I never met Woody Guthrie but I did have a chance to go to Brighton Beach and interview Marjorie Guthrie. It must have been about twenty-five years ago. The thrust of the interview was not so much about Woody's music as it was about Huntington's Chorea, the disease that took his health and then his life.
Marjorie was a remarkable woman. She had performed with Martha Graham and still had the tiny waist of a dancer. She was often over shadowed by the memory of her husband but she started the Committee to Combat Huntington's Chorea and devoted the rest of her life to it. She was very successful in raising money for research, for providing comfort to the afflicted and their families and educating physcians. Knowing that any of Woody's children had a 50-50 chance of coming down with Huntngton's in early middle age. She was fighting for her children as well as for all the families afflicted with a vastly misunderstood disease. In fact, according to Marjorie, thee weren't even firm figures on its prevalance.
She had a young man at the house, helping out. He was clearly there to particpate somehow in the life of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. He did odds and ends around the place.
I was doing a documentary about genetic disease for a PBS science series and Marjorie was good enough to give me a day of her time. Many of the stories she told me can be found in books and articles but I was curious about her reaction to "Alice's Restaurant", in particular the hospital scenes. She explained that the movie hadn't been very accurate.
She talked a lot about that time. Woody was living at the hospital but would come out on weekends to stay at the house. He would appear on (I think it was) Oscar Brand's Sunday afternoon radio show which Woody loved doing. However, his disease progressed and (I am hazy on some of the details) he was moved down to Brooklyn Downstate Hospital. When he was moved to the new hospital, he could barely communicate. It had become hard for him to talk.
My guess that it was because of a shortage of money that Woody was placed in a ward. Since the people at that time knew so little about Huntington's, he was in a ward with people who had some pretty strange symptoms, many psychological.
He did manage to communicate to the hospital staff that he used to have a national radio show, that he had been asked by President Roosevelt to write songs about the Grand Coulee Dam. He had even had his autobiography published. They didn't believe him. Given the circumstances, they thought his undetailed statements were a symptom of his illness. He asked Marjorie for a copy of "Bound For Glory" that he could give to the doctors. He didn't want them to think he was an empty braggart.
She had a copy sent to the hospital. Of course, when the next weekend came around and she was back to visit, she asked Woody if he had gotten the book. He nodded that he had.
"Did you give it to the doctors?"
Woody could no longer put together long sentences. His answer was a simple, "Nope".
Marjorie was surprised. She said, Woody, why not?"
He pointed to the man lying in the next bed and managed to get out, "He ate it".
"That's the kind of place it was", she said, "not like what was in Arlo's movie." She went on to make sure that I understood that she hadn't meant any real criticism of Arlo about his prettying up his father's last days in the hospital. "That was Arlo's movie," she said. "When I make my own movie, though, it will be different."
Marjorie sat in a piano bench for the interview and I sat on a little stool in the living room witht he camera shooting over my shoulder.
When we were done, Marjorie said, "You might be interested to know that Woody used to write his songs on that stool." Whew, I was!
I am going to have to go to the storeroom and see if I can find that old interview. It's on film though. Maybe I can find a pair of rewinds and a sound reader.