The Huntington Disease of Woody Guthrie, a study.
© 2007 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc. Volume 20(4), December
2007, pp 238-243
Received for publication March 15, 2007; accepted September 23, 2007
The Huntington Disease of Woody Guthrie: Another Man Done Gone
Ringman, John M. MD - UCLA Department of Neurology, Los Angeles, CA
Supported indirectly by PHS K08 AG-22228, California DHS No. 04-35522, and the Shirley and Jack Goldberg Trust. Further support for this study came from Alzheimer's Disease Research Center Grants AG-16570, PHS R01 AG-21055 from the National Institute on Aging, an Alzheimer's Disease Research Center of California Grant, and the Sidell Kagan Foundation.
Reprints: John M. Ringman, MD, UCLA Alzheimer's Disease Center, 10911 Weyburn Ave, Suite 200, Los Angeles, CA 90095-7226 (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org ).
Woody Guthrie was an American songwriter, musician, writer, and political activist who died with Huntington disease (HD) in 1967 at age 55. His relatively brief creative life was incredibly productive with countless songs and a tremendous volume of letters to his name. His personal life was similarly driven with Woody having had 3 wives and at least 9 children and an insatiable appetite for traveling the United States. In this essay, I explore Guthrie's art in relation to the development of the overt behavioral changes and chorea that characterized his illness. Woody's most productive time artistically was in the 5 years immediately preceding the onset of overt symptoms of HD. I hypothesize that subclinical HD may have been an important driving force behind Woody Guthrie's creativity.
This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf Stream Waters,
This land was made for you and me.
Was a big high wall there, that tried to stop me
A sign was painted said: Private Property
But on the back side it didn't say nothing
That side was made for you and me.
-Woody Guthrie,1 1940
Woody Guthrie, born in 1912, was an American singer, songwriter, and activist who died with Huntington disease (HD) in 1967 at the age of 55. His life may have been relatively short in duration but was extremely full in both personal and artistic realms. He is perhaps best known for penning "This land is your land." His music and other writings reflected his times and had an inestimable impact on subsequent artists and their times. Writing the bulk of his songs during and soon after the Great Depression, he provided a voice to diverse groups of people including outlaws, hobos, "dustbowl refugees," and other migrant workers. In his songs, Woody praised their labors and sought fair treatment and wages. He frequently performed benefits for unions and the communist party. Woody had a penchant for reworking songs and improvising that made him a brilliant entertainer. It is said he may have forgotten as many verses as he committed to paper. Guthrie was a significant influence on many subsequent musicians including Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Billy Bragg. In addition to writing countless songs, Woody spent a lot of time at the typewriter maniacally committing to paper everything from children's songs to obscene letters. He was as driven in his personal life as well, having 3 wives, 9 children, and traveling nearly continuously from age 15 until his hospitalization in 1954 at age 42. Historians are still trying to understand the full extent of Guthrie's contributions to the American scene. His story is thoroughly told in Joe Klein's 1980 biography, Woody Guthrie: A Life.2 For an overview of the events in the life of Woody Guthrie, please see the timeline in Figure 1.
The presence of the extended CAG repeat in the huntingtin gene that causes HD can be tested for in presymptomatic persons known to be at-risk for inheriting it. To identify the earliest manifestations of HD, studies have been performed in which cognition and psychiatric status are compared between carriers and noncarriers of this genetic alteration. With regard to cognition, deficits in the ability to inhibit automatic responses 3,4 and problems in other aspects of executive function and perceptual motor speed and memory have been documented in preclinical mutation carriers within 5 years of the expected development of overt symptoms of HD.3,4 Anecdotal reports suggest significant psychiatric morbidity can predate the chorea of HD by many years 5,6 and 1 recent large controlled study demonstrated that symptoms of depression can precede overt HD in mutation carriers although the frequency of other psychiatric morbidity was not increased.7 Although HD is undeniably a devastating condition, in this essay I explore the idea that the impulsive and uninhibited personality associated with his HD was integral to Woody Guthrie's creativity.
