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.
Though Woody Guthrie had been transferred to Brooklyn State Hospital by the time Bob Dylan wrote “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie” in the early 1960s, the folk icon’s decline had begun years earlier, and when the young Dylan came to the New York area to launch his career, Guthrie was under care in Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in Morris County, New Jersey. Guthrie’s stay at Greystone and his visits from Bob Dylan are the subject of a TV segment (apparently unaired) from the same people who brought you Weird New Jersey, and you can watch it up above.
The clip plays up the spooky aspect of Greystone, but nobody who grew up or lived in northern New Jersey in the mid-20th century will have trouble seeing Greystone as a spectral presence. Back then, if somebody goofed around too much, we would invariably joke about calling the men in the white coats to have him taken to Greystone. Those were the days when involuntary commitment had not yet been ruled unconstitutional, and the possibility of getting carted off to the nearest loonie bin was a recurring theme in everything from Tennessee Williams plays to Miracle on 34th Street, not to mention the grade-B horror movies that were catnip to me. Classic movies like The Snake Pit were on afternoon television, and every now and then, a radio DJ would play the Napoleon XIV song “They’re Coming to Take Me Away Ha-Haaa!”
It probably says a great deal about the anxieties and insecurities of a more conformist age that so much popular culture was based on either the fear of being thought crazy, or the fear that one might pretend to be crazy and then become trapped in the deception, as in Brainstorm (1965) or Nightmare Alley (1947). Long before Thomas Szasz and other critics launched the anti-psychiatry movement, there was plenty of evidence of the ways in which the label “mental illness” could be applied to people who were socially or politically bothersome, along with those who were genuinely sick. For this reason, Allen Ginsberg name-checked Greystone’s “foetid halls” as one of “the madtowns of the East” in his 1956 poem “Howl,” lamenting that he had seen “the finest minds of my generation destroyed by madness.” The sediment of that anxiety could be stirred up by the mere mention of Greystone, and the fact that the looming stone towers of the hospital could have doubled for Hill House in The Haunting did nothing to dispel the feeling of menace and queasy fascination whenever I drove past the place.
Guthrie, of course, was there for a good reason: the hereditary disorder Huntington’s chorea had begun destroying him physically and mentally, but when Bob Dylan came to the area in 1961, Guthrie was still capable of spending weekends at the East Orange home of Ralph Gleason, who arranged Sunday gatherings of friends and musicians for Guthrie’s benefit. According to Anthony Scaduto’s Dylan: An Intimate Biography, the young Zimmerman spent most of his first meeting with Guthrie simply sitting on the floor next to the couch where Guthrie was lying, propped up on pillows.
One witness said that when Dylan finally did play something for Guthrie, the old lion liked what he heard.
Bob began visiting Woody at the hospital several times a week, and he showed up at the Gleasons practically every weekend over the next few weeks. By the second weekend Woody was asking for Bobby, and he would ask for him all the time: “Is the boy coming today? When is the boy coming back?” Something grew between them, between the dying originator of modern folk, and the boy who was imitating him, idolizing him, and who would soon surpass him. He would talk to Woody when there weren’t too many people around, patiently waiting for Woody to form the words that were so hard coming. Woody could not compete with crowds of people talking; he would get excited and stutter and ramble and be unable to pull together what he wanted to say. But Dylan would sit at his feet, in a corner, and they would talk. At one of those first Sundays, Bob played “Song for Woody” for him, privately, in the corner, and everyone in the room stopped to listen. And, someone remembers, Woody’s face broke into a broad smile of joy, and he said: “That’s good, Bob. That’s damned good.” Bob seems to have gone to Woody’s heart, and after everyone left, Woody told the Gleasons, “That boy’s got a voice. Maybe he won’t make it by his writing, but he can sing it. He can really sing it.”
Well, Guthrie may have gotten things a little backward, but even in the grip of illness, with his death only a few years off, he could still spot a talent.