I'd like to rest my heavy head tonight
On a bed of California stars
I'd like to lay my weary bones tonight
On a bed of California stars
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During the last years of his life, Woody Guthrie spent his days scribbling down lyrics for songs he'd never be able to play. The great Dust Bowl Troubadour had Huntington's disease, which caused him to lose control of his body. No one knew what was going on with him at first, and many accused him of being an alcoholic because his spasmodic movements would spill beer all over him when he drank. In the midst of his degeneration, with people blaming him for something he couldn't control, Guthrie kept putting down words.
Woody Guthrie in New York City, circa 1943
(Library of Congress)
Guthrie's real affliction was eventually discovered, but there was nothing to be done for him, because Huntington's disease was largely a mystery to medical science. He was put into Brooklyn State Hospital (where a 19-year-old Bob Dylan would visit him in 1961
) and eventually died there.
Fortunately, all of those scribblings were kept by a family member. Guthrie's daughter Nora boxed them up and put them in her attic. She didn't know what to do with them, but in 1992 she decided to contact Billy Bragg and see if he was interesting in doing something with them. Bragg agreed and then contacted Wilco to see if they wanted to be part of it. Wilco said yes.
The result of this posthumous collaboration was the album Mermaid Avenue
, released in 1998. The album is named after the street in Coney Island, New York, where the Guthrie family lived. Our song place of interest here, however, is Long Beach, California, because Guthrie actually wrote the exact location where it had been written on the paper.
"He was living at a friend's house in Long Beach, 827 Cedar Avenue, the lyric says," Nora Guthrie told KQED. "So whoever's living there now, this song is yours. I don't have an exact date, but I believe it was the late '30s."
All his life Guthrie had been a rambling man. He'd bounced all over the country for years, and it's rather remarkable that we have such a precise location for this song.
Bluff Park in Long Beach, near sunset.
Thanks, Karl Garske
Long Beach, California, is an oil town to this day. In the era when Guthrie wrote the song, however, it was one of the premier oil towns in the nation.
"California Stars" is a melancholic song, but the real depths of its sadness only come fully to light when one knows the condition Guthrie was in at the time he wrote the words. Losing control of his body to an unknown disease, cursed by many of his own friends for his inexplicable behavior, he knew in his heart that something was deeply, deeply wrong.
When he sings of California stars, he's singing about much more than just a place. He's talking about a time outside of time, a place where he could escape the mortality lumbering towards him every day, ushered in by a disease that had taken away his most treasured gift – the ability to make music.
Long Beach downtown night skyline.
The grief and confusion and fear contained in the words to "California Stars" are brought to light by another song from Mermaid Avenue
titled "Another Man's Done Gone," in which he voices his fears that his shaking hands and scribbled words might not ever go away. Well I don't know
I may go
Down or up or anywhere
But I feel
Like this scribbling might stay
It's a sad way for one of America's music icons to go out. There is some comfort in the fact, though, that his daughter made so sure to keep the words and get them to musicians who could use them, and that those musicians would take the time to make a great album. Those facts are a testament to the man's legacy, as are the following words from Bob Dylan's "Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie," with which I'll end this piece.And your feet can only walk down two kinds of roads
Your eyes can only look through two kinds of windows
Your nose can only smell two kinds of hallways
You can touch and twist
And turn two kinds of doorknobs
You can either go to the church of your choice
Or you can go to Brooklyn State Hospital
You'll find God in the church of your choice
You'll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital
And though it's only my opinion
I may be right or wrong
You'll find them both
In the Grand Canyon
At sundown-Jeff Suwak
August 24, 2020
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