Day 1260

Woody Guthrie’s Coney Island Home

June 12th, 2015



When you think of Woody Guthrie, the legendary folk singer from Oklahoma, it's easy to picture him as an itinerant Dust Bowl balladeer, roaming and rambling through the rural landscapes of "This Land Is Your Land". But that song also mentions "the New York island", and Woody, who spent most of the latter half of his life in the Big Apple, was just as much of a city dweller as he was anything else.

Foremost among his urban residences was 3520 Mermaid Avenue, a brick row house in Coney Island that stood on the site now occupied by the senior-citizen apartment tower pictured above. He lived here from 1943 to 1950, sharing a one-bedroom apartment with his second wife Marjorie and their children (including Arlo, born in 1947). Among his favorite Coney Island activities: building sand castles on the beach with the kids (his own and others) and going to Nathan's Famous for hot dogs and "hot patooties" (french fries).

Woody lived out his last relatively healthy years here on Mermaid Avenue. In the late 1940s, when he was in his mid-to-late 30s, his behavior started becoming "increasingly erratic, moody and violent"; these changes were early symptoms of what turned out to be Huntington's disease, the vicious neurodegenerative disorder that killed his mother. By 1954, he was in the hospital for good; he would remain in one institution or another for the next 13 years while the disease gradually ate away at his brain. Woodrow Wilson Guthrie finally died in 1967 at the age of 55 at Creedmoor State Hospital in Queens.

A prolific songwriter, Woody left behind a vast trove of unrecorded lyrics. Over the years, his daughter Nora has invited a number of artists to comb through the archive and write music for his orphaned songs. The first of these collaborations, with Billy Bragg and Wilco, resulted in 1998's beautiful and critically acclaimed album Mermaid Avenue, and generated enough material for two subsequent releases. You can listen to all three Mermaid Avenue records here: the original, Vol. II, and Vol. III.

Let's close with Woody's own tribute to his Coney Island street, a song he called "Mermaid's Avenue":

Mermaid Avenue that’s the street
Where the lox and bagels meet,
Where the sour meets the sweet;
Where the beer flows to the ocean
Where the wine runs to the sea;
Why they call it Mermaid Avenue
That’s more than I can see.

CHORUS:
But there’s never been a mermaid here
On Mermaid Avenue
No, I’ve never seen a mermaid here
On Mermaid Avenue
I’ve seen hags and wags and witches;
And I’ve seen a shark or two
My five years that I’ve lived along
Old Mermaid’s Avenue

Mermaid Avenue that’s the street
Where the saint and sinners meet;
Where the grey hair meets the wave curls
Where the cops don’t ever sleep;
Where they pay some cops to stop you
When you hit that Sea Gate* gate;
Where them bulls along that wire fence
Scare the mermaids all away

Mermaid Avenue that’s the street
Where the sun and storm clouds meet;
Where the ocean meets that rockwall
Where the boardwalk meets the beach;
Where the prettiest of the maidulas
Leave their legprints in that sand
Just beneath our lovesoaked boardwalk
With the bravest of our lads.

CHORUS

Mermaid Avenue that’s the street
Where all colors of goodfolks meet;
Where the smokefish meets the pretzel
Where the borscht sounds like the seas;
This is where hot Mexican Chili
Meets Chop Suey and meatballs sweet;
Mermaid Avenue she’s a nervous jerk
But, still, she’s hard to beat.


* Woody lived in Sea Gate for at least two short periods of time. In 1943, not long before his first stint in the Merchant Marine, he moved in with Marjorie and their infant daughter in "a tiny room above [Marjorie's] parents' apartment". And in 1948, he rented a room in the gated community during a brief separation from Marjorie.

UPDATE: When they left Mermaid Avenue in 1950, Woody and his family moved to the Beach Haven apartment complex, a development near Coney Island built and operated by Fred Christ Trump, Donald Trump's father. Woody wasn't a huge fan of his new landlord:

I suppose
Old Man Trump knows
Just how much
Racial Hate
he stirred up
In the bloodpot of human hearts
When he drawed
That color line
Here at his
Eighteen hundred family project


Read more here.


3 Comments

  1. chris says:

    This is excellent morning reading, and now I’m listening to the albums.

  2. Sandi says:

    What a heartbreaking story. thanks; I think……

  3. susan says:

    this is a wonderful post… i just saw your film at the loft cinema here in sunny tucson arizona, with my friend ann, a native new yorker. we both just LOVED the film, and admire your “project” if that’s the word for it… more like a lifestyle, a vision-quest, an adoration and tribute to the best city in the united states. the little bits on the cats, and the variety of various houses you’ve been invited to crash in… and the 9-11 tributes, the figs… just so many delicious details. THANK YOU so much for the film…don’t think we’d have found your website any other way! susan

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