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“Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie”
Walker Farm Theater, 705 Main Street, Weston, Vermont
Sept. 28th – October 23rd
Box office: 802-824-5288 or www.westontheater.org
Reviewed by Dorothy Chansky
“Wheat grows; oil flows/wind blows; and the farmer owes.”
As a template for what might have been called “The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie,” this short couplet encapsulates the simple—and, too often simplistic—ideas and ideals in “Woody Sez.” The concert-like, ensemble show fortunately stakes its claims to stageworthiness on Guthrie’s music, delivering a rich mix of nostalgia, insights, delicious musicianship, tight harmony, and infectious pleasure.
The four-person show debuted at the Edinburgh Festival in 2007. David Lutken, the original Woody and one of the piece’s creators, plays Woody at Weston. Director Nick Corley, also of the 2007 team, reprises his role here, deftly creating choreographic movement that allows the performers to play the two dozen instruments festooning the stage and lurking in pockets while relating to each other as family members, friends, migrant workers, and radio broadcasters. Oh, and singing. Which they do individually and communally with a heartfelt but never hokey warmth and occasionally with tongues solidly in cheeks.
Guthrie was a populist balladeer active in the 1930s, 1940s, and into the 1950s. He cultivated a folksy persona, based in large part on his actual origins in Oklahoma and also on his years as a hobo and migrant worker. The title of the show is taken from the name of the column he wrote (in a kind of faux dialect) for the Communist newspaper People’s World between May 1939 and January 1940. Despite his unashamed admiration for the party, the question remains as to whether he ever actually became a member. And despite his sympathy for the overworked and arguably for those trying to pull together, in the time he lived in the cooperative Almanac House in Greenwich Village, along with other members of the Almanac Singers—which included Pete Seeger—he rarely helped with household chores. More in a minute.
Americans today likely recognize Guthrie’s iconic “This Land is Your Land,” written in piqued response to what he saw as the sappy posturing of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” “This Train” and “Union Maid” (with its refrain of “You can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union”) are other earworms that can last a lifetime. The workers Guthrie recognized and socialized with best were migrant farm laborers. “Woody Sez” includes a short bit on Guthrie’s realizing that labor knew how to organize in the northeast, hence his move (back) south and west, where he felt his activism was likely to do more good. His activism also included a slew of antifascist songs and a stint in the Merchant Marine in World War II, although he joined the latter only after his failed attempt at lobbying the US Army to accept him as a USO performer rather than conscripting him via the draft. No less than Bob Dylan, among a host of others, claimed Guthrie as in influence and inspiration.
“Woody Sez” wears its politics lightly and its sympathies on its sleeve. If these seem in opposition, consider that southerners and Dust Bowl farmers were poor before the Depression (i.e., under Republicans Coolidge and Hoover) and that they continued to suffer even after Roosevelt pushed through his New Deal. So, Wall Street, Washington, and bankers are perennial bad guys, while farmers who lose their land and are forced to accept impossible terms at company stores just for a few potatoes and some soap—while eager and willing to work—are perennial underdogs. Hard to argue with black and white. That the farmers and bankers alike benefitted from the federal iteration of eminent domain that was the Homestead Act of 1862 (it allowed people to stake a claim on government land and keep it if they kept it up, the Natives they displaced be damned) just never appears in any of this calculus. Not that one wants to blame small timers for policies they don’t fully understand and that are killing their ricket-ridden children, but still.
In the maybe not-so-black-and-white realm, though, is an undercurrent of sexism that is hard to ignore. Virtually all the collaborators and the musicians who influenced and were influenced by Guthrie were male. When he first lit out for the west, he left a wife and two small children back in Texas. The show makes clear that Guthrie and this (first) wife, Mary, were so poor that they barely had food and clothing. How Mary fared in the years that Guthrie was writing songs and painting signs, bucking up non-family underdogs and trying to keep body and soul together, is undisclosed. When unions did achieve better wages and working conditions, their bargaining still assumed that male laborers would have women at home to be sure they were fed, clothed, had conjugal rights, and that their children were cared for. Something still left out of bargaining and contracts.
We’re now in the midst of the “more below.” In one scene, Woody, who is hitchhiking, takes up with the pretty daughter of a migrant family, Ruth, only to leave the migrant camp the next morning. We never hear of Ruth again. Fast forward, and Woody’s second wife, Marjorie Greenblatt—mother of four more of his children—is alone the night their toddler’s dress catches fire in an electric accident in their apartment. The child dies, and in Lutken’s sensitive rendering of devastation, we learn that Woody just “wasn’t there” that night. Marjorie, by the way, was supporting the family as a modern dancer. Just saying.
Family was, for Guthrie, both a source of stability and a kind of poison. He had a favorite sister as well as a younger brother who joined him for a time in California. His mother, who, according to this script, had a penchant for setting fires, was finally sent to a state mental institution. She had Huntington’s Chorea, an inherited neurological disease that causes loss of motor coordination, loss of speech, and severe mood swings. She would die of the disease, as would Woody’s two daughters from his first marriage, and as would he, although not before first being misdiagnosed with schizophrenia and alcoholism.
Lutken is joined onstage by Mimi Bessette (string bass, autoharp, and a memorable performance as Woody’s mother); Nyssa Grant (fiddle, mandolin, and a charming turn as “Leftie Lou” Crissman, with whom Woody had a regular radio gig in the late 1930s singing hillbilly and traditional folk music); and Spiff Wiegand (mouth harp, banjo, harmonica, guitar, spoons, and shapeshifting incarnations from actor Will Geer to a sourpuss radio producer to a down-and-out Okie defined by his sad sack demeanor and worn out hat). The quartet inhabits Luke Cantarella’s set, which is largely an open platform featuring stands for the musical instruments and is backed by iconic photos of Dust Bowl farms as well as photos of the real Woody Guthrie. Seth Reiser’s lighting strikes the perfect balance between providing illumination (a lot of it most of the time) and mood changes, which are handled evocatively but never with a heavy hand.
Lutken’s warmup welcome thanked us for wearing masks and pointed out that one upside to these is that if we wanted to sing along with anything, no one would really know if we muffed some lyrics. By the time the final “This Land is Your Land” came around, no one had to ask us to join in. And it sounded as though everyone got the words right.
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