This is a poem that Dylan recited in the form of a monologue on April 12, 1963 at the end of his first major concert, which took place at The Town Hall in New York City. Woody Guthrie was a huge influence on Dylan; the two met in 1961 when Guthrie was suffering from Huntington's disease (Guthrie died in 1967). Dylan's poem shows a great deal of emotional turmoil, and he ends it by making a comparison of Woody with going to church, stating that in some way he has found peace in the "Grand Canyon. Sundown."
Suggestion credit: Gregg - Southampton, United Kingdom
Before reciting the poem, Dylan said: "There's this book coming out and they asked me to write something about Woody. Sorta like "What does Woody Guthrie Mean to You" in 25 words. And I couldn't do it, I wrote out five pages and... I have it here... I have it here by accident, actually. But I'd like to say this out loud. So, if you could sorta roll along with this thing here, this is called Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie."
Dylan's penchant for borrowing lines from other people's lyrics and books may be at work in this song. In discussing his own music, Woody Guthrie once said, "I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling."
The second-to-last line in that quote is nearly the same as the second line in "Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie," which goes, "When you think you're too old, too young, too smart or too dumb."
This would appear to be nothing more than coincidence, except that "Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie" is essentially one long note of encouragement for listeners who may be feeling beaten down by life, which is precisely what Guthrie was talking about. Dylan has been long been known to take other people's songs and words as his own. His critics have accused him of being a plagiarist, but Dylan himself has long stated that he is simply continuing an old folk tradition.
"It's called tradition, and that's what I deal in. Tradition with a capital T," Dylan told Rolling Stone when asked about those who've accused him of artistic theft. "And if you think it's so easy to quote him [in this case referring to Civil War poet Henry Timrod] and it can help your work, do it yourself and see how far you get. Wussies and pu--ies complain about that stuff. It's an old thing – it's part of the tradition. It goes way back."
The poem mentions Brooklyn State Hospital because that's where Woody Guthrie was hospitalized in 1963 when Dylan wrote and performed this piece. Guthrie was there from 1961 to 1966.
The line "you need a Greyhound bus that don't bar no race" is a direct reference to racial segregation and perhaps a nod to Rosa Parks.
The poem assures us that, "And Uncle Remus can't tell you and neither can Santa Claus." Uncle Remus was a fictional character first created by Joel Chandler Harris in 1881 for a collection of African-American folktales. All in all, Harris went on to produce seven Uncle Remus books. Br'er Rabbit was the main character for these books, while Remus narrated them.
Uncle Remus is central to the 1946 Disney movie Song of the South.