Woody Guthrie's Wardy Forty
Greystone Park State Hospital Revisited
(Woody Guthrie Publications)
Woody Guthrie's life was a hotbed of ironies. His birth name was Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, so he was named after a president he detested. His father was a businessman, probably a member of the Oklahoma Ku Klux Klan. When he was still young, his mother began to act oddly: falling to the floor, jerking about, making strange noises. Because the family broke up when he was fourteen (his mother was finally committed to a state mental hospital; his father was badly burned in an accident), he came to live on the streets of Okemah.
From an early age, he showed a love for singing, for making up songs. He learned how to play the harmonica and guitar. Soon, he was what we now call a busker, playing the streets for money. In time he became a wanderer, moving on through the western United States.
During the Depression he hung out with hoboes ... the poor, the radical, the dispossessed. He was always making up songs, ended up singing on the radio or to anyone who cared to listen. His wandering ended when he was in his forties when he developed the symptoms of Huntington's Disease.
Huntington's Chorea (as it was then called) is a neurological illness which gradually affects muscle coördination and creates involuntary spasms in arms, legs, and head. It causes an ungainly walk, strange cries --- and ultimately brings on dementia. Woody was committed to various mental hospitals (in its early stages his infirmity remained undiagnosed) and he soon ended up in Greystone Park psychiatric hospital in New Jersey.
The commitment papers are reproduced here in full: "In the physician's presence [he] said, 'I got $3000 for writing a song. I left Brooklyn State Hospital on May 23, 1956. I wanted to find the orphans to give them the money. I wrote about 8000 songs and got $10,000 for writing.'"
Untidy, unkempt, kept talking all through interview about all the money he has. Lacks insight and judgment. Grandiose ideas. Untidy and unkempt. Wanders about the highways. Patient was arrested for wandering aimlessly on the highways. Regularly committed to this hospital from Morris County Jail on May 29, 1956.
"He stated that he has been hearing voices, also saw the persons who have been talking to him, like Jesus and Maria. They have been giving advice to him as to what to do. They calmed him down and told him not to worry about this or that problem. He does not think that people are talking behind his back but if anything is wrong it would not harm him. He has special abilities in music and made some ten thousand dollars in writing music."
There is a question in the mind of the examiner whether all this is fantasy ... Throughout the interview he remained manneristic and gesturing in a grandiose way. He also had a silly smile on his face at times.
His son Arlo was to write later,
He was convinced he couldn't have the same disease his mom had, because he had some misconceptions about how it was transmitted ... Little by little, at the insistence of my mom, even the doctors had to learn stuff.
"Wardy Forty" was the name that Guthrie gave to his ward at Greystone. His wife Marjorie took care of him in his later years and visited him regularly with the children. She once wrote:
When we would go to a restaurant and Woody would drop and slip and slurp all the things because of the involuntary movement, people would stare at us, and I would say, out loud, so there's no question about it, "Oh, Woody's sick today. He sure is." And we'd just make a joke about it. And just laugh, and he would laugh, you know, "Yep."
His daughter Nora wrote, "My father lived in a ward with many other patients. I remember one time walking through the entire ward with beds lined on both sides to get to my father's bed at the very end."
The walk seemed to take forever. All around us were strange people yelling, talking to themselves, uninhibited or somber. I walked as close to my mother as possible, hiding behind her skirts as she greeted many patients with a cheery and energetic "hello." I couldn't understand why she wasn't terrified. I was.
Friends would come from all over to visit. A neighbor Sidsel Gleason wrote about music sessions that they would have on "Wardy Forty" up on the third floor. "Did you ever hear of washtub bass? Well, there was one of the guys that played washtub bass, and between that and the guitar, it was a pretty wild affair. The people down on the first floor were just about crazy, 'cause it made such a funny noise downstairs. People came from all over, honey, I'm not kidding. They'd come all the way from Oregon."
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The book is expansive, beautifully put together, and devastating. It shows us a vigorous, garrulous man who suddenly found that he could no longer be the "Dustbowl Troubador," could no longer play the guitar and sing, and, in the end, could no longer compose ... could no longer even speak.
Many of the photographs here --- in color, full page --- are of Greystone Hospital as it is exists now: windows blown in, rusting beds without mattresses, paint falling down snow over everything, abandoned chairs, ruined institutional equipment. There is an old upright piano keeling over, steam pipes fallen to the floor, hallways littered with detritus, the grounds outside gone to seed. All is decay, desolation, ruination. A once-handsome, well-maintained hospital for 8,500 patients, set on a luxurious 1,000 acres, has fallen completely apart.
It is now just like its most famous patient. "Untidy." "Unkempt." Reminding some of us of the words of Tithonus,
The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.