Woody Guthrie has shown up again in my hospital room, and he’s swigging from a bottle of cheap whiskey, like the first time he wandered in here two nights ago. I recognized him right off because of the scrawny build, the wild hair, and the guitar slung on his back, labeled this machine kills fascists.At night, the nurses leave my door open a crack. They think I might give up the ghost if there ain’t some light, but I ain’t never been afraid of the dark. Hell, between the machines they got me hooked up to–one tube down my throat, another one to feed me by–it ain’t like I got a choice. I ain’t dead, but this ain’t exactly what I’d call living neither.
When Woody first showed up, it didn’t concern me he’d been dead almost thirty years. What bothered me was he didn’t offer some of his booze, which wasn’t like him at all. Not that I could drink any, but still, my mouth watered for some whiskey.
“Evening, unseen friend,” he said. “How are things out in radio land? How you like being cooped up in this government holding pen? I see from the look in your eye, you been anticipating me.”
My eyes must have known something I didn’t. A dead man I hadn’t talked to in almost fifty years wasn’t the visitor I’d expected. He put his finger to his lips and grinned at me, his foot up on the bed and that E-chord guitar ready. His shirt was untucked and raggedy, and he smelled like the road, all dusty and sweaty like in the days when we’d thumb rides back and forth to Tijuana where we worked for radio XELO.
“Don’t try to talk, Goldie,” he said. “I know you ain’t up to it. Just stop whatever you’re a doing and let this lone wolf do the howling for you.”
Those words sent me back to 1936, when the Okies were migrating to California, still trying to find heaven via US 66. I played fiddle and banjo in the camps some, mostly for my supper, though Okies didn’t have much of that, neither. I heard this one Okie named Woody Guthrie on the radio playing folk music and singing songs I liked, so me and my banjo hitched down to Tijuana to talk him into a try-out.
On meeting him, I told Woody he was too runty to pick up a guitar, much less play one like he did, but he said he’d give me a listen, anyway. His studio wasn’t much but cork board and egg crates and two stools with a microphone for Woody and his partner, Lefty Lou. Their first number was the theme song, then “The Rangers’ Command.” I tuned up, and when Woody busted a string, I helped finish the song off. Don’t know what made me happier, playing on live radio or standing next to Lefty Lou in her frilly dress that just did cover up her knees. Then Woody introduced me to the audience of “unseen friends” as “a string bean boy like Goldilocks. Keeps sneaking in the house when nobody’s looking.” Ain’t anybody played “Cripple Creek” so fast before nor since. My left hand scrambled up and down the strings so fast my right hand had trouble keeping time. I was about done, and done in, when Woody did a two-pat and hollered “one more time!” before he joined in and Lou followed along clapping. I couldn’t go another round so Woody stepped up, and I moved into the background.
“You still got that picture of us outside the station?” he said, and I could still smell the sweet liquor. A chord of light played against Woody’s face, and I saw the patches of stubble on his cheeks. He didn’t blink in the brightness, just took a nip from the bottle.
I winked. Yes, I still got it, and he smiled like it meant the world to him. But I didn’t have the picture. I had nothing left except this ragged body locked up in a room the size of a boxcar, a boxcar the bulls had nailed shut so the hoboes could get neither in nor out of.
“Didn’t I commence to teach you about singing before you hit the highway back North?”
No, I wanted to tell him. Four months living off beans and rice so you’d teach me to sing and write songs, and I still wasn’t anything more than a picker. You taught me then that balladeers like you couldn’t be trusted to keep your word.
Even before Guthrie, nothing with strings was safe from Goldie Peoples. After hitching back to California, I played regular in the camps and in joints where black folks taught me to play the blues. Then for years I hoboed across America and hooked up with everybody who was anybody on the folk and blues scene: Leadbelly, Blind Lemon, Woody, The Carters, Pete, Lee, and Brownie, just to name a few. White or black, I could fit right in on the circuit of rodeos, camp meetings, fairs, carnivals, rallies, street corners, and empty boxcars. Skin color didn’t matter to folks, long as you kept your trap shut and let the music do the talking.
Then just when I was making a name for myself, this These strokes hit me, and they passed me along from nursing home to nursing home. Without family to watch my interests, my guitar got stolen, then my dulcimer, fiddle, mandolin and dobro. If I’d settled down like Woody told me to so many times, I might have passed on some of my craft. If I’d had a daughter, maybe she’d been a good singer, or maybe even a picker like her old man.
