For obvious reasons, it’s easy to think of the great American folksinger/songwriter Woody Guthrie as a lifelong hardscrabble dust bowl Okie, but the reality is, the man called New York City home for nearly three decades, from 1940 until his death in 1967.
Of course, that was at a time when lower Manhattan, especially Greenwich Village, was an urban bohemia, a haven and incubator for America’s artists and musicians. Those times are gone—I’m in NYC at least once a year, and every year, more and more of the Village looks like it’s been eaten by a strip mall. So it goes, but the character of what’s been lost there may be irreplaceable, as a startlingly rapid gentrification is eating into every once-affordable art enclave in that fabled city. I realize that the emergence of an arts district often heralds gentrification—I’ve long lived in such a neighborhood myself, and seen firsthand those kinds of changes, for better and worse—but from an outsider’s perspective, what’s been happening to NYC, especially the northern part of Brooklyn in the last several years, seems unusual and kind of alarming in speed and scope. So these photos of Woody Guthrie’s New York seem to me especially valuable documents. They’ll be part of a 3-disc audiobook set to be released in September, titled My Name is New York. A regular dead-trees edition, by Guthrie’s daughter Nora, has been available for a couple of years.
The Hotel Savoy-Plaza, 59th Street at 5th Avenue, Manhattan, at the southeast corner of Central Park. Guthrie lived here with Will Geer, an actor, activist and Communist who’d be blacklisted in the ‘50s, but would nonetheless go on to fame in the ‘70s as Grandpa on The Waltons. This is where the Apple Store is now.
Guthrie, rockin’ one out for the shoeshine guy.
Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie at Seeger’s wedding, 129 MacDougal Street, 1943. Currently an Italian restaurant, and for all I know it might have been one then, too.
Woody Guthrie in 1943, at McSorley’s Ale House, which still exists at 15 East 7th Street, Manhattan. Photo: Eric Schaal for Time Life. Used with permission from Getty Images. WGA.
31 East 21st Street, Manhattan, where Guthrie and Pete Seeger lived with sculptor Harold Ambellan in the ‘40s.
5 West 101st Street, Manhattan, right off Central Park West. Once Guthrie’s music started making him some money, he moved here, and sent for his wife and kids in Texas to join him. Frequent guests here included Alan Lomax, Lead Belly, Sonny Terry, and Burl Ives. The building is still there, but I’m assuming mere mortals can’t afford to live in it anymore.
Woody Guthrie performing in the New York City subway, 1943, a Bound for Glory publicity shot. Photo: Eric Schaal. WGA.
A Woody Guthrie paleo-selfie, from a subway photo booth, ca. 1945. WGA.
The audiobook set includes recorded interviews with, among others, Pete Seeger, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Bob Dylan, and totally unsurprisingly, Guthrie’s famous-in-his-own-right son, musician Arlo Guthrie. It’ll also include music, naturally, by Guthrie and others. Notably, one of the tracks is a home demo of the song that gives the package its name, “My Name Is New York.” Here are Guthrie’s typewritten lyrics, and the song itself.