Woody Guthrie has enriched American music as much as anyone, but the legacy of the legendary folk singer, who died in 1967, has been a burden for his son, Joady.
For one thing, he says, it has intimidated him as a singer and songwriter: He started writing songs 15 years ago, but has only now released his first album, "Spys on Wall St." In addition, Joady has struggled hard to develop his own values out of his early socialist/humanitarian upbringing.
But the most frightening part of the legacy facing Joady (and all Woody's children) is the prospect of Huntington's disease, the hereditary illness that wasted and killed his grandmother, father and half-sister. Another half-sister has also been diagnosed as having the disease.
"That's a pretty big thing in my life," Guthrie said this week by phone from his San Francisco apartment. "I have these memories of seeing my father get worse. I tell you, sometimes it's pretty rough now."
That must be an understatement. One of Huntington's insidious aspects is that its symptoms don't appear until the victim is around 40 years old. Guthrie is 37.
"You just don't know," he said. "The scary part is the subtler symptoms. When people look back on it after someone has been diagnosed, they say, 'Well, yeah, you know, he was acting kind of funny.' The mental symptoms--you know, being moody or whatever."
Huntington's, a degenerative disease of the central nervous system, also causes loss of mental and physical control, resulting in erratic behavior, involuntary dance-like movements, shaking and, eventually, complete helplessness. Each of Woody's children has a 50-50 chance of getting it.
"You kind of watch yourself," said the soft-spoken Guthrie, a member of the only ongoing Huntington's support group in the world. "You have your good days and you have your bad days. It can be a little confusing. It's very important not to assume or convince myself that I have it. It's quite a dilemma.
"Sometimes you feel like you shouldn't be in a hurry to do things, but I really do feel like wanting to make a contribution while I still have my faculties."
Joady (named after Tom Joad, hero of "The Grapes of Wrath") is one of four children of Woody and Marjorie Guthrie (Woody had four other children by two other wives). His sister, Cathy, died in a fire at age 4. Arlo, the well-known singer, is a year older than Joady, and Nora, who has retired from her dancing career, is 36.
Woody and Marjorie separated when Joady was 2 1/2, and father and son didn't have much contact until Joady was a teen-ager and Woody was hospitalized. "I really got folk music from my dad, got some of these values, and that's about it," Guthrie said. "Personal stuff? Just a couple of early memories. . . ."
Joady grew up in New York and attended Goddard College in Vermont in the mid-'60s. He says he didn't have much direction, but he was always interested in woodworking and enjoyed being technical director in the college theater. He also played rhythm guitar in blues and R&B bands, and he and some friends moved to San Francisco in 1969, attracted by the city's music scene.
He began writing songs, did some carpentry work and taught some guitar, but never really devoted himself to anything. "It was a little of this and a little of that," said Guthrie, who's now separated from his wife (they have a 5-year-old son, Damon). "Then, as I had more fun writing songs, I started going to open-mikes (at nightclubs) a lot and trying out my stuff. I found maybe I can do a little of this."
Guthrie hooked up with San Francisco-based Rag Baby Records, and his album--an agreeable collection of folk-style songs that reflect some of his effort to clarify his political and social values--was produced by one of his early heroes, Country Joe McDonald.
Guthrie feels that things are getting rolling now, but the prospect of Huntington's disease won't go away.
"Sometimes it's a real drag, and sometimes I get like, 'Well, I've been a songwriter for 15 years, and I got this album out, and I have enough material for another one, and, well Joad, you better get to it.' "
LIVE ACTION: Joady's brother Arlo and his producer Joe McDonald will be among the acts at a "Welcome Home" concert saluting Vietnam veterans and benefiting a variety of veterans' programs Feb. 24 at the Forum. Also appearing will be Stephen Stills, Neil Young, Herbie Hancock, Dusty Springfield, Joe Cocker and many others. Tickets go on sale Monday. . . . Coming to the Palace: Mink DeVille (Feb. 22) and Fine Young Cannibals (March 7). . . . The O'Jays and Phyllis Hyman will be at the Beverly Theatre Feb. 28.