Remembering Woody Guthrie’s Sad Convalesence at Greystone Hospital

Wardy Forty postcardFriday night at Valentine, the gallery in Ridgewood, Queens, Kyle and I attended the opening of a very powerful exhibit, “Woody Guthrie’s Wardy Forty,” also the title of an accompanying book by photographer and curator of twentieth century ruins Phillip Buehler. It refers to the name Guthrie himself assigned to the section of Greystone Psychiatric Hospital, in Morris Plains, NJ, where he lived from 1956-61. On, the site maintained by the late folksinger’s daughter Nora, the biographical sketch of Woody explains the circumstances surrounding this chapter in his life (edited for length below, I suggest you make time to read the whole sketch):

“Toward the late 1940s, Woody’s behavior started to become increasingly erratic, moody and violent….He was beginning to show symptoms of…Huntington’s Chorea, a hereditary, degenerative disease that gradually and eventually robbed him of his health, talents and abilities….It was later discovered to be the same disease which thirty years earlier had caused his mother’s institutionalization and eventual death. Shaken by inexplicable volatile physical and emotional symptoms, Woody left his family…taking off for California with his young protégé, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott….Woody met Anneke Van Kirk, a young woman who became his third wife….Becoming more and more unpredictable during a final series of road trips, Woody eventually returned to New York with Anneke, where he was hospitalized several times. Mistakenly diagnosed and treated for everything from alcoholism to schizophrenia, his symptoms kept worsening and his physical condition deteriorated. Picked up for ‘vagrancy’ in New Jersey in 1954, he was admitted into the nearby Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital where he was finally diagnosed with…the incurable degenerative nerve disorder now known as Huntington’s Disease or HD. During these years, Marjorie Guthrie, family, and friends continued to visit and care for him. A new generation of musicians took an interest in folk music bringing it into the mainstream as yet another folk music revival. Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, The Greenbriar Boys, Phil Ochs, and many other young folksingers visited Woody in the hospital, bringing along their guitars and their songs to play for him, perhaps even to thank him.”

For his part, Phillip Buehler explores, photographs, and appreciates modern ruins. His website is called When he stumbled on to Greystone the grounds had been abandoned for more than forty years. As it’s described in an statement accompanying the exhibit,

“After coming across thousands of negatives in the deserted darkroom, he researched the hospital and discovered that Woody Guhtire once lived there. He reached out to Guthrie’s daughter Nora…who gave him Guthrie’s case number. Buehler was then able to pull negatives from Guthrie’s file…beginning a ten-year journey that led to Wardy Forty: Greystone Park Hospital State Hospital Revisited.”

Copies of the book, a landscape format photography album with illuminating captions and text, were on hand at Valentine, while on the walls were hung small snapshots, many black & white, of Woody and family at Greystone; large format 4-color photos of the crumbling structure that was Greystone as Buehler found it; a slide show with the original text of Woody’s intake interview at the hospital running at timed intervals, which strikes the viewer with the singer’s innocence of the fact that his interlocutors seemed as it went along to increasingly believe he was mentally ill; and projected images of photographs taken of Woody at widely differing times, sadly showing his inexorable decline in health and demeanor. In a hallway off the main room is a display of intake photos of many Greystone patients with their patient number hovering above them, including that of Woody.

Nora Guthrie and Phillip Buehler were both on hand Friday night at Valentine. When Kyle and I came upon them, they were talking among themselves, but they welcomed us into their conversation and we enjoyed talking over the next little while. Nora told me with enthusiasm about the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which she’s recently helped to establish in her father’s home state. She explained that it’s a study center for researchers, an educational facility for students of all ages, and a concert space for live music performances. Nora’s a warm and friendly person and it was a privilege to meet her this night. Buehler is also full of enthusiasm for his enterprises, and I was excited to tell him I share his interest in industrial archaeology and physical artifacts, as with my website photography of maritime and architectural artifacts, such as the Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge.