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, born on July 14, 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma, was the third of 5 children born to Nora Guthrie. Her father, George B. Sherman, had died many years prior under unclear circumstances while horseback riding, presumably by drowning. Nora was 24 years old at the time of Woody's birth and had been married to Charley Guthrie since age 16. Charley Guthrie was, among other things, a Democratic District Court Clerk who dabbled in land speculation. Nora frequently sang ballads to her children as they were growing up. Woody's childhood is documented in his autobiographical novel Bound for Glory 8 which he also illustrated. Written while Woody was 30 years of age, Bound for Glory was published in 1943.
Compared with his older brother Roy, Woody was described while growing up as looking more like his mother. The earliest documented 2 aberrant behavior exhibited by Nora Guthrie occurred around 1918 when she was 30 years of age. At that time, she was said to wander and was forgetful, neglecting such matronly duties as laundry. She was also described as having a bad temper and fell and broke her arm in that year. In 1919, Clara, Woody's older sister, then 14 years old, was fatally burned during an argument with her mother. By Clara's own account on her deathbed, she had poured coal oil on herself and lit her own dress on fire to upset her mother. Her mother may have been shocked into inaction by a previous experience in which the Guthrie's house burned down but the reality of what happened is lost forever.
Woody described his mother around the time of this incident in Bound for Glory 8:
" She couldn't control her arms, nor her legs, nor the muscles in her body, and she would go into spasms and fall on the floor, and wallow around through the house, and ruin her clothes, and yell till people blocks up the street could hear her".
In the subsequent years, Nora was described as increasingly moody with deep depressions and outbursts of anger. By 1926 Nora had the idea, possibly delusional, that her husband was cheating on her. In 1927, she set Charley on fire. Charley subsequently went to stay with his family in Pampa, in the Texas panhandle, to recuperate from his burns and Nora was sent to the Oklahoma state psychiatric facility located in Norman. When Woody visited her in 1928 she was unable to recognize him. She had been diagnosed with HD and died there approximately a year later at the age of 41. At age 17 Woody is quoted as having said,2 "There's no way I'm gonna get that disease."
THE MAN AND HIS ART
By 1924, when Woody was in his early adolescence in Okemah, he stayed away from home for days at a time, likely in part because of the explosive situation there. While away he played with a gang of friends and visited the townsfolk, frequently missing school. With his mother institutionalized and his father in Texas, Woody was left, at age 15, to fend for himself. Despite this and some stigmatization by the townspeople for his difficult family background, Woody managed to display his creativity early on. Early endeavors included drawing caricatures and he worked frequently but usually briefly as a sign painter. At this time, he also started learning to play music from people about town and began playing harmonica in the streets for food. He did not particularly enjoy school but was an avid reader, one of his hangouts while skipping school being the public library. He was an average student overall, getting "A"s in geography and typing but failing topics such as psychology. Eventually his interests brought him back to the subject and he wrote a substantial text on psychology that was placed in the town library but subsequently lost. It was at this time that he began to smoke cigarettes and to travel, initially only during the summers but ultimately during school as well. He never graduated from high school.
Woody's travels took him to his father's family in Pampa where he lived between trips from 1929 until 1937. There he worked in a whorehouse, painted signs, and honed his guitar and song-writing abilities by playing publicly and privately with friends and family. In the heart of the depression-era dustbowl Woody earned some money in these activities but reportedly would spend it or give it away as fast as he got it. After a troubled courtship during which he proclaimed, "You don't want to marry me because my mother died in an insane asylum,2" Woody married his first wife, Mary in 1933. They had 2 of the 3 children they would have together before he left for Los Angeles in 1937.
In Los Angeles, he again lived with relatives from his father's side of the family who were musically inclined. He soon got a job with his cousin, Jack Guthrie, on a radio station out of Hollywood with a show that quickly became popular. This gained Woody some popularity and launched his career as a musician and songwriter.
Through the radio station manager, Woody became involved with the agricultural labor movement in California and began writing songs and articles for the manager's small newspaper. It was during this period that he wrote "Do Re Mi," a song about migrant workers from the depression-era Dust Bowl coming to California in search of work, in which his characteristic fluid literary style is evident:
Oh if you ain't got the do, re, mi, folks,
If yo ain't got the do, re, mi,
Why you better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee.
