Krip Hop Founder Reflects On Woody’s Final Years
One thing we can say for sure: it won’t be your average folk festival. Echo Park’s free afternoon concert, part of a day long event paying tribute to Woody Guthrie, will feature Woody-inspired musicians of all genres. Take, for example, Leroy Moore, the Bay Area founder of Krip Hop Nation and writer for Poor Magazine. His poem, “Woody Guthrie meets John Doe24,” reflects on Woody at the end of his life when he was confined to a psychiatric hospital.
“The Dustiest of Dust Bowl Refugees” was known for his hard traveling, hitchhiking, train-jumping ways. Moore’s poem recalls the time in 1956 when Woody was picked up by New Jersey police, found “wandering on the highway” and sent to Greystone Park State Hospital, where he was wrongly diagnosed with schizophrenia. (He was actually suffering from Huntington’s disease, an incurable condition that attacks parts of the brain and motor abilities.) A young Bob was astonished to learn that Woody was still alive, so large had his legend grown. Dylan made several pilgrimages to Greystone to meet with and play for his folk hero.
Leroy Moore’s poem was written in collaboration with Phil Buehler, author of the up-coming book Woody Guthrie’s Wardy Forty. Ten years in the making, the book explores the five years Woody spent at Greystone. His institutionalization came at a time when Woody was finally beginning to gain recognition. His song, “This Land Is Your Land,” was sung in schools and summer camps around the country. Moore believes Woody’s confinement speaks volumes about the systematic discrimination of people with disabilities, especially those who are poor.
“The system hasn’t learned about institutionalizing people. Even though Woody had finally gained some recognition, it didn’t stop him from getting picked up. Woody had doubts about whether “this land” really belonged to all of us. He expressed those doubts in his songs. That’s why poor people loved Woody.”
Although Huntington’s disease was little understood at the time, Moore says it provides an example of how the police – then and today – are insufficiently trained to deal with disabled people in distress.
“I have seen so many cases where police have reacted badly to people with disabilities. I have seen many cases where the disability is obvious – for instance, the person is deaf and the police are giving orders that the person can’t hear. People with mental and physical disabilities continue to get shot and killed without cause. It’s a lack of common sense. No amount of training can help that.”
Moore believes alternative systems need to be put in place. He proposes a hotline where mental health experts can properly respond to the needs of disabled people in distress. “What’s so sad is the money keeps pouring in to institutionalize people instead of trying to find real solutions.”
Phil Buehler’s haunting photos of Greystone brought back memories for Moore, who visited a similar institution with a similar reputation – Willowbrook State Hospital for the mentally retarded, in New York. In 1975, conditions at Willowbrook were found to be so atrocious that a Federal judge ordered it shut down.
“It was dark and creepy and completely cut off from the rest of society.” But even the best of institutions can be lacking, he says, “I used to work in a group home. I saw the attitudes of the workers.”
In previous years, Moore was able to devote a lot of time and energy to advocating for disabled people living on the streets. Today, getting older with disabilities limits his mobility, so he expresses his activism through his art. He sees no distinction between the two. “I don’t do the kind of art that cuts my life into parts – some of this and some of that. My art and activism, it’s not a question of balance; it’s a river that flows together for me. My art is a good part of what I do.”
Moore lives in a tiny apartment in the Bay area. His rent is low, allowing him to devote more time to his art. “I made that choice a long time ago. It’s not utopia, but I don’t have kids (although I am in a committed relationship), so that makes it a lot easier to live a sparse lifestyle. I am an artist plus an activist.”
Leroy Moore doesn’t spare Occupy from criticism:
“They have been kicking poor and homeless people out of the movement. They are not learning from the people. They have internal contradictions about poverty. Occupy is on the sidewalks of homeless people. Before Occupy, we were camping out on the streets. Even the structure of activism is against people with disabilities.
Poor Magazine put out a book entitled, Decolonizers Guide To A Humble Revolution to teach “the Occupy Movement about people who have been working, living and organizing on these streets way before they did. For more info: (http://poormagazine.org/node/4156)
After his performance at the Woody tribute concert, Moore move to the activities area, joining with hip-hop artist-and activist Olmeca in the arts for a spoken word workshop for young people.
After five years at Greystone Hospital, Woody Guthrie was transferred to a state hospital in New York where he died in 1967.
Woody Guthrie’s Wardy Forty, written and photographed over a ten-year period of time by Phil Buehler in collaboration with Nora Guthrie and the Guthrie archives, is set for release this fall by Guthrie Publications.
Buehler’s photos will be on view throughout the day at the Echo Park Tribute to Woody Guthrie on July 14 from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. at the courtyard of El Centro del Pueblo, 1157 Lemoyne Street, Echo Park, Los Angeles, 90026. Of the collaboration with Moore, Buehler said: “Working with Leroy showed how Woody’s life and message seems to reach out from the past to find relevance to new audiences in the present.” Link to Phil Buehler’s website: (modern-ruins.com )
Leroy Moore’s performance is scheduled for 2 p.m.
An After-hours fundraiser for Skid Row art and activism will be held from 6 p.m. – 9.p.m, at the Echo bar, 1822 W. Sunset, Echo Park, L.A. 90026. Suggested donation: $10. (Download the flyer here ) Event Website:(http://www.woodyinechopark.com/)
The Trailer Trash Project is a sponsored project of the Pasadena Arts Council.
Tax deductible donations can be made by clicking the image above.
Woody Centennial Website: (woody100.com).