On the bottom of the manuscript of “This Land Is Your Land,” the anthem that would become his most famous song, Woody Guthrie signed his name and scribbled out a quick note: “All you can write is what you see.” For 27 years, what Woody Guthrie saw—what inspired his prolific and influential career as a musician and folk rabble-rouser—was New York City. Guthrie wrote “This Land Is Your Land” while holed up in an apartment on 43rd street and 6th avenue, in the shadow of the Empire State Building. In the basement of another apartment on West 10th Street, Guthrie played hootenannies with the Almanac Singers, traipsing over to hang out on the sawdust-covered floors of McSorley’s Pub. Later, Guthrie moved with his wife Marjorie and young family to Mermaid Avenue on Coney Island, where he stayed until his slowly worsening health forced him into a series of hospitalizations.
Guthrie’s time in New York, some 27 of his 55 years, is the inspiration for My Name Is New York, an audio tour of the city as Guthrie saw it, put together by his daughter and archivist, Nora Guthrie. “The most surprising thing is how urban a writer he became,” Nora Guthrie told me. Most casual Woody Guthrie fans associate him with California, the Dust Bowl states, and his hometown in Oklahoma. But it was in New York that Woody’s career really took off. “Within the first month of coming to New York, he met the five most significant people in his whole life,” Guthrie said. “Through his contacts he met Mo Asch, who became the only person on the planet to record him. And he met Pete Seeger, who is singularly responsible for keeping his music alive. They would not have sung ‘This Land Is your Land’ at Obama’s inauguration had Woody not come to New York.”
The audio tour stemmed from a print book version of the tour by the same name that was published in 2012. Nora Guthrie, who began working with her father’s papers in 1992, didn’t originally intend for it to have an audio accompaniment. “But the more I listened to all these stories, these interviews I did, the more I thought that it sounded like a great story, almost an old radio play,” Guthrie told me. “It adds a whole other emotional dimension to it.” So Guthrie edited together the stories that she had recorded from Guthrie’s friends and fans, interspersing them with some previously unreleased tunes of Guthrie’s.
“One of the technical tricky parts was trying to make a four to six minute track out of those stories. When you talked to Pete Seeger, he did go on,” Guthrie laughed. “I wanted to make this the friendliest project I’ve ever done. You don’t have to do a Woody fan, you might just like stories about New York.” After completing a book about her father’s stay for his worsening Huntington’s Disease at New Jersey’s Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital, My Name Is New York also allowed Guthrie to focus on the better times in Woody Guthrie’s life. “I don’t want to say that it’s Woody light, but it’s Woody fun,” Guthrie said.
New York is a town that is always erasing its own past. The city that Guthrie knew is long gone, replaced by new versions of the place, some layered on top of each other. But rather than finding that discouraging, for Guthrie, putting together My Name Is New York allowed her to make peace with the ever-shifting landscape of the city. “We’ve all been bombarded with money in New York City, sometimes it can feel very depressing. Woody’s rent on Charles street was $27 a month. Now it’s $5,000 for the same apartment,” Guthrie said. “But I’ve found, now that I’ve learned so much about what was and who was there, I don’t feel so bad. I’m not seeing Donald Trump all over the place. I’m thinking about Pete and Woody and Lead Belly when I sit in Tompkins Square park. It’s very soothing. Just internally, it’s helped me to recover.”
“Even though Hanover House is not longer there, you can still imagine what it must have been like for him to sit on that corner. He’s just an outsider for the first time experiencing the whirlwind of New York. You see what he did with that experience. He put it down almost as journals,” Guthrie continued. “A lot of that’s still there. And maybe it’s important to know what’s missing, to have some sense of what you want to keep and what you’re willing to let go. That kind of longing or thinking about what New York was.”
Digging through her father’s New York City-related musings also allowed Guthrie to appreciate the sheer range of projects that her father accomplished. “I try to hint at all of these 360 degrees of songwriting of Woody Guthrie,” she said. “Most singer-songwriters, they have a world that they live in and that they write for. Woody, he covers a range from children’s songs to protest songs to love songs to songs about sexually transmitted diseases.”
“My mother once asked him why he wrote the Dust Bowl songs,” Guthrie said. “And he just looked at her and said ‘because I was there.’ That was such a part of the project. Wherever he was, Grand Central station or the train to Coney Island, that’s what he was writing about. He just had no fear.”
For Guthrie, the tour was also a family scrapbook of sorts, allowing her to assemble some beloved childhood memories in one place. “This was so personal, because all these people I consider part of my family, an aunt or an uncle. Just hearing Pete [Seeger] or Alan Lomax, these all people from my living room,” she said. Guthrie compared it to her own personal version of Finding Your Roots, bringing together aspects of her father’s life that even her brothers didn’t know.
“I felt like I preserved an amazing family album,” Guthrie said. “It’s my legacy to my family. I just hope it’s a delightful traipse around the city to remember who was there and what it can be. It’s to remember that spirit Woody had still lives somewhere in the boroughs, some of it up in Harlem, some now in Brooklyn. And it’s to say, ‘You guys keep it up. It’s your turn.'”
Nora Guthrie will be doing a presentation–including showing rare footage of her father and performing songs–at the Brooklyn Historical society on December 1. Tickets are available here.