“Ain’t nothing like good whiskey,” He took a swig and cinched the cap. “Too bad I ain’t got none.”
His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down the throat. His pockets were stuffed full of scraps of paper, songs he’d written on anything he could find. They were coming out the tops of his boots, too, and his pants pockets. A bar of light from the door fell across his face as he kicked back in the chair beside me and made up songs about a paralyzed man needing to piss, which I thought was comical and was laughing inside when he scooted the chair closer.
“You want that bad to learn to sing?” He whispered like it was something sacred. “I tell you what, just listen to your child. Children got the truest hearts and that’s what makes the best music. Too bad you wasn’t around to hear the music come from your baby’s loving heart and squalling mouth. You might have learned something along the way.”
I wanted to say, I never had babies nor a wife, especially not three like you and a barrel full of younguns to sing and write songs to.
He put aside the guitar and leaned so close I could feel his breathing. What’s he going to tell me? I thought, and closed my eyes.
But then the graveyard shift nurse came in. Woody saw her, waved bye, and walked out the open door. I wanted to cuss that girl like nobody’s business because Woody was gone and his secret had walked out with him.
The nurse sniffed the air. “Mr. Peoples, you been drinking?” She smiled and lifted my head to turn the pillow and pulled my ponytail out from under my back. “Sure wish my hair would grow like this.”
I didn’t get my nickname from the long hair, which I haven’t cut since I was discharged from the Army in ’45. Folks credit me with being the first hippie-folkie, but it ain’t an honor I’d like engraved on my headstone. Hell, who am I kidding? I’d be lucky if anybody noticed I was dead. Woody was the artist, not me. I could out-play him, no doubt, but his songs, simple as they were, out-did anything I ever tried. He had this sparkle in his eye, like the trickle of a stream coming off the Sierras, and it flowed into his singing–and his drinking. Hells bells, I could throw down more whiskey than a roughneck, and Woody still made a better drunk than me.
I woke up the next morning , Woody’s words stuck in my mind like a true pure note. Maybe that’s what he had over me: the gift of making his words stick. That’s sure what happened after he got Huntington’s disease. Folks came from far and wide to sit with him, hoping some of his sparkle would rub off like bottled glitter.
And in late 1960 that’s just what I did when I hitched back east to New Jersey to see him. The Huntington’s had just about wasted him away by the time he got committed to Graystone Hospital, a place folks called “Gravestone.” They didn’t know he was sick at first. Most thought he stayed drunk, but I knew better. Didn’t take much for me to see Woody alone at Graystone, just a few bucks to the attendants who took me to him.
It was dark inside his room. The morning was just shining through the bars in the window, more light than heat, and the shadows laid across Woody’s back as he slept sitting up in a wheelchair.
I squatted down in front of him. His hair had turned gray and grew even wilder, like a sheep needing sheared, and his skin hung loose on the bones. His head and arms jerked around, spasming, and he slobbered down his shirt. The wheelchair vibrated from him moving constantly. So this was where he’d ended up after running away from everybody and everything he loved to escape a disease that stayed hot on his trail, no matter how many freights he jumped, no matter how many jails he ended up in.
Steno books were piled beside his bed in the corner. Temptation got the best of me, so I sat down on the bed to read Woody’s words. Don’t know what I was looking for. Treasure, maybe, or a map to the places Woody never would take me. Before the disease overtook him, he had good handwriting. What was written on those steno books turned out to be as wild as his hair, and I almost couldn’t make out a word of it, the letters were so big and erratic. The disease took his songs, now his words.
For the better part of an hour, I fretted over his writing until some of the chicken scratch made sense. He wrote that he was a teacher, not a singer. I figured right then that Woody had lost it. I knew as well as I knew my name that he was a singer through and through. Him denying his gift made me sad that I’d come all that way and spent all those years waiting for him to keep his promise. Now, he didn’t have nothing left to give me.
I closed the books and left them in a pile. Though he wasn’t peaceful during the minute or two I stayed to watch him sleep, his breathing seemed strong enough to keep that little body going. I left him like I found him.