I recommend you check out Phillip Buehler’s book, which A.M. Homes has called “hauntingly beautiful.” It is available for purchase at I also urge you to see the exhibit, which will be up at Valentine until April 13. Below is more info on the exhibit and the gallery, along with pictures I took the other night, including this one of Nora Guthrie and Philip Buehler.Nora Guthrie&Philip Buehler

Wrapping Up a Week of NY Celebrations & Great Reading

It’s been a celebratory week in NYC and an active one on The Great Gray Bridge, so here is a summary of recent highlights for interested readers who may have missed any of them.

Ruth Gruber & Philip Turner1) Celebrating Photojournalist & Author Ruth Gruber’s 102nd Birthday With Her
2) Word of an Important New Book on Bob Dylan By a ’60s Confidant
3) Celebrating Valerie Plame’s “Blowback”&Recalling Tumultous Events of a Decade Ago
#FridayReads, Oct. 4–Katie Hafner’s Exquisite Memoir “Mother Daughter Me”

Word of an Important New Book on Bob Dylan By a ’60s Confidant

October 2 Update: Earlier this story about a new Dylan book was only reported on a subscription-required only website. Now it’s also been covered in Publishers Weekly and here is a link to that story.

dylanmaymudesWord comes from BookBrunch’s Liz Thomson (subscription required) of a new memoir about Bob Dylan, by a hitherto little-known associate named Victor Maymudes who reportedly served as tour manager, driver, and Dylan confidant beginning in 1961. The photo here by Daniel Kramer shows the two playing chess in Woodstock, NY. Reportedly, he was at Newport when Dylan controversially went electric for the first time, and also on the UK tour that led to D.A. Pennebaker’s classic documentary “Dont Look Back” (sic). Maymudes died before he could finish the manuscript. The photos, tapes, film, and papers passed to his son, Jacob, and then barely survived a fire that wrecked the younger Maymudes’ home. He will now complete the manuscript. The book already has an editor and publisher in the States, George Witte of St. Martin’s Press, who’s been following the fate of the manuscript since the beginning of the century. According to Thomson, Jacob Maymudes and his agent are still seeking a UK publisher, and other foreign partners. A documentary is also reported to be in the works, with this video trailer prepared to introduce Victor Maymudes’ work to interested parties.

#FridayReads, Aug 9–Novelist Jayne Anne Phillips’ “Quiet Dell,” w/Thoughts on the Genre of ‘Documentary Fiction’

IMG_1035#FridayReads, Aug 9–Jayne Anne Phillips’ “Quiet Dell,” a mesmerizing novel drawn from the annals of infamous true crime. It’s set in 1931, when a West Virginia killer lured a Chicago-area widow and her three children in to his fatal embrace. Those murders, and others he’d committed, were discovered and he was arrested by authorities in the hamlet of Quiet Dell, WV, near the city of Clarksburg. In this true-life set-up, Jayne Anne Phillips has found it necessary to mint only a handful of fictional characters alongside the figures from history, all of whose actions she renders with imaginative power; her Acknowledgments page names “four” wholly new characters, including female journalist, Emily Thornhill, who becomes the readers’ eyes and ears on the case which she’s covering for her newspaper. The fictional Emily has had thrust upon her the adoption of the dead family’s orphaned dog–a real-life bull terrier with the Victorian-tinged name of Duty–earlier the target of a vicious kick by the malefactor, now playing a valuable canine role in the investigation with his damning identification of the killer.

The names in the book, evidently the actual names of most of these figures, are memorable and make the delineation of the plot, along with early developments in the story, quickly indelible in the reader’s mind. There’s Anna, aka “Asta,” Eicher, who’s been widowed, and her daughters–simple Grethe, 14, precocious Annabel, 9–and her son, Hart, 12. Lavinia is the mother-in-law, also bereft when her son, Asta’s husband Heinrich, was struck and killed by a streetcar in the Loop. The marauding killer goes by several aliases, two of which I’ve met so far, by page 224 of the 456-page book–Cornelius Pierson and Harry Powers.

