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(Credit: Library of Congress/Douglas Gilbert)

Music

The man before Bob: The connection between Bob Dylan & Woody Guthrie

“The highest purpose of art is to inspire. What else can you do? What else can you do for anybody but inspire them?” – Bob Dylan

There are only two original songs on Bob Dylan’s self-titled debut record amidst a slew of old folk standards. One of those is ‘Song to Woody’, which he proclaims is the first he ever wrote. 

At the time when Dylan first arrived in New York, ‘The Village’ was flooded with the first drabs of folk players who had poured off the pages of beat literature into gingham-clad shirts. As a rule of thumb, they all performed shop-worn folk classics from time immemorial. Likewise, the radio waves were chocked with singers taking on the works of Tin Pan Alley songwriters. This prompted Dylan to comment, “I always kind of wrote my own songs but I never really would play them. Nobody played their own songs, the only person I knew who really did it was Woody Guthrie.”

This individualism caught Dylan’s attention, thus he decided to try his hand in homage. “Then one day,” he continues, “I just wrote a song, and it was the first song I ever wrote, and it was ‘A Song for Woody Guthrie’. And I just felt like playing it one night and I played it. I just wanted a song to sing and there came a certain point where I couldn’t sing anything, I had to write what I wanted to sing because what I wanted to sing nobody else was writing, I couldn’t find that song someplace. If I could’ve I probably wouldn’t have ever started writing.”

The sincerity of that humble downplaying, however, is betrayed by another ode that Dylan penned in his honour. Dylan would frequently visit his hero while he was in the hospital and his poem, Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie, is bookend by the following stanza’s: 

“When yer head gets twisted and yer mind grows numb
When you think you’re too old, too young, too smart or too dumb
When yer laggin’ behind an’ losin’ yer pace
In a slow-motion crawl of life’s busy race…”

“…You can either go to the church of your choice
Or you can go to Brooklyn State Hospital
You’ll find God in the church of your choice
You’ll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital…”

Dylan’s obsession with Guthrie revealed an inner artistry within himself, as Patti Smith puts it, “a stirring and a desire to stir.” But, before Dylan would go on to inspire millions in the same way that Guthrie had stirred him with his Promethean folk force, he first eagerly sought his master like a little troubadour apprentice. 

In 1961, five days after arriving in New York from Minnesota, Dylan tracked Guthrie down at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in Morris Plains, New Jersey. In the September of 1954, Guthrie had checked himself into the facility fearing he had a mental disorder as he couldn’t control his muscles. He wouldn’t check out for another two years, and when he did so in May 1956, he spent days wandering the streets of Morristown, New Jersey, in a state of homelessness. 

When he was apprehended by police he spent a night in Morris County Jail, before being transferred back to Greystone at his own behest. Upon readmission, it was believed that he was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. Staffers simply could not believe that this staggering man had published countless songs and a book to boot. It would later turn out that Guthrie was suffering from Huntington’s disease, a hereditary condition that affects the ability of a sufferer to control their movement. 

Bound for Glory, Guthrie’s autobiographical tale of weaving a serpentine path through the backroads of America, leaving a trail of songs in his wake for anyone who’d listen, had inspired Dylan so much that it formed a key reason why he dropped out of the University in Minnesota. But, aside from his wayfaring ways of living life On the Road and propagating the poetry of the people, the notion of this numen with ‘This Machine Kills Fascists’ scribbled on his dog-eared six-string was a mental seed that later flowered into Dylan’s prickly iconoclasm and early political ways. In short, Guthrie sounded like some sort of God to Dylan as he would later declare in his poetic ode. 

However, by the time that he eventually met his hero, Guthrie’s condition had declined. He could barely move, his speech suffered good days and bad, and performing was a feat left long behind him. Fortunately, for both hero and worshipper Dylan was a self-professed “Woody Guthrie jukebox” and if there is one thing the folk forebearer loved, it was hearing his own songs. 

In the novel My Name is New York, Dylan recalls, “When I met him, he was not functioning with all of his facilities at 100 percent. I was there more as a servant,” he says. “I knew all of his songs, and I went there to sing him his songs. He always liked the songs.” Adding, “He’d ask for certain ones — and I knew them all!”

Thereafter, the two shared a unique bond that would last a lifetime and beyond. As though their lives were woven into place by some mystic figures of musical fate, even their respective artistic narratives are similar. When Guthrie first arrived in New York City when he was 27 years old, he wrote his most famous song within a week, ‘This Land is Your Land’. For the next 27 years, he wrote countless songs and overflowing notebooks as he voyaged through the streets of the big apple. 

The city would later do the same for Bob Dylan and his unfurling cascade of folk mastery that followed ensure that popular culture would never be the same again, and every bit of it for the better. When Guthrie died aged 55 in 1967, Dylan emerged from his self-imposed exile following a motorbike accident to grace Carnegie Hall with a tribute concert to his hero. This farewell to Dylan’s “last idol” was the moment the legacy of American folk was crystalised. The Woody Guthrie songs that Dylan chose to play were not his pointed fingered vectors of history, but songs that transcended the dustbowl with a sanguine spiritual intent. 

In a period where Dylan’s move to electric guitar was still being sweated over, this disavowing of petty ideals in favour of a greater truth was profound. As Richard Goldstein who was in attendance puts it, “Dylan paid tribute to Woody Guthrie, by making his songs musically relevant. With stomping rhythms and shrieking harmonies, he infused ‘Grand Coulee’ with electric breath. It was a moving homage,” Goldstein declared, “and nobody stopped to wonder whether it was real folk music.”