Over the years I’ve been cursed with my share of glitter seekers, ethno-folk professors and musicologists who ain’t never felt the chill of a boxcar in a Nebraska winter nor ate dust by the spoonful who wanted to record my picking. “The most versatile folk musician in history,” they called me. But that interest dried up when my body did. Lately, though, this one boy has been visiting. He looks like a Hopi and has a braid down his back. He just showed up out of the blue and asked the nurses if I was Goldie Peoples, the legendary folk artist. I would have told him, Son, ain’t nothing legendary about me except my drinking and singing voice, neither of which my mama would have approved of. Though he knew about my condition, he wanted to spend time with me and practice the banjo.
After months of me giving him winks when he’d mess up and lifting my eyebrows when he was going good, he got to be a damn fine picker. His fingers soon danced so fast I couldn’t see them, his picks were a blur of mother of pearl, and he sat for hours beside my bed and played. I wished then I had a sparkle in me like Woody that made folks come to learn his secrets, to take what he had to give and spread his words like dandelion seeds on the wind. The light that shined in the boy’s dark hair made me remember some other dark hair braided like that, hanging over a pretty brown shoulder. Then I could smell her in the air, the sweet aloe she combed into her hair to make it shine.
Chenoa, I called her, when we met in Yuma in ’61 when I was feeling lost. She taught me how to braid hair, and we made love in my sleeping bag out in the flatlands and her scent was like a song. With her round face against my chest, she sung her peoples’ songs for me, and I knew I’d missed out on something. A breeze blew by, piling the sand on top of us. The night sky went on forever, and the stars were so far away, they looked like dust.
In the morning when I had to move on, she understood. On a lonely rode in the middle of nowhere, she waited beside me until a truck stopped for my thumb. Though I could see the sadness in her good-byes, we stood two feet apart without hugging nor kissing, just her eyes singing in a voice as soft and brown as doeskin. When I got in the truck and turned around, she had already slipped back into the desert. The road went on for miles with nothing ahead and nothing behind but sand. I never looked back.
If the banjo boy had come by the morning after Woody spoke to me, I would have found some way to tell him, You don’t own the music. You just take care of as much of it as you can, for as long as you can. Then again, I was glad he didn’t visit. I sounded stupid and preachy, and I knew Woody would have done it better.
The second night I waited for Woody until the nurse made her rounds, but he couldn’t be trusted to show on time. It was way in the night when he woke me up by humming in my ear. I could see him smiling in the light that leaked under the door. He wore his Army uniform, his cap turned upside down.
“How about singing one for me, Goldie?”
I scrunched up my eyebrows, meaning no deal.
“How bout I steps in then?” The voice was like an echo in a deep well. I looked over and there he was, old Leadbelly himself, decked out in his pin-striped suit and polka-dot bow tie. “You ready to sing some blues, Goldilocks?”
Leadbelly bent a note and took me back to ’46 when me and Woody met up again. He had talked me into playing some rallies in New York, New York. I hadn’t been in town more than a couple hours when I got word some folkies were meeting in an
apartment over at Washington Square. When Woody saw me come in, he lit into “John Henry,” and we didn’t quit until we’d stormed through three more railroad songs. Then Leadbelly’d said, “You white boys ready for some real singing?” and his twelve string flowed along with his deep voice, “I’m leavin’ in the morning, Mama, but I don’t know which way to go…” I hadn’t heard blues like that since I’d bummed around St. Louis before the war. While Leadbelly sang, Woody said to me, “Hear that hurting, that sorrow that makes him sing to keep his heart from breaking? Ain’t a grown man alive can teach another to sing like that.”
By then the Almanacs had come in, and we had a regular hootenanny right there. A meeting was just another word for party to Woody and at any party, he stole the show. He knew thousands of songs, both made up and learned, and he naturally changed them as the mood hit. I’d heard “This Land Is Your Land” be as peppy as a jumping bean and as lonesome as a poor white boy on Beale street. We all sat around drinking and singing, and I’d had enough whiskey to join in. Even drunk, I didn’t sound good, and they asked me none too politely to quit fooling around as I was throwing them off-key. I shut my mouth and sawed at the fiddle, but my heart wasn’t in it, so I settled into the background. Even though I could out-pick any man, woman, or over-sized child in the room, I knew I didn’t have what they did inside.
Then last night, before Leadbelly got half-way through “Irene,” the damn IV machine started beeping and when the nurse came in to fix it, Woody jig-danced around yipping, though she didn’t notice. She hung up a new bag and checked my drainage and left the door open a crack. Leadbelly nodded bye and followed her on out.
