Hey, Hey, Woodie Guthrie!

By RICK FIELDING

“Woody, Cisco, and Me: Seamen Three in the Merchant Marine,” By Jim Longhi. University of Illinois Press.

It was in 1960 that I first became aware of Woody Guthrie and his music. Other than numerous references to him in folk music publications (virtually all of them originating from New York), he would have been largely unknown to the general public at that time.

When the “great folk scare” of the early and mid-1960s, to quote Utah Phillips, burst forth, Woody and his songs were everywhere. College kids all over North America were singing “This Land is Your Land,” So Long It’s Been Good to Know You,” “Pastures of Plenty,” “Union Maid,” and dozens of others.

By 1964, even high school dropouts like myself were deeply immersed in Woody’s music, his legend, and especially his mystique. Our heroes may have been Dylan, Seeger, Ochs, Paxton, and the many other songwriters who were expressing the outrage that many of us felt about the hypocrisies of the time, but Woody, ahh Woody, was the “real thing.”

He was a working man from rural Oklahoma, taking on the “big boys” with a guitar, a razor-sharp country wit, and an indomitable spirit. We knew he was very sick with Huntington’s Chorea and wasting away in a hospital somewhere in New Jersey. And most importantly, we knew that if he could, he’d still be out on the picket lines raising a lot of shit.

What we didn’t know for many years to come was “who was Woody Guthrie when he wasn’t writing, or singing, or bumming freight trains?” His close friends and family carefully protected his image during those years when his legend was growing so rapidly, and in so doing created the impression that Woody was virtually a flawless human being.

During that strange period of history that some call the “Reagan-Bush Years,” and I would call the “exposed generation,” this kind of image protection came to an end. “Tell all” books and documentaries became the great North American entertainment, with heretofore spotless reputations disintegrating into mere human ones.

This “humanizing” process even reached into the folk music community (or would have thought we were important enough for anyone to care?). Biographies of Dylan, Phil Ochs, and (saints preserve us!) even Pete Seeger hit the mainstream bookstores and were eagerly grabbed by folksier like me searching for the “inside dope” on these people who had become so important in our lives.

When Joe Klein’s “Woody Guthrie, a Life” (an incredibly well written book, in my opinion) came out, the three-dimensional Woody made his first appearance, and it wasn’t an entirely pretty picture.

Let’s face it, charismatic people get away with murder (literally and figuratively), and Woody was no exception. As an effective and occasionally brilliant writer, he deserved to be on the pedestal that we had created for him. As a husband, father, partner (and house guest), he was-to put it VERY charitably-erratic at best.

His lack of personal hygiene, disrespect for women (and don’t give me that “he was a man of his time” crap), and general unwillingness to bend an inch for others probably caused a lot of grief around him.

Having said this, and feeling a mite guilty about it), I still wish that I had lived in the time and place that would have made meeting him possible.

In Jim Longhi’s book (which is, I suspect, about 90 percent truthful) you will get to know a courageous, funny, and flat-out brilliant Woody. I won’t spoil your fun by telling you anything about the “wind machine” chapter, other than to say that any high-priced team of motivational therapists would have been damned impressed.

“Woody, Cisco, and Me” begins with Cisco Houston (Woody’s singing buddy and an important part of the folk revival) bringing the young Jim Longhi-at different times, a boxer, playwright, labor organizer, and lawyer-into the Guthrie “sphere” during the last months of World War II.

The three decide to ship out with the Merchant Marine as part of the constant supply of convoys taking men and materials to wartorn Europe and Africa. It seems to them that this is preferable to following their draft board’s advice and joining the Army.

The constant danger from U-boats and German fighter planes is with them (and us) throughout the duration of the book, and the specter of drowning or dying in an explosive fire surely colors their behavior on each of the three voyages they take.

Longhi is an expressive writer and rarely is guilty of hiding (or even repressing) his emotions, which cannot be said about his sailing buddies. Both Woody and Cisco are stoic and often seem a mite uncomfortable with Jim’s openness and constant hugs. What we learn about their feelings comes primarily from their actions under stress.

Although the book is as suspenseful as a good novel, there is great humor throughout. This is due in no small part to Longhi’s ability to observe, filter, separate, and finally communicate.

Considering that Longhi is in his 70s now, there may be no more books, and if that is the case, then I am truly sorry, for his style makes a relatively obscure part of folk music’s history come vibrantly alive.

Perhaps it’s time I “fessed up” about something. If you’re wondering why I haven’t said much about what actually happens during “Woody, Cisco, and Me,” well, I’ve been making a conscious effort not to.

The three seamen’s adventures are many, varied, funny, frightening, and touching-and I’ll be damned if I am going to spoil a great read for you.

Suffice it to say that their politics are an important factor in the story (Jim is a Communist Party member, and Woody and Cisco would be to were it not for having to go to meetings). Although Woody seems to be in prime focus, we learn a lot about Cisco and Jim.

I recommend the book highly, but I suspect you’re going to have to hunt for a copy. Mainstream it’s not, and you may have to contact the publisher directly.

 

Rick Fielding is a longtime songwriter and musician living in Toronto. He has recorded an album of traditional and political songs called “Lifeline” with Folk-Legacy Records in Connecticut. This article first appeared in the Fall 1998 issue of Socialist Action(Canada).