Juan Felipe Herrera visits the American Folklife Center and discusses Woody Guthrie and the Alan Lomax Collection with curator Todd Harvey. View the webcast, read the Poet Laureate’s poem response, and learn more about the collection from the curator.
EL JARDIN: Woody Guthrie, Folk Song Pioneer
Back in the early ‘60s I had a room in my “second house” stocked with separate music listening rooms and thousands of albums, all the way from Beethoven to Joan Baez, John Hammond, Josh White, Bob Dylan, and the man himself, Woody Guthrie, folksong pioneer. (There would not be a Bob Dylan or Joan Baez or what is called “Indie” music today without Woody). I listened hard in that twangy room—and I am talking about the music room in the San Diego Main Library on E. Street right across the post office in sunny orange sunshine San Diego, Californio'. You needed that room if you wanted to live right as a teen in San Diego, and you needed two more things: a six-string Stella acoustic guitar and a pencil. Just like Woody—oh, and a non-stop spicy writing style. The style popped out of the page at the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress. My hands trembled. My eyes veined hot. My mouth was-a-stretchin’. “This is Woody’s letter to the famous Folk music historian, Alan Lomax!” I gurgled out loud, half-droolin’ and half-laughin.’ “This letter is all about his son Arlo being born!” I noticed the scratchy beauty of his language, his sped-up mind, and his bouncy, woodsy, truth-sweaty wordin.’ “This is how a great folksong writer writes!” I yelled out. Read the following, word-for-word in the voice of Woody’s, about his newborn child, 1942, July 10th, Brooklyn, New York: “I’d like to see every wiggler in this humanly race come out painless and go out painless and come down painless.” A line later Woody continues in caps and indented poetry lines:
“I AM PAINLESS
OR I WAS
AND JUST HOPE
YOU WORLD LIVERS
WILL BY GOD
HELP ME TO STAY
I GO BY THE NAME ARLO.”
“A beauty. A poet-song-writer. A man fully alive and playful.”I say softly layin’ down the document. Now it is your turn. Write a letter to someone important in a folksy, rugged, country style—just loosen up. Write about waking up, being born and facing an incredible new day of all-cracklin’ life! Here’s my poem to getya’ going’ --
JUS’ STEP OUT, JUMP BACK!
I am painless
with these Autumn leaves come rollin’ ‘cross the street
tiny feathers of high-flyin’ hungry birds too
I am callin’ all the world livers
get up and follow these forgotten songs
you don’t need no money
not even a bowtie or a fancy bun on your head
jus’ step on out jump back
see the miracle headin’ your way? I go
by the name Woody
Juan Felipe Herrera
21st Poet Laureate of the United States
“The Poet Laureate? Coming here? And he wants to see Woody Guthrie manuscripts?” Many researchers visit the American Folklife Center for our Guthrie materials. Our collections hold documentation of a unique friendship that blossomed during the 1940s between Guthrie and Alan Lomax, the Assistant in Charge of the Archive of American Folk-Song. Lomax recorded Woody first in 1940 and then featured the singer on his CBS radio broadcasts. The two corresponded into the early 1950s when Lomax emigrated to Europe and Guthrie’s health began to decline.
Woody once called us the “skid row section of the poor folk’s division of the Library of Congress,” so it was a surprise when the Poet Laureate scheduled a visit. At the appointed hour an unassuming man walked into the Folklife Reading Room and introduced himself as Juan Felipe Herrera, come to explore the cultural expression of ordinary Americans.
When we began to look at the Guthrie manuscripts I saw them through the eyes of a powerful artist. He spoke aloud passages from Woody’s writing, feeling them in his own voice. As a sculptor touches, a poet speaks. Herrera explored the granularity of Guthrie’s rhyming plosives and fricatives and the train wheel repetition of events and objects that enliven much of his correspondence.
The Poet Laureate lingered over one piece in particular, and this was captured on video. When Arlo Guthrie was born in 1947, Woody made an announcement “to all you Lomaxes.” In it, Arlo described his own entrance into the world. The raw and lively sentiment clearly gripped my new friend and Juan Felipe, in turn, provided insight that allowed me to experience these words anew, even after a decade of living daily with the collection.
Specialist, American Folklife Center