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Woody at One Hundred

Granddaughter Sarah Lee talks about her family's upcoming birthday celebration at the Green River Festival and what it's like to be a Guthrie.

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Thursday, July 12, 2012
WG image courtesy of WG Foundation and Archives, SLG photo by Mark Roessler
Woody Guthrie and granddaughter Sarah Lee Guthrie

There's foxes in the hen house
Cows out in the corn
The unions have been busted
Their proud red banners torn
To listen to the radio
You'd think that all was well
But you and me and Cisco know
It's going straight to hell

...

So come back Woody Guthrie
Come back to us now
Tear your eyes from paradise
And rise again somehow
If you run into Jesus
Maybe he can help you out
Come back Woody Guthrie to us now

—Steve Earle, "Christmas in Washington"

Lately it's seemed this country has been in a hero frenzy.

After every disaster, the media is hungry to find, anoint and celebrate a new mortal who has risen to the pantheon of great American heroes. This summer, movie theaters are cashing in on expensively told tales of caped crusaders fighting skyscraper-leaping villains.

With the ante forever being raised for what constitutes an heroic (and cinematic) act, it's sometimes easy to forget how unglamorous, tragic and incomplete the lives of some of this nation's most enduring and important heroes have been.

At first blush it might seem that Superman and Woody Guthrie have a lot in common. Both grew up in the rural Midwest at about the same time, working on farms. Both lost a parent during the Great Depression. Both left home to seek their fortunes, ultimately winding up in New York City, where they used their well-honed sense of justice to fight tyranny.

Both had a hard time masquerading as normal people with families and loved ones.

With just a casual glance, it's easy to get confused. But as Steve Earle's song on his 1997 album El Corazón captures perfectly, in times of real political crisis and moral turmoil, those who know his work find far more solace, reason and hope in Woody Guthrie's words and music than they'd ever get out of what the fictitious Clark Kent could do for them with his super powers. Careful inspection will reveal a world of difference between these two heroes.

Unlike the Man of Steel, Woody Guthrie rarely found himself on the winning side. The villains he fought were ordinary men—bankers, landlords and politicians—whose immoral, unethical behaviors were often lawful and commonplace. Instead of being known for moments of triumph, Woody Guthrie lived his all-too-short life with hardship and tragedy dogging him.

Born in a small Oklahoma town, he began life in poverty and lived most of it during some of the hardest times that have ever hit America. All through the Depression he traveled back and forth across the country, looking for work and sending his meager earnings back to his family.

Woody's Kryptonite might have been the open flame. As a child, a fire in his home took a sister from him; decades later, when he'd settled on Coney Island with a family of his own, a daughter died in another fire; he ended his career as a musician when a gasoline can used to ignite a campfire exploded and wounded his arm. A genetic illness finally took him. He died in 1967 at 55, after 11 years in New York psychiatric hospitals, slowly eroding from the effects of Huntington's disease.

Still he sang with deep joy and clarity about the injustices ordinary people faced. In the face of Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," he penned "This Land is Your Land," an anthem that made you and me, rather than some worshipped deity, the stewards of our world. He made his subversive and radical notions on how to rectify inequalities sound like common sense.

Without irony, he imagined a day when we'd be "free from this long, heavy chain of broken hearts," as he once wrote.

Yes, as through this world I've wandered
I've seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.

And as through your life you travel,
Yes, as through your life you roam,
You won't never see an outlaw
Drive a family from their home.

 

—Woody Guthrie, "Pretty Boy Floyd"

This Saturday, July 14, 2012, Woody Guthrie would have been one hundred years old.

To celebrate, family members—including son Arlo and granddaughter Sarah Lee—will be performing his works at this weekend's Green River Festival in Greenfield.

Recently, Sarah Lee Guthrie drove across the Berkshires from her home in Washington, Mass. to meet the Valley Advocate at the Cummington Creamery for an interview about the show and her grandfather's legacy.

Sarah Lee Guthrie performs as a duo with her husband Johnny Irion. Together they've recorded two albums of original songs, most recently Bright Examples, and an album of children's tunes, Go Wagaloo, that includes three tracks put to Woody Guthrie lyrics. Like a modern-day Donny and Marie, her sweet soprano with a slight country lilt blends smoothly with the gentle drama of Irion's rock and roll guitar. The couple will play two sets together during the day—one of their songs and another with the Waggaloo material—prior to Woody's birthday bash that evening.

