The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Woody Guthrie: Rattle My Rattle

Posted on: February 15, 2007

I don’t know a thing about Woody Guthrie. Isn’t that awful? He’s a singer, right, from way back when? Whoever he is he hit my sweet spot with these “documents” The Paris Review published in its Summer 2006 issue. He took the union of visual art and words a step further, creating one on top of the other. It creates a fusion in which what connects the two is not immediately clear but I am drawn to look at the strikes, the loose, slapdash, crazy sketches to figure out the link. I keep going back to “F R EE  V E R S E” (1949) and the conclusions  I come to are kinda dirty. “Girl to which I’m Wed” (1949) is wonderful. I love how those thick curves of blue go through the lyrics. It emphasizes the scene of the toddler frolicking in the waves, its import changing when we read of the bathing beauties. It’s so fluid and the entire piece, on a whole, so fun and graceful. I just love it.

Guthrie had been drawing and painting for nearly as long as he’d been making up and singing songs. His sketches and watercolors serve as a kind of lifelong visual diary of enormous variety and vitality, blending political cartoons, erotic doodles, street scenes, and dreamscapes. Often his verbal and visual artistry cohabited on the same page, each mode of expression expanding on the other so that it is impossible to say whether the words are a caption to the pictures, or the pictures an illustration of the words.

In 1946, Guthrie–just discharged from the army and newly married to his second wife, Marjorie Mazia–set up house on Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island. There, far from the Oklahoma that had shaped him but secure in the bosom of his new family (his mother-in-law, the Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt, lived around the corner), he embarked on one of his most productive periods. Guthrie’s passion for his family and their seaside bohemian life animates the work of his Coney Island years, from which the writings and drawings here are taken, with a goofy vigor. 

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He was goofy but he certainly had some bite.

The Statue About Liberty, watercolour, 1947

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Ideally I should have at least googled Guthrie to get an idea of what he was about so my commentary could be more “informed”. But I am a selfish blogger. I enjoy experiencing and discerning art by itself without any pertinent information that could provide context, unless I feel that I need it. Something close to a “pure” response I suppose.

I’m having a lot of fun with this issue, as you can tell, but I haven’t forgotten my novels. I’ll return to The Italian and Dr. Apelles soon and Roger Mais’ Black Lightning is proving to be so exciting. He gets better and better with each novel. The frisson provided by charted a great novelist’s progress cannot be beat. Maybe this will encourage to be more of a completist?

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