Thursday, January 26, 2017

Woody Guthrie didn’t Read the Headlines He found the Battle Lines


On Friday, at the Jacob Burns in Pleasantville about a hundred ticket holders found residence in Peter Frumkin’s biographical documentary  on Woody Guthrie called “Ain’t go no Home.” Opening the evening, which included a discussion from Mr. Frumkin and Guthrie’s daughter Nora, Jacob Burn’s program director, Brain Ackerman described the initiative of this forefather of American popular song. 

“He didn’t just read the headlines, he found the battle lines of where things were happening and then went out and did something about it,” he said.  

The film opened on a similar note with insight to the song that his name will always be synonymous with – America the Beautiful.  The lyrics were written as a left wing response to “God Bless America,” a song that he loathed.  He felt dustbowls, injustice and depressions were not in God’s hands but in the control of ordinary Americans to change.  Hence the words, “This land is your land, this land is my land…”

On film, Bruce Springsteen commented on the simplistic genius of the words Guthrie put to music.  “You’ve got to exert ownership over the place you live,” he said, "and take on the responsibility required of citizenship." Although, other than Springsteen and Pete Seger, the film is mostly devoid of big name celebrities. 

Mr. Frumkin commented on how difficult it was to condense Guthrie’s story into a 95 minute documentary.  He traveled so far and wide and performed with so many people that he chose to limit the film mostly to family members. Among them, his first wife, daughter Nora, and little known performers from the early days.

Ms. Guthrie pointed out in pride how so many of the interviewees ultimately used the same phrase to sum up her father.  “He was just Woody,” she said.  

She chalked this up to the way he approached life unfettered by whatever the prevailing political or social winds of the day were.  “Woody would look inside and say to himself, what’s the right thing to do today,” she said. 

Contrary to the popular impression of him, his conscience came from that of a well read man and not just a simple Oakie.  He spent much of his young life educating himself in the library. 

His identification with the struggles of the common man did not come out of a book, though.  He, like so many of his time, came from a family of means that lost everything.  As a result of the disease that would incapacitate and eventually kill him in 1967, his mother’s struggle with Huntington’s Disease would take it all away.

The erratic behavior brought on by the disease lead to family arguments resulting first in death of his sister and several years later his father.  He ended up in an orphanage and took nine years of rage with him before he went out on the road with his guitar to tell the story of America. 
As he gained fame, he found himself performing for causes, putting out 45s and working in radio. He stuck to his principals even in the face of fame and fortune.  He quit a highly lucrative New York radio job over content. Stated in the film, he felt, “There was a great tendency to do what money wanted you to do not what the truth wanted you to do.”

Nonetheless, his talent to talk the language of the needy never left him without money for long.  In “The Dustbowl Chronicles,” a compilation of songs written to coincide with the success of “The Grapes of Wrath,” Steinbeck commented on the ease at which Woody characterized the struggle.  “That little SOB got my entire book in 17 stanzas, and it took me two and a half years to write,” said Steinbeck.


And write he did, according to Ms. Guthrie.  He left behind about 2600 songs that where never recorded, which has her prolonging his legacy and recording about an album a year with different bands.  “I’m taking all my Dad’s material and bringing them to you like he was alive and well,” she concluded.

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