Why Bob Dylan sings like he has Huntington’s Disease

This talk was presented on 13 June 2014 |

I am not here today to talk about the genius of Bob Dylan.  I mean, it is an undisputable fact that the man behind such moving and meaningful lyrics as in the song Visions of Johanna where he sings “Jeeze, I can’t find my knees” is one of the true heroes of our time, and has articulate every feeling that humans are capable of.

And before you all go 1965 Newport Folk Festival audience on me, I want to set out my stall, to present to you the story of the most influential folk hero of them all, and elucidate how his life’s work fundamentally changed modern music (and at the same time led Bob Dylan to sing like he has Huntington’s Disease).

This is a talk about Woody Guthrie, an American radical armed only with a guitar with a message scrawled on it that ‘this machine that kills fascists.’

What Woody Guthrie is best known for is writing “American’s second national anthem” – the song “This Land is My Land”. But what is not reflected on very often is the communist-sympathising, socialist message of a song that is essentially saying no one owns this and you can’t keep us from it. A message that has echoed ever since.

Guthrie was a lot of things to a lot of people. I would like to cover three of these myths and legends over the next few minutes.

Number one:

Guthrie the liar who misrepresented his upbringing as leverage to make him the “folk hero” who was so beloved.

Although his upbringing must not have been easy, he was by no means the “Okie” of the Dust Bowl era in its truest form. He was not one of the displaced tens of thousands of families to abandon their farms in the 1930s when severe dust storms damaged a huge area of the rural US, although the association with this didn’t hurt his cause.

He would later write “Hard-Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People” – a song book that he would claim had “come from everywhere, just like I did.  Only there was just more and hungrier people… Just forget I had a damn thing to do with it, it’s real and it’s made up by folks that has had to take ‘er the hard way all their life… If you’re too highbrow for that, you can take your pants and go home right now.”

In fact, his father, Charles Guthrie, was not a farmer but an industrious businessman, and was actively involved in Oklahoma politics. And the year before Woody was born, was involved in the 1911 lynching of Laura and Lawrence Nelson.

Woody, along with Pete Seeger, was a supporter of the civil rights movement, and would later write three songs about this event and claimed that his father was later a member of the Ku Klux Klan, though there is no documentary evidence to support this.

Nora Guthrie, Woody’s mother, was eventually committed to the Oklahoma Hospital for the Insane. It is thought that she may have been responsible for the fire that killed Woody’s little sister, and that the one that left Woody’s father severely burned.

Why is it important that the myth around Woody’s childhood is examined? To be honest I am not sure, but it is interesting. He was an advocate of the worker, a supporter of the unions, a voice of the people, a reporter of the realities of government policy on the hardest-hit people, a rebel and a hero. Does it matter that one of his claims to legitimacy is false? We are seeing this story played out now with the revelations about Rachel Dolezal, the white NAACP leader who misrepresented herself as black for years.

Number two:

Guthrie the communist.

Woody spent his whole life supporting the unions, campaigning for workers’ rights, and he was a supporter of Stalin (even after the Hitler-Stalin pack). In 1941 he was resoundingly against the US joining WW2 when there was so much to sort out at home. Stating “Hell’s bells! I’ll fight like hell for a good job and honest pay – here at home, and not across the damned ocean”. Calling for songs to be “poured into the big Peace Battle”, and for “everyone one of us on the side of the working folks has got to out-do about a dozen on the rich side”. Although there is no evidence that he was a member of the communist party, it was the association that made him an underdog. It is little wonder that he gained wide-spread popular support. When Dust Bowl migrants in the 1930s fled to California from their farms, and the police formed a “Bum Blockade” to keep them out, Guthrie was there – capturing their stories and holding a mirror up to the politicians so they could see every pore and burst blood vessel of their hideous faces.

Number three:

Guthrie the influential folk hero.

According to legend (and Wikipedia), in 1960, Bob Dylan borrowed a copy of Woody Guthrie’s autobiography Bound for Glory from a college classmate and became obsessed with the folk hero. The book, written with the encouragement of Alan Lomax – the archivists responsible for capturing the sounds of America’s south in this period through field recordings in farms, prisons and school-yards, was published in 1943 when Woody was 31 years old, and it rendered him as an almost mythical figure.

From the very outset of his career Dylan started mimicking his hero’s speech patterns and even told the crowd at the Cafe Wha? when he arrived in New York in 1961, stating at the hootenanny night “I been travellin’ around the country, followin’ in Woody Guthrie’s footsteps.”

A year later Bob would met Woody for the first time – and 5 years later Woody would be dead from Huntington’s.

So, why is this important?

Huntington’s disease is an inherited disorder. It is marked by progressive degeneration of brain cells. Most individuals with Huntington’s disease develop some signs and symptoms in their 30s or 40s. The disease results in worsening difficulty in motor control, cognition, behaviour (like Woody’s mother’s insanity), and communication – which is typically characterized by slurred speech, and poor control of speaking rate.

As Dylan started to move away from idolising his hero and instead impersonating him, he attracted criticism. Some claiming that he “crawled over the dying body of Woody Guthrie to success”, others noting “My god, he is mimicking Woody’s disease”.

I’d like to end on a quote from Folklorist John Greenway about this. He said:

“Bobby Dylan, the idol of the unlaved student Extentialists, never knew Guthrie when his mind was whole, but imitated the incoherent, rambling, pseudo-mystical lines of Guthrie’s last letters on the edge of his insanity. Somehow Dylan has convinced a few avant garde critics that on the basis of these synthetic effusions he is America’s most promising young poet”.

Utterly scathing.

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