He continued to travel, playing music at communist party rallies among other events. Many of his songs represent socialist ideals but it seems as though his personal feelings were more about the people he encountered in life. His wordmanship at the time is further exemplified in the quotes, "Left wing, chicken wing, it's all the same to me," and "I ain't a communist necessarily, but I been in the red all my life."2 The Hitler-Stalin nonaggression pact of 1939 tempered Woody's (and many communists') enthusiasm for socialism and he went back to Pampa and then, in 1940, to New York City.
In New York, Woody hooked up with similarly minded folk-singers and played numerous shows, getting attention from Alan Lomax, then assistant director of the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress. In March of 1940, Woody went to Washington and made recordings for the Library that were not made available to the public until 25 years later. Back in New York, he continued to play shows and wrote a column for the Daily Worker. He was reportedly quite popular with the women of New York and was thought by Alan Lomax 2 to have ".worked his way through half the secretaries in the CBS building." He continued to get well-paying jobs in New York and with the money he had, he brought his wife and children there in late 1940. This arrangement lasted about a month when Woody, after a New Year's Eve bender, packed the family into a car and headed back, quite indirectly, for Los Angeles.
Woody was contracted in April of 1941 to write songs commemorating the building of dams in Oregon. He took this job with fervor, traveling to Oregon and compulsively writing 26 songs in 30 days. He then went on tour with the Almanac Singers, a group consisting of some of the folk singers he knew in New York. With them, he wrote a song commemorating the recent sinking of the ship the Reuben James by a Nazi U-Boat in which he endeavored to name each of the nearly 100 crewman who died,9 demonstrating an artistic passion that superceded practical considerations. While in Los Angeles on tour with the Almanac singers, he was briefly reunited with his family when his wife, weary from following him around the country, finally said Good-bye and headed back to Texas permanently.
Woody went back to New York where he remained for a few years. He wrote Bound for Glory there during 1942 that was published, after much editing, in March of 1943. Bound received good reviews, furthering Woody's notoriety. During this time he had met Marjorie Mazia, a dancer who was to become his second wife, again only after a tumultuous courtship. Cathy Ann Guthrie, the first of 4 children born to Woody and Marjorie, was born out of wedlock in February of 1943. Woody joined the Merchant Marine later that year, probably partly out of a sense of duty, and partially because of peer pressure applied by a friend. He served intermittently on different ships including one that was torpedoed in the Mediterranean and another that struck a mine off the coast of France. During one Atlantic crossing, Woody was said to have gone voluntarily into the hold (the most dangerous part of the ship should it get torpedoed) of an overcrowded troop-carrying ship to boost the soldier's morale by playing music. Between assignments, Woody lived with Marjorie and Cathy Ann in a house on Coney Island which served as a base from which he continued to write songs and play on street corners. A number of these songs were recorded by Moses Asch 1 in New York in 1944 when Woody was 32.
Woody was again indoctrinated into the army for a brief stint in late 1945 and sent to Texas for basic training before being stationed in Las Vegas and then discharged. He returned to Coney Island, spending much of his time with his daughter Cathy Ann where he was inspired to write children's songs. These were arguably his most successful musical efforts of the time, producing only a few more serious compositions that are memorable. As one might expect with children's songs, the songs Woody wrote during this time demonstrated less structure, increasingly loose associations and neologisms. Memorable examples include "Car Song," written in 1946,1 which consisted largely of vocally produced automobile sounds, and "Why Oh Why" written in 1947:
Why can't a rabbit chase an eagle?
Tell me, why, oh why?
'Cause the last rabbit that took and chased off after an eagle didn't come off so good, and that's why rabbits don't chase eagles, and that's all I know about rabbits and eagles,
Because, because, because.
Woody also attempted to write books during this time, one of which was finally completed years later with much editing. He continued to play with other folksingers at rallies but developed a reputation during 1946 for unpredictable and inappropriate behavior. Woody's behavior and functional abilities gradually deteriorated thereafter. Written sometime between 1947 and his death, the piece "Hoodoo Voodoo" that was later put to music by Billy Bragg and Wilco shows the progression of Woody's prose:
Jinga jangler, tingalingle,
picture on a bricky wall
Hot and scamper, foamy lather, huggle me close
Hot breeze, old cheese,
Slicky slacky fishy tails
Brush my hair and kissle me some more.
