.

Frank Leming had been a stern father to his two sons; one of them my grandfather. My grandfather and his brother, beaten so badly for a minor infraction that the switch their father used was said to have laid one boys leg almost bare to the bone, had abandoned the farm and rode the rails looking for work.

My grandfather never returned to Tennessee.

His father a Tennessee dirt farmer with too many children, too proud to tell his sons he could no longer feed them.

My grandfather got to Pittsburg, where he learned a trade, and later to Chicago, where he worked as a Tool and Die maker for the American Can Company.

He stayed a Union man all his life.  American Can broke the Union in 1927 and undermined his final years.  My uncle Oscar, his brother in law, was Can Company Management. Following the strike my Grandfather and my Uncle never again spoke.

Poverty provided the goad, and the resistance to it that Guthrie made his life’s work. Asked once to avoid anything “political” for a radio program, Guthrie sang the single sentence ‘ I Hate Your Capitalist System” for the entirety of the fifteen minutes he had been allotted.

If Guthrie has since been reworked and spun to harmless poet, wanderer, and partial Pop icon, none who knew him ever doubted his deeply Revolutionary belief. His life honed by the desperate poverty of his circumstances, he sometimes frightened the polite Left he encountered in New York.

We landed in Okemah on a hot summer’s morning, and with nowhere else to go, slept in the car. As we settled into an uncomfortable sleep two cops arrived, checked the out of state plates, and asked us what we were doing there.

We hesitantly explained our mission, unsure of our reception in small town Oklahoma. We weren’t going to jail; instead we toured the town with our cop benefactors as they related its history. There was no mention of the lynching of a mother and child photographed in 1916, the bodies strung from a bridge. But we did see the corner where an infamous Black Cowboy was gunned down by a rival, a postcard revealed his coffined body on display in front of the store where he died.

Guthrie’s father was an oil speculator, politician, street fighter and Klansman, whose hands had been broken so often he could not close them. At some point he abandoned the family leaving Guthrie and a brother to fend for themselves in a boomtown bustling with hustlers, roustabouts, oil riggers, cowboys, and ladies, all come to cash in on a boom soon gone bust. Guthrie shined shoes, sang songs, drew pictures, painted signs and hustled.

As the Dustbowl disaster spread he migrated west ….

“Folks back East hers what they say
Going west most every day
Heading for that California line
Cross those desert sands they roll
Think they’re getting out
Of that old Dust Bowl, but they get
To California and here’s what they find:
Oh the police at the Port of Entry say
You’re number fourteen thousand for today
But if you ain’t got that Do Re Mi boys
If you ain’t got that Do Re Mi
You better get back to beautiful Texas
Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee
California is a Garden of Eden
It’s a Paradise to live or see
But believe it or not, you won’t think it’s so hot
If you ain’t got that Do Re Mi”

Up at the graveyard where Woodie’s mother and sister were buried we ran into a Caretaker.  I asked him what folks locally thought of Woody and he didn’t mince words:”People around here didn’t like him, always hanging around with Niggers, Indians and Hobos.”

We made our way to the now abandoned Guthrie homestead, its windows and doors long since rotted; its floors littered with debris, and its walls covered with a collection of graffiti, slogans, lyrics and tributes to Guthrie’s memory. It remains the single completely spontaneous memorial to a human being I was ever to see.

There were tributes in German, Russian, Hebrew, Yiddish, French, and languages I could not decipher: all of them scrawled on the walls of that decaying building.

Decades later I met someone from Okemah and asked about the house and Guthrie’s legacy.  There had been a plan sometime in the 60’s to either build a statue to Guthrie or honor his memory in some other way.  His politics were discussed and the plan dropped.  As for the house, it was long since torn down, a final insult to the man who could inspire a People’s monument to his memory and yet remain a pariah in his hometown.

Dave and I pushed on for San Francisco; none of it worked out. I never landed a job; returned to Chicago, and within a year… I’d moved my Draft date up and was immediately taken. A calculated act which saved my life. I did my two years and was out of the Army by 1964, as the call-ups for Viet Nam intensified, dooming thousands of my generation.

The lessons of Woody, Aunt Molly, and the Road were not been forgotten.

 

Warren Leming is a writer/critic and filmmaker who divides his time between Chicago and Berlin.

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