One Hundred Years of Woody Guthrie
Woody Guthrie, circa 1945. Photo courtesy of Woody Guthrie Archives
"He was always reflecting back to us, who we are, our lives, our thoughts, our hopes, our disappointments." --- Nora Guthrie on her father Woody Guthrie
Woody Guthrie---singer, songwriter, author, artist, provocateur. Guthrie wrote and performed his own songs---more than 3,000 at last count---which covered every conceivable subject, from the Great Depression to children’s ditties to protest songs to love ballads. His influence is legendary, not only on those with whom he performed, like NEA National Heritage Fellows Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, but everyone who heard him, from Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen to Ani DiFranco and Steve Earle.
July 14, 2012, marks the hundredth birthday of this great American artist, so I chatted with Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter and president of the Woody Guthrie Foundation and director of the Woody Guthrie Archives about the legacy of her father and how his centennial is being celebrated. She has worked with such performers as Billy Bragg and Wilco, Jay Farrar, and the Klezmatics on writing new music to previously unknown Guthrie lyrics and curated the first major exhibition on her father, This Land Is Your Land: The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie.
NEA: Looking back over the past hundred years, what do you think Woody would be most proud of in terms of the recognition he's receiving today?
NORA GUTHRIE: I think he was most proud of his songs; when people sang them, that's when he really smiled. For Woody it was all about his music and his songs. He didn't care about anything else---he didn't care about fame, he didn't care about money. What he only cared about was that people would sing his songs. And he writes about that a lot in his diaries, and he writes songs about that. In the song “Another Man Done Gone,” he writes, “Well when I go all they're going to say is, 'Well, another man done gone.'” But the scribbling will stay.
NEA: I've just seen the beautiful package the Smithsonian Folkways has put out, Woody at 100. And it brings to mind that we think of him as a songwriter, but he was an author, he was a visual artist, he was a humorist. Did he think of himself primarily as a songwriter?
GUTHRIE: Yeah, I think that was the way he described himself. At least on my birth certificate---when it says, "What does your father do?" it says, "Balladeer." And that's always how he signed his job description or occupation on different kinds of forms, like kids' birth certificates and things like that. He was a balladeer. It was before the term folk singer was around---people like Woody were called balladeers. So he really placed himself in that balladeer [category], someone who tells you stories, someone who tells you the news, someone who tells you history, someone who tells you what's going on right now. He was very into the present and what was going on not just in the news but what was going on in the streets around him, in the houses around him, in the apartments around him, in the subway around him, on the buses that he took. He was always reflecting back to us, who we are, our lives, our thoughts, our hopes, our disappointments. So he'd labeled himself a balladeer and I think he is very happy to be that.
NEA: Others referred to him as a poet of the people, and he seemed very comfortable with that.
GUTHRIE: Yeah. He enjoyed it; you see Woody loved being with people. He loved this feeling of being invisible, like when you walk down the street in a crowd, everyone's kind of invisible in a certain way, and anonymous, and he loved that feeling of being a part of an anonymous flow of humanity. It gave him the freedom to spy on everybody. It gave him the freedom to ride the subways and listen to what they were saying and he would incorporate all of those things into his lyrics.
So he was a very unique songwriter for the times. And I think that's why he got the Pioneer Award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame.* His first wife Mary, the way she put it, “He always was more comfortable with the down-and-outers than with the up-and-comers.”
He wrote over 3,000 songs, and as you go through the titles of the songs, they're about everything and anything. The same guy that wrote “This Land is Your Land” wrote a song called “Joe DiMaggio Done it Again.” The same guy who wrote “Pastures of Plenty” wrote “My Flying Saucer.” They go from A to Z in terms of topics: songs about dishwashers, songs about engineers, songs about teachers, songs about freight trains, buses, subways, dogs, cats, everything. There's nothing that was not worthy of a song in Woody's mind. Man, that is really a pioneer---who else writes songs about dishwashers?
And even Bruce Springsteen said to me, "No one can do that anymore." No one does that---they try to expand as songwriters, they try to expand the vocabulary, they try to expand their topics, but for all kinds of reasons it's really hard to get out of their bubble. And Woody never created a bubble, he was completely free, he could write about whatever he wanted to. And my mother, in an interview, said that he wrote like five to six songs a day.
