The Riff
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The Riff

Voice of the People

The gods broke the mold after they made Woody Guthrie, but the shards shine on

Woody Guthrie in New York City, 1943, photo by Eric Schaal. Photo courtesy Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc.

Nora Guthrie gestures with open arms. “Woody wanted to know the work would still be around when he’s gone,” she says, with a grin partly obscured by her Covid mask. She’s leading a walk-through tour of a riveting exhibition about her father — Woody Guthrie: People Are the Song — on view through May 22 at The Morgan Library & Museum in New York City.

Nora is recounting scenes when Guthrie was living at New Jersey’s Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital and a 19-year-old Bob Dylan visited his bedside. She was 11 at the time — sojourning with her family to see her ailing father as he increasingly slipped into the clutches of Huntington’s disease, which eventually took his life at age 55 in 1967.

The young Dylan was just one of many pilgrims who came out on visitation Sundays to pay respects to the bard. “I remember other people would come out and say, ‘I just wrote a song and I want to play it for Woody Guthrie,’” Nora recalls. “But Bob Dylan never said that. Bob told him, ‘I want to play your songs.’ Because he knew my father wanted to hear that there was a piece of him that was going to stay. That was the medicine he needed: knowing the creation lives on.”

Woody Guthrie: People Are the Song runs at NYC’s Morgan Library & Museum through May 22. The 340-page volume Woody Guthrie: Songs and Art • Words and Wisdom (Chronicle Press, $40) collects lyrics, writings, drawings, paintings and transcripts, as well as contributions by Nora Guthrie, historian Robert Santelli, Chuck D, Ani DiFranco, Douglas Brinkley, Rosanne Cash, and Arlo Guthrie. Photos courtesy Morgan Library & Museum.

Constant Creativity

Nora Guthrie may well be reflecting on her own mission. Serving as president of Woody Guthrie Publications, which she co-founded in 1994, she has carefully managed her father’s legacy and his vast artistic output: recordings, lyrics, drawings, paintings, poetry, prose, artifacts, and more than 3,000 songs. The organization’s Vice President is Nora’s daughter and Woody’s granddaughter, Anna Canoni.

The Morgan exhibition — including a moving installment about Dylan and his relationship with his idol, epitomized by “Song to Woody” — is a swath of highlights from the vast holdings of the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, OK, which opened in 2013. (The Bob Dylan Center — which showcases Dylan’s catalog, memoirs, and life story in a huge nearby venue in Tulsa — will open May 10. So you get two kindred legends in one town … provided you’re willing to trek to Tulsa.)

Woody Guthrie: People Are the Song includes a timeline of events, manuscripts, artifacts, instruments, and multimedia presentations. Photo courtesy Morgan Library & Museum.

The works at the Morgan reveal the breadth of Guthrie’s creativity as well as its fountain-like constancy. From his early years living in Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle until he was stymied by Huntington’s in his mid-40s, Woody continually churned out stories and tunes, notes and art — documenting his roaming adventures, speaking out for the downtrodden and dispossessed, entertaining his kids and friends, and railing against tyranny and oppression.

In our current times it’s a lesson in artistic persistence, courage of conviction, and ultimately triumph of spirit. For while Guthrie enjoyed more than his fair share of good times, rapt audiences, and critical accolades throughout his career, his was often a sad and lonely life.

Two of Woody Guthrie’s key instruments: his acoustic guitar and marbled notebook. Photos: Jem Aswad.

Life’s Other Side: Some Scientific Notes

Born in 1912 in Okemah, OK, the young Woody Guthrie witnessed tragedies including the bankruptcy of his hard-luck father, the descent of his mother into Huntington’s disease, and the loss of his sister Clara in a mysterious fire. At age 14 Woody moved to Pampa, TX, where he formed his first band, met his first wife Mary, and fathered three kids. But the devastating Great Depression and Dust Bowl drove him to join throngs of US migrants moving to California in the mid-’30s, where he picked up odd jobs and sent money home, while stoking his career as a singer and songwriter.

Guthrie’s first studio LP, Dust Bowl Ballads — released in 1940 after he drifted east to New York City — was a prototypical concept album about the ravages of the Dust Bowl and the poor folks it displaced, drawing on John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath as well as Woody’s hobo escapades. At 27, with support from musicologist Alan Lomax and Columbia Records, he was on a roll.

Also in 1940 he wrote his most famous anthem, “This Land is Your Land,” as a barbed retort to the jingoistic “God Bless America” (a 1918 Irving Berlin tune that became a massive hit for Kate Smith in 1938).

Woody and Marjorie Guthrie, 1944. Photo © Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc.