The writing and construction of the tale are meticulous, engrossing and spellbinding. It’s one of those reads where you really want to be left alone to just read it and soak it in. I often listen to music while reading but I’ve found I don’t want to at all with this book.

I’ve long been interested in fiction that is informed by documentary materials–contemporary newspaper accounts; court records; photos; letters and diaries–whether used verbatim or only alluded to. Books like this that I’ve read and admired include Canadian writer George Elliott Clarke’s novel, George & Rue, which I published as Editor-in-Chief of Carroll & Graf in 2005. That book, which happens to also have been drawn from the annals of true crime, is based on a 1949 murder committed by two men related to Clarke’s mother, an act which he learned of from her only shortly before her death decades later. In Clarke’s novel the primary materials haunt the narrative, hanging in the background like a dark curtain. Clarke, a prodigiously talented poet, novelist, librettist, and orator–whose work I heartily recommend, was recently interviewed by Shelagh Rogers on her fine CBC Radio One books program The Next Chapter, a literary conversation I enjoyed listening to. George & Rue backGeorge & Rue

Another example of this sort of documentary fiction is a short story, “A Game of Catch Among Friends,” written by my son Ewan Turner, which ran as a guest post on The Great Gray Bridge last summer. Ewan had viewed photos of Bob Dylan by photographer Barry Feinstein, and from these he imagined a tale of Dylan on a free day while on tour in London in the early 1960s, around the same time as D.A. Pennebaker shot his classic documentary, “Dont Look Back.

Ewan TurnerCatch Among Friends Barry Feinstein

Earlier this year in March I had enjoyed a friendly evening that included Jayne Anne Phillips, when at the NBCC annual awards we were introduced by mutual friend Jane Ciabattari and sat only a row apart for the inspirational program of literary honors. I was pleased then when during BEA last June I met Jayne again in a welcome moment of serendipity–I spied her at the Scribner booth with Nan Graham–her much-decorated editor, and a publisher of great taste whose books I’ve written about before–signing copies of the nice looking ARC of Quiet Dell pictured here. Jayne Anne remembered me, even amid the BookExpo throng and a big line-up in front of her. I asked her to inscribe a galley to my wife, Kyle, though it turns out I’ve gotten to read it before her. I am glad I picked it up this week, because though it draws deeply from the well of a dark and tormented history, it bids fair to make of the Eicher family’s suffering something redemptive and just by way of the imagined life of Emily Thornhill and the undying loyalty of Duty. As the back of the galley indicates the novel will be published in October. Phillips grew up in West Virginia and on her excellent website she includes an Author’s Note on Quiet Dell that chronicles her personal connections to the story. I urge you to watch for the book, which has already received a starred review from Kirkus. You may pre-order Quiet Dell from Powell’s Books, and under my affiliation with the Portland, OR bookstore–by which they return a portion of your purchase price to me–you can help provide for upkeep of this website. This is also true of other books I write about on The Great Gray Bridge, such as George & Rue.

Finally, I’d ask you to let me know of any examples of what I’ve dubbed “documentary” fiction that you’ve personally relished reading. It seems to me we live in an age of mash-ups, where artists feel free to borrow or even appropriate (often judiciously, sometimes not) from the history, culture and media swirling around us all. I welcome your faves and thoughts in the comments below or direct to me via the contact button.  
Quiet Dell back


Josh Ritter in NYC, a Buoyant Showman at Terminal 5

Josh RitterMy wife and son and I bought tickets for Josh Ritter’s May 18 gig at Terminal 5 back in the winter, shortly after the show was first announced. When the night finally arrived this past Saturday, we were excited we’d be hearing him live for the first time. It was also our first time hearing a show at this venue, and we were surprised and pleased by how smoothly Terminal 5 operated. Though we arrived earlier than 7 PM when the doors were scheduled to open, we were admitted immediately, sent up to a rooftop patio and soon allowed downstairs in the big performance space. Our early arrival meant we were very close to the stage when the opening act, the Felice Brothers, took to the stage. Though hailing from towns in NY’s Hudson Valley, I heard tinges of Tex-Mex rock from this likable 5-piece, along with echoes of Doug Sahm and his Texas Tornadoes, driven especially by the keyboard and accordion work of boisterous brother James Felice. They were a great warm-up band and I was glad I later I had a chance to buy their CD, “Tonight at the Arizona.”