She explained how the festival got so lucky as to have the Guthrie family headline the show on such an august occasion.

"Normally, we would be down in Oklahoma," she said. "There's a big festival every year in Okemah, where Woody was born. It's a free festival, and for years we would do that. It's got a great feeling—it's awesome, but it's as hot as Hades.

"So Johnny [Irion] and I decided maybe we didn't need to go quite as much," she continued, "and when we did go, it would be more of a special occasion. And dad, on his own, was kind of thinking the same kind of thing." Imitating her father's bemused drawl, she said, 'Like maybe I'll go down for a day, or something, but it's too hot for me! Let's move this festival to a different time of year. Why can't we memorialize him in October, or something?'

"And this year," she said, "it just so turned out that Central Park down in New York wanted to have us perform on Sunday the 15th [the day after Woody's birthday]. So I said, what are we going to do on the 14th? We can't all just sit at home! A lot of [why we decided to play in the Green River Festival] was simple logistics. We wanted to be close to home and together, and Greenfield fit the bill."

While the family has played together before, they've always performed their own songs. The Green River Festival will be only the second time they've devoted themselves to Woody's work.

"Greenfield will get a very fresh performance," Sarah Lee said with a laugh. "A few weeks back we played the Clearwater festival again, and it was all Woody—except for a couple of dad's songs. It felt great to tip the hat. Even [my brother] Abe's kid, my nephew [Krishna, a drummer], is on the road with us, and he's doing a Woody song. I guess us kids tend to do the 'newer' Woody Guthrie songs from the Billy Bragg and Wilco Mermaid Avenue sessions. Those are the songs I tend to gravitate to."

They hang like grapes on vines that shine
And warm the lovers glass like friendly wine

So, I'd give this world just to dream a dream with you
On our bed of California stars

­—Woody Guthrie, "California Stars"

Nora Guthrie, Woody's daughter and Arlo's sister, is the director of the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives. Woody Guthrie left behind thousands of lyrics and many unfinished manuscripts of novels and plays. In the late 1990s, Nora began working with British folk-rocker Billy Bragg to put some of the songs to music and record them. Together with the band Wilco, they released the first volume of songs, Mermaid Avenue, in 1998, naming the collection after the street address where Nora and her siblings were raised. A second volume was released in 2000, and the third and final volume was released earlier this year.

The albums have been very successful. The songs stand up remarkably well, revealing the timelessness of many of Woody's songs, and finding, as Nora had hoped they would, a whole new audience for his work. During one show this reporter saw, bandleader Jeff Tweedy noted ironically that Wilco's most requested song, "California Stars," wasn't even one of his.

"Tweedy is one of the most humble, down-to-earth dudes you'd ever meet," Sarah Lee said. She hadn't known him when the albums were originally released, but Tweedy is now producing her and Johnny's third album. They've been traveling to Chicago every few weeks to record tracks. Last year she had an opportunity to perform with Tweedy at a MassMoca concert.

"Having a chance to sing 'California Stars' with him was kind of like a dream come true for me," she said. "The Mermaid Avenue albums definitely put a bug in my ear: 'Oh, my God, these are great Woody Guthrie tunes done in a way I can understand."

The albums also inspired her to try her own hand at adding music to her grandfather's lyrics for the Go Wagaloo album.

Sarah Lee explained there are actually two repositories of Woody's unpublished work. The family's collection is currently in Mt. Kisco, N.Y., being curated by Nora and her daughter. After Woody's centennial, those archives will be moved back to Oklahoma, where a museum will be erected to house and display them.

"Yes, Woody's going home," Sarah Lee said of the impending move. "But I didn't get the lyrics for Go Wagaloo from there. I got the lyrics I used from the Smithsonian Archives.

