A Special Evening on the Beach: Remembering Woody Guthrie in the Light of Coney Island

July 14, 2012 was the centennial of the birth of the great American folk singer, Woody Guthrie (July 14, 1912 – October 3, 1967), and celebrations in his memory took place "from California to the New York islands." The New York island of Coney Island played a special role in Guthrie's life, because he spent nearly a decade on Coney following World War II raising a family with his wife Marjorie and writing many songs for children. Many of his friends and family have characterized the time he spent on Coney Island as a "stable" period in his life. His mother-in-law, a Yiddish poet, lived on the island, and he also wrote songs there inspired by the community's Jewish culture. One was titled 'Mermaid's Avenue," after the street on which he lived. In the early 1990s, Guthrie's daughter, Nora, offered Billy Bragg, the British musician whose admiration for her father was well-known (including his Guthrie tribute in Central Park), the opportunity to set to music a handful of previously unpublished lyrics by her father. Bragg and the band Wilco released an album of the resulting songs, Mermaid Avenue, in the summer of 1998.

early evening, Coney Island boardwalk
on the boardwalk, Coney Island

Yesterday, Billy Bragg, Nora Guthrie, and singer-songwriter Steve Earle (now a resident of Greenwich Village) reunited on the beach of Coney Island for a tribute to Guthrie. They took the sandy stage before a screening of the biopic, Bound for Glory (1976). They shared a few songs and told stories. Earle sang his song "Christmas in Washington," with the refrain "come back, Woody Guthrie." Billy Bragg spoke of Guthrie's wonderful children's songs, arguing that the birthday party on Coney Island should be upbeat and joyous. He then sang the sweet song "Dry Bed," his music set to Guthrie lyrics, about a young boy proud of the previous evening's accomplishment. Nora Guthrie took the mic to thank the "generous people" of Coney Island for hosting them for a memorable day. She led one and all in a spirited rendition of Woody Guthrie's anthem, "This Land is Your Land." With each verse, the chorus grew louder. People passing by on the beach and on the boardwalk, perhaps unaware of the nature of the event, joined in the singing. They all knew the words to one of the most famous folk songs of all time.

On the beach, Billy Bragg (in black shirt) and Steve Earle (with guitar) prepare to introduce the evening's film,
Bound for Glory (1976), with songs and stories.

Steve Earle 

Billy Bragg

From the mid-1950s to his death, Woody Guthrie was confined to a series of New York hospitals due to increasing disability as a result of Huntington's disease. After his death in 1967, Woody Guthrie's family gathered on the beach of Coney Island to scatter his ashes in the ocean.

the beach at Coney Island

On Saturday evening, when the music ended and the movie began, the sun set in a cotton candy-colored sky. The famous blue water off of Coney Island deepened to the color of midnight. The lights of the amusement park began to illuminate the boardwalk and the surrounding streets with the colors of a candy-colored fantasy, the dream of every boy and girl, big and small.

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple from the evening of July 14, 2012. Coney Island.

Coney Island: Flicks on the Beach continues with free screenings every Monday through August 6, 2012. See www.coneyislandfunguide.com for schedule.

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