Woody hung around a minute more. “It’s about time I hit the road, too. Just wanted to say sorry about not teaching you to sing and write songs, Goldie. I just played around too much, I guess, or I figured on everybody being able to sing some, if their heart was in the right place.”
I caught Woody’s eye and winked as if to mean, It’s okay. No hard feelings.
I woke up the next morning with the banjo boy on my mind. He reminded me of the Shamans I’d met who had a knack for showing up in the right place at the right time. Around lunch hour he came in with his banjo. He said his hellos and started playing.
And this noon when I looked over at the boy with the long braid who’d come out of the blue, I thought maybe I’d missed something before. I blinked fast to make him pay attention and thought real hard in hopes he could hear me.
Sing to me, I wanted to scream so loud my voice would bounce around the room like an echo in a canyon.
He put down the banjo and leaned over me, his ear an inch from the tube running down my throat. But I couldn’t even rasp out my meaning. In his eyes, I saw my Chenoa with her butter skin and the lines that creased her smile.
Chenoa, I wanted to howl, Who is this boy?
The tears weren’t welcome, and I shut my eyes to hide them. The boy touched my face to hush me. He sung a song and though I didn’t recognize the words, the melody had a familiar ring. I knew that song, and I forgot the girl long enough to search the flatlands of my memory, then saw that he wasn’t singing a folk ballad: it was what Chenoa sang to me when she rocked me in her arms, and I drank her smell like a man dying of thirst.
Are you? My eyes begged an answer. What was your mama’s name?
But he couldn’t hear me. He stopped singing long enough to pick up the banjo. “I wrote this for you.” He blew through a train song, his fingers dancing on the strings, the picks about to catch fire. He bent his head, playing with his heart wrung out. I saw sweat on his lip and the soul of his mama in the music. Then I realized it didn’t matter if I could talk to this boy or not.
He hadn’t come here to learn from me, but to teach me something nobody else could, and now, inside, I was smiling a smile and singing a song to put Woody Guthrie to shame.
So now I wait. Wondering if Woody’s up for another visit, I stare at the ceiling, the cracks in the plaster, a map of these great United States and I count off the number of times I criss-crossed this land.
I’m up to forty-five and still going when I smell whiskey. Woody’s thinner tonight, and he’s got a slack-jawed look about him. There’s a sadness in his eyes, like in the days before he ran off to Topanga Canyon.
You all right? I want to ask him.
Ash drips to the floor from the cigarette perched on his lip. “Well now. We’re down to brass tacks. My tongue’s about wore out from talking. Words don’t mean a thing without a sound to go with them, so I’m dedicating this next number to my good friend.”
So he sings me a song that isn’t like the boy’s nor Chenoa’s nor like the well-dripping echo of Leadbelly, and it especially and finally isn’t Guthrie. I hear the desert wind sift the sand, as if it were blowing stars across a sky that goes on forever.
It is me. My song.
And then I pull my banjo out from under the bed and join in. Woody steps into the background and I play on, hitting the purest, cleanest notes any man ever made on any string.
“You know how to make a song good?” he says. “Tell the truth. Make the most twisted knotted-up feeling you ever had in your life as clear and concrete as it possibly can be. Make it ring true, Goldie, even if it ain’t got no words.”
Clear as a bell, I understand him. I take his bottle and pour whiskey down my throat. It burns like light. My door opens, and Blind Lemon picks up my song and Leadbelly follows him in, the twelve-string already humming.
And Burl and Cisco and Don and Lefty, they all squeeze in, with more folks crowding out in the hallway. Pretty soon, we have us a dyed-in-the-wool, foot-stomping, hand-clapping, yipping and hollering, howling-at-the-moon hootenanny to beat all others. They hand me a dulcimer and a harp and a half-dozen other machines and holler for me to play them all.
I promise I will, but first, because I don’t want nobody to bust up our little hoot, I walk over and shut the door.
This story first appeared in a slightly different version in as “People’s Song” in Writers’ Forum, v. 22, 1996, p. 66–73. I wrote a few months after my dad died of lung cancer. He always wanted to be a musician, but as he often said, a lack of rhtyhm and the inability to carry a tune stopped him. I made a few changes before posting it.