Woody Guthrie's sister answered the phone. I told her my name, explained that I was writing a book about folk singers, and asked if I could speak with her. After three minutes, Mary Jo Guthrie Edgmon invited me over for lunch. I was in New York and she was in Oklahoma, but her humor and hospitality evaporated the miles. She told me stories of Woody's childhood, stories that I had never heard, stories that I could write about.
I've always thought of writing as a passport to a new world. Interviewing and researching let me explore that world, chart its logical and emotional geography, wander its landscape, listen carefully to its stories, rumors, and secrets. I sought out people who knew more than I did. They were shockingly abundant.
The book started out because of my interest in investigating some of Bob Dylan's principal musical and political roots. I spoke, for example, with two of Dylan's high school teachers. B.J. Rolfzen talked movingly about his memories of a young Robert Zimmerman. Rolfzen still uses the formal first name. Rolfzen and I exchanged life stories, and he sent me a privately printed memoir of his youth.
A book on folk music meant I got a chance to speak with Pete Seeger. For an audience of one, he sang a bunch of songs including one he had learned while spending a few hours in jail during his run-in with the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Peter, Paul, and Mary were all extraordinarily gracious. I spoke with Mary Travers about eighteen months before her death, and I was pleasantly amazed at her honesty and frankness. Tom Paxton had wonderful memories of Greenwich Village. I was taken with Izzy Young, the legendary proprietor of the Folklore Center, the man who sponsored Dylan's first concert. I enjoyed Izzy's stories and all the material he sent me.
Slowly the puzzle pieces began to form a picture. I kept talking to singers, writers, scholars, people with connections. The focus became on political folk music. The story I wanted to write was filled with fabulous characters, people like The Carter Family, Jimmy Rodgers, Joe Hill, Alan Lomax, Lead Belly, and Joan Baez.
And Dylan. What pleased me most was that I in exploring the folk world I could more deeply appreciate the footsteps Dylan Followed and the new paths he forged.
I was unsurprised to conclude that, finally, Dylan's greatness was beyond my critical reach. Here was a man who corners the language, captures it, and sings it for the rest of us but also a man who needs to keep a sacred corner of his own mind off limits. I was satisfied, though. Seeing Dylan in context was seeing him in a new way.
I wrote the book because I thought I had a story worth telling, and I wanted to share it.
For more information about my book on political folk music, see http://lawrencejepstein.com/folk.