As the exhibition makes clear, “This Land” had a circuitous history: It was revised several times and finally released in 1944, after Guthrie had hooked up with his second wife (and steadfast caretaker) Marjorie, and shortly before he was dispatched to Europe with the US Army. While its six verses reflected Guthrie’s populist political leanings — he was often associated with the US socialist movement and Communist Party, but never actually joined either — they were later trimmed to three, and the tune took on a patriotic hue not unlike the very jingoism it parodied.

Nonetheless it has endured: The Morgan show includes the banjo played by Pete Seeger (one of Woody’s peers) when he joined Bruce Springsteen (a Guthrie disciple) to sing “This Land” at the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama — with all its original lyrics intact.

Woody Guthrie began his creative life as a visual artist, with works such as “In El Rancho Grande” (1936) at left. He illustrated many of his notebooks with whimsical drawings. Photos courtesy Morgan Library & Museum.

Renaissance Folkie

More broadly, the show reflects Guthrie’s multifaceted artistic output, full of sharp-eyed candor as well as childlike playfulness. Much of his writing was poetry; indeed, hundreds of his song lyrics were never put to music. His semi-autobiographic novel, Bound for Glory, influenced a generation of literary followers from Jack Kerouac to Studs Terkel. Woody’s visual artwork ranged from formal paintings to primitive drawings that he sketched as entertainment for his kids.

“I am often surprised when I hear folks saying that my father wasn’t a good father, that he rambled, that he womanized, that he didn’t bring home the bacon,” writes Nora Guthrie in Songs and Art • Words and Wisdom. “All true. He certainly was not a conventional father. But what is a ‘good’ father?’”

Woody summed up his view in “Child Sitting,” an essay in the book: “Watching kids is the highest form of art in the world. It can be as bitter as a drink of carbolic acid or as sweet as a warm cup of new milk and wild honey.”

Original hand-painted sheet music to “Riding in My Car,” by Woody Guthrie. © Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc.

Family as an Art Form

Among Guthrie’s most enduring songs are ditties he wrote for his kids. After he and Marjorie had their first child, Cathy, in 1943, he became a househusband and penned most of the tunes on the album Songs to Grow On for Mother and Child — reflecting the carefree jubilance of early parenthood. Tragically, Cathy died after an electrical fire in 1947. Woody and Marjorie had three more kids — Arlo, Joady, and Nora — who Woody continued to entertain, but much of his boyish exuberance seemed to die with “Stackabones” (his nickname for Cathy).

There were more hard times to come. Guthrie had become increasingly erratic as a father and husband — to the point where Marjorie threw him out of the home they shared on Brooklyn’s Mermaid Avenue — long before he was officially diagnosed with Huntington’s disease in 1952. (By then he had briefly married his third wife Anneke and fathered one more child, Lorina.) Contracting the rare, dreadful disease that took his mother, Woody lost his mobility and freedom, as well as his writing chops, though his creative embers still glow in some final works in the exhibition.

People Are the Song reflects Guthrie’s influence on protest singers. Photo courtesy Morgan Library & Museum.

Bound For Glory

What lives on is Guthrie’s legacy as the most significant figure in 20th-century American folk music. The final room in the Morgan show surveys artifacts surrounding artists influenced by the bard, including Dylan, Springsteen, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Woody’s son Arlo Guthrie, Steve Earle (who narrates many of the show’s audio clips) and Ani DiFranco. One wall lists a long line of artists who’ve covered Woody’s songs, including: The Band, The Byrds, Cat Power, Doc Watson, Elvis Costello, Flatt & Scruggs, Gary Clark Jr., Glen Campbell, the Grateful Dead, James Taylor, Jennifer Lopez, John Hammond, Johnny Cash, Loudon Wainwright III, Lucinda Williams, Merle Haggard, Nanci Griffith, Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Taj Mahal, Tom Morello, U2, Willie Nelson, Yo-Yo Ma …

The first installment of Mermaid Avenue was released in 1998. It includes “California Stars,” with words by Woody Guthrie and music by Wilco. Photos: getalternative.com, Morgan Library & Museum.

Among the most memorable revivals of Woody’s songwriting is a triptych of albums by Billy Bragg and Wilco, Mermaid Avenue. Here, at the invitation of Nora Guthrie, the artists set a trove of previously unseen Woody lyrics to music. This work — first released in 1998 and later anthologized in 2012 — contains the poignant Guthrie lines in “Another Man’s Done Gone.” They’re set to music by Billy Bragg and sung by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy:

I don’t know, I may go down or up or anywhere
But I feel like this scribbling might stay

Maybe if I hadn’t of seen so much hard feelings
I might not could have felt other people’s

So when you think of me, if and when you do,
Just say, well, another man’s done gone
Well, another man’s done gone

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