“HEY HEY Woody Guthrie I wrote you a song…”
I just stumbled across this very lovely song Bob Dylan sang. It has a melody that just takes you gently by the hands and swings you around so your skirt sways out wide and swishes and flows in the breeze created by your movement. A gentle muscular shadow on your jawline cowboy boots a flask of whiskey and me with my skirt boots and probably a yellow flower in my hair. That’s how it would be.
Jack Kerouac probably would have been grande buddies with Woody if they had ever come across each other, and maybe they did. They sure had close acquaintances.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott knew Kerouac.
I actually had the pleasure of seeing Ramblin’ Jack perform at the Library of Congress during a tribute concert to Woody Guthrie last year or the year prior. It was beautiful: the old men and their guitars and harmonicas and everyone in the audience UP UP on their feet singing THIS TRAIN is bound for glory THIS TRAIN…I’m sure I had tears in my eyes.
And that worn warm smile. It STILL shines. Even after all these years and all his travels.
Ramblin’ Jack said in an interview: “like when I went to visit Woody. We just started playing music together and one day led to another. It got to be a good thing and I ended up staying at his house for a year and a half. When I left there, I rode all over Europe on a Vespa motorbike, 5,000 miles in the rain every day with British writer Herb Green, and all over the rural U.S. That was a great time in my life. Then I landed in Greenwich Village, where I was friends with Bob Dylan and met Jack Kerouac. Jack had just finished writing On the Road, and he read me the entire manuscript over three days, sitting on a floor on Bleecker Street.”
When Kerouac was, say 35 years old, that would have made Woody somewhere around 45 years old, ten years older ten years wiser quite a gap there. They may have met. I’ve not been able to track it down. I don’t think they did.
But if they had: Woody in his flannel shirts with an old brass Hohner in his pocket would have surely been like a big brother to Kerouac. Both crazy.
I can just picture it…
Kerouac and Woody would have met along a dirt road somewhere in the Midwest, sun raging no water no rain, just a lot of hot dry dust. Woody was spending some time in that town, writing songs, talking to woman and Kerouac was just passing through, probably heard from Ramblin’ Jack after his visit to New York that Woody lived there and he should stop in and ask for him at the nickel dime store where he should also buy some strawberry ice cream because it was the best that side if the Mississippi.
But Kerouac didn’t even have to call around. He walked from the old gas station down Main Street, past the bar past the bank past children running and playing and there Woody was. He was singing the blues, with a cigarette perched on his left knee almost burning a hole in his trousers.
“You must be Woody.”
“That I am, kid.” Woody looked him up and down, the little beat up dirty railroad bag thrown over his shoulder. Almost a younger version of himself.
“Kerouac.” He said and reached out his hand for a shake.
“Ah, Kerouac! The Great Jack Keruac, lord of the road, of the trains, and a ladies man at that.”
Hmph. Kerouac humble chuckled and would have blushed if he wasn’t already red from the heat. “Thank you sir.”
“Let’s sing a song!,” Woody bellowed.
So Kerouac plopped down next to him, dust rising into the yellow sky and they sang and they talked about their travels, time spent in New York, love for the California and the sea.
“What do you believe in kid?”
Kerouac sat looked up at the yellow dust filled sky with no clouds in sight just yellow air the bright sun burning the back of his neck and a little bit of sweat ever so often trickling down the crease in the middle of his back. He looked up and thought and responded, “I believe in adventure and freedom, spending time with people I GET,” he pounded his fist into the dirt as he said that last word,” close calls and no calls and always, always running after it till I get it and even then some…” He paused. Stood up slowly because his lower back was beginning to ache and creak, brushed off the dust from his pants, kicked his shoes, brushed down the front of his white t-shirt, and looked right at Woody. “That’s what I believe in.”
Woody just smiled back, picked up his harmonica and pulled off a joyous exuberant riff.
Now, I know this didn’t happen. Sadly around the time that On the Road was published, Woody’s health was bad and he was likely in the hospital in New Jersey and we know there’s no dust there, only soot and salt.
But I do think, with their shared deep deep love of traveling and people and trying so so hard to get life right, that they would have been dear friends.