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October 2022
Vol. 21, No. 13

Recordially, Lou Curtiss

A Letter from Woody Guthrie to Fred Scratcher (aka Fred Gerlach), part two

by Lou CurtissJune, 2018

Dearest Fred (continued),
I guess I’m really trying to say that Leadbelly hated this brand and breed of a full-blooded imitator just about as bad as I’ve always hated them. My worst pain so far in my trip through this revoluting life-span of mine has been set off and caused by these armies of blind or half-blind imitators in all the different fields they graze grass, pasture, and purloin in like, for instance, folks that get born’d here and never do grow up enough to find out for the good of their own ears just how their own voice sounds. This is not only philosophic, or of an economic, or most of the current events that you see taking place and happening around you every minute of every day and night, but truer and truer and still more and more truer in our more heated and impassioned word fights, verbal battles, our impassioned argumental debates, which we hear and see that we call political. It’s one of the world’s hardest damn things for us, any of us, to learn how to be able to give you our most private personal opinion about any damn thing and to be able to lay back on our toes and elbows and tell our own self that “that opinion I just now told to you was told to you in some way you’ve never heard before…” Even like some big easy something like why it is that you want to see world peace come about, or say like what you think about Judge Kaufman’s passing the sentence of death over those Rosenberg folks. These two kinds of questions are fairly easy for you to put your nickle in about, for you to spirit off at your mouth about; because when you do come down to the truth of this whole matter (about why you just don’t believe in the sentence of death no matter how bad the mistake or the crime might be, you find if you follow the path of your own free mind that you come pretty soonly to that old spot here inside all of us that you’re talking words of actual survival, actual life and death, actual survival as a race of humans, not as you figured at first when you first went chasing your first words off in such a wildtail careless manner…. And, you learn how fairly fast, if your mind gets anything like enuff of this kind of word-warring exercise, it is just as much of a life and death anywhere at any old time, which any hired public police official whacks and cracks his club over any skull any place on our planet, that the coppers club vs. that old boney skull is as much of a life and a death matter as is the most dangerous and deathly kinds of explosive or germ-laden bombs we’ve cooked up at latter dates. But when you come down to the rock bottom facts about it, not any two of us humanfolk on the top or the bottomsides of our planet here that sound perzactly alike (no matter how much we try to) even when we just speak that one word: PEACE! our vocal chords, our voicey boxens our way(s) of our pumping wind and our airs in and out of our lungs are all just as different in tonal soundings as any differences you’d see or be able to hear in the sounds of any other pair of living animals around our planet earth here.

Leadbelly knew damn good and well when he took off across the hills and the hollers of any word or group of words known to man that his job was not simply nor justonly to mimic, to repeat, to imitate, to learn by heart, to memorize, to set to his mind, but of course to find some new kind of a way to tell you how he felt about war and peace, tragedies of all kinds, wild accidents, acts of God, tricks of circumstance, flirtings of destiny, the twisting of the road called fate, he had to tell you about how some half-drunky truckdriver went off to sleep at his cab wheel one night and missed some old twisty turn in his road and how his load of fuel oil blowed up and caught on fire and burned up that little chiliburger joint that set a city of half a million souls on fire; to just read that over your microphone the way that your discky jockey does, or to read that headline just the way your newsboy screams it out wouldn’t be putting that good word to sailing in that circling way that he would (be forced to tell it); and he had to find his own way to make the very news event its veryself sound like some more of his personal private property, staked or unstaked, claimed or unclaimed by him: yet his in ten dozens of good ways that no mortal in our tribal herd here can ever even try weakly to deny him his kingshippery of, over, nor around it.

Them jobs were his. He had to work at that trick and at that talent of his like any cartpusherman, like any streetsweeperman, any fishyboatman, any longdockerman, any candlemolderman, or any timberwood sawyerman, like any shadetree testerman, any sexmoss guarderman, like any gatekeeperman, any beachysifterman, any blindsandtracerman, any loosebark toterman, any crowquil inkerman, any layitbackandtakeiteasyman, any gonejohnsickly dizzyman, any liquorpoizon tasterman, any sudsy foamer washerman, any kind of anyman on the kind of job man that helps these deeds and creeds and breeds and the needs of man and all us planted seeds of man. Leadbelly had to work and to sweat and to fret and to scratch, to scrutch, to weep and cuss and come and bleed just like the rest of us. That was his only way that kept on leading him and his eyes out from every kind of private property trap (ball, chain, shackle, bilbo, and ankle iron) that our enemy side could shoot, swing, toss, throw or to wish at him because he was born here with his black skin on.

He picked out the only way on this earth that he could pick out to fight back: and that was to make use of that music box of his, like some kind of a mudsloggy footsoljier. I mean to say, he used that old Stella box of his to sound out to us, to signal us, to tell us how they had him all hemmed in and all circled in, all zeroed in, all drawed, and all beaded and all eyesighted on; just precisely and just prexactly where it is they got him zeroed in so bad. And he tells us who know how to listen to him and to his balladsongs, to all of their talkery and all their doubletalkery he tells us loud and bully and clear as the bells how we ourselves can duck a little thisaway and dodge a little bit yonderwise and ditch and get free from just about a good ninety-nine-and-four-thirds percentage of every fashion and every taste and kind and blend and mix and flavor of graveyard and deathbed ammunition that other side has printed up, or melted up, woundup and groundup and poundup and bounded up to haile, to yell, to shake our hand with when they run up to us to tell us, “Ohhh, what fine kind of people and folkes we are.

Leadbelly was highly full and highly aware of all these kinds of plainclothesman soljiery moods, attitudes, states of mind, and ways of lifting it; he knew plenty of times that he saved my neck and my very life on just as many blind alley and deadended occasions as I could smell and feel and sense that little signal he was frowning at and winking over at me and tickling off out my own personal directionout of that big pretty sounderhole of that stellybox of his. And he knew damn good and well that he saved just as many good rebellious soladten(s) as knows that old trappy trap is around them. There’ll never be another one like him.

Lou Curtiss

Note: This is part two 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. There’s another bit that completes Woody’s letter to Fred and we’ll have that next time around, along with some other stuff.

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