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Living Quietly in West County, Son of Woody Guthrie Looks Back On Life, Dad

In a rare interview, El Cerrito resident Joady Guthrie reflects on his life, including his short music career and the trials of growing up as a son of the legendary folk singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie and brother of famous Arlo Guthrie.

As music enthusiasts across the nation celebrate the upcoming 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie's birthday on Saturday, attention falls on not just the legendary folk singer-songwriter himself, but his three surviving children as well.

Most people know about Arlo, a successful musician in his own right, and his sister Nora, who has made a name for herself through modern dance and serving as director of the Woody Guthrie Archives.

But what happened to Woody's other son — Joady Ben Guthrie?

Away from the public eye, the 63-year-old lives a quiet life in West Contra Costa's El Cerrito.

Chances are that many local residents unknowingly have seen Guthrie at his favorite local cafe, in Albany, where he sits outside the front door for a couple hours every afternoon.

He wears an aged jacket, while around his neck hangs a large pair of glasses and on his head sits a hat, covering his white hair.

Most of the time, he quietly reads a book or writes in his journal, and occasionally, he chats with friends at the cafe that has changed names and owners more than once in the years that it's been his hangout.

Aside from a short-lived music career, Guthrie has not sought publicity or attention, partly because of the unwelcome expectation of success that comes with the Guthrie name.

“I’m not a big achiever like my brother and sister, so I don’t like being compared to them,” he said.

He is soft-spoken and slow to speak, and even after 42 years in California, there remain faint traces of a New York accent, a reminder of his youthful days in Howard Beach, Queens.

Guthrie has lived at the senior community for the past five years. Before that, he lived more than decade in Albany.

Despite the celebrations and events this year for the centennial of his father's birth, Joady Guthrie goes on with his routine undisturbed.

Not his father’s son

In 1952, before Joady was 3 years old, Woody was diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease, a degenerative neurological disorder that begins showing symptoms in a patient’s 30s or 40s and eventually results in death.

At that point, Woody’s marriage to Marjorie Greenblatt—the mother of Arlo, Joady and Nora—was already strained, and in 1953 the two divorced.

A year later, and Woody was admitted into New Jersey’s Greystone Psychiatric Hospital, where he would remain until his death in 1967.

Joady’s only memories of his father are visiting him in the hospital or taking him home for an afternoon on the weekend. Even then, Woody’s disease prevented any substantial father-son relationship from forming.

“I never talked to my father—he was too hampered in his own speech by Huntington’s,” Guthrie said. “He looked pretty scary—lots of choreic movements, dance-like movements.”

What Guthrie knows about Woody is what he has heard from others and what he has read in biographies. Books like Ramblin’ Man by Ed Cray and Woody Guthrie: A Life by Joe Klein reveal the man plagued by alcoholism and volatile mood swings.

“My feelings about Woody were pretty rough,” Guthrie said. “I heard stories about his drinking, and the way he treated my mother—not very good stories.”

Even before Woody’s diagnosis, he was often an absent father, and Guthrie said his mother was the family breadwinner.

But before Woody’s death, another man filled the absence he had left. Alfred Addeo, Marjorie’s third of five husbands, became the father figure in Guthrie’s life.

“I was more attached to my stepfather, and my loyalties were there,” Guthrie said. “I took more after him than I took after Woody.”

While his brother carried on Woody’s musical legacy and his sister followed in the footsteps of Marjorie as a dancer, Guthrie took inspiration from Addeo.

As a carpenter, Addeo was the first to expose Guthrie to woodworking, which would become his part-time career for almost 30 years.

Although Addeo played the more traditional fatherly role in Guthrie’s young life, Woody remained an important influence to Guthrie through music.

Chasing a career in music

Guthrie never had the chance to learn guitar directly from his father, but by watching Arlo play, he quickly picked up some skills.

“A lot of self-teaching, but my mother played a little bit, my brother played a little bit, and I could watch and learn,” he said.

Even before high school, Guthrie made his first band with two friends, and when he began attending Goddard College in Vermont during the mid-1960s, he was the rhythm guitarist in a small blues band.

After college, in about 1970, Guthrie left behind the East Coast and came to San Francisco, where he married his college sweetheart.

While living in San Francisco, Guthrie engaged in various activities, never devoting himself to a single thing. He was a freelance carpenter, painted some houses, and taught guitar lessons at Tree Frog Music.

On the side, he played at open mic nights around the Bay Area and wrote several songs.

In the mid-1980s, Guthrie decided to make an album with the help of Country Joe McDonald, a long-time friend of the Guthries famous for his band Country Joe and the Fish.

