Monday, March 31, 2014

Woodie Guthrie's Los Angeles

" . . . the lights of Los Angeles jumped up, running from north to south as far as I could see, and hanging around on the hills and mountains just as if it was level ground. Red and green neon flickering for eats, sleeps, sprees, salvation, money made, lent, blowed, spent. There was an electric sign for dirty clothes, clean clothes, honky tonky tonks, no clothes, floor shows, gyp-joints, furniture in and out of homes."

That was Woody Guthrie's first impression of Los Angeles after hitchhiking into town in the late 1930s. He wrote those words in Bound for Glory, his 1943 memoir.

A few pages later in the book, he comes back to LA. By now he's got a guitar and is a bit less penniless than when he first breezed through. His book leaves out a lot and is hard to fit to dates, but it's so wonderful to read you just don't care.

He had a radio show here in Los Angeles, at station KFVD. The picture to the right shows his on-air partner Lefty Lou (Maxine Crissman).

So here's what Guthrie says about Los Angeles in December of 1941, down along "old Fifth and Main:"

"Skid Row, one of the skiddiest of all Skid Rows. God, what a wet and windy night! And the clouds swung low and split up like herds of wild horses in the canyons of the street."

Woody hooked up with another guitar player whom he calls the Cisco Kid in the book--I think that's Cisco Houston. "We moved along the Skid looking in at the bars and taverns, listening to neon signs sputter and crackle, and on the lookout for a gang of live ones. The old splotchy plate-glass windows looked too dirty for the hard rain ever to wash clean. Old doors and dumps and cubbyholes had a sickly pale color about them, and men and women bosses and workhands bumped around inside and talked back and forth to each other. Some soggy-smelling news stands tried to keep their fronts open and sell horse-race tips and sheets to the people ducking head-down in the rain, and pool halls stunk to high heaven with tobacco smoke, spit and piles of dirty men yelling over their bets. Hock-shop windows all piled and hanging full of every article known to man, and hocked there by the men that needed them most; tools, shovels, carpenter kits, paint sets, compasses, brass faucets, plumbers tools, saws, axes, big watches that hadn't run since the last war, and canvas tents and bedrolls taken from the fruit tramps. Coffee joints, slippery stool dives, hash counters with open fronts was lined with men swallowing and chewing and hoping the rain would wash something like a job down along the Skid. The garbage is along the street stones and the curbing, a shale and a slush that washes down the hill from the nicer parts of town, the papers crumpled and rotten, the straw, manure, and silt, that comes down from the high places, like the Cisco Kid and me, and like several thousand other rounders, to land and to clog, and to get caught along the Skid Row."

The picture of Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston on the left came from a memorial website to Houston, who died at age 42.

Here's how Woody described the people on the Skid:

"Movie people, hoss wranglers, dead enders, stew bums; stealers, dealers, sidewalk spielers; con men, sly flies, flat foots, reefer riders; dopers, smokers, boiler stokers; sailors, whalers, bar flies, brass railers; spittoon tuners, fruit-tree pruners; cobbers, spiders, three-way riders; honest people, fakes, vamps and bleeders; saviors, saved, and sidestreet singers; whore-house hunters, door-bell ringers; footloosers, rod riders, caboosers, outsiders; honky tonk and whiskey setters; tight-wads, spendthrifts, race-horse betters; blackmailers, gin soaks, corners, goers; good girls, bad girls, teasers, whores; buskers, corn huskers, dust bowlers, dust panners; waddlers, toddlers, dose packers, syph carriers; money men, honey men, sad men, funny men; ramblers, gamblers, highway anklers; cowards, brave guys, stools and snitches; nice people, bastards, sonsabitches; fair square, and honest folks; low, sneaking greedy people, and somewhere, in amongst all of these Skid Row skidders--Cisco and me sun for our chips."

Over the next few pages, Guthrie tells how he and Cisco sang in a place called The Ace High, next door to the Imperial Saloon. They sing for sailors and soldiers, until one drunk--who tried to enlist but was rejected--decides he wants to beat up all the Japanese in Los Angeles. The owners of the Imperial Saloon are Japanese, so that leads to a street brawl, with Woody, Cisco, and most of the sailors lining up to protect the place. It's colorful and maybe it really happened.

Woody's adventure never made the Los Angeles Times (I checked) but I doubt that reporters were hanging out in that neighborhood on a rainy night.

Bound for Glory is an incredible, heartbreaking read. It's not at all what I expected, which is what most 21st century reviews of it say. The book is a doorway to your parents' or grandparents' world, which was a lot more ugly and bitter than they ever let on.

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