After an interval to reset the stage, Josh Ritter stepped up to his mic right at 9:00 PM. He addressed the audience:  “It is so good to be here, this is my home now. Thank you for being here. We’re going to have an amazing night. If at any point in the show I look nervous, it’s  because I am.” With that he started finger-picking a Gibson acoustic guitar for his first song, “Idaho.” As he segued from his first song to his second, members of the Royal City Band began joining him on stage, with Sam Kassirer taking a seat at the keyboards, while Zachariah Hickman*, sporting an extravagant  handlebar moustache, picked up a Fender bass, followed by Austin Nevins on lead guitar and Liam Hurley on drums. The first song with the full band was “Southern Pacifica”–with its opening verse “Southern Pacific/Red, white and blue/Where are we running to,” and the  memorable chorus, “Remember me to Roxianna/You know she’s still lovely/Tell her I was on the move/Last time you saw me/That you only saw the back of my head.”

A bit more than halfway through the show, Josh spoke to the audience about his new album, “Beast on the Tracks,” a kind of breakup album written following his recent divorce. He alluded to the personal anguish that led to the composition of the new songs, and the resilience that allowed him to record them and, now sing them live for people, night after night, and do so joyously and not in sorrow.  As the band then moved in to playing the songs from “Beast,” Ritter became even more buoyant than earlier, even while some of his lyrics became darker. I was reminded of other breakup albums, almost a genre of its own: Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks,” released in 1975, and widely regarded as expressing his pain at the end of his marriage to the same Sara who he sings of in “Sara” from “Desire.” More recently, Canadian artist Kathleen Edwards released “Voyageur”–Rolling Stone reported she wrote the album after enduring a breakup of her own. 

For nearly two hours Josh Ritter and his fine band ranged widely across his rich repertoire, playing nearly 20 songs on the ride. Ritter is an exciting and ebullient performer, continually interesting to watch on stage. He lowers himself to his knees while continuing to strum his instrument; cups his hands to his mouth and howls like a wolf; turns his back to the audience to direct his band like a vested conductor; strides in close to Nevins as the sideman plays arcing lead riffs with clear tone; tosses away guitar picks like pistachio shells; and connects with everyone in the crowd like he’s playing and singing just for them. It was a thrill to hear and see him play live. His performance was a triumph of his winning personality. Below are pictures from this superb show, many taken by my wife, artist Kyle Gallup.

Our Holiday Soundtrack–Ralph Vaughan Williams and Bob Dylan with Friends

Last night in my household we listened to music from several old LPs featuring folk songs, folk themes, and original music for chamber groups and orchestra by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), the English composer whose work I’ve listened to since I was a student at Franconia College, a student at Franconia College, when a professor there, Bill Congdon, turned me on to his music. Appropriate to the season, we heard RVW’s arrangements of “Wassail Song,” and similar songs. Not carols, exactly, but old folk songs of the season. I’m Jewish and so don’t observe Christmas, but I do love this music without reservations. RVW was part of a worldwide interest in folk idioms that also engaged many of his musical forebears and contemporaries in other countries–like Smetana and Dvorak in Hungary and Czechoslovakia; Sibelius in Finland; and Aaron Copland in the States. Like Alan Lomax in the U.S. in later decades, RVW took early recording equipment in to the field and had nonprofessional musicians sing and play songs for him, also making notes of what he was told. It should be said, that Vaughan Williams didn’t just take folk themes and rework them–he was also a bold, original composer with an edge, exhibited in such works as his modernist Fourth and Sixth symphonies.

