At my window sad & lonely
Oftimes do I think of thee
Sad and lonely and I wonder
Do you ever think of me
I often wonder if my grandfather was sad and lonely. Sad and lonely, how he used to stare out the kitchen window. Or sad and lonely later, when he had been confined to a wheelchair and he and my grandmother had moved into the city, into a house without stairs and a kitchen which faced the backyard, and he would stare out the front door.
He seemed sad and lonely on Sunday evenings, when the family would crowd inside his house for dinner. Everyone would stay there long after the food, delighting in a round of gossip or playing pinochle. But my grandfather, who never ate much and didn’t play cards, always sat alone, watching baseball, or basketball, or football, whichever season it was, with the volume muted. Inevitably, one of my cousin’s milk-faced children would slam the lid on the metal trash can in the kitchen—one of the only sounds my grandfather could hear—which always startled him, and he would shout “quit that” or “goddammit” or “knock that off” from deep inside his throat until the child would cry. He would then be forced to pop a Xanax, usually at my grandmother’s request, and park his wheelchair in front of the screen door where he would sit alone until the house was quiet again.
We buried him on a Thursday, a blue day at the end of February. We held the funeral in a church, a dimly lit one with miniature cathedral windows. “If we want to believe Grandpa’s in a better place…,” the bishop said; I didn’t hear the end of his sentence. Another white-haired man spoke about “the life we had before this one” and “the life we will have after,” and sometime during this lesson on Mormon theology, it became clear to me that neither the bishop nor the other white-haired man believed my grandfather was in heaven. “We don’t know where he is for sure,” one of them said. I began to play out the possibilities: if not heaven, then maybe a lesser one, and if not a lesser heaven, then it must be the nebulous afterlife Mormons call “outer darkness”—a separation, sad and lonely. I secretly hoped for the possibility of nothing.
My mother (his daughter-in-law) said my grandfather once told her about how he wanted to buy a bunch of land, to raise cattle and keep horses. But if he couldn’t have land, he wanted to sell his house and travel. I wonder if this is what he thought of as he stared out the kitchen window and later when he stared out the screen door. What was he dreaming all these years, sad and lonely?
At my window sad and lonely
Stand and look across the sea
And I sad and lonely wonder
Do you ever think of me?
Woody Guthrie’s lyrics are not wholly sad and lonely. Longing is a kind of dreaming. Do you ever think of me my darling? The dream here is that she does, and that she is just as miserable for it. I think my grandfather understood this kind of dreaming—perhaps in the things he sacrificed for all of us. Woody Guthrie must have understood men like my grandfather: those who dreamed when they were forced to settle.
Billy Bragg once argued that Woody Guthrie was “on the cusp of where folk music [stopped] being folk and became music where people knew who wrote it.” Mermaid Avenue reveals this aspect of Guthrie’s songwriting. We celebrate Guthrie as a folk icon, a Dust Bowl Troubadour. He was one of the first to show us that songs could change the world. But the songs on Mermaid Avenue tell us to forget everything we thought we knew about Woody Guthrie. These lyrics he left behind are deeply personal, and far ahead of their time. But even in his personal lyrics, he seems to be writing for everyone—for himself, for your grandfather, for your lover, and for yourself. Guthrie’s lyrics illuminate something for all of us.