Though it is difficult to say when or where Woody first wrote, heard, plagiarized, and recorded many of his songs, many of them were produced during World War II, in the 5 years preceding the unequivocal emergence of symptoms of HD.
As is frequently the case with HD, it is difficult to say when Woody Guthrie first began to manifest the illness. In 1938, when Woody was 26, he was reported to become increasingly apathetic and cold toward his first wife Mary, and was observed by a cousin to once "go berserk when a dog bit a child in the (friends') front yard. He ran all around the house, screaming, and cursing, trying to find a gun to shoot the dog-an understandable reaction, perhaps, but completely out of character for Woody."
Alan Lomax, who met Woody around 1940 was said to have "loved everything about him, even the way he moved: the exaggerated way his arm swept around and his fingers came down to scratch the very top of his head like a steam shovel; the way he pooched his mouth and stroked his chin when he was thinking." This might represent early chorea masked by voluntary movements, or parakinesis, but it is difficult to be sure.
A suggestion of maniacal behavior is documented during Woody's service in the Merchant Marines at age 31. Woody served in the mess on the William B. Travis bound for Europe. He was noted to be:
Easily distracted. Instead of setting the tables, he might lose himself in drawing a beautiful menu on the blackboard, garnished with ribbons and bows, twittering birds, children playing, a mermaid, and sumptuous impossible descriptions of the meal. Beef stew became Aunt Jenny's prize-winning Saturday Night Special made of choice chunks of prime Texas beef, braised in golden butter, cooked with 14-carat carrots, plump tomatoes, California celery and sweet Spanish onions seasoned and stirred every ten minutes by a beautiful virgin, if available, or by the youngest member of the gun crew.
Furthermore, during the same voyage, Woody was quoted as saying, at the age of 31, "I'm pretty sure I've got the same thing my mother had.(I) just feel queer sometimes."
In 1944 at age 32, more definitive evidence of chorea was demonstrated by the difficult time Woody had with army basic training despite a reported Intelligence Quotient on entry of 112. According to biographer Joe Klein,"the drill instructor always seemed to be looking his way when he had to itch or pull 'some kind of wormy web' off his face." He was also reported to perform poorly at the obstacle course and in marksmanship, both activities requiring motor coordination. Also while in basic training a disinhibited sexuality became manifest. He was visited by his first wife toward whom he made unwelcome sexual advances. His letters home to Marjorie became increasingly lewd during these times, with explicit discussion of masturbation and oral sex. His behavior began to deteriorate substantially in 1946 after his discharge.
Besides his fervent obscene letter writing to women other than his wife, Woody's public behavior was becoming increasingly unpredictable and inappropriate at times. For instance, he once grabbed the collection plate at a fund-raising event and poured the money down his shirt. Marjorie and Woody's marriage fluctuated between conflict and passionate intimacy. Woody doted on Cathy Ann, who was his inspiration and helped hold their marriage together. She died unfortunately in what was most likely an electrical fire in February of 1947 while Woody was performing at a union celebration.
Despite this blow, Woody and Marjorie stayed together and their second child, Arlo, was born later that year. A third child, Joady, was born in 1948. Woody continued to produce children's songs, work on a novel, and was actually contracted by the government to write songs about venereal diseases. Out of this came :
I tossed her two dimes and six pennies
I stumbled up and down her slick trail
Three weeks from then
I had a fireball on my rail
Woody began drinking more and became volatile with his family. He came at Marjorie with a knife at one point and put sand in little Arlo's mouth when he would not stop crying. In 1948, his letter writing finally got him into legal trouble when a disinterested receiver of Woody's "erotic" letters reported him to an attorney. After a 2-year court battle, Woody was sentenced to jail for 180 days while Marjorie was pregnant with their fourth child Nora. He only spent a few weeks in jail though, and on being released was upset and wanted to go back to put on a Christmas pageant he had been planning for the other inmates.