"Apparently, when Woody was living in New York, he would go into the Folkways offices," she said. (Folkways was a record label founded by Moe Asch devoted to collecting and publishing American folk music; it later merged with the Smithsonian to become Smithsonian-Folkways and moved its offices down to Washington.) "Woody would go in and use their typewriter and their paper. He'd come in every few weeks, sit down and just type out all the songs that had been reeling in his head and hadn't been able to get out any other way. He'd take as long as it took, hanging out on the couch. Sleeping in the office. He'd type them all out, and then he'd just leave [the lyrics] there. It was like he had no other use for them—he'd just need to get them out of his brain so he could move on.

"I got to go in and see the typewritten manuscripts and the audio recordings," Sarah Lee said. "They have the original 1942 glass master of him singing 'This Land is Your Land.' It was awesome to get a tour of those archives. A lot of it was Pete Seeger, because he'd also done a lot with Folkways, but there are some really old recordings of people like Rambling Jack, Cisco Huston and Sonny Terry—musicians I grew up hearing about. Woody's closest friends and colleagues." Of some of the recordings, according to Sarah Lee, the archivists said, "Oh, we don't even know what's on that." "I'd just die to get my hands on them and listen to them all," she said. "Forgive the cliché, but I felt like a kid in a candy store for sure."

These days, longtime mainstream musicians regularly put out albums with previously unreleased material, but when Woody died, few of his works were known outside some rarefied folk-enthusiast circles. To have vaults of work available from someone who spent much of his life on the road seems almost miraculous.

"I think Woody's fame has a lot to do with my grandmother, Marjorie Mazia," Sarah Lee said. "I don't think Woody would be as well known or anything like the icon he is today without my grandmother. She really put his work out there, especially when he was sick, and she was doing all this work to raise awareness about Huntington's disease... She was the one that kept everything and held him in such high regard."

Marjorie's respect for Woody is surprising considering that, on learning that his erratic behavior was partly due to Huntington's disease, he divorced Marjorie out of fear for the children, left Mermaid Avenue, returned to California, and remarried. It was after that marriage had failed and Woody needed to be hospitalized that Marjorie returned to his side and continued to promote his work.

Despite the quality of his music, few remember Woody as being easy to understand and relate to.

"I was talking about Woody with my cousin Anna about a week ago," Sarah Lee said. "She knows all the stories about Woody. She heard them from her mom, Nora. My dad didn't talk much, but I connected a few dots on my own. But we were talking: was Woody a likeable guy? I don't know. He might have driven us crazy with all of his thoughts. He was quite feisty and crude. Would we have gotten along? The one person who did have the tolerance and who could recognize the brilliance was Marjorie."

Arlo Guthrie was only nine when his dad was hospitalized.

"Marjorie took him to the hootenannies," Sarah Lee said, "and dropped him off and told Ramblin' Jack to watch out for him. My dad would just hang out and play music with all those guys I was just talking about. He even remembers Lead Belly. My dad was only two or something when Lead Belly died, but that big old guy playing a 12-string left an impression on him.

"Marjorie made sure to put dad in those situations," she said. "She wanted him to grow up knowing about music and the things his dad cared about. I think my dad said it was Cisco who brought him on stage for the first time when he was 13. When he got off, my dad swore he'd never do that again. That was 1961, and here we are 51 years later."

Marjorie's teaching technique wasn't something Arlo forgot. When Sarah Lee was a teen, he suggested a similar curriculum.

"I was in trouble a lot when I was a kid. I don't know what happened," Sarah Lee admitted. "I graduated high school, thank God, and the Further Festival was the next thing on my dad's list for that summer. He's like: 'You've got nothing better to do, so come help me.' And I did. I became his road manager, and it was a life-changing experience for me."

So, I'm out to get your excess bacon
I'm out to get my cut from you
I'm going to walk and talk and tell all my neighbors
How they ought to talk right up for their cut too.
It won't be with no gun nor gambling wheel sir
That I will use to relieve you of your till
It will be a nice friendly way with all my neighbors
Smelling and barking brother up and down your hill.

