Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie, devised by David M. Lutken with Nick Corley, Darcie Deaville, Helen Jean Russell, and Andy Teirstein, is an entertaining and poignant evening of music and storytelling. Finely directed by Nick Corley with music direction by David M. Lutken, it presents the life and work of the monumental musician and singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie, whose work resonates for all Americans, especially so when citizens feel they are powerless in the face of injustice.
With his ballads, political songs, and traditional-style folk and country-blues songs and stories, Woody Guthrie chronicled the lives of Americans in the first half of the 20th century. He traveled across the country living with the “little people” with whom he identified, recognizing that the “salt of the earth” were the backbone of a nation squeezed by the banking industry and Wall Street. He sang of their economic tribulations and deprivation, their struggles through the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl era which led to the California migration, and the abuses of migrant farm workers by farm conglomerates.
Above all, he encouraged: “This land is your land, this land is my land…” With those words echoing in their hearts, many were able to gather their forces, unionize, and strengthen and consolidate their efforts toward economic equity.
Guthrie was the “Dust Bowl Troubadour” and advocate, whose songs excoriated the wealthy and their puppet politicians of both parties as the roots of the farmers’ and little peoples’ hardships. Though he flirted with communism and socialism and even wrote the column “Woody Sez” (appropriately, the title of this production) for the Communist paper People’s World , his music was his primary vehicle to uplift and exhort. He never joined any party and preferred to roam freely, always an observer and chronicler more than a participant supporting any one political cause. His cause was that of all of humanity. This production highlights the finest and most endearing turning points in his life, revealing the complexity of his nature in its most humorous, glorious and flawed states.
Act I starts with the Company singing “This Train is Bound for Glory,” an appropriate memorial to Guthrie’s glory. The actors/singers/musicians (stirring performances by Megan Loomis, David M. Lutken, Helen Jean Russell, Andy Teirstein), lead us to understand his beauty and humanity. In a relaxed, down-to-earth performance, Lutken assumes the persona of Guthrie first by introducing himself as one who venerates him. He then becomes Woody through episodic narration as he relates the key points of Guthrie’s life and ties in the songs that reveal the major themes and issues Guthrie catalogues.
The structure is essentially a flashback of Guthrie’s life, framed by his time in New York City in 1940 where a friend had helped secure for him a stint on a radio show at Rockefeller Center. The ensemble portrays varying roles throughout the production. At the start Guthrie (Lutken) sings one of his political songs on the radio, ridiculing the wealthy and introducing us to his freedom-loving personality. He is incapable of compromising his values, his dreams, his autonomy to toe the conservative line and accept censorship of his songs with their criticism of Wall Street bankers and old J.D., the scion of Rockefeller Center. When Guthrie is fired, we are transported to the past to envision how he became that revolutionary individual.
We learn of his birth in Okemah, Oklahoma and meet his mother and siblings in song, the ensemble filling in various roles. We learn of the family’s troubles and his mother’s evolving illness. The narration is simple yet heart-breaking, and also chilling, the dynamic songs powerful and touching.
Guthrie relates his journey through impoverishment and his resilience attempting to “sing for money” during the boom town years when oil was discovered in Okemah. But the family’s situation worsens with death and more tragedy, and Guthrie strikes out on his own as a teenager, discovering who he is and what he is made of. Eventually, he travels to Texas to see his father and other relatives, sing in a makeshift band with his uncle, make some money, and even get married.
But the April Dust Storm of 1935 overwhelms, and all is lost in a country that has been consumed by dust and sand. Everyone’s bank accounts are fruitless and fallow; the bankers come for the land to pay off the farmers’ debts. Once again Guthrie travels, hopping a freight train to California where he sees thousands of Americans traveling across the country. Their hopes and dreams of survival must be sought in the country’s far west – California, the new Eden. After that, there is nowhere else to go.
By the end of Act I, Guthrie’s young eyes have been opened, and his political discernment solidified. Life and success, he has concluded, are about money, which the working man can never obtain without credit and which gamblers seem to be luxuriating in despite their craven, wanton selfishness. This is a recurring theme, threaded through various songs.
In Act II Guthrie has gained notoriety as a voice of the people. By this point he has accepted his identity as their advocate and more importantly, as a mirror to validate their experiences as human beings who must never lose their power to hope. This time of American farmer migrants is represented in such songs as “I Ain’t Got No Home,” “The Ballad of Tom Joad” (sung throughout the production), “Vigilante Man,” and “Union Maid,” the last two based on true stories which reveal the oppression of the working class by the businessmen owners and the violent abuse they sustain in attempting to assert their rights to a living wage through unionizing.
It is in this act that Guthrie’s legacy takes flight. He joins and sings with Pete Seeger’s group The Almanacs, and uses his voice and guitar to fight Hitler during WWII with a sign on his guitar: “This machine fights fascists.” The emphasis is on fighting fascism at home and abroad to support peace with songs that ring loudly and clearly against American and foreign warlords who would sacrifice their countrymen to make money.
He records various songs and though he copyrights his music, he encourages others to sing them even without paying him. This has led to rapacious copyright wars up to the last decade, which Guthrie would have abhorred. As the production winds down and we see music and recordings triumph despite his being silenced by the same illness that engulfed his mother, we appreciate the wealth of historic moments captured for all time by his songs.
With a minimalistic set and adaptive, flexible staging, the ensemble brings together their sterling musical skills on a variety of instruments, ringing out Guthrie’s country, folk, and blues on violin, banjo, guitar, harmonica and more. The performers’ voices soar with the haunting melodies and joyful rhythms of 20th Americana that have been taken up by everyone from Bob Dylan to Billy Bragg.
The production reveals why tributes are continually held to Woody Guthrie’s music and life. His work is universal and timeless. He is a beacon for generations to come as long as economic injustice blankets some parts of the planet. Indeed, as the production suggests, “the chickens have surely come home to roost” today. Interestingly, a researcher discovered in the archives of the Woody Guthrie Center in Oklahoma that Guthrie excoriated Fred Trump, father of President Donald Trump, disgusted with the father as a landlord. In song lyrics, Guthrie accuses Fred Trump of stirring up racial hate “in the bloodpot of human hearts.”
Guthrie’s words will continue to reverberate in our hearts and minds as long as citizens seek to better themselves and their children’s lives, and as long as individuals stand against oppression. His injunctions are a welcome anodyne to get us through the next day or over a rough patch in the hope that the stand we take in our own lives for our culture and nation will not be in vain. Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie is at the Irish Repertory Theatre (132 West 22 St.) until 23 July. Tickets are available online.