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Delving Into Woody Guthrie’s Time at Greystone Park

1-21-14

By Susan Wallner
State of the Arts

Woody Guthrie. Photo by Robin Carson.

Phil Buehler has been photographing modern ruins since he rowed out to then-abandoned Ellis Island in the 1970s. He’s documented the now-demolished Westinghouse Plant in Newark, an airplane graveyard in Tucson, and structures left over from the 1964-65 World’s Fair. Buehler isn’t content to simply take pictures, however. He researches each location, finding people who once lived and worked there, and reading everything he can.

In 2001, after spending a day on the sprawling grounds of Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in Morris Plains, Buehler logged on to the internet, where he found out that the great folksinger and songwriter Woody Guthrie once lived there. It was the beginning of a journey that led to the new book, Woody Guthrie’s Wardy Forty: Greystone Park State Hospital Revisited.

In 1956, Woody Guthrie was picked up for vagrancy in Morristown and committed to Greystone because he was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia. He actually had Huntington’s disease, a hereditary disorder his mother had had as well. Huntington’s made it increasingly difficult for Guthrie to control his movements, and he died of it in 1967 at age 55. The story of Guthrie’s time at Greystone is told in the book, through Buehler’s photographs of the post-Civil War era hospital and never-before-published family letters, photographs and interviews.

During the time Guthrie lived at Greystone, Huntington’s disease was not well understood. His condition worsened steadily, but Guthrie was loved by his family, who visited often, and friends took him out to spend Sundays making music and eating good food.

As his daughter, Nora Guthrie, says, “This project was a way of explaining what I think of as lost years in terms of understanding how he, as a creative artist, dealt with his time. He was in the hospital for 15 years. That’s a lot of days. And how did he get through these days?”

VIDEO:

A special State of the Arts preview: “Guthrie at Greystone.” Visit the abandoned state psychiatric hospital with photographer Phillip Buehler, who spent 10 years researching the time folksinger Woody Guthrie spent there.

Guthrie wrote more than 3,000 songs in his lifetime, although he recorded only a handful. “This Land is Your Land,” sung by schoolchildren across America, is just the tip of a vast body of work. His songs have deeply influenced musicians including Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Country Joe McDonald. Billy Bragg and Wilco set Guthrie’s lyrics to music in the acclaimed Mermaid Avenue sessions.

“He spoke the truth, a lot of times,” says Buehler. “He had a lot of other people’s needs on his mind and he was quite gifted at being able to tell those stories.” In this collaboration with Nora Guthrie and the Woody Guthrie Archives, Buehler has brought to light a little known chapter in the legendary musician’s life.

Woody Guthrie’s Wardy Forty: Greystone Park State Hospital Revisited is available through Woody Guthrie Publications. A multi-media book launch event will take place at the Morris Museum on Thursday, Jan. 23. Phil Buehler and Nora Guthrie will share photographs, films and stories that focus on Woody Guthrie’s time at Greystone, and copies of the book will be for sale. For tickets, contact Anna at acanoni@woodyguthrie.org.

“Guthrie at Greystone” premieres on State of the Arts Jan. 26 at 8 p.m. on NJTV. Also on Sunday’s episode, “Ming to Modern” at the Newark Museum and the Shockenaw Mountain Boys at the Minstrel, Morristown’s folk music concert series.

Susan Wallner is an award-winning producer with PCK Media. She is a long-time contributor to State of the Arts, now airing on NJTV Sundays at 8 p.m. and Thursdays at 11:30 p.m.