It’s probably one of my least favourite places to be: an airport departure lounge at 7am, waiting to board a little plane for a long flight. Never liked mornings much, never liked flying at all, even on big planes. Grant, my soundman, hands me a cup of coffee for breakfast and I offer him a half-smile in return. We sip in a glum silence, broken only by a trill from my mobile phone. I’ve received a text from Ben Mandelson of the Blokes, who will be accompanying me on the London Big Busk a week after I get home:
‘Hi Bill, hope all good w you. I’m travelling to Siberia now, back Monday night. Any thoughts about the Big Busk?’
I think of Ben travelling on some god-forsaken Aeroflot flying dustbin into the wilds of the Siberian tundra. Can you get a decent cup of coffee at the airport in Krasnoyarsk Krai? Suddenly the notion of flying to Tulsa doesn’t seem so bad.
And, as it turns out, it’s not so bad after all. Small plane, but I have a window seat and good read, Bob Riesman’s definitive account of the life of Big Bill Broonzy, ‘I Feel So Good’. We arrive in Tulsa on a sultry late afternoon of the kind that they’ve been having for a long time in these parts. Oklahoma is an oil producing state and at the moment, the boom times have deserted the downtown district, along with many shop-keepers. All we can see within walking distance of our hotel are gunshops and adult stores.
Next morning, we drive across town towards Broken Arrow and find the biggest cowboy outfitters we’ve ever seen. We don’t buy anything, just gawp at the hats and holsters on display, like American tourists might do when visiting an English medieval castle.
Woody Guthrie’s hometown, Okemah, Oklahoma is some 90 minutes south of Tulsa, south down Route 75 then west along Interstate 40. We choose to drive alongside I-40, on Old US Highway 62, a concrete two-lane country road, built in the 1920s like the nearby Route 66, which, back in the day, connected with this stretch of highway near Oklahoma City. Driving along Old 62 in the dusk, past isolated farmsteads and a deserted gas station, you get a hint of how the place was when Model T Fords drove this highway.
Last time I was in Okemah, I got the feeling that the locals kinda despised Woody Guthrie and everything he stood for. Downtown, all there was to mark that this was the home of the man who wrote ‘This Land is Your Land’ was a mural, painted on the side of store on West Broadway that depicted an oil rig, three farmhands, a native American lancer riding a dappled horse and some guy playing a guitar. The words ‘Okemah’ and ‘Oklahoma’ were painted high and wide. The name of the guitar player was obscured by a bush. That was fifteen years ago, at the beginning of the Mermaid Avenue project. Now, that same space has been transformed into a shrine to the guy playing the guitar.
A bronze statue stands in the space between the stores, surrounded by tiles baring the names of Woody’s songs, sponsored by his fans. I was touched by the way titles from the Mermaid Avenue sessions blended seamlessly with songs from Woody’s own recordings.
The reason for this change must surely be laid at the door of the Woody Guthrie Festival, which draws music fans from all over the world to Okemah during mid-July. Many businesses display signs welcoming Woody fans and inviting their custom. Local people seem to have grasped that despite being a leftie, Woody is good for business. There is now some regret that no one spoke up when his childhood home was torn down in the 1980s.
The first Woody Guthrie Free Festival was held in July 1998, in the wake of the Mermaid Avenue Vol 1 release – they used that pic of Woody from the back of the album on the festival poster – and it’s been growing every year since. They always invite me to play, but as it invariably clashes with the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival, I have to decline. For Woody’s 100th birthday, however, I promised Nora Guthrie that I’d oblige them with an appearance.
The main road out of Okemah was fittingly renamed Woody Guthrie Boulevard some years ago and just before it hits the interstate, a sharp left turn will take you down behind Okemah High School to where the stage of the Woody Guthrie Festival stands in a small wood beneath a water tower. Darkness falls, but its still warm – although not as warm as last year. Someone tells me that it was simply impossible to go out during daylight, so powerful was the heatwave of 2011.
I wander around the site, buy a straw cowboy hat for my niece, fend off a couple of Woody academics, strap on my guitar and step up to play few songs. It is already 10.30pm when I hit the stage and the audience is attentive, as are the bugs that inhabit the Oklahoman night. Moths as big as a dollar bill, drawn by the stage lights, circle like small birds. Something hits my chest, as if someone has fired a little ball of paper at me from a catapult. No, it’s a locust, leaping across the stage toward the brightness.
One of these creatures settles on my shoulder for a couple of songs. I know it’s there, but figure it’s not doing any harm, so I let it be. Eventually, it crawls out of sight and, worried that it might find it’s way down my collar, I call my tour manager out to move the little fella on. I thought it was a moth. Someone later told me it was a locust. Someone else told me it was the spirit of Woody, come to join the show. After signing everybody’s whatevers, we finally leave the site at 1am, arriving back to our hotel for 2.30am.