The subsequent years heralded a further decline in Woody's social and occupational functioning. Despite money finally coming in from some of the multitude of songs he had written, Woody's hygiene and dress deteriorated. His writings in 1951 were filled with clang associations and neologisms, which extended far beyond the poetry of his earlier work:
Since you come here and swum here the other night I've been seeing what you might spiritually and soulfully describe as little shafty, shifty drafty drifty beams and rays and legs of lights and shapely shadows of old hopes too olden gone for any earthyling to have to even to try to tell or to describe to any other worldster.
For further examples of Woody's writings while the symptoms of HD were manifest, the reader is referred to the excellent review by Arévalo et al.
Growing tired of his jealous rages and other unpredictable behavior, Marjorie encouraged his travels. Woody wandered the country again, this time frequently becoming an unwelcome guest considering his hygiene and manners. In 1952, when back in Coney Island, he beat Marjorie on at least one occasion who escaped and called the police. He was hospitalized for 3 weeks on a detoxification ward and did not receive any specific diagnosis. He was later hospitalized at Bellevue hospital after exhibiting suicidal ideation while drunk and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He was later transferred to Brooklyn State Hospital where they wrote "He is extremely fidgety and does not seem to be able to sit still for a moment" followed by an exquisite description consistent with the chorea and emotional blunting of HD. The examining physician recognized the family history and alluded to HD but did not seem convinced of the diagnosis. Woody apparently gave his history accurately but attributed all his problems to alcoholism. Before instituting insulin shock therapy, a neurologic consultation was obtained and the clinical diagnosis of HD made. He was discharged without having received the insulin shock.
With Marjorie unwilling to take him back, Woody again wandered. He lived for a while with other folk singers in what was essentially a commune in Topanga Canyon in Malibu, California. There he met his third wife, Anneke, who was 21 years old. She became pregnant and they traveled to Florida where Woody again had a mishap with fire, burning his own arm severely. Back in New York, Anneke gave birth to Lorina Lynn. Her birth stabilized Woody only briefly and he again wandered the country for a time before returning to New York and being placed in the Brooklyn State Hospital in 1954. He spent the rest of his life declining slowly in institutions. He was no longer able to play the guitar but continued to write, frequently about the other patients.
He once told a visitor, "Ya see that guy over there? He eats books. Said Bound for Glory was one of the best he ever tasted." Initially, Woody's own appetite was voracious and he had an increased taste for sweets. Ironically, as Woody declined further, his popularity grew. Young folk singers visited him at the Brooklyn State Hospital to pay homage. His clinical course was worsened by a laceration on his arm that became infected, making him bed-ridden. He became mute in 1965 and died on October 3, 1967.
It is impossible to definitively say to what extent, if any, HD contributed to the creative output of Woody Guthrie. Loose associations and neologisms characterized his work, at least to some extent, throughout his life. His daughter Nora noted, in the documentary, "Woody Guthrie: This Machine Kills Fascists," that he never played the same song the same way twice.9 However, Woody's clinical HD appears to have become manifest in the time immediately after the 5 years in which the volume of his memorable artistic output was greatest. Woody did not come to medical attention until at least 6 years after unequivocal symptoms of his disease. His free-flowing lyrical style shifted so gradually into the lewd ramblings that characterized his later writings that the change was nearly imperceptible. It is, therefore, tempting to view Woody's seemingly pressured writing to incipient HD but in HD it can be difficult to separate a person's personality from manifestations of the illness.
Years after his death, 2 of the 3 children from Woody's first marriage were diagnosed with HD. In his memory, Marjorie Guthrie and particularly her daughter Nora have done much in his memory to raise money for and increase public awareness of HD.
Woody Guthrie was everything from an "irresponsible hobo," as the Chicago Tribune once referred to him, to a neglected poet laureate. In 1998 Billy Bragg, an English folk singer, released an album of songs 10 for which Woody had written the words but was unable to put music to in his late life. Most pertinent is "Another Man's Done Gone:"
Sometimes I think I'm gonna lose my mind
but it don't look like I ever do
I loved so many people everywhere I went
Some too much, others not enough
I don't know, I may go down or up or anywhere
But I feel like this scribbling might stay
Maybe if I hadn't of seen so much hard feelings
I might not could have felt other people's
So when you think of me, if and when you do,
Just say, well, another man's done gone
Well, another man's done gone.
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