“The Pacific Northwest is one of my favorite spots in this world, and I’m one walker that’s stood way up and looked way down acrost aplenty of pretty sights in all their veiled and nakedest seasons. The Pacific Northwest has got mineral mountains. It’s got chemical deserts. It’s got rough run canyons. It’s got sawblade snowcaps. It’s got ridges of nine kinds of brown, hills out of six colors of green, ridges five shades of shadows, and stickers the eight tones of hell.”
— Columbia River Songbook
Folk singer Woody Guthrie was prone to hyperbole. Whatever caught his attention, even briefly, became in his rendering the biggest, the best, the most, the greatest. His lyrics suggested a constant state of wonder, as if he saw every public utility project, rapid-churned river, dive bar or struggling worker through the eyes of a voracious, world-hungry child. An avowed everyman and insatiable traveler, Guthrie prided himself on knowing the country — “from California, to the New York Island” — by foot, freight train and hitchhiker’s thumb.
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Guthrie’s America is vast and varied. It is the rolling hills of Oklahoma, where he was born just over a century ago, and the plains of the Texas Panhandle, to which he fled when hard times hit his hometown, Okemah; it is the Columbia River of the Pacific Northwest and the not-so-glittering Los Angeles of the 1930s; and it is the multicultural fun house of Coney Island, where Guthrie lived his last lucid, productive years before dying of Huntington’s disease in 1967.
In some 3,000 songs, many written on the road, about the places he lived or passed through in his “hard travelin’ ” days, Guthrie expressed the spectrum of American experience in a way few other writers have. As he “roamed and rambled,” he captured something essential in places where he spent even a fleeting amount of time.
So this past summer, as I planned a coast-to-coast road trip from Brooklyn to my hometown, Mendocino, in California, Guthrie’s lyrics kept leaping to mind, running like a ticker across every imagined scene. Using Guthrie as my guide, I would get to know the America that may have inspired the same mix of awe and political passion in him if he could see it today.
My time on Guthrie’s trail began in the Northwest, where I picked up a four-lane Interstate that was once the Oregon Trail. At the Snake River, the largest of the tributaries that feed the Columbia as it rolls to the sea, I set my iPod to the “Columbia River Collection” and the GPS for the Grand Coulee Dam.
The Columbia songs include all 17 known recordings of the 26 songs that Guthrie wrote during the single month in 1941 when he was working for the Bonneville Power Administration in Portland, Ore. The BPA was eager to advertise itself as a force for regional progress, and Guthrie was hired to write the soundtrack to that story. After spending his formative artistic years as the voice of and for the common man, he became, in effect, a propagandist for a grand government initiative: public power.
Traveling with my husband, Tim, I approached Oregon from the east, descending from the Blue Mountains into the golden interior of the Northwest, where the crops and orchards grow on geometric patches of irrigated earth. At Pendleton, a town best known for wool blankets and a roundup rodeo, we cut north to the Washington border and Walla Walla wine country, where we met the Western bounty of Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty.”
Though he is identified with other parts of the country, Guthrie loved the adobe architecture of the Southwest. According to Joe Klein’s great biography, “Woody Guthrie: A Life,” which served as the de facto guide for my trip, his affection for earthen construction was such that he attempted it himself in Pampa, in Texas’ Gray County, where the soil wasn’t up to the task.
Pampa is fully recognizable as the town of Guthrie’s “Dust Bowl Blues.” Driven from his hometown, Okemah, in Oklahoma, by hard times, Guthrie followed friends and family to the “top of Texas,” where he lived for several years, marrying his first wife, Mary, and learning to play guitar. Many of Guthrie’s songs — “Dust Storm Disaster” and “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh,” among them — are wrenching accounts of his time here in the 1930s. But those years, when the frenzied oil boom coincided with New Deal-era construction, may have been the city’s heyday.
Today, Pampa’s downtown has largely been abandoned in favor of a suburban commercial strip. Despite its many empty storefronts, it’s an attractive old town, with grand Beaux-Arts architecture along its Million Dollar Row and the Coney Island Cafe, which has been selling house-made chili (Guthrie’s favorite dish) and pudding pies since 1933. The most expensive item on the menu is a $3.50 “deluxe” baked ham sandwich.
I moved on to Tulsa because the Woody Guthrie Center, the national museum and archive devoted to our man of constant wander, had opened in the city’s resurgent Brady Arts District in April. The center is painted with the classic image of Guthrie, guitar on his hip, “This Machine Kills Fascists” scrawled on its body and is fronted by the grassy expanse of the Guthrie Green, where music is performed during the summer. I spent hours in the museum and could have spent many more. When I left, “This Land Is Your Land,” which had been playing on repeat during my entire visit, followed me out the door, and through the streets of Tulsa.
It followed me all the way to Okemah, an hour south, where a tree in the yard of the long-demolished house where Guthrie had once lived, albeit briefly, was carved with the name of his most celebrated song. We had driven through undulating hills strewn with spools of hay and the occasional oil derrick, and eaten fresh fried okra and Oklahoma hamburgers from the Dairy Boy, one of the few places open on a Saturday afternoon.
In his hyperbolic way, Guthrie wrote that his hometown was “the singingest, square dancingest, drinkingest, yellingest, preachingest, walkingest, talkingest, laughingest, cryingest, shootingest, fist fightingest, bleedingest, gamblingest, gun, club and razor carryingest of our ranch towns.” That version of Okemah is long gone. On the September night we spent there, the main street was as quiet as a graveyard.
From Okemah’s Woody Guthrie Boulevard, I returned to New York City, as Guthrie did again and again in his life. It was on Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island that he spent his last relatively healthy years, living with his second wife, Marjorie Mazia Guthrie.
It was late October when I took the Q train to Coney Island, hoping to find Guthrie’s old address. In place of the modest home where Guthrie had once lived, I found a 1970s-era housing tower. The autumn air had become biting, even so, the sun was out and the boardwalk was busy with the usual characters: a man in a fur coat with a cat on a leash and a boombox blasting beside him, a Russian woman in a red beret and matching red shoes staring out to sea, a man riding a strange collapsible bike in looping figure eights. I sat on a bench at the foot of 36th Avenue, where Guthrie’s ashes were scattered in the Gulf Stream waters. He would have been right at home here, I thought.