John Gorka’s story: Woody, Cisco and Me
(Reprinted from December 2007)
I (John Gorka) was honored to be a part of the celebration of Woody Guthrie’s music entitled “In Woody’s Words” at WXPN’s World Cafe Live in Philadelphia yesterday. The cast also included, Tom Paxton, Jonatha Brooke, Cathy Fink and Marcie Marxer, Sara Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion. Nora Guthrie and Gene Shay were the hosts. It was big fun. There was a short but moving film about Woody’s impact on the world of music. Arlo also visited by video. The program featured the debut of new songs which combined unpublished Woody lyrics and new music by the participants. We had been asked to say something about what Woody meant to us.
This request triggered a memory I didn’t even know I had in me. Here it is:
I first met Woody Guthrie in Chico, CA in late July, 1938. He and Cisco Houston had been invited to play at an afternoon rally for a new fruit pickers union. I attended and hovered around afterwards but didn’t have the nerve to try and say hello. Later that evening I followed Woody, Cisco, and a small group of hangers on as they moved to a bar in downtown Chico. The place had an Irish sounding name as I recall — Muldoon’s or Mulrooney’s. Several people offered to buy them drinks. ”Well,” Woody said, “I only drink in two situations — when I’m alone or with somebody.” Since it was a warm evening in July both the front and the backdoors were open so I was able sneak a peek and listen to the grown-ups even though I wasn’t old enough to go inside. After eating sandwiches at the bar they moved to the back room and out came the instruments. I moved to the back entrance to listen and I remember hearing Gypsy Davy, and what would become some of Woody’s dustbowl ballads (recorded in Camden, NJ, 1940). At one point Cisco came out the back to have a smoke and he saw me there and asked if I had eaten lately and would I like a root beer. I said I’d had some jerky and peanuts but I would love the root beer although I didn’t have the money to pay for one. Cisco said “Don’t worry about it kid,” got me the root beer and went back inside to make some more music.
That music went on and on and eventually I fell asleep listening. When I woke up I had my head on my pack and someone had put a red and white checkered table cloth over me as a blanket. I stirred as they left the bar, still singing. Woody and Cisco’s ride to Los Angeles never showed up so a guy who wrote under the name “Mick Inkmann” for the local paper said he could give them a lift out to the main highway. From there they planned to hitch hike to Los Angeles or at least to Sacramento. The newspaperman’s car had a rumble seat that was open & unoccupied so I jumped in and kept my head out of sight. At a railroad crossing the car stopped for a freight train moving slowly south out of town. At the north end of the train we saw a boxcar door open and 4 men jumped out looking like certified hoboes. Woody and Cisco quickly decided a change of plans was in order, jumped out of the car, thanked Mick and hopped up through the open boxcar door. I scrambled out, startling the Local Press, and ran for the train. Woody saw me and pulled me up into the car. They asked my name and I told them and we sat and talked or rather shouted over the sounds of the moving train. I told them of the many places I had been and all the people I had met but that more than anything I wanted to do what they were doing. It quickly dawned on Woody that the account of my travels was not technically factual and he stopped me and said “How old are you kid?” I said that “strictly speaking I won’t be born for another 20 years or so”. There was a pause then Woody said “What’s a preconceived notion like you doing on a train like this?” I said that “the musical standard that you and Pete and Leadbelly were setting was so high that the aspiring folksingers of the future needed to get as early a start as possible. So that’s why I’m here – to observe my heroes up close and personal, even though it did take some doing to make the arrangements.” Woody looked at Cisco. Cisco looked at Woody. Without saying a word they both picked me up and heaved me out of the boxcar door.
Somehow they must have known they could not harm my immortal soul in the process.
As I tumbled eastward down the embankment they yelled that I should be more careful in picking my heroes. I waved and sang a little bit of the chorus of “So Long It’s Been Good to Know You” which prompted rude, synchronized gestures from the two of them.
I smiled to myself and continued to roll slowly and steadily to the east, rolling up the Sierras and down through the desert, then up the Western Slope of the Rockies and down into the Plains, only stopping on a summer Sunday afternoon in Newark, NJ where I was born, again – so to speak, bound to sing, if not actually bound for glory.
by John Gorka (reprinted with the permission of the author)