Like many in my Postwar Boomer generation, I was introduced to the Oklahoma-born Woody Guthrie’s music through folk singers who performed in clubs and basement coffeehouses in Greenwich Village, and in and around the fountain at Washington Square. I was barely into my teens in the mid-1960s, yet the memories have lasted forever. Folk was a mixture of vintage Americana and contemporary politics. Musicians were singing about overcoming society’s ills and making a better world. The anthem of the time was “This Land is My Land.” I heard it first sung by Pete Seeger—and his rendition inspires me still. I learned that the author of the song (and many others about the American human experience) was Guthrie (1912–1967). He was the godhead for all the Village folkies singing about the American democratic ideal, not the false idols of American exceptionalism.
His name and music inspired the leading music makers and storytellers of my generation. Bob Dylan made a legendary pilgrimage to visit Guthrie in his hospital deathbed before the latter succumbed to the fatal Huntington’s Disease. Many of Guthrie’s eight children have kept his musical legacy alive (I spent a few days decades ago with Arlo Guthrie seeking out traditional Irish music, and every Thanksgiving I play Arlo’s recording or video of “Alice’s Restaurant“).
In collaboration with Woody’s daughter Nora Guthrie, the Smithsonian has produced an ongoing traveling exhibition that draws from rarely seen objects, illustrations, film footage, and recorded performances to reveal a complex human who was at once poet, musician, protester, idealist, itinerant hobo and folk legend. The most recent testament to his memory and memories, Woody Guthrie: Songs and Art, Words and Wisdom (Chronicle Books) by Nora Guthrie and Robert Santelli, further catalogs a wealth of artifacts from the Guthrie Archive. This book is an essential document (and gift) for a time when America is once again fighting for its democratic life. I asked Nora to discuss her role as her dad’s documentarian and talk more about his continued relevance through the prism of his life, lyrics and art. Guthrie is more relevant now than ever.
Why have you become the archivist flame-keeper of Woody Guthrie’s extensive papers?
I didn’t plan on it. My father passed away in 1967 and my mother had saved all of his songs and other papers. They stayed boxed up for about three decades. Around 1992 I finally got the chance to look in the boxes and I was stunned by what I found—the writings, the lyrics, the artwork all were unknown to me and mostly unpublished. I am not a scholar but it was clear to me that much of the stories and information out there about my father was incomplete. So it came upon me to begin to fill in all the blanks. By setting up the Woody Guthrie archives, researchers and scholars were able to have access to this primary source material and move the story along towards a more complete picture, which turns out to be much more interesting than just the story of a folk singer. There were lessons in there, teachings, complex thoughts simply spoken on many topics that influence and chisel our character and our souls.
Over the years, what have you discovered that has surprised even you?
The first thing that I discovered, literally the first day that I opened the boxes, was a note from John Lennon, who wrote, “Woody lives and I’m glad!” Wow. John Lennon was aware of Woody Guthrie. Who knew? The next thing I read, on the same day, was an entry in a notebook titled “I Say to You Woman and Man,” which basically says to all women to get out there and do whatever it is that you want to do. Whether it’s being an artist or a politician, don’t let anything or anyone get in your way. And he adds a note that if your husband gets jealous, well then, dance out to new men! He then tempers the men to “dance in your own way” as well. And finally he says to them, “Both of you, go dance.” And this was in the 1940s. I was totally struck by this piece of writing, which felt like my father speaking to me, encouraging me to get out there and do my dance! Which is what my work with this material has been these past 30 years. So that was the first day of surprises! Believe me, there’s been one almost every day since then.
What has surprised me is how much he made sketches, drawings and lettering to further express his vision. Did he think of himself as a visual (as well as a musical) artist?
He actually thought of being a visual artist before he began writing songs. He was very talented and did some early oil paintings when he lived in Pampa, TX, and later in California. He writes that the cost of good brushes and canvas was too expensive, and even once you painted it you sold it to a neighbor for a buck and it hung on a wall for a few people to see. He discovers that a song gets sung again and again and again. So it gets the “message” out continuously. He also found that when he was hitchhiking around the country, he could go into any bar and get a nickel tip if the people liked his song. They’d ask him to “play it again,” and each time he’d get another nickel. So that became his income and also a way of talking with and to people about what was on their mind and how their lives were going. He didn’t need much to live on, just a bowl of chili and a place to sleep, so the nickels went far. But he continued using art as cartoons, as illustrations for his lyrics and his writings, even his album covers. So new brushes, watercolors and ink pens were always lovingly within reach.
His life was devoted to giving voice in so many ways to so many Americans (you and me). Why was he such a controversial figure to many who were “Americans”?
I really don’t know why. He was a true lover of people, particularly people who were down and out for no reason of their own. He lived through the Depression, and the dust storm and drought era in the Midwest. During WW11 he shipped out with the Merchant Marines to fight the war against fascism. And he saw how some people were being left behind. He saw how his people were losing their farms and their homes, he saw how racism was hurting so many people and the American promise of equality, and he wanted to find out what he could do to amplify all of their struggles. So songwriting became his way. Why would anyone find that controversial? Jesus himself said the same things, didn’t he? So why in the world would anyone find that dangerous? Maybe because it was such a powerful message, and such a clear call for change, that someone somewhere felt threatened. You’d have to ask them, not me.
What do you want your readers, especially young readers, to take away from all this ephemeral treasure?
The most important and only thing I would hope for is that the next generations feel the same encouragement and inspiration that I still feel looking through this book. Whether it’s learning how to live, or even how to die. Whatever stage in life you are at, there are words directly for you here. Whether you’re just starting a family, or thinking about what job to take, or what love is all about, or what to say to your kids, or your senators, or how to add your time or your voice to issues that are today’s struggles, or what religion or spiritual thoughts you have, there’s something in these pages that might be helpful. Kind of like taking a daily multi-vitamin! Or as he would encourage, “Go dance!”
Did he write and draw with an archival goal in mind, or was it just another extension of his expressionist self?
I don’t think he had any serious awareness that his work would endure, and actually it probably wouldn’t have had it not been for a few people like Pete Seeger and then Bob Dylan, who sang his songs and talked about him. My father developed Huntington’s Disease in the late ’40s and was pretty much on a downward slope for the next 20 years, hospitalized for 15 of those. So he wasn’t able to continue performing or recording. It was others who let people know that there was this guy, Woody Guthrie, who inspired them and mentored them in their own work. And of course, my mother saved everything because she believed he was a unique artist and at some point someone might be interested in his life and legacy.
He wrote, drew, corresponded, basically created daily using whatever materials were available to him at that moment; a paint brush, a typewriter, a fountain pen, a child’s marble composition notebook or a ream of onion skin paper all became his “tools.” Even his guitar was fodder for his thoughts as he painted “This machine kills fascists” on it. So, nothing was free of him. He describes his work as “tracks behind a leaky mind.” His mind just kept dripping, and he said if he doesn’t write it all down, or draw it all down, or sing it all down, he goes mad!
Will there be more to uncover and reveal as time goes on?
I’m sure there will be more and more to uncover. I’ve been working with his material now for 30 years, and I can tell you it’s overwhelming, and I feel like I’ve just touched the tip of the iceberg. We’ll see what the next generation excavates!