Woody Guthrie: People Are the Song

Woody Guthrie: People Are the Song
Wednesday, October 12 - Sunday, February 5
Woody Guthrie: People Are the Song

The Woody Guthrie Center® is now hosting  “Woody Guthrie: People Are the Song,” a special exhibition focusing on Woody Guthrie’s songs, artwork and prose, all in tribute and reverence for the people in this world.

Utilizing the Woody Guthrie Center’s vast collection and curated in collaboration with The Morgan Library & Museum, Woody Guthrie Publications and music historian Bob Santelli, the exhibit tells Guthrie’s story through his own lyrics, poetry, artwork, prose, musical instruments, photographs and correspondence.

Two exclusive, never-before-seen Woody Guthrie oil paintings, created in 1938 and 1939, have now made their public debut within the exhibit.

“Woody Guthrie: People Are the Song” is at the Woody Guthrie Center through Sunday, Feb. 5. The full body of his creativity—encompassing topics such as people, the environment, love, spirituality, family and racial justice—are on display.

General Admission tickets which include access to this exhibit are on sale now. 

Audio Guides

Red Line

Note: for best listening experience while in the exhibition, please connect to the “WoodyGuthrieCenterGuest” Wi-Fi network on your mobile device.

Audio:

Transcription:

Music: “This Land Is Your Land”

Steve Earle: John Steinbeck called him “the American spirit,” embodied in “just a voice and a guitar.” Robert F. Kennedy called him “one of the finest and most authentic artists our nation has ever produced.” But who was Woody Guthrie, America’s “national balladeer”? He lived such a short life—only fifty-five years. But into that life he packed more miles, more words, more song and struggle than many lives lived twice as long. Where did he come from … and where did he go?

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Transcription:

In these lyrics, Guthrie celebrates his home state while recognizing the major Native American tribes—Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, Creek (Muscogee), and Seminole—that were forcibly removed from their ancestral homelands to the so-called Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma. Guthrie always understood the dignity of acknowledging names, and he intended to honor the tribes in these lines. When Guthrie was in the military, however, his cousin Jack Guthrie recorded the song, omitting the tribes’ names in his 1945 version. That recording would become the most popular version of “Oklahoma Hills” and was designated the state’s official folk song in 2001.

“In Those Oklahoma Hills Where I Was Born”
Handwritten lyrics with drawing, ca. 1936–37

Transcription: 

Woody Guthrie: I was born there on July 14th, 1912, the year that President Woodrow Wilson was nominated. … Well, they come in there from Texas in the early day. My dad got to Oklahoma right at statehood time and right after statehood. He was the first clerk of the country court in Okemah, Oklahoma after statehood. Wild and wooly days.

I was a little bit different from … I wasn’t in the class that John Steinbeck called the Okies because my dad to start with, was worth about thirty-five or forty thousand dollars and he had everything hunky-dory and then he started havin’ a little bad luck. In fact, our whole family had a little bit of it. I don’t know whether it is worth talkin’ about or not. I never do talk it much.

Steve Earle: ”A little bad luck” was an understatement. The new family home burned down a month after it was built. Woody’s sister Clara died in a second fire. Charley almost died in yet a third fire. And Woody’s mother harbored the inherited gene of Huntington’s disease that would soon take her life and eventually the lives of Woody and two of his children. However, in the face of hardship and loss, Woody found his way forward.

Woody Guthrie: I kind of took to the road, I hit the road one day, the first day that I ever hit the highway, to be what’s called a ramblin’ man or a hobo or a tramp, was in 1927.

Audio:

Woody Guthrie was the third child of Charley and Nora Belle Guthrie. His father dabbled in real estate and politics, while his mother, the daughter of a Kansas City schoolteacher, was known for her horseback-riding skills and love of music. Charley and Nora Belle had five children: Clara, Roy, Woody, George, and Mary Jo.

Unknown photographer
Woody Guthrie with his parents, Nora Belle and Charley Guthrie, and brother George on the porch of their home in Okemah, Oklahoma, 1926

Transcription: 

Woody Guthrie: I was born and raised in the state of Oklahoma, called the land of the five civilized tribes; Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole. At that time I was born, the year 1912, my father was a sort of a hard, fist-fighting Woodrow Wilson Democrat.

