Recordially, Lou Curtiss

A Letter from Woody Guthrie to Fred Scratcher (aka Fred Gerlach) with a comment or two from little Anny Guthrie

Note: Fred Gerlach was one of the few 12-string guitar players who played in the Leadbelly style back in the day. Although he never met Leadbelly, he did live for many years with Leadbelly’s niece, Tiny, and was a part of People’s Songs. Gerlach ran regularly with Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, Pete Seeger, and all that gang. When Woody was in New York he often crashed at Fred and Tiny’s apartment, whose address in NYC was sort of headquarters for Woody to keep in touch with his New York pals when he was on the road. In the late 1950s Fred moved out to the West Coast and played a lot in the area coffeehouses. He made a bit of a comeback in the ’70s and ’80s playing at the San Diego State Folk Festivals and the Adams Avenue Roots Festivals. Fred shared this long letter from Woody with me and I’m sharing it with you here to give you some insight on what Woody thought about Leadbelly and his own world, telling Fred how he felt about things.

Dearest Fred,
Me and little Anny got down here to Beluthatcheee south from south Jacksonville—in Jack’s 31 Model A rat-trap jallooppy (Ramblin’ Jack)—in pretty fair shape; fair enuff at least for me to still be able to type this epistle to you and our long list of good friends you helped us to keep in touch with. And you have the high honor now of being the first earthly mortal to get a letter typed to them since we (me and Anny) moved this typewriter from Room Number One over into Room Number Two (just five minutes ago by most clocks and watches…).

I’m feeling close enuff in touch today and this minute, with Leadbelly’s spirit over in McKeesport, to feel like trying to say whatever good and bad words I can find to say about him, and about our big long school of his beloved imitators. I have heard Huddy criticized (mostly) on grounds that were a lot more political than they were artistic. I don’t intend to try to put up any kind of a personal defense for him here, because, lordy knows he’s gone these days to where he can’t make much use of that line of gab and jabbering. I never did actually know just how keen or how dull his mind ran in what you’d call political depths and directionings; but I never did see any more of a hardhitter, nor find any more of a hot scrapper via the open and shut fist, or via his wire-wound walking caney-stick, or by way of his big stella box, or by way of any or all of his songs he made up on every kind of a spot to operate on or around. I never did see him shy off nor away from singing and playing for down-and-out folk, nor for us folks that are financially bended, bent down, and broke. I never did see him step back from any kind of a street or a curbstone rally (fight) when coppers’ billysticks, clubs, brassyknucks, gas guns, or gunhandles went flying a good deal thicker than the heads of radical workers, strickers, and pickets around at all kinds of meetings of the loudest yelling kinds and flavors both in as well as out of doors. He never did make any big mints of that stuff you call by the name of good money, like most of the rest of us who took any such high hot-heated political stands as Leadbelly always (most always) did on most all of the bread-and-buttered questions which passed the end of that keen smelling nose of his.

He missed out plenty of times and he pissled off plenty more times. He failed to show lots of times; he was too sick to travel some more of the times; he missed the boat some; he come in late some; he got screwn and gypped out of his money (as you only too well know) almost as many high and lowly times as I, my own self, got flurcked out of my own; he got strayed, delayed, misled, sideswitched, sidetracked; funneled off, lost off, plowed under, cheaten, beaten, misinformed, mistreated, fouled up, and all such other similar words with the same sets of meanings, I mean to say, just about as bad as most of the rest of us political stragglers and strugglers ever did. He averaged just about the same number of dates filled, skirmiches fought, battles won, and battles lost, as I did, which was all that either one of us could possibly make together like a team or apart batting out the stuff on our own. I believe that it took the pure personal strength of more than just some ordinary everyday kind of person to follow his track and to barkle along on his trail.
He could sing any kind or any style of a religious song better than any religious person in or out of any church; he sung his whorehouse songs better than any whore or better than any pimper in or out of the boomeytown money; he sung every love song as tender as any nest of new-found lovebirds; he sung his hard-hitting struggle songs harder than any struggler; he sung all of his gamey songs for kids more on that kid-like, childish innocent beam than most any other so-called singer of kid songs I’ve ever heard; he yelled too loud for any mike to catch his real power, and he whispered so low and so soft you had to strain your ear to hear him; and he never did or never would sing for you, for the president, for the rotrod kids, for the jumping little judy gals he knew, not for his own soul even, I mean to say, he’d not, he just couldn’t ever sing (not even in all his record taking and making studios) any song precisely nor exactly alike no matter how high and holy, no matter how strong and sexified the setting and the situation happened to be.

That was his gold mine way up above his knees; that was his finest gift and his own most priceless talent. And he knew it just as well as he knew that this constant shifty changing was the very key and very secret (if there be any kind of a thing in folksong ballads that you could refer to as being any kind of a secret); he knew the terrible prices we all pay gladly to pay our transportation fares and fees first out from and away from that worst kind of monotony that can bear down as heavy as the yokes of death itself if you (if he) ever let that kind of dull, repeated memorizing mechanistics to rule or to control or even live for very long (like too many high piles of good clever duplicator and imitating folks born in our midst here to fill our breezy winds and otherwise healthy airs with their empty, gutless, tiresome carboncopying of somebody else they see and hear and know to be good…).

That was the mainest reason(s) why I was so damn glad to see Leadbelly coming; I always did know that if he did sing me his TeeBee’s Blues for his and my hummtythird time that outside the basic melody pat and pattern that we both knew so plain and so good. Well, from that point on in, like I said, like a flat tire on a New York skyway, his ways of pulling at every one of his 12 strings along his big fat Stelly, his ways of touching her loud and bangyfied, soft and easy-like, so that him and Stella didn’t tromp on one anothers toes nor get in each other’s ways, nor get in each others ways nor try to crowd each nuther’s words. Well, that he made me feel just like he had built me some kind of a brand spanking new river bridge a good bit longer and prettier than several Golden Gates or that many George Washingtons—just so’s I would be able to walk along yonder and be able to hear a drop better and to listen some little easier, or to know how badly sad it was when your friends treat you so low down when they get that old grape-viney word passed along to them that you’ve got crazy damned stuff in your lungs, folks mean when they drum off that old word TeeBee. And because he did know that all of these tricks of forever and forever changing to make your old things, your old words, sound new and your new words sound old. That pulled me toward him. It made me feel a thousand times more than I ever will toward any 19 Josh Whites or any 111 Burl Iveses.

Recordially,
Lou Curtiss

Note: This is part one of a three-part collection that Wood Guthrie wrote while on a long road trip to see Fred Gerlach, who was living in New York City. More next month.

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