Rob Sez: We Need a New Woody

David Lutken as Woody Guthrie 

I recently drove to Cambridge to an American Repertory Theater production of Woody Sez, a musical about the life of Woodrow Wilson Guthrie (1912-67). This show has been kicking around since 2002 and is definitely one you should catch if it appears anywhere near you.

David Lutken plays Guthrie, and he has a fine sense of Woody’s wonderment and temperament. When Lutken twinkles his eyes, gazes upward, and puts on an Oklahoma draw, he transforms himself from actor to sage philosopher. (Guess it comes naturally. He’s not an Okie, but he grew up in Dallas; he’s also played Will Rogers on stage.) Frankly, Lutken sings and plays a whole lot better than Woody did.

The latter is one of many those looking to poke holes in Woody Sez can find. The play sanitizes Guthrie, starting with his physical appearance. Lutken appears in a clean work shirt and khaki pants; Guthrie–who was a Dust Bowl hobo for quite a few years–was known for being disheveled on a good day. In fact, his poor hygiene was legendary even among his closest friends. In like fashion, the show also glosses Guthrie’s irascibility and irresponsibility, viewing them as occasional bouts of crankiness lurking within a noble soul. There was indeed a principled core to Guthrie, but the man was also a lousy husband, an absentee father, stubborn as a mule, and as dependable as a Yugo.

A few other flaws: Darcie Deauville is a terrific musician, but an occasionally sour singer (unlike Helen Jean Russell and Andy Teirstein, fine interpreters of old-time music). It would also help to review Guthrie’s bio before you go. There are only four actors on stage and the “play” is more of an operetta. There is minimal dialogue–often a “Woody Sez” spoken segue–to cement a biographical sketch that also includes snippets from 33 songs in just over 90 minutes. The actors, except Lutken, play multiple roles at the drop of a hat. (They also play a dozen different instruments.)

Yet the darn thing works. The telescoped life and repertoire acts as a sort of Whitman’s Sampler and makes one appreciate how much Guthrie crammed into a short life. No one knows how many songs Guthrie actually penned–we’re still unearthing them–but though it’s seldom realized, Guthrie’s active career spanned fewer than 20 years. He was struck by Huntington’s chorea in the late 1940s, and spent more time in the hospital than he did on the road. 

Here’s the other thing Woody Sez invokes: a sense that too many of today’s musicians wallow in narcissism and/or isolation. Name a prominent post-1975 protest song singer. Had to think about that one didn’t you? They exist, to be sure, but whose modern repertoire quakes with songs of moral outrage such as    “Jolly Banker,” “Do Re Mi,” “Pastures of Plenty,” “Vigilante Man,” or “The Ballad of Tom Joad?” Who even remembers that “This Land is Your Land” was a protest song written to blow the rose-colored glasses from the faces of kneejerk patriots crooning “God Bless America?” (Check out the lyrics no one sings: http://www.arlo.net/resources/lyrics/this-land.shtml ) And how many of today’s look-at-me singers would live among ordinary folk, crash in hobo camps, pick fruit with migrant workers, or walk the picket line? Many contemporary musicians proudly proclaim their apoliticism, a pronouncement that would have sickened Guthrie’s generation (Pete Seeger, Lead Belly, Paul Robeson, Lee Hays…)

Guthrie did those things. He also emblazoned his guitar with the slogan “This Machine Kills Fascists,” spoke truth to power, and reveled in making songs simple enough to sing. (He once said, “Anyone who is using more than two chords is just showing off.”) He warned us that some men rob us with six-guns and some “with a fountain pen.” His advice for the bellicose? “Plenty of rich folks wants to fight. Give them the guns.” The pious? “Love is the only God that I’ll ever believe in.” It’s as if he anticipated today’s music when he said, “I could hire out to the other side, the big money side, and get several dollars every week just to quit singing my songs and to sing the kind that knock you down farther and the ones that poke fun at you even more and the ones that make you think you've not got any sense at all. But I decided a long time ago that I'd starve to death before I'd sing any such songs as that.”

Rob sez, we sure could use a new Woody Guthrie. --Rob Weir

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