NEA: When you were growing up did you experience some of the gatherings and hootenannies or was his health pretty much in decline at that point?
GUTHRIE: His health was in decline and he was actually hospitalized for most of my time. He would come home on the weekends. We would all go get him at the hospital and bring him home, and they would have hootenannies in the house on Sundays. So all of his friends would come to the house and play music with banjos and everything. And it was kind of funny because at the time, we're talking about 1956, '57, '58, they're all in the living room, you know, Pete Seeger and all those guys, and they're all tuning. That’s what I remember. They're all tuning.
And, you know, I'm a little kid and I thought, “This is just the most boring thing in the world,” and I would leave the house and go outside and play with my friends. And then the music would be coming out of the windows. The music was always around me, my dad's music was always around me, but it was funny---as kids we weren't into it. "Oh that's Dad and his friends."
It’s a very nice memory for me actually, even though I know at the time I wasn't into it. Now as an adult I look back and I think, “What a nice thing to do, to have music, everyone gathering in your house once a week and playing music and sharing songs.”
NEA: This Saturday is the 100th anniversary of his birth. What are some of the things that are happening to recognize that 100th anniversary?
GUTHRIE: What we decided to do for the centennial, because Woody is so much an artist for and of and by the people, we didn't want to limit it to just what we do. So we really invited everyone from California to the New York Island to participate, create their own concerts, events, et cetera. And then of course we have what we're doing---we’ve collaborated and partnered with the Grammy Museum all this year. And if anyone wants to know details we have our website, Woody100.com. And if you go on that site it basically lists everything that's happening this year. We've really been kind of following Woody's road in a way with our concerts, and also we've been doing conferences at all the universities along the way as well. Each place we go, we really try to bring Woody's story, because he travelled so much around the country that we want to shine the light on each of the different locations as well as on Woody. No two concerts are alike. We have West Coast artists in one and Midwest artists in one and Northeast artists in one. There were so many artists who wanted to participate, we couldn't put them all in one show so we thought we'd kind of break it up.
We also have a new pocket book out. It's a walking tour guide called My Name Is New York, and it covers 19 different locations around the city in the five boroughs where Woody lived, which songs he wrote there, what happened in those days. So it's just a real fun book with a lot of images of the houses, like the photographs of the flophouse where he wrote “This Land is Your Land.” We worked for two years on that because no one had ever done a project like that. We went through all those 3,000 lyrics to pull out which ones were written in New York and on what day in New York. So we have a complete listing in chronological order of all the songs that he wrote in New York, which is pretty wild. I'm really, really, really proud of that. Woody lived in New York for 27 years so we're really kind of paying a tribute not just to Woody but to New York City's influence on Woody Guthrie, because if it wasn't for New York City we wouldn't have all those great songs from Mermaid Avenue that I did with Billy Bragg and Wilco.
NEA: Could you tell us a little bit about the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives?
GUTHRIE: The archives have been around for about 20 years. The foundation was started in the 1970s, right after my dad passed away, by my mom and some of my dad's friends. The foundation has basically created and supported and continued the running of the Woody Guthrie Archives. There's a real art and science to being an archivist and doing paper preservation and conservation and all that kind of stuff, so we do have an archivist. We've been open for 20 years and now we're at the point where we're going to be moving the archives to Oklahoma in 2013. Woody's going home.
It's been a long journey. We gave it a lot of thought; the family talked about it quite a lot. And as we're getting into our later years too, we knew we had to resolve what was going to happen to the archives. So we're working with the George Kaiser Family Foundation and creating a beautiful museum where the archives will be housed, in an educational center right in the heart of Tulsa, Oklahoma. It's going to have a completely new incarnation and in a bigger and broader way that I could never do; I'm just one person.
I just love the idea that he's going back to Oklahoma, because that's where his roots are and that's where the ideas that he had are rooted. And so we're kind of coming full circle back there.
*The Pioneer Award is a new award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame to honor the career of a historic creator of a major body of musical work that has been a major influence on generations of songwriters. Woody Guthrie was the first recipient of the award on June 14, 2012. You can learn more in the Woody Guthrie exhibit on the Songwriters Hall of Fame website.