 

—Woody Guthrie, "I'm Out to Get"

While the first two volumes of the Mermaid Avenue sessions highlight the romantic and whimsical side of Woody Guthrie, Volume III has some of his most provocative and searing indictments of the American way of life. One song, "Gotta Work," simply states the need for employment, as well as the consequences if that need is not fulfilled ("I go screwball/ I go loco/ I go crazy/ If I don't work/ Hit people/ Scratch people/ Bite people/ If I go nuts"). Another song, "My Thirty Thousand," tells the story of the Peekskill, N.Y. riots and efforts by the Klu Klux Klan to kill Paul Robeson during a concert in 1949 at which Guthrie also performed. An upbeat ditty about "The Jolly Banker" has a financier singing: "If you show me you need it, I'll give you credit... Just bring me back two for the one I lend you." The final track, "I'm Out to Get," explains Guthrie's strategy for dealing with a gambling landlord.

The presence of so much radical thought in one album inspired the question: Were the organizers of the Guthrie archives holding out on his listeners? Was there an effort to clean up Woody Guthrie and make him less political?

"I don't think so," Sarah Lee replied after some thought. "To clean up Woody Guthrie would be really kind of hard. He's kind of exposed. The only person that really has any say over what gets out there is Nora, and that's the last thing on her mind. She's thinking about which musician to match up with which lyric. I mean, she found Tom Morello to cover 'Ease a Revolutionary Mind' and it kicks ass. [The song appears on Note of Hope—A Celebration of Woody Guthrie, a compilation of his prose works.]

"I think you need to be careful these days when you approach the political stuff," Sarah Lee continued. "Pete Seeger himself said there's a fine line between being too 'teachy-preachy,' telling the people what they already know, and getting people to boil over and feel empowered. Woody didn't tell you how to think; he just told you what was going on. Pete did the same thing with the Clearwater sloop he built. He didn't tell you to clean up the Hudson River. He got you to down to the shore, to see his beautiful boat, and you'd make up your own mind about what to do with the river.

"For me, I find it hard writing about politics because I don't feel like I understand the truth," she said. "If we can make some headway into understanding who's paying off who, we might finally understand what's going on. I think it basically comes down to—and I think dad shares this with me, or I share it with him—it doesn't really matter who is president.

"That's a bold statement, but it's very true in the 'This Land is Your Land' kind of way," she said. "If you want something done, and you want things to change, the only way it's going to happen is you and me. That's kind of the politics I believe in, because I don't really know anything beyond my local community. I mean, I can come here and buy my vegetables. I know the politics of the Creamery [they have recently formed a co-operative], and that makes me very happy—nobody's paying anyone off here. Monsanto's not involved."

*

Though many of Woody's descendants will be taking the stage in Greenfield on the 14th, a handful of his contemporaries are still alive.

"There's one last sister remaining in Oklahoma," Sarah Lee said. "She's a firecracker. She's very much how I imagine Woody might have been. Her name's Mary Jo, and she's been living in Seminole for quite some time now.

"Woody's sister-in-law, Anne, is also still around. And I just saw Woody's first wife, Mary, too, out in Riverside, Calif.," Sarah Lee added. "I just love hanging out with those guys: anybody who could hold the space of Woody is pretty remarkable.

"Mary, his first wife, still drinks margaritas and smokes cigarettes, and she's 95. She's a really cool woman," Sarah Lee said. "She came out on the stage when we were performing in L.A. last April. We weren't even expecting her to come out, but she wanted to. You could kind of tell she was winding down, wrapping things up, because 15 years ago, if you'd have asked her what living with Woody was like, she would have told you, 'It was the worst time in my entire life. He drove me from Texas to California; I just couldn't take it. I had to leave him.' She'd just go off saying things that kind of sounded, well, mean. But she got up on the stage back in April, went to the microphone, and she said, 'I can tell you this: I knew a lot more about life after marrying Woody Guthrie than I did before.'"

Hey hey Woody Guthrie I wrote you a song
About a funny old world that's coming along
Seems sick and it's hungry, it's tired and it's torn
It looks like it's dying and it's hardly been born.

Hey Woody Guthrie but I know that you know
All the things that I'm saying and a-many times more
I'm singing you the song but I can't sing enough
'Cause there's not many men that've done the things that you've done.

Here's to Cisco and Sonny and Leadbelly too
And to all the good people that travelled with you
Here's to the hearts and the hands of the men
That come with the dust and are gone with the wind.

 

—Bob Dylan, "Song to Woody Guthrie"

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