Issue 177, Summer 2006
In March of 1939, Woody Guthrie typed out the lyrics to a song he'd just thought of—“Oh, oh, baby, don’t you know? I’m a goin back to th’ farm”—then hit the carriage return about a dozen times and wrote:
I want to see some good step in here
And illystrate all of my emptry spaces with some
Right good freehanded and backhanded sidesweeps
And crisscrosspatches and touchy hatches and
Then blend and shade it in with some crossy hatching worth
After a moment he added: “Sounds so good I might jump in here and do my own iullstrating and capustricating.”
Guthrie had been drawing and painting for nearly as long as he'd been making up and singing songs. His sketches and watercolors serve as a kind of lifelong visual diary of enormous variety and vitality, blending political cartoons, erotic doodles, street scenes and dreamscapes. Often his verbal and visual artistry cohabited on the same page, each mode of expression expanding on the other so that it is impossible to say whether the words are a caption to the pictures, or the pictures an illustration of the words.
In 1946, Guthrie—just discharged from the army and newly married to his second wife, Marjorie Mazia—set up house on Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island. There, far from the Oklahoma that had shaped him but secure in the bosom of his new family (his mother-in-law, the Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt, lived around the corner), he embarked on one of his most productive periods. Guthrie’s passion for his family and their seaside bohemian life animates the work of his Coney Island years, from which the writings and drawings here are taken, with a goofy vigor. “Blintzes and cheeses / Knishes and spam / Go Coney Island / Roll on the sand,” he wrote, and, “It ain’t the people here along the beach that’s ugly. It’s these dernfool crazy bathing suits they got on.” At the same time, family tragedy—the death of Guthrie and Mazia’s firstborn child, Cathy Ann, in an apartment fire in February of 1947, suffuses his pages with a brooding darkness and despair.
Mazia was busy as a dancer in Martha Graham’s company, and Guthrie spent long stretches looking after the kids—sitting on the floor with them surrounded by the cheap construction paper, crayons, chalk and paints he picked up at Sam & Dave’s Corner Store. He had a habit of building songs around his children’s remarks, and his Coney Island journals are full of such evocative phrases as “I don’t feel welcome at your table of big long words,” that might be the utterances of a preschooler of the fruit of his own lyric gift. Guthrie’s voice had always swung between playfulness and profundity, and he remained engaged in the world of politics, whether by devoting an entire notebook to an illustrated letter of protest at a landlord’s “no children” policy or by expressing his fear of nuclear proliferation to President Truman on the letterhead he picked up at one of his wife’s teaching gigs.
Guthrie was just thirty-four when he settled in Coney Island, and he lived there for only four years, but it was the last period in which he enjoyed the full scope of his powers before his long, slow decline in the grip of Huntington’s disease. Hundreds of the pages he filled there now reside at the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives in Manhattan. Like the songs for which he remains best known, these works on paper are full of freewheeeling, hot-blooded, irreverent wit and big-hearted intelligence. As the man himself suggested, nobody could illustrate Guthrie better than Guthrie.