Well, in them days, it was a little town of about 1,500. And then 2,000 and a few years later it got up to about 5,000. They struck some pretty rich oil pools all around there; Garrison City and Slick City and Cromwell and Seminole and Bowlegs and Sand Springs and Spring Hill and all up and down the whole country there, they got oil. They got some pretty nice oil fields around Okemah there.

Alan Lomax: Did any of the oil come in your family?

Woody Guthrie: Nope, nope. We got the grease. Didn’t get no oil.

Steve Earle: Woody followed his father to another boom-to-bust oil town on the Texas Panhandle, Pampa, where he worked at a ramshackle boarding house and behind the counter at Shorty Harris’s Drug Store, selling bootleg moonshine and teaching himself the guitar in the back room. Soon he started a band, “The Corn Cob Trio,” with his friends Matt Jennings and Cluster Baker. He played on Amarillo radio with his Uncle Jeff and his Aunt Allene. He married Matt’s sister Mary, became a sign painter, and his first two children were born. Then they all waited through the years that carried the black blizzards of dust out and across the Great Plains.

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The Dust Bowl was among the worst human-made environmental disasters of the twentieth century. Its root cause was the over-farming of once-rich prairie grasslands in the southern plains of the United States, followed by extreme drought in the early 1930s. For over a decade, furious dust storms blew across the region, devastating the farmland and the people who lived there. The worst of those storms occurred on Sunday, April 14, 1935, a day that became known as Black Sunday. This “black blizzard” caused people to fear the world was ending, and it had a tremendous effect on the twenty-two-year-old Guthrie. Seeing the powerful destruction of these storms catalyzed him to become a spokesperson for the disenfranchised.

Unknown photographer
Dust storm approaching Stratford, Texas, 1935
NOAA George E. Marsh Album

Transcription: 

Woody Guthrie: Well, some of the worst dust storms in the history of the whole world, I guess, broke loose right there in that country.

Steve Earle: Stripped of protective grasses, destroyed by cash crops, and impacted by climate change, the over-cultivated farmland of the Great Plains supplied the dust that would bury American cities. Journalists began to speak of America’s “Dust Bowl.” And the worst single day that anyone could remember was “Black Sunday”—April 14th, 1935.

Woody Guthrie: I remember the particular evening of April 14, 1935, that this dust storm here blowed up. I was standin’, a whole bunch of us was standin’, just outside of this little town here that you see. And so we watched the dust storm come up like the Red Sea closin’ in on the Israel children and any way, we stood there and watched the son of a gun come up and I am a-tellin’ you that it got so black when that thing hit, we all run into the house and all of the neighbors had all congregated in different houses round over the neighborhood and around over town and we sat there in a little old room and it got so dark that you couldn’t see your hand before your face. You couldn’t see anybody in the room. … So, we got to talkin’, ya know, and uh, a lot of people in the crowd that was religious-minded and they was up pretty well on the scriptures, they said, “Well, boys, girls, friends, and relatives, this is the end.”

The human race ain’t been treatin’ each other right and robbin’ each other in different ways, with fountain pens, guns, and havin’ wars and killin’ each other and shootin’ round. So, the feller that made this world, he’s worked up this dust storm and there has never been anything like it in the whole history of the world.

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Transcription:

Woody Guthrie: These people just got up and they bundled up their little belongings, they throwed in one or two little things they thought that they’d need. They couldn’t take it all because they didn’t have room and they didn’t have a car and they didn’t have gasoline and they didn’t have the money, but anyway, they had heard about the land of California, where you sleep outdoors at night, where you work all day in the big fruit orchards and make enough to live on and get by on and live decent on and you work hard, and work honest, and you … supposed to be, according to the handbills they pass out down in that country, you’re supposed to have a wonderful chance to succeed in California. So, they just naturally drift that way.

Steve Earle: And Woody joined them, hoping to find work as a cowboy singer along with his cousin, “Oklahoma Jack” Guthrie, who was already in Los Angeles. Woody would send for Mary and the children; but first, he had to make it to California himself.

