Southern Brooklyn

Woody Guthrie’s Family Pays Tribute To Him At Coney Island

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Source: Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, July 14 visitors to Coney Island may have been having too much fun on the Cyclone or eating Nathan’s to notice the motley crew of seven that came there for a very special purpose. Perhaps, this is what they wanted, an unnoticed and intimate gathering to celebrate the 100th birthday of their father, grandfather, great-grandfather and musical icon, American folk legend Woody Guthrie.

The group included his daughter Nora, two grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and musically-gifted friends Steve Earle and Billy Bragg. They wanted to mark Guthrie’s centennial celebration near his beloved Coney Island home, eating his favorite food, Nathan’s hot dogs.

Following World War II, Guthrie moved to 3520 Mermaid Avenue with his wife Marjorie. Their children, Arlo, Joady, Cathy and Nora, were born there. Most say that this was the most prolific period in Guthrie’s life and many songs from that time, like “Mermaid’s Avenue,” reflect the peace that his home life brought him.

Now, 3520 Mermaid Avenue is a senior citizens home and the only evidence of Guthrie’s life there is a small plaque.

This was the calm before the storm as Guthrie’s health deteriorated shortly after that. After several misdiagnoses, it was determined that he had Huntington’s disease, a hereditary and incurable genetic disorder.

He was admitted to Brooklyn State Hospital, where Bob Dylan came and sang songs to him.

Guthrie died there on October 3, 1967. After Guthrie passed, the family went  to Coney Island and scattered his ashes in the water.

“We didn’t have any religious traditions,” Nora told Rolling Stone Magazine. “We were inventing things along the way…We didn’t know what to do afterward. We didn’t have religious traditions. Stand in silence? Prayer? Mom said, ‘I think Woody would really want us to just go to Nathan’s. So we went over to Nathan’s and sat on the ground with our backs against the wall with my father’s favorite food, a hot dog and French fries. That was the big ceremony.”

His family didn’t come to Coney Island mourn him but rather to remember his powerful legacy and quirks. They were there to screen the Guthrie’s biopic, Bound for Glory as part of the Flicks on the Beach series.

The event attracted a crowd of admirers who witnessed Earle, Bragg and Nora talk about their hero and sing some iconic tunes by or about him like “Christmas in Washington,” “Dry Bed,” which is a song that incorporates Bragg’s music set to Guthrie lyrics, and the famous, “This Land is Your Land.”

The low-key event set on the beaches of Coney Island, under the crescent moon and beside the neon lights of the amusement park, is probably what Guthrie would have wanted. Happy Birthday, Mr. Guthrie, thank you for the unforgettable music.

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38 COMMENTS

  1. I didn’t realize until recently that Woodie Guthrie was only a few blocks from where I lived at the time when he was at Brooklyn State Hospital from 1954 to 1967, the entire time I was in elementary school, junior high, and high school all three also several blocks from Brooklyn State Hospital, now called Brooklyn Psychiatric Center. Pete Seeger said he visited Guthrie several times while he was in that Hospital.

  2. A few years ago it was first discovered that Guthrie who was not Jewish wrote a Chanukah song. It was recorded by the Klezmatics and is quite good.

  3. Coney Island was a magical place, Woody Guthrie chose to live there, it was the magnet for the masses, the people he wanted to sing for. It was also a neighborhood of working class people who believed in their community. The remnants of that can still be seen, though its harder to find.

    Wish I had known in advance that they were planning this. It was a fitting event, apparently done with dignity.

  4. Besides killing Fascists, it would have been nice if that “Machine” pictured in the photo, also cleaned the obvious dirt under his nails, or perhaps it was another time, when men didn’t put any importance on that, and the babes didn’t mind!

  5. I never would have noticed the filth under his nails had you not mentioned it.  Eww – how dirty can a person be?  I guess bathing was not a big deal back in those days.  It is really disgusting though.  I would be ashamed to walk around with black dirty nails.

  6. Yes, priorities are important…  Please be advised, though, that Woodie Guthrie and Justin Beiber are intentionally different people.

  7. I’ll put it this way: if I were able to create music like Woodie, I wouldn’t give a damn about my nails.

  8. Dirt gets under the nails when one frets using the fingertips. Metal strings get dirty, and back then the copper wasn’t properly tempered. This is a black and white photograph. It is possible that the “dirt” under the nails had a greenish tinge.

  9. Totally understood, but it would have made for a nicer picture if he was clean.  My remark was not about his music, which was great, just about his dirty hands.

  10. How surprising that a group of Brooklyn Jews or mostly Jews would hold a dedicated Communist in such reverence. A dirty Communist judging by that photo alone. His other guitar sticker must have read: “This Machine THRILLS Communists.”

    Weren’t Julius and Ethel Rosenberg from Coney Island too?

  11. I think you are mixing up your talking points. Usually people who agree with you reference “dirty Jews” and “mostly Communists”, not the other way around!

  12. The fascists in Spain, Germany & Italy were his targets back in the 30’s & 40’s , I wonder who’s side you would be on? the war caused the deaths of over 50 million people.And don’t forget the Soviet Union was our ally.They were the ones that drove those fascist nazis back to Berlin.

  13. I feel honored. I play a little guitar (fingerpicking) and my nails are a little dirty sometime, obviously i’m in good company musically.

  14. I don’t think Woody was mixed up with the Communist thingey, or with McCarthy’s committee. Pete Seeger was, somebody can correct me if I’m wrong.

        Guthrie may have had articles printed in Daily Worker, but I don’t think one could associate him with the Communist movement. I think his lifestyle precluded associating him with much of anything..

  15. Years ago I had indentations on my fingertips that were deep and discolored from fretting the strings on various stringed instruments. It’s a sign that one is spending some time doing it. The dirt doesn’t come off easily after a few hours of playing.

  16. There was also a free screening and book signing/ cd signing (Nora Guthrie, Billy Bragg) of Man In The Sand at the Coney Island Museum at Coney Island USA, earlier in the day.

  17. Coneyislandusa.com, run by Dick z.( I can never remember that last name!) . Mucho events always going on in the Freak Bar building.

  18. dirt under his nails?  wow I guess he didnt have time to get a manicure before that pic was taken…. (shrug)

  19. the Klezmatics recorded a CD of songs with lyrics by Woody… called WONDERWHEEL.  I believe it won them a grammy. 

  20. you obviously know very little about Woody Guthrie…  and are proud to display that ignorance (and intolerance)   🙂

  21. this is funny!  

    btw, his other guitar sticker also read – ” heil hitler”. he just didnt take that one out very often, not too popular with the jews of brooklyn, ya know, those commies.   true story.  look it up. 

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