My alarm goes off four hours later and by 7.30am, I’m sitting in another airport lounge, waiting to get on another plane. The phone rings. ‘Is that Billy Bragg?’ ‘Erm, yeah’ ‘This is al-Jazeera in Doha. Can we interview you about Woody Guthrie?’. ‘Er…I’m just about to get onto a plane for New York’. Looks like Woody’s 100th birthday is news all over the world.
Soon as we get to Manhattan, I head down to the City Winery to do a show celebrating Woody’s work hosted by Steve Earle. Nora Guthrie is in the audience with a handful of her co-workers from the Woody Guthrie Archives and she calls them up to join the final song – ‘This Land is Your Land’. Apparently the archivist get annoyed when artists don’t sing the right words to Woody’s most famous song, or if they do sing the right words they get the seven verses in the wrong order. We sing three verses, four choruses and call it a night. “You think Woody ever sung it the same way twice?” I scold a frowning archivist as we leave the stage.
After the show, Nora hands me a copy of a new book that she has produced called ‘My Name is New York’, a walking guide to the places where Woody lived in the city between his arrival in 1940 and his death there in 1967. ‘We designed it to fit in your back pocket’ she says, handing me a copy.
Next morning, Saturday 14th July, Woody’s birthday, I head out with the book tucked into my back pocket to keep me company while I hunt for record stores. They’ve become harder to find in Manhattan over the past few years. There used to be a megastore in Times Square, so I make that my first destination. On my way, I cross the junction of 43rd St and 6th Avenue, the site of Hanover House, a cheap hotel above a pawn shop, where Woody wrote ‘This Land is Your Land’ in February 1940, the month he first arrived in New York.
The pawn shop and hotel are long gone, as is the megastore, but I hear that there are still record stores down in Greenwich Village, so I hop on a subway train to Christopher Street. Rebel Rebel Records, on Bleeker, is easy to find but, more importantly, the Café Angelique is next door, so I sit in for some lunch. Delving into Woody’s guide book, I realise that many of the addresses where he lived are right around the corner from where I’m sitting.
Fortified by some very good coffee, I visit the Almanac House on 10th Street, where Woody lived with a bunch of musicians which included Pete Seeger and Lead Belly, and 74 Charles Street, where ‘All You Fascists Bound To Lose’ was written in the winter of 1942.
The narrow side-streets of the Village don’t look like they’ve changed that much since Woody tramped through. As I begin to feel I’m being drawn into his world, I remember I have an appointment to keep with his family out on Coney Island.
The apartment where Woody lived with his wife Marjory and their children, 3520 Mermaid Avenue, is no longer there, but that’s where we gathered, following a screening of ‘Man in the Sand’ at the Coney Island Museum, for an informal celebration of Woody’s centenary. Nora, with her children and grand-children in tow, leads us down 36th Street to the beach.
A rocky breakwater marks the far western end of Coney Island beach – it’s visible in the cover shot of the Mermaid Avenue Complete Sessions. Not only is this where Woody took his young family to build sand castles, it’s also where they scattered his ashes into the Atlantic Ocean. Nora tells the story of how her ever-resourceful mother, Marjorie produced a can opener with which to pierce the canister that contained her husband’s mortal remains. It was that same resourcefulness that drove her to gather up all of Woody’s lyrics and drawings and writings and store them safely so that they could one day be enjoyed by others.
Around the time we recorded the Mermaid Avenue sessions, Nora brought me to this beach because she wanted me to have a deeper understanding of one of her favourite songs from archive ‘Go Down to the Water’. In it, Woody calls on Marjorie to come to this place and to write her love letters to him in the sand while he’s out in the Atlantic, serving as a merchant seaman on the convoys during World War Two, and let the tide take them to his ship.
The song, also known as ‘Man in the Sand’, finally got released on Volume Three of the Complete Mermaid Avenue Sessions, and I’ve been singing it at the Woody & Billy shows in the US and Canada. I perform it almost accapella, to the traditional Irish tune, ‘She Moved Through the Fair’. When Nora invited me to this family gathering, I instantly understood why she wanted me to be part of such an intimate celebration: to sing that song, in this place, on this day.
When I had done so, we stood for a moment in silence as the sun began to set and listened to the waves lapping at the shore while Nora’s grandchildren played in the sand around us. Eventually, we headed back towards the sights and sounds of a summer Saturday night at the amusement park in Coney Island, to celebrate another good old Guthrie family tradition – a post-beach hotdog from Nathan’s.