McDonald produced the 1985 album, Spys on Wall St., which had 13 original folk songs by Guthrie.

“He (Joady) had a great sense of humor, great talent, and great vision,” said McDonald, who lives in Berkeley and has been performing a "Tribute to Woody Guthrie" show for the past decade.

Despite Joady Guthrie’s talent, McDonald remembers how difficult it was for Guthrie to relax while recording in the studio.

“I was uncomfortable recording, with the whole thing of comparing myself to my brother and father,” Guthrie said.

He felt there was an expectation to make an album. But cast in the shadow of Woody and Arlo’s musical fame, Guthrie did not enjoy the recording process.

“I was very intimidated by becoming visible,” he said.

Spys on Wall St. never rose to the popularity that Woody’s and Arlo’s albums achieved.

McDonald said he still can’t understand why audiences didn’t embrace Guthrie’s music, but he has no regrets about making the album.

“I always liked Joady’s point of view, personality, and his choice of chords,” McDonald said. “He was uniquely different than Woody or Arlo, and perhaps that’s what was wrong. But I put my bets into Joady, and I’m still happy I did that.”

No pressure to perform

   I had a job just the other day,
   Singing at a new night spot.
   The shakes and fries,
   They satisfies a craving that I got.

   So I sing for my supper,
   Even though they talk a lot,
   When I’m down playing at that place I love,
   It’s Burger King that’s what.

      — “Burger King That’s What” by Joady Guthrie

According to McDonald, Guthrie’s mentality about music can probably be summed up by the lyrics of his album’s opening track “Burger King That’s What.”

The song details the true story of how Guthrie used to play at the fast-food chain with his band, Duffy and the Nighthawks, and how street people would come in and listen.

McDonald loved the story so much that he made the song the opening track of the album.

“There was no pressure to be great or ungreat,” McDonald said. “There’s pressure all the time to satisfy the audience, but not at Burger King.”

Guthrie said he was never really invested in the idea of becoming a famous performer like his brother and father. For him, music was more of a personal hobby.

Immediately following the album’s release, McDonald promoted it and Guthrie said he even toured briefly. But after a while, Guthrie gave up on a career in music.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I just lost interest.”

Though Guthrie never made a second album or pursued the idea of becoming a performer, he continued giving guitar lessons, and teaching his son, Damon.

“The first thing I remember of him really is him teaching me guitar when I was growing up,” Damon, 32, said.

Guthrie and his wife separated when Damon was young, but even after the divorce, Guthrie visited his son almost every weekend.

Damon, a Berkeley-based artist, said that when he was a teen, Guthrie showed him his carpentry workshop and, over the years, passed on his tools.

Damon describes his father as friendly and mellow, and having a desire to learn new things.

The reading Guthrie does over his afternoon coffee is not just for fun. His recent afternoon reading material? A textbook on the controversies in the field of nutrition.

Moving forward

While life is now relaxed for Guthrie, that was not always the case.

In a Los Angeles Times article published in January 1986—one of the few articles written about Guthrie—he expressed a grave fear of contracting Huntington’s like Woody and two of his half-sisters.

Because Huntington’s is hereditary, Guthrie and his siblings each had a 50-percent chance of having the gene that codes for the disease.

About 10 years ago, Guthrie was tested for the gene. The results were negative, and a euphoric Guthrie had a huge burden lifted from his shoulders. (Although Arlo and Nora were never tested, they are past the age when symptoms would have begun.)

Today, Guthrie is living healthily, though he said his fingers are no longer in condition to play guitar. Guthrie is not too upset by that. His days as a performer are in the past, and he has little interest in trying to play again.

He doesn’t express any anger or excessive sadness about his unsuccessful foray in the music industry. According to him, he’s over it.

And he added that, for the most part, he has moved past the discomfort of living in the shadow of his father.

A couple times a month, he sees his son in Berkeley, and once and a while, he visits his sister and brother. But for the most part, Guthrie keeps to himself.

This month, there are several events for the centennial celebration of Woody’s birth, and Arlo, Nora, and Country Joe McDonald will be at several of them.

Guthrie has toyed with the idea of going to one or two of the low-key centennial events in the Bay Area, but he has no intention of being at any of the major celebrations in New York or Oklahoma.

Just like he loved his no-pressure jam sessions in Burger King, Guthrie prefers the simple life out of the spotlight in the El Cerrito-Albany area, including his daily trip to the cafe now called Royal Ground Coffee.

“I have friends there, the coffee’s good, and the sunshine is great,” he said.

If you want to hear Joady Guthrie's music, you can find his album on Amazon.com.

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