Woody Sez is a thoroughly enjoyable and effectively assembled presentation of Woody Guthrie’s life and music.
Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie. Words and Music by Woody Guthrie. Devised by David M. Lutken with Nick Corley. Presented by the American Repertory Theater at the Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, MA, through June 3.
By Anthony J. Palmer.
Two theatrical and biographical evocations of major American musicians have come to the Boston-area in the last few weeks: Woody Guthrie, folk-singer extraordinaire, and Leonard Bernstein, one of America’s greatest musicians. These two could not be further apart in their lives and in their music. Yet they both occupy a large-size patch on the quilt of Americana. (See my Arts Fuse review of Hershey Felder in Maestro: Leonard Berstein.)
Their music appeals to the average person, Guthrie through his songs and their insightful lyrics about the demeaning conditions of the working class (or the out-of-work as the case may be) and Bernstein through his popular theater pieces such as West Side Story. Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” is as notable a part of the American musical fabric as is Bernstein’s “Maria” with its augmented fourth beginning.
They were also educators in the larger sense: Guthrie through songs that focus on the plight of the worker as well as his charming children’s songs; Bernstein through his Young People’s Concerts. They lived through the Great Depression and the Civil Rights Movement, traveled the world, and produced music that reflects their personal experiences. Both were iconoclasts. Guthrie was prohibited from singing on the radio because of messages in his songs while Bernstein’s musical Candide ridicules cultural pieties through its assault on Leibnizian optimism.
Each made a powerful impact on musicians that followed them: Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen, the whole of the folk movement after World War II, American composers and conductors who now stand on the podiums of major orchestras. Finally, neither could have been born and lived in any other place. They were American through and through.
Woody Sez, the thoroughly enjoyable and effectively assembled American Repertory Theater presentation of Woody Guthrie’s life and music, features the irrepressible David M. Lutken as Woody. He is ably assisted by Darcie Deaville, Helen Jean Russell, and Andy Teirstein. They play, in toto, four guitars, three fiddles, four harmonicas, an over-sized viola, an autoharp, an Appalachian dulcimer, a mandolin, a banjo, a pennywhistle, a jaw harp, and spoons (soup, that is). I didn’t keep count, but according to the program, the musicians played 31 songs either composed by or connected to Guthrie.
All four members of the cast are expansively competent, both vocally and instrumentally, and put the audience members on the edge of their seats during the boisterous numbers and then rendered them quietly appreciative of the tender ballads. At one point, Teirstein was on the stage with Lutken on the step below, each fingering the other’s respective guitar and banjo while continuing to strum their own instrument with their right hand, quite a feat and a treat for the audience. In true country fashion, no one simply played and sang: they supplied a lot of fancy footwork as well.
The minimal stage set consisted of a backdrop of photos and paintings, and a few boxes and stools were used for seating when needed. The result was that the quartet was constantly in motion; the musicians only stood still during the rendition of a particularly moving song. Woody was a traveling man, and the group’s constant motion seemed to be a metaphor for that part of his life.
Woody’s story encompasses both joy and heartache. Hearing that his mother passed away from Huntington’s disease presages what the audience knows, that Woody would suffer the same fate. His songs reflect the trials of his fellow country folk. The thirties are famous for the Great Depression (somewhat akin to our present financial debacle) and the Dust Bowl, an economic disaster that forced hundreds of thousands to abandon the land to search for brighter prospects. The tragic event produced John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and its central character, Tom Joad, who journeyed to California searching for a better life. Woody was inspired by the figure and wrote “The Ballad of Tom Joad.” Decades later, Bruce Springsteen would rely on the John Ford movie version of the novel and the Guthrie song to create his own ballad of Tom Joad.
Another song connected with the Steinbeck novel, “Do Re Mi,” proffers an upbeat tempo, though the lyrics tell a sad story of Dust Bowl travelers who, arriving at the California border, are not allowed to pass into the “Garden of Eden” without paying a hefty fee, a practice that was illegal. By the time they arrived at the West Coast, most of the uprooted were penniless. The “Sinking of the Reuben James” is another tune inspired by a tragic tale: the destroyer USS Reuben James, while heroically protecting an ammunition transport, caught a torpedo and went down immediately. Only 44 of 159 aboard survived. Too many to account for laments the song’s refrain