It might have been serendipity when photographer Phillip Buehler climbed into a broken window of the old Greystone Park State Hospital in Morris Plains, N.J.
A visual chronicler of abandoned buildings, "I found myself in the ruins of the hospital’s dark room, with tens of thousands of patient photographs spilling out of file cabinets," he wrote on his Kickstarter webpage. "I wondered who was there and what stories were waiting to be told.
"Later that night, I searched the Internet and learned that Woody Guthrie had once been a patient there."
The discovery launched the photographer on a 10-year quest to piece together the experience of one of America’s most influential folk singers and songwriters at this "mental institution" and his eventual demise at various hospitals where he spent his last 15 years suffering from Huntington’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder.
Buehler’s search included tracking down Guthrie’s musician friends, interviewing his children and investigating archives to explore the five years Guthrie spent at Greystone Park State Hospital in Ward 40. The result is "Woody Guthrie’s Wardy Forty," a coffee table book published in collaboration with Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, and the Woody Guthrie Archives in Tulsa’s Brady Arts District. The hardcover book features archival pieces and stories, and Buehler’s photos of the hospital, which opened to patients in 1877. Of the hospital complex, the dormitories were abandoned in 1992, and most buildings were demolished by 2008.
The book’s images seem hauntingly alive. Typewriters are deserted, as if the people using them stepped out for lunch and never came back. Rooms have the original furnishings; large cooking pots remain in the kitchen to feed the hungry patients; rows of cots are sagging under dust. Another room is empty, save for the lone wheelchair in the corner.
But it’s not all about the hospital. Music lovers will appreciate the glimpse into the musical scene developing at the time of Guthrie’s height.
Readers will delight in the stories told from musicians such as John Cohen and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. You may chuckle at the casual recounting of a young boy from Minnesota named Bob Dylan, who visited Guthrie at the hospital. Later enjoy a glimpse at the handwritten lyrics to Dylan’s "Song to Woody" that have never been published.
In true Guthrie fashion, the book will be printed in the United States, and Buehler has secured more than $43,000 in donations through a Kickstarter campaign to fund the printing.
Those who hope to learn more about Guthrie will get an intimate glimpse into the man he was underneath, and beyond, the music.
The stories Buehler gathered reveal that the hospital’s medical staff did not recognize Guthrie, had never heard of his music and scribbled into their intake notes that he had "delusions of grandeur," thinking he’d written songs and that people knew who he was. To them, he was a delusional man under the influence of a troublesome disease.
Huntington’s would eventually take from Guthrie his ability to play guitar or write lyrics. In a sense, readers of "Wardy Forty" journey with the legend as he loses the very thing that made him legendary.
Scrawled across the back of the book is, in Guthrie’s handwriting, "I ain’t dead quite yet." It’s rather fitting. Guthrie refused to let the disease take him over as he endured an inevitable demise.
"He strived to learn and grow, even as he went through each day of his deteriorating illness," says daughter Nora.
"Wardy Forty" is a testament to friendship, to the commitment of family and to the drive of the human spirit in one remarkable man.
"Woody Guthrie's Wardy Forty" is available at www.woodyguthrie.org.
April book events
4/1 Ron Padgett, "Collected Poems," 7 p.m., Arts & Humanities Council of Tulsa Hardesty Arts Center (AHHA), 101 E. Archer St.
4/3 Andrew Knapp, "Find Momo," 7 p.m., location TBA, BookSmart Tulsa
4/29 Dorothea Benton Frank, "The Last Original Wife," Barnes & Noble, 5231 E. 41st St., BookSmart Tulsa