Postcards From the Edge

by Natasha Ball


The artifacts arrived in a truck at the back door of Gilcrease Museum, shipped there in cardboard boxes. They’d been chosen from a 200-page list sent by Nora Guthrie, the longtime custodian of her father’s archives, for Woody at One Hundred: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Celebration 1912-2012. When purchasing the Woody Guthrie archives in New York, Tulsa’s George Kaiser Family Foundation decided it’d also underwrite an exhibit that’d tease to what was on its way to Oklahoma—a prelude, of a sort, that would join voices with what’s been designed as a national tribute to trumpet Guthrie’s homecoming. The chance to showcase his prodigious output was an added bonus.

The day I went, a crowd filled the gallery, all of us still in our church clothes. We squinted to sharpen the details in the hand-penned lyrics, journals, and photos there, selected from nearly 3,000 song lyrics, 500 photographs, and 700 pieces of artwork, letters, and postcards, captured, saved, and catalogued in spite of a whirlwind life, shining out at us then from behind Plexiglass. In the same room they’d put letters to the Guthries from President Kennedy and John Lennon and Nora’s copies of Bound for Glory in languages like German, Swedish, and Japanese alongside the things that prove Woody Guthrie was actually a man, a robust one while he lived, a decrepit one when he died. All of it was set forth in the same way, under spots of dim light, behind glass, in temperature-controlled boxes.

One of the things pulled from the archives was the only known handwritten copy of “This Land Is Your Land,” written in black ink on a sheet of three-hole notebook paper, signed with Woody’s iconic signature. The song had originally been penned with the title “God Blessed America,” but why be limited by the words of the same guy who wrote the song, “There’s No Business Like Show Business?” Woody had taken a pencil and crossed out those words by Irving Berlin, unnaturally straight as a former sign maker would, replacing it with the line our nation took as its unofficial anthem. Behind an asterisk at the bottom of the page he wrote: “All you can write is what you see”

His May-Bell guitar was in the corner, propped up behind glass with its case, opened, lined in purple felt, with his name and a scroll carved by hand above the soundhole. A collection of 13 postcards Woody sent home to family hung in a frame on the wall, one of them to Marjorie signed “All of Me” in Woody’s perfect cursive, another with a line of squatty music notes sketched in the margins. One had an alligator on the front, his mouth open wide; on the back was a note to Arlo, explaining that if he’d give the reptile a peanut, his belly wouldn’t feel so hungry; on another was a polar bear, playing a guitar doodled in by Guthrie. There was the shirt issued to him at Greystone Park State Hospital, small like a child’s, almost see–through and hovering on a transparent hanger. In a nearby display is a pencil case he sent to Marjorie in 1951. He’d begun to show signs of Huntington’s, the disease that would hospitalize him and leave him unable to write, to draw, to focus his eyes, until his death almost 20 years later. Inside Guthrie had written the words, “MOMMY FIX DADDY.”

The observations from the gallery were mixed:

“He’d write on anything and everything.”

“Man, he moved all over the place didn’t he?”

“Where’s Okemah?”

We’d all stood to learn something. Outside, I tried to decide as I walked to my car whether or not a man, who had asked during a quiet moment in the gallery, “Is he dead?” had meant Woody. A woman had cooed in amusement, but I don’t know, maybe that wasn’t such a dumb question, since we, the Oklahomans, decided just recently that he ever lived.