Saturday, July 14 visitors to Coney Island may have been having too much fun on the Cyclone or eating Nathan’s to notice the motley crew of seven that came there for a very special purpose. Perhaps, this is what they wanted, an unnoticed and intimate gathering to celebrate the 100th birthday of their father, grandfather, great-grandfather and musical icon, American folk legend Woody Guthrie.
The group included his daughter Nora, two grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and musically-gifted friends Steve Earle and Billy Bragg. They wanted to mark Guthrie’s centennial celebration near his beloved Coney Island home, eating his favorite food, Nathan’s hot dogs.
Following World War II, Guthrie moved to 3520 Mermaid Avenue with his wife Marjorie. Their children, Arlo, Joady, Cathy and Nora, were born there. Most say that this was the most prolific period in Guthrie’s life and many songs from that time, like “Mermaid’s Avenue,” reflect the peace that his home life brought him.
Now, 3520 Mermaid Avenue is a senior citizens home and the only evidence of Guthrie’s life there is a small plaque.
This was the calm before the storm as Guthrie’s health deteriorated shortly after that. After several misdiagnoses, it was determined that he had Huntington’s disease, a hereditary and incurable genetic disorder.
He was admitted to Brooklyn State Hospital, where Bob Dylan came and sang songs to him.
Guthrie died there on October 3, 1967. After Guthrie passed, the family went to Coney Island and scattered his ashes in the water.
“We didn’t have any religious traditions,” Nora told Rolling Stone Magazine. “We were inventing things along the way…We didn’t know what to do afterward. We didn’t have religious traditions. Stand in silence? Prayer? Mom said, ‘I think Woody would really want us to just go to Nathan’s. So we went over to Nathan’s and sat on the ground with our backs against the wall with my father’s favorite food, a hot dog and French fries. That was the big ceremony.”
His family didn’t come to Coney Island mourn him but rather to remember his powerful legacy and quirks. They were there to screen the Guthrie’s biopic, Bound for Glory as part of the Flicks on the Beach series.
The event attracted a crowd of admirers who witnessed Earle, Bragg and Nora talk about their hero and sing some iconic tunes by or about him like “Christmas in Washington,” “Dry Bed,” which is a song that incorporates Bragg’s music set to Guthrie lyrics, and the famous, “This Land is Your Land.”
The low-key event set on the beaches of Coney Island, under the crescent moon and beside the neon lights of the amusement park, is probably what Guthrie would have wanted. Happy Birthday, Mr. Guthrie, thank you for the unforgettable music.