035 – “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie”

Episode 35. “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie.” The Bootleg Series, Vol. 1-3. Live at Town Hall 1963. Bunker. Week 4 of Woody Guthrie Month. October 26, 2017.

Context (2:00)

Bob wrote “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie” in April 1963 and performed it at the Town Hall in New York City on April 12, 1963. He’d continue his thoughts on Woody with his sixth “outlined epitaph” that would appear in the notes for Times They Are A-Changin’.

Bob’s “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie” (7:00)

Its connection to “Song for Woody” is obvious but understated. Even in two years, so much can change, so much can be learned. To have Dylan’s’ evolution on tape is a great treasure. This is one of those very special moments in his long and storied career, and you can kind of feel it in the recording.

Yet, like everything this past month, it’s not of a wholly unique cloth. Much of this poem relies on Woody Guthrie on WNEW at 4:45 p.m. on December 3, 1944:

‘I hate a song that makes you think that you’re just
born to lose—bound to lose—no good to nobody,
no good fer nuthin’ because yer either too old or too young
or too fat or too slim or too ugly or too this or too that:
songs that run you down or songs that poke fun at ya on
account of yr bad luck or yer hard travelin’ . . .
I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world, that if it has hit you pretty hard
and knocked you down for a dozen loops,
no matter how hard it’s run you down or rolled you over,
no matter what color, what size
y’are, how y’re built . . .’
I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself
and in your work.
And the songs that I sing are made up for the most part
by all sorts of folks just about like you.”

Contrast that with:

When you think you’re too old, too young, too smart or too dumb. . . .
You need something to make it known
That it’s you and no one else that owns
That spot that yer standing, that space that you’re sitting
That the world aint got you beat / That it ain’t got you licked
It can’t get you crazy no matter how many times you might get kicked…
You need something special all right
You need something special to give you hope
But hope’s just a word
That maybe you said or maybe you heard
On some windy corner ’round a wide-angled curve

And that’s alright. If these are truly Dylan’s “last thoughts,” than acknowledging how impactful Woody was on you is not only a brilliant move but also allows you to take a deep breath and move on. All of this life in this poem, all of the descriptions of where people can and cannot (in Dylan’s estimation) find what they’re looking for, bind the listener to, at least, Bob Dylan, or, if you’re lucky, to Woody Guthrie and beyond.

It’s that beyond that Dylan is searching for by connecting Woody Guthrie and God, at the Grand Canyon no less! Dylan, in Chronicles, said of Guthrie, “The songs themselves were really beyond category. They had the infinite sweep of humanity in them.”  If you squint just right, you’ll find God or Woody, transcendent nature and God, Woody and transcendent nature — but if you’re lucky, you’ll find all three.

To Daniel, this poem was about disease. It’s about death. It’s about reconciling the fate of all of us with the transcendence of art, the worthwhile energies we can put out into the world. It’s a contrast that only Dylan can draw between what is expected of epic poetry and what is delivered. There are no gargantuan set-pieces or immovable foes (least death hanging out in the corner), and the poem ends with the beautiful .

You can either go to the church of your choice
Or you can go to Brooklyn State Hospital
You’ll find God in the church of your choice
You’ll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital

Woody’s Final Days (24:30)

Kelly walks us through Woody’s final days, from his stint at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital from 1956 to 61, Brooklyn State Hospital to 1966, and finally Creedmoor Psychiatric Center to his death in 1967.

Using al-Jazeera’s “The lost years of Woody Guthrie: The singer’s life in Greystone Hospital” as a template, Kelly walks us through the corridors as they talk his care, the infamy of some of these asylums, Arlo visiting his father, and Huntington’s disease.

Our Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie (33:00)

As mentioned above, these weren’t even really Dylan’s “last thoughts” as his sixth “outlined epitaph” shows:

Woody Guthrie was my last idol
he was the last idol
because he was the first idol
I’d ever met
face t’ face

that men are men
shatterin’ even himself
as an idol
an’ that men have reasons for what they do / an’ what they say / an’ every action can be questioned / leavin’ no command untouched an’ took for granted

obeyed an’ bowed down to
forgettin’ your own natural instincts
(for there’re a million reasons
in the world
an’ a million instincts
runnin’ wild
an’ it’s none too many times
the two shall meet)

the unseen idols create the fear an’ trample hope when busted

Woody never made me fear
and he didn’t trample any hopes / for he just carried a book of Man an’ gave it t’ me t’ read awhile / an’ from it I learned my greatest lesson

you ask “how does it feel t’ be an idol?”

it’d be silly of me t’ answer, wouldn’t it . . .?

And, like Dylan, this may not be their “last thoughts” on the man, but spending a month with him has been eye-opening to say the least. Kelly and Daniel talk about his impact on their lives, his impact on the lives of others and the way we’ve come to remember him: through festivals, foundations for Huntington’s disease, the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1988), Grammy Lifetime Achievement (2000), a character in I’m Not There, and in the state songs of Washington and Oklahoma. But easily the most impactful is his music: the success of Mermaid Avenue with Wilco and Billy Bragg is only the most obvious. More projects will hopefully continue for a long, long time.

Woody’s Last Thoughts for this Month

We’ll let Woody close us out:

The world is filled with people who are no longer needed. And who try to make slaves of all of us. And they have their music and we have ours. Theirs, the wasted songs of a superstitious nightmare. And without their music and ideological miscarriages to compare our songs of freedom to, we’d not have any opposite to compare music with — and like the drifting wind, hitting against no obstacle, we’d never know its speed, its power….

Recommendations (40:00)

Kelly felt nostalgic for the ’90s (what else is new…) and recommends The Adventures of Pete & Pete and the band featured Polaris

Daniel listened to St. Vincent’s MASSEDUCATION, Rural Alberta Advantage The Wild and too much of The Complete Imperial Singles of Fats Domino, who passed away this week at age 89.

Endings

Kelly guessed #26, “Meet Me in the Morning.” It’s #311 (and not Woody Guthrie Month so it’s not a sham), “Paths of Victory” off The Bootleg Series, Volume 1-3.

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