How Bob Dylan honored Woody Guthrie, who had Huntington’s

The hospital meeting of 2 singer-songwriters and the loss that followed

Becky Field avatar

by Becky Field |

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Some of my closest friends are musicians who love the work of Bob Dylan. During a recent conversation, Dylan’s visit with ailing singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie came up.

My friends hadn’t realized that Guthrie had Huntington’s disease — which they knew as the same disease that’s affected several generations of my family. (I recently tested negative for Huntington’s, thankfully.)

As a young man, Dylan read Guthrie’s 1943 autobiography, “Bound for Glory.” The older singer behind “This Land Is Your Land” was born on July 14, 1912, in Okemah, Oklahoma, and grew up to become Dylan’s idol and inspiration. In 1961, the two met and bonded, cementing their friendship.

By the late 1940s, Guthrie had begun to display signs of Huntington’s disease, which he’d inherited from his mother. By the 1950s, Guthrie’s health had deteriorated to the point where he was placed in a psychiatric hospital, where Huntington’s patients were often sent. Other hospitalizations followed. He was hospitalized when he died on Oct. 3, 1967.

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Honoring an idol

Dylan wrote “Song to Woody” about his friend in 1962:

“Seems sick and it’s hungry, it’s tired and it’s torn

It looks like it’s a-dyin and it’s hardly been born

… Here’s to the hearts and the hands of the men

That come with the dust and are gone with the wind.”

As Guthrie lay unwell in a hospital, Dylan performed a long poem titled “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie” at his first major concert on April 12, 1963, in New York City’s Town Hall:

And you know that it’s something special you’re needin’

And you know that there’s no drug that’ll do for the healin’

… You need something special all right

You need something special to give you hope

… You can either go to the church of your choice

Or you can go to Brooklyn State Hospital

You’ll find God in the church of your choice

You’ll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital

And though it’s only my opinion

I may be right or wrong

You’ll find them both

In the Grand Canyon

At sundown.”

In 1968, just months after Guthrie’s death, Dylan and The Band played a cover version of the departed singer’s “Ain’t Got No Home” for a Carnegie Hall tribute performance in New York. Some of Guthrie’s words seemed particularly haunting in retrospect:

“My brothers and my sisters are stranded on this road

… And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.”

Touchingly, Dylan uses some of Guthrie’s lyrics and some of his own to pay tribute to his friend and describe the torture of his deterioration. While conveying his feeling of powerlessness, Dylan also talks of the need for hope — a hope, perhaps, of meeting Guthrie again someday. I think many people facing Huntington’s disease today would relate to many of these thoughts and feelings.

Fortunately, the science and medication we have today have advanced since Guthrie’s time and are continuing to do so.

Note: Huntington’s Disease News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Huntington’s Disease News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to Huntington’s disease.


Anna Canoni avatar

Anna Canoni

Dylan continues his relationship with Woody even still... and you can find them both in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Bob Dylan Center and the Woody Guthrie Center are under the same roof! The two centers have permanent exhibits on each of the songwriters as well as houses their creative archives.

Steve saunders avatar

Steve saunders

They are both terrific and, while you're in town visit Leon Russell's Church Studio and maybe take in a minor league baseball game. I loved it all (and saw Bruce, too)!

Becky Field avatar

Becky Field

Dear Steve, they really do look great. And what a bonus with Bruce too!

Becky Field avatar

Becky Field

Dear Anna, I have just looked this up online. They look like brilliant places to visit, I'm adding them to my bucket list! Thanks so much for sharing this information with everyone.


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