Famously, RWV arranged and reworked “Greensleeves,” as a song, and as a suite for orchestra, and many lesser known songs with names like “The Captain’s Apprentice,” “The Lark in the Morning,” “Bushes and Briars, and “The Unquiet Grave.” His output was vast and in the years when vinyl was still the dominant music medium I bought a lot of it. When I visited London for the first time, in 1980, I bought secondhand albums, releases that were never even brought out in the U.S., such as EMI’s boxed set of his nine symphonies and other orchestral music, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. The album covers still bear the name of the dealer where I found them, Harold Moores Records. The records I bought there all evidently came from a public or college library, because inside I found little index cards, which had noted each time a patron or student had checked out the item. On “English Folk Songs, Arranged by Ralph Vaughan Williams, with the Purcell Singers conducted by Imogen Holst” a tiny, spidery hand had recorded each of the 13 times the album  was requested and played between 1963-78.  A scant 13 plays in 15 years? The album was in great shape when I brought it back home, and still is. Checking the Internet, I see that Harold Moores Records is still in business on Great Marlborough Street in London.

This afternoon, we made a change of pace and have been listening to a magnificent live album, “Bob Dylan–The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration,” the Madison Square tribute concert staged in 1992 to commemorate Dylan’s first recordings. This is a 3-LP six-sided banquet that features guest performances of 28 Dylan songs by–brace yourself, in order–John Mellencamp; Stevie Wonder; Eddie Vedder; Lou Reed; Tracy Chapman; Johnny Cash & June Carter Cash; Willie Nelson; Kris Kristofferson; Johnny Winter; Ron Wood; Richie Havens; the Clancy Brothers with Tommy Makem; Mary Chapin-Carpenter, Rosanne Cash, and Shawn Colvin; Neil Young; Chrissie Hynde; Eric Clapton; the O’Jays; The Band; George Harrison; Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers; and Roger McGuinn. The house band was Booker T & the MGs, while Al Kooper makes a key appearance on Mellencamp’s rendition of “Like a Rolling Stone.” Toward the end, Dylan steps on stage at the Garden to play 4 songs, “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” “Girl of the North Country,” and “My Back Pages and “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” with McGuinn, Harrison, Clapton, Petty, and Neil. I bought my copy about 15 years ago, again secondhand, and it still sounds great, as day has slipped on toward night.

This Week at The Great Gray Bridge

In the past week at this blog, I’ve written about the best TV ad of the presidential campaign thus far; a brave woman in Alaska who fended off an aggressive grizzly bear; the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema of Austin, TX, which is entering the NYC market only a couple blocks from my office; the great Canadian band Library Voices; Sarah Silverman’s bawdy video that pokes fun at right-wing casino magnate Sheldon Adelson; a new album from Bob Dylan; the award-winning CBC radio host, Jian Ghomeshi; Greenland’s worryingly shrinking Petermann Glacier; a young chess master and Franconia College classmate of mine who vanished in 1978 under mysterious circumstances; the late, great baseball writer, Robert Creamer, who chronicled the life of Babe Ruth; the sweet severance deal Mitt Romney arranged for himself from Bain Capital; the moving book I’ve been reading by Rob Sheffield, my #FridayReads yesterday; and my own personal history, including the story of how during a teenage road trip my brother Joel and I happened to adopt our longtime black lab Noah, pictured here with me.

New Bob Dylan Album Due Out in September

Bob Dylan’s still at, a long way from hanging up his guitar or microphone.  Timed to mark his 50th anniversary as a recording artist, Columbia Records has announced on that in September Bob Dylan will be releasing a new album, “Tempest.” Columbia writes that it will feature “ten new and original Bob Dylan songs,” and that its “release. . . coincides with the 50th Anniversary of the artist’s eponymous debut album, which was released by Columbia in 1962.”