Music

Nora Guthrie: My Name Is New York: Ramblin' Around Woody Guthrie's Town

An engrossing biographical travelogue that provides a unique perspective on both Woody Guthrie and a long lost New York City


Nora Guthrie

My Name Is New York

Label: Woody Guthrie Publications
US Release Date: 2014-09-23
UK Release Date: Import
Amazon
iTunes

One wonders if Woody Guthrie would recognize the city commemorated on this set. Once a beacon of opportunity, in the time since Guthrie’s death in 1967 New York City has transformed itself and been transformed a few times over, and the oligarchic threat that inspired him to write “This Land is Your Land” is now a characteristic feature of America and its most iconic city. In an interview with Rolling Stone Nora Guthrie jokes that, in the song that both debuts here and lends its name to this revelatory project, Woody sang about a town once comprised of “‘Folks, bums, mansions, and slums’ . . . Now, it’s rich folks, rich folks, rich folks, bums, mansions, mansions, mansions, slums.” She concludes that “I think he’d have left town by now.”

Fortunately for us, his ancestors, and his spirit, continue to inhabit the beautiful and contradictory space that is modern New York City and its surroundings, and the foundation that the Guthrie family created in his name has produced this wonderful travelogue, My Name Is New York: Ramblin’ Around Woody Guthrie’s Town. Originally published as a pocket-sized paperback in 2013, this audio-book version improves upon the print model by including both a collection of reminiscences from key figures in Guthrie’s life and a collection of songs, many of them previously unreleased or recorded.

Framed as a guided tour of the places and neighborhoods Guthrie once called home, one doesn’t need to travel to New York City to enjoy the journey (though, I’d like to personally encourage Mayor De Blasio to purchase a hundred or so of these audio-books to loan out to tourists and residents; wouldn’t that be a Woody Guthrie-like gesture?). Most of the crash pads and homes described here are gone, including the West 43rd Street apartment where he composed “This Land Is Your Land” (it’s now an Apple store) and the famous Mermaid Avenue home where he spent seven of his probably happiest years, playing on the beach with his three children from his second wife, Marjorie (who provides commentary within the set), and which was made famous by the three collections that Billy Bragg and Wilco have released of the songs he composed there. Wandering through the Georgia woods as I listened to these discs, I found myself easily transported through space and time, carried away by Nora’s welcoming narrative tone, the song snippets, and the inspiring and melancholy reminiscences of Guthrie’s friends and family.

This is a uniquely curated oral history, organizing Woody Guthrie’s creative life via the succession of spaces he occupied during the 27 years he lived in and around the city. Nora Guthrie smartly chooses to include not only Woody's abodes, but also the assorted places where he crashed on a couch. The story begins in one such crash pad, the 59th Street apartment of Will and Herta Geer, actors and activists (Will became best known as Grandpa Walton on television), where Guthrie arrived in February 1940. He stayed only a week or so, but long enough for the Geers to introduce him to a number of fellow activists and performers and to arrange his first New York performance, at a benefit concert where he met Alan Lomax, Huddie Leadbetter, and Pete Seeger. Seeger’s stories, interspersed throughout the collection and themselves worth the price of admission, were collected from among the final interviews he gave before his passing earlier this year.

In all we are guided through 19 locations, each with a collection of memorable stories and reminiscences, including contributions from Bob Dylan, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, and Arlo Guthrie. Bess Lomax Hawes describes being evicted from the second “Almanac House” and working with others to remove all furnishings, the last to be cleared from the space being a chair, table, and typewriter at which Woody still sat, furiously composing yet another song. Arlo Guthrie describes the day Bob Dylan visited their 85th Street House and fondly remembers the parade of unkempt, hairy, and guitar-toting characters that came to pay their respects to Woody, describing himself and his siblings as “the monks of the monastery". The story ends with the family’s poignant and comical attempt to disburse Woody’s ashes at sea near the 37th Street jetty off Coney Island. Nora Guthrie describes watching the cremains sink beneath the surf, then walking with her family to Nathan’s for some hot dogs, her words trailing off as Phil Ochs’ “Bound for Glory” provides a coda.

The accompanying music CD, with its 16 cuts (all of which are heard in fragments as the stories progress) is almost an afterthought, but a wonderful one. It includes Woody’s first recorded version of “This Land Is Your Land”, along with the complete “Tom Joad” and “My Name Is New York”, which, despite its rough, home demo recording, should be counted with the classics of Guthrie’s canon. The collection offers a balanced mix of Guthrie’s home demos with contemporary performances of songs for which only manuscript copies exist. The producers, Michael Kleff and Steve Rosenthal along with Nora Guthrie, do a particularly fine job of blending all the performances together, so that the modern tracks do not jar the listener’s ear in transition from the home recordings, with the final song, the poignant “Go Down to the Water”, supplied, fittingly, by Billy Bragg and Wilco, who have worked so closely with the Woody Guthrie Archives to bring to life so many of songs previously limited to paper copies. Listeners will return most repeatedly to this disc, of course, but will also, I suspect, find themselves reaching for the first two discs now and again, because everyone loves a good story, and these discs are full of ‘em.

7

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image