Woody Guthrie: They traveled fifteen-hundred or two thousand miles in these old broke-down jalopies and they went to California and I was one of the first bunches to go to California, ’cause when people start going somewhere, I’m always kind of a dadgum feller that jumps up and takes off right while they’re talking about it. Anyway, when I got to California, I seen things out there that I wouldn’t believe if people that, uh, if people had sat and tell me that there was hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and thousands of families of people livin’ around under railroad bridges, down along the river bottoms, and the old cardboard houses and old rusty beat-up houses that they made out of tote sacks and old dirty rags and corrugated iron that they got out of the dumps and old tin and flattened out and old orange crates that they’ve been able to tear up and get boards out of, I wouldn’t believe it. ’Cause all these people didn’t go out there to loaf around, they didn’t go out there to have a good time. They were out there for one reason and absolutely one reason, and that was because they thought that they could get some work out there.

Steve Earle: Woody was lucky. He found a job hosting a program and singing on a Los Angeles radio station. But he also began visiting the migrant camps, reporting on their conditions for a local newspaper. And the more he saw, the angrier he became—especially when the papers and the radio painted the migrants as filthy grifters looking for an easy handout.

Woody Guthrie: They called us “dust bowl refugees.” But then there’s more than one kind of a refugee. There’s refugees that take refuge under railroad bridges, and there is refugees that take refugee and … take refuge in public office. But when we was out in California, all that the native sons and daughters called us was just “dust bowl refugees.”

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Transcription:

Steve Earle: Seeing the mistreatment of his people, Woody dove into the labor movement, working and singing for the Congress of Industrial Organizations—the CIO—and the agricultural unions. Through his music, he gave the people who felt voiceless a platform and a voice.

Woody Guthrie: At the age of about four or five years old, a long time before I was in school, I remember my dad used to teach me little political speeches and rhymes. And I’d climb up in a hay wagon around at all the political meetings and rallies they had on the streets, and I’d make my little speeches. And uh, it might be that I’ve turned out now that where I don’t believe the speeches anymore and make speeches just the opposite.

Steve Earle: Woody wrote hundreds of songs for the American workers, criss-crossing the country, singing and fundraising for them wherever he could. He read voraciously, developing a worldview that enabled him to see the bigger picture—one that forged a fellowship between the migrants in the fields and the miners in the mines.

Woody Guthrie: The government mining inspector made several trips down to this mine, called Centralia No. 5, as you well remember. The government inspector said that, uh, that mine was so full of fumes that it was gonna blow up any day because the miners was working down there with open lights on their caps, on their la … on their mining caps. So, the mine owner laughed at him, and he didn’t want to spend the money to put in a cleaning system, so he said, “Well,” said, “If you’ll quit sending your inspectors down inside of my mines, you’ll quit finding anything wrong with them.” So, that’s the kind of human brains that just so happens to control the lives of several hundred thousand miners, and not in Nazi Germany, but right here, hundred or two miles from here or less.

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Transcription:

Steve Earle: Woody first joined the US Merchant Marine and made three dangerous voyages on the Liberty ships transporting soldiers and munitions for the D-Day Invasion. Then he was drafted into the US Army. For Woody, the fight against the Nazis and Fascists abroad was a continuation of the old struggles at home between labor and capital. Hitler and Mussolini hated the labor unions, and that alone was enough for him.

Music: “All You Fascists Bound to Lose”

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Transcription:

Woody Guthrie: Something started happening to the town, and it happened so fast and so quick that all of that cowboy angle in my life sort of faded out. I mean, uh, the fact that the Indians and the poor Negroes had been given the state of Oklahoma by, sort of, United States treaties of all kinds because they didn’t figure that the land was good enough for anything else. But the very minute that everybody found out that there was millions and millions of dollars worth of oil pools under every acre of land, almost, in Oklahoma, why the Indians and the poor Negroes that bid on the land naturally had to be cheated out of it, and fast.

Steve Earle: Woody wrote songs about Harriet Tubman and Annie Mae Merriweather, the Black sharecropper activist who inspired his rousing labor anthem, “Union Maid.” Woody participated in the Harlem benefit concert for Isaac Woodard, a Black veteran viciously blinded by the police. He witnessed firsthand the Peekskill Riots against Paul Robeson and wrote a group of songs about them. After the war, when Woody and his family moved into the Beach Haven housing project in Brooklyn, he had some particularly harsh words for the racist policies of his landlord, one “Old Man Trump.” In this home tape, Woody addresses some of the injustices he witnessed at home.

Music: ”I Don’t Like the Way This World’s A-Treating Me” demo song excerpt

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In February 1940, in the middle of a blizzard, Guthrie hitchhiked to New York City and his life changed forever. Despite his fame as a road-tripping “ramblin’ man” of the American interior, Guthrie spent nearly half his days in the New York metropolitan area. His living arrangements included friends’ couches, cheap hotels, and numerous apartments from Greenwich Village to Coney Island. He established important friendships and wrote many of his most enduring songs here, including “My Name Is New York,” which registers the various contradictions that shape the city’s identity.

“My Name Is New York”
Typed lyrics, undated

Transcription: 

Steve Earle: New York was a further awakening for Woody Guthrie. It was here that he truly blossomed; here he met and fell in love with his second wife, Marjorie Mazia; here he met Alan Lomax, Pete Seeger, Lead Belly, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee—a musical fellowship that would help to energize and transform him into a national figure. And this city had so much to show him about the disparities of American life.

Music: ”My Name is New York”

Audio:

With their satirical response to Irving Berlin and strident critique of American wealth inequality, the original handwritten lyrics to Guthrie’s best-known song are as surprising as they are revealing. The fourth and sixth verses are often left out of popular versions, but many musicians have restored those critical lines in their recordings and performances. In addition to celebrating the bountiful promise of America, the song was intended to speak to the injustices Guthrie witnessed as he traveled from “California to the New York island.” More than anything, Guthrie believed that “this land was made for you and me.”

“This Land Is Your Land”
Handwritten lyrics, February 23, 1940

Transcription: 

Music: Opening verse of “This Land”

Arlo Guthrie: The first day of the school, before the classes, all of the kids got together with their teachers and they stood up to sing the national anthem, you know, and pledge of allegiance and they sang This Land Is Your Land and I was probably one of the only kids there that didn’t know the words. And that was very embarrassing and tough, so I went home and learned it right away. As a matter of fact, I remember the next opportunity that my dad was there, I made him sit me down and not only did he show me the words, but he gave me some verses that had not been written down or that were not published or popular and I kept them in my mind until years later when I played them for Pete Seeger and he said, “Oh yeah, I know those words.” (no trespassing verse—Arlo and Woody)

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One of Woody Guthrie’s greatest inspirations was his and Marjorie’s first daughter, Cathy Ann. In this 1947 notebook, Woody presents four-year-old Cathy’s observations, recording the innocence and honesty that can only be seen through the eyes of a child. These daily activities and emotions became the themes for dozens of children’s songs, which continue to be sung today by educators, parents, and children.

“Cathy Says: Her Own Words for It”
Notebook, 1947

 

Transcription: 

Music: ”Why O Why?”

Steve Earle: Woody wasn’t just a political writer or a labor balladeer; he also left behind a store of some of the most enduring and endearing children’s songs ever written. Many of them were inspired by his daughter, Cathy, transforming her words into songs. After her tragic death in an apartment fire at the age of 4, Woody often pulled himself out of depression by noting that Cathy wouldn’t want him to be sad. Even without her earthly presence, Cathy continued to inspire Woody.

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Guthrie originally wrote this song as “Goodnight Little Darling” for Cathy Ann on January 22, 1947. He recorded her reaction to it—”A nice song. You sing a pretty song”—underneath the verses in the original manuscript. Less than a month later, and only a few days after Cathy Ann’s fourth birthday, tragedy struck the Guthrie home. The family radio malfunctioned and caused an electrical fire that fatally burned Cathy Ann while she lay in her bed. Woody and Marjorie were devastated yet determined “to hold onto ourselves and to do things the way that Cathy would like to see us do.” Following her death and preceding the birth of his son Arlo, Woody revised and retyped the lyrics as “Goodnight Little Arlo,” but kept the original date of composition for “Goodnight Little Darling.”

“Goodnight Little Arlo”
Typed lyrics, 1947

Transcription: 

Music: ”Goodnight Little Cathy”

Steve Earle: ‘All work together’ was the family motto. Although Woody married three times and had eight children, each fulfilling different aspects of his life, it was when he had a stable home on Mermaid Avenue, in Coney Island, Brooklyn, that Woody was able to channel his creativity and focus on fatherhood. It was at this moment that Woody felt most at home and spent his days and nights as a stay-at-home dad. He’d bring the kids to build sandcastles at the beach and walk along the boardwalk, grabbing a hot dog at the infamous Nathan’s, while his wife Marjorie was dancing in the Martha Graham Dance Company. In this home tape, you can hear Woody teaching Arlo how to play the harmonica, with Nora, playfully nicknamed “Puffy,” in the background.

Music: Woody teaching Arlo how to playing harmonica

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The Dancer
Raised in Atlantic City and Philadelphia by Aliza and Isidore Greenblatt, Marjorie Greenblatt Mazia joined the Martha Graham Dance Company in 1936. She would appear in eight works from 1936 to 1945, including 1938’s American Document and the premiere of Appalachian Spring in 1944. She went on to found the Marjorie Mazia School of Dance in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. Marjorie and Woody Guthrie met in March 1942 as performers in Graham Company member Sophie Maslow’s Folksay, a piece that combined modern dance, folk music, and Carl Sandburg’s poetry. Woody was inspired by Marjorie’s artistic passion and incorporated choreographic motifs into his own creations, such as these sketches of Graham dancers in technique class.

Transcription: 

Marjorie Guthrie: One of the dancers in Martha Graham’s Company also said to me—you know who’s in town? Woody Guthrie—and she had choreographed a beautiful segment, you know, in dance to two of his Dust Bowl Ballads and she said, instead of using the record I’m going to ask Woody if he would do it in person, on the stage cause I think it would be so effective. Well, when I heard her say that, I said Sophie, I am going with you, to look for Woody—and I came to then what was known as Almanac House. There was a great big loft, on 6th Avenue down here in the Village, and I remember picturing in my mind’s eye what Woody was going to look like. You see, I hadn’t seen a picture of him, but I had pictured a very tall, thin man and sort of thinking of Oklahoma cowboy, I could see the boots and the high hat and the kerchief, you know, and I walked in and way in the distance I see this little tiny guy with what I thought when he turned around was kind of a high forehead and beady-eyes and he looked as if he were asking a question, that was the look on his face, and he didn’t look anything like what I had imagined, but it was truly love at first sight … so that’s how we met.

Steve Earle: In these early years together, Woody would often meet Marjorie after dance class at the Graham School and while waiting for class to end, even sketched some of the Graham technique in his notebook. Woody’s Dust Bowl Ballads became the score of the dance piece “Folksay” and he was invited to perform live with the dancers.

Woody Guthrie: It’s like if you were singing, a bunch of people come over to your house on … tonight, and you have a little beer and pretzels and, uh, get singing around a piano and talking and then seventeen months later somebody walks into your house and says, “Hey, I want to make up a dance. There’s fifteen of my friends. We’re all going to make up a dance. We want you to sing that song exactly like you did on that night seventeen months ago here with the beer and pretzels.” Now it’s got to be count for count, breath for breath, word for word, move for move, eye blink for eye blink, and not just one extra snap or pause or hold or delay or too fast or too slow, you’ve got to do it all over again. And not only that, but when a bunch of dancers get to dancing, if you make a missed beat or a missed count on your guitar, they bump into each other. … Man, there’s all kinds of collisions happening. It’s like on a wet slippery day out here on the skyway, somebody throws on her brakes, everybody has a wreck.

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Jesus Christ Was a Man
Guthrie’s most radical, creative appropriation of the New Testament can be seen in his particularly subversive version of the lyrics to “Jesus Christ,” displayed here. Drawing on Christ’s denunciation of wealth inequality, Guthrie envisions a time of anti-capitalist revolution “when the patience of the poor ones breaks away.” The repetition of “laid Jesus Christ in his grave” emphasizes the cyclical violence perpetuated by corrupt bankers, ministers, “cops,” deputies, “killergoons,” “paid liars,” landlords, and hired soldiers. This vision was inspired by “the sidewalks of New York,” a city that, as Guthrie writes elsewhere, has “got the best of the least for the most, and the most of the best for the least.”

“Jesus Christ”

Typed lyrics, 1943 (first written 1940)

My Peace I Give unto You, 1952
Watercolor, pen and ink, and crayon

Transcription: 

Steve Earle: Although not drawn to traditional forms of organized religion, Woody immersed himself in the study of all facets of spirituality. The universal themes of caring for one another, the hope for a better future, and love as the most important guiding force are reflected in Woody’s own works. In one of his notebooks he even painted the words, “God Is Love.”

Woody Guthrie: Well, I guess you know that, uh, there has been similar incidents of that kind take place where a man come down through the country takin’ it from the rich and givin’ it to the poor. Usually, that’s a pretty interesting subject. I’m not a very smart feller, but I know that sounds awful good to everybody where I come from and I’ve got another song here that I wanna sing because it’s about a man I suppose was more popular than anybody in his own day and time, and I think he was called an outlaw. Might unpopular to be called a Christian in the days that this man was livin’. The name of this one is “They Laid Jesus Christ in his Grave.”

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Life in the Hospital

This collection of objects reveals the manifold challenges—physical, verbal, and personal—of Woody’s life in the hospital. The T-shirt is one of the few surviving articles of clothing he wore and may reflect weight loss from Huntington’s. The “yes” and “no” cards were used by Marjorie to talk to her ex-husband once he became verbally non-communicative. And Arlo’s letter beautifully expresses the pathos of a child unable to see his father.

T-shirt worn by Woody Guthrie at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital, 1956–61
Courtesy Nora Guthrie

“Yes” and “No” cards, ca. 1966
Courtesy Nora Guthrie

Arlo Guthrie (b. 1947)
Letter to Woody Guthrie, undated
Arlo and Jackie Guthrie Family Archives

Transcription: 

Steve Earle: In the 1950s Woody began showing symptoms of Huntington’s disease, a neurological condition he inherited from his mother Nora Belle. His behavior became more erratic, and his slurred speech, combined with emotional outbursts, mimicked signs of alcoholism. Once diagnosed, Woody committed himself to the Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in Morris Plains, New Jersey, in 1956. Marjorie and the kids visited every weekend, making the four-hour round-trip journey from their home to the hospital. To make the visit more enjoyable, Marjorie would bring Woody outside for family picnics, playing in the “magicky tree”—a weeping birch tree whose branches created a magical, secret fort. When Woody could no longer speak, Marjorie made “Yes” and “No” cards for him to touch, proving to the doctors that although he was losing control of his body, his mind was still intact. Although the years Woody lived with Huntington’s were hard, the family made sure to keep him in their lives, sometimes bringing him home on the weekend and having friends over to visit.

Arlo Guthrie: There were people that came over all the time, there were first of all, some of the friends of my dad, every once in a while Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, those kind of people would show up. And then there were people who were not peers of my dad, who were in that sort of Ramblin’ Jack era, but Ramblin’ Jack was one of the guys of that era who was also one of my dad’s sort of partners in crime. Then there were the young people who were coming to the house, the Woody Guthrie wanna-be’s, the people that dressed like Woody Guthrie, people that talked like Woody Guthrie, and it wasn’t like Woody Guthrie, it was like what they imagined Woody Guthrie would walk like and talk like and play like and write like and dress like and all of that. And there would always be some of those guys showing up, and they showed up more and more as the years went by. It probably started with Bob Dylan in 1961 and escalated to all these other people that wanted to be if they didn’t want to be the next Woody Guthrie, they wanted to be the next Bob Dylan, as if there were some kind of hierarchy that if they got close to it, they could touch it that it would rub off on them in some way and you know, they turned Woody Guthrie into a, like a stone that if they knelt before it right, or something like that, that it would give them the powers to do what it is they wanted to do. It was kind of interesting and I just kind of looked at all these guy like, well there was something about them that was kind of cool, I mean they did wear cool clothes, they did play guitars, and they did write and sing their songs. I didn’t get the whole, I didn’t understand what they were trying to do or why they were there, I just knew that they came to sort of make a pilgrimage and we were like the monks of the monastery. It was our job to entertain them, to take care of them, to be inviting, or at least to get out of the way so that my mom could do all of that. I never had any problems with any of those guys. I think some of them sort of faded off into the sunset and others went on to do incredible things.

Audio:

Transcription: 

Bob Dylan: When I met him, he was not functioning with all his facilities at hundred percent, ya know. But the person I saw, I was there more as a servant, than as somebody there, ya I knew all his songs and I went there to sing him his songs—he always liked the songs—and he’d ask for certain ones, I knew them all. I was like a Woody Guthrie jukebox.

Steve Earle: After a fifteen-year battle, Woody finally succumbed to Huntington’s disease and passed away at Creedmore State Hospital on October 3rd, 1967. Marjorie, Arlo, Joady, and Nora scattered Woody’s ashes at their family spot on Beach 36 in Coney Island, saying goodbye to him in the place they called home for so many years. Determined to do something for those living with this rare inherited illness, Marjorie founded the Committee to Combat Huntington’s Disease, later renamed the Huntington’s Disease Society of America. Marjorie’s approach was unique in that she felt the most effective way to make progress was to bring people together: connect doctors with patients, researchers with doctors, push for legislative support for rare diseases and provide support for the families giving in-home care—truly a multi-tiered approach to finding a cure and making a difference. Until her death in 1983, Marjorie traveled the world organizing and making significant grassroots progress to put an end to this fatal disease.

Music: Bob Dylan, “Song to Woody”

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Recorded in Dublin in 1998, Mermaid Avenue is the first full album of songs written by contemporary artists with Guthrie’s lyrics. Nora Guthrie invited British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg and American band Wilco to set many of Woody’s unpublished lyrics to music. The collaboration continued in the second and third volumes of Mermaid Avenue (2000 and 2012). Since 1998, under Nora’s stewardship, over one hundred of Woody’s unpublished lyrics have been set to music by contemporary artists. Nora chose the house on the album cover for its similarity to the old Guthrie home on Coney Island’s Mermaid Avenue.

Billy Bragg and Wilco
Mermaid Avenue
Elektra, 1998

Transcription: 

Steve Earle: With Woody’s physical absence, the torch was passed to a new round of singers and songwriters, often referred to as “Woody’s Children.” Generations of musicians have been influenced by Woody’s hard-hitting songs and straight-talking stories of inequality and injustice as well as hope and humor. Woody’s lyrics have been cemented in the canon of American music, with songs like “This Land Is Your Land,” “Deportee,” “Union Maid,” “Ain’t Got No Home in This World Anymore,” “All You Fascists Bound to Lose,” “Hard Travelin’,” and newly released songs like “California Stars,” “My Peace,” “I’m Shipping Up to Boston,” and “Way over Yonder in the Minor Key.”

Steve Earle: After his collaboration with Woody on the Mermaid Avenue three-disc project, English singer/songwriter and activist Billy Bragg shared his thoughts:

Billy Bragg: ”When it comes to the genre of sing songwriters as a genre of a people who write personal songs with a bit of social edge, all roads lead to Woody Guthrie.”

Steve Earle: American musician, feminist icon, and activist Ani DiFranco shared these words about Woody’s enduring influence:

Ani DiFranco: ”He was a rebel. He was childlike. He was thoughtful. He was deep. He was adventurous. You know, he was all the things you want in your hero, in your artist.”

Steve Earle: And Bruce Springsteen had these words for Woody’s daughter, Nora, when she presented him with the 2021 Woody Guthrie Prize.

Bruce Springsteen: ”Your father is the grandfather of my country. He was the first music where I found a reflection of America that I believed to be true. Where I believed that the veils had been pulled off and what I was seeing was the real country that I live in, and what was at stake for the people and the citizenry who are my neighbors and friends. And that drove me deeply, deeply into a direction that, without his influence, coming at that exact moment (I was 30 years old) … we began performing “This Land is Your Land” in concerts. I don’t know if I would ever have gotten there, if I would ever have found that kind of hope, that kind of dedication to putting your work into some form of action. And, uh, just a deeper telling of the stories of folks whose stories I always felt often go unheard.”

Steve Earle: Woody’s impact is still heard today—speaking up for what’s right, fighting on the front lines, telling true stories of the people. His voice is heard across all genres of music, from folk to punk, jazz to klezmer, classical to hip hop. Because as Woody himself wrote, “I ain’t dead yet.”

Woody Guthrie: ”Take it easy, but take it”

Curriculum

Red Line

The Teaching Woody Guthrie Faculty Collective has created a supplemental college-level curriculum based on the themes and messages found in the “Woody Guthrie: People Are the Song” exhibit.

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