|GOOD NIGHT EILEEN,
GOOD NIGHT WOODY
by Jonah Smith-Bartlett
He clenched the handle of the guitar case in his hand.
He was nervous. He knew he would be. He approached
the man at the desk. A black man who looked to be
forty. A large man. And a small name tag. Davey
Schneider. Seemed like a strange name for a black man.
The name tag told his role. Caretaker. Brooklyn State
Hospital. He smiled as he pointed at the visitor’s log.
“I’m here to see Mr. Guthrie.”
“Ah,” Davey said. “All right. I see. What’s your name
“Jack,” he answered.
“Jack Elliott? He’s been asking for a Jack Elliott.”
“No,” he said. “Holden. Jack Holden. From Los Angeles,
Davey checked the book for the name. He hummed “I’ll
Fly Away.” No, he was Jack Holden. Not Jack Elliott. Not
Pete. Not Cisco. Not Brownie McGhee. Not anyone that
anyone expected. Not anyone.
“You haven’t been here before. That right, Jack Holden?”
“No, I haven’t. That’s right.” He placed the guitar case
down next to his feet. He had painted the case because
he wasn’t bold enough to paint the guitar. That’s what
Woody had done. Large white letters. This Machine
Takes No Prisoners.
“So you’re here now. Who told you to come here?”
“Everybody,” Jack said. “Around here, everybody did.
Seems like I was the only guy who didn’t know. The only
guy who didn’t come here.”
“Sure,” Davey said. “The only guy who didn’t know. Well
you’re here now, ain’t you? Come on then. Follow me.”
It was in Los Angeles. It wasn’t that long ago. It didn’t
seem that long ago. Woody crashed a party that Jack
had thrown at his small apartment. Woody crashed it.
Seemed like he was always up for a good time. Seemed
like he was indiscriminate about his leisure. So Woody
played his guitar and Jack played his. “Hard Travelin’.”
“Do Re Mi.” They played “Good Night Irene,” but Woody
changed all the words on the fly. “Good Night Eileen.”
There was a girl there called Eileen. Jack didn’t really
know her. A friend of a friend’s friend. Woody made that
song just about as raunchy as he could. They played
“Vigilante Man.” They didn’t play it well. Woody emptied
a bottle of whiskey down his throat and threw the bottle
against the wall. It shattered. It almost cut Eileen but
she moved quickly. Thin, wiry, grizzled, tough, drunken
Woody fell asleep on the couch. He was gone when Jack
woke up. He had cleaned up all the glass and left a
note on a napkin on the table. “Come see me in New
York, ya dodgy fella. We’ll get ‘Vigilante Man’ good and
right next time.”
“Out the window there,” Davey said, leading Jack to the
room. He was a tour guide too. Didn’t mention that on
the name tag. “That tree. Right over there. The one
right out there? He calls it ‘the magic tree.’ I don’t have
any idea why. ‘The magic tree.’ Sits under there with his
kids when they come and visit.”
“Plays his songs there?” Thick branches and the bark
was split, cracked, and it fell to the ground. The tree
“Plays his songs there? Jesus Christ and Jack Holden
from Los Angeles. You really don’t know, do you? You
really don’t know.” Davey shook his head. “You best
prepare yourself, Jack. All the kids come to pay tribute.
Greenwich Village cowboys. Tucked shirts, brown boots,
and smelling of privilege. Think it’s the cool thing to do.
Or, I don’t know, maybe that’s not fair. Maybe they
think it’s the right thing. But none of them are
Woody Guthrie was asleep but his body was not. His
body shook, shivered, trembled, danced. He had scars
on his forehead. Accidental cuts, Davey explained. Hits
himself in the face. Cuts himself. Sure embarrasses him.
Burns on his arms because he won’t let anyone else
light his cigarette. He burns his skin but he sure has
pride. His eyes fluttered as he slept. Dreams, Jack
thought. Woody’s dreaming. The Dust Bowl. The
Almanac Singers. America’s soldier. Steinbeck’s Okie.
Hitler’s wry enemy. McCarthy’s thousandth victim. The
good and the bad. Relive it again and again. Woody’s
curly hair was as just as curly as on the night he sang
“Good Night Eileen.” So much else was unrecognizable.
The unkempt beard—that was a part of it. It covered his
sinking cheeks. His whole body was sinking. He was
drowning in himself.
“Called Huntington’s,” Davey said matter-of-factly. No
pity or sorrow in his voice. Just the facts. “He’s dying.
Not too soon. Not too far either.”
Dying like the victims in his songs. “The 1913
Massacre.” “Sinking of the Reuben James.”
“No cure for it?” Holden didn’t appreciate matter-of-
factly. “No medicine? Isn’t that the doctor’s job? A
smart man in a lab? A smart man in a long white coat?
Isn’t that your job? Make him better?”
“First time here,” Davey said. “Put the indignation to
rest, Jack from Los Angeles. I make him comfortable.
Adjust his pillow. Bring him extra dessert twice a week.
Bring him a drink sometimes. Pour a little bit of booze
in his orange juice. Don’t report me now. Hold him down
when it’s real bad. Nothing else that I can do.”
Woody hopped trains, one after another. San Francisco,
Philadelphia, Chicago, Dallas. Going west, going east,
going north, going south. Witnessed every inch of
countryside in these here United States. Bound for
Glory. That was the story. Like Pecos Bill, like Bunyan
and the blue ox, like the prolific stories by Horatio
Alger. That was the tall tale that they all told. Seeger
and Elliott and Lomax. He lived as a vagrant. There was
hardly enough food to ever fill him. Never three full
meals. But there were five chords. The songs sustained
him. Charming irreverence. Righteous anger. So much
life, that’s what they all said. He hated “God Bless
America.” He shattered a whiskey bottle against the
wall. Now he didn’t trim his nails and the neurons fired
every which way. Every wrong way. He cut his forehead
again and again.
“Can I play for him?”
“Is that a stupid question?”
“No, not stupid. They all ask that. That’s what they all
want to do.”
“That surprises you?”
“No,” Davey said. “No, not at all.”
“Well, can I?”
“I won’t stop you,” Davey said. “But don’t expect much.
He’s had a tiring day, so play quietly, for Christ’s sake.
Let the man rest.”
Jack took out his guitar and began to sing: Hard, and
it’s hard, ain’t it hard? To love one who never did love
you. It’s a-hard, and it’s hard, ain’t it hard great God, to
love one that never will be true?
“Didn’t even notice,” Jack said. Woody, the unlucky lot.
The short man pulled the short straw. “Shakes all over
but he hardly budged, right? Is that right? Thought he’d
wink at least. Thought he’d wink for ‘Ain’t It Hard.’”
“Piss-poor singing,” Davey replied. “He’s ignoring you.”
“No, Jack Holden from Los Angeles, I’m just screwing
with you. Sometimes he can only hear the voices of
angels. Points to the sky, his hand all kinds of shaking.
More than usual I mean. Dumb grin across his face.
Sometimes he can’t even hear them. Or maybe he just
doesn’t want to.”
“The voices of angels?”
“You got a better explanation, Jack Holden from Los
Angeles? I would love to hear it.”
Jack began another song: I ain’t got no home, I’m just
a-roamin’ ’round. Just a wandrin’ worker, I go from town
to town. And the police make it hard wherever I may
go. And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.
Two minutes of song. Two minutes of his theatrical
twang and the silence returned.
“You know what?” Davey cracked his knuckles. “You
know what? He’s no bigger than my thirteen-year-old
son. No bigger at all. But you know what he said to me?
First thing he said? I said to him, ‘Mr. Guthrie, I’m
Davey Schneider. I’m going to be looking after you
here.’ And he said, ‘Well, aren’t you the unluckiest son
of a bitch on God’s green earth?’ First thing he said to
me. And it stayed just about the same from there on
out, while I could still understand him. No bigger than
my son, but he talked like he was Sonny Liston. Talked
like he was General Patton. And I’m his grunt.”
“Do you ever sing to him?”
“Sure,” Davey said. “‘The Old Rugged Cross,’ just like I
sing to everyone else. ‘His Eye Is on the Sparrow.’”
“You don’t sing his songs?”
“I suppose I’m not as bold as those Greenwich Village
cowboys. Figure I can’t do any better than him. His
songs? Can’t do any better than him. Figure he needs
the religion too.”
“Is that right?”
“That’s right, Jack from Los Angeles,” Davey replied.
“That old-time religion. It’s good enough for me. Good
enough for him. You too, you know.”
Preacher Casey wielded his chain. Preacher Casey struck
the officer down. That old-time religion. Good enough
Woody shook again. His eyes opened for one moment.
He knew where he was for just one moment. His eyes
reminded him of his sorry state before they shut once
more. Bad dreams. Bad dreams from Oklahoma and
Texas. Watching his mother suffer like this. Watching
that as a child. Preparing for his children to suffer too.
Joady and Arlo and Nora. They would suffer too. Wake
up, Woody! Davey placed his hand in a bowl of water,
shook it so that droplets fell to the floor, and rested it
on Woody’s forehead. Cool water. Slight relief. A small
breath of relief. Woody’s small breath.
“All right,” Davey said. “What you got? Some kind of
conscious. Have to figure he can hear you.”
Once more Jack sang: Eileen, good night Eileen. Eileen,
good night. I’ll rest my face in your bosom. A heavenly
“He wrote that? Isn’t much like ‘The Old Rugged Cross.’”
“Yeah,” Jack said. “Woody Guthrie wrote it. One night at
“Crazy bastard. You’re a crazy bastard, Woody.”
“You should have been there that night, Davey. It was a
good night. There was a beautiful girl named Eileen. A
“Good things come to an end though, don’t they? Jack
Holden from Los Angeles! A lesson for your life. Learn it
now while you’re young. You should learn the hard
lessons when you’re young. Good things always come to
Woody Guthrie gurgled. His right side convulsed. He
cried out. He cried. “God, oh God, oh God!” Davey laid
on top of him. All the big man’s weight pressed down
against his ribs to relieve the struggle. The struggle.
Cross the line to California. Cross the line to the
socialist state. Cross the line to freedom. “This Land
Was Made for You and Me.” Cross the line back from
whence he came. He gurgled. Neither one of them could
understand the wisdom. Not Woody’s. Not anyone else’s
either. He called out for Marjorie. He called out for
Joady. He called out. Oh God. Oh God. Oh God.
“You should go, Jack from Los Angeles. You’ve seen
what there is to see. This is it. This is all of it. You’ve
He went. Jack Holden went and climbed the magic tree.
He left his guitar on the ground. Three branches up,
scratching his knees on the broken bark, he could see
the top of Woody’s head through the window of his
hospital room. He could see Woody’s wild hair. He felt
the napkin in his pocket. The old, expired invitation. He
kept it all these years. He could see Woody Guthrie
through the window, his body again at rest. He could
Have you seen that vigilante man? Have you seen that
vigilante man? Have you seen that vigilante man? I
been hearin’ his name all over the land.
Jonah Smith-Bartlett is an ordained American Baptist minister with a master of
arts and theology degree from Union Presbyterian Seminary and a master of
divinity degree from Yale Divinity School. He loves to write about small-city
America and examine how deceptively simple moments in the nation’s history can
shatter lives, embolden relationships, and transform the face of a community
forever. In his spare time Jonah plays the tin whistle and sings in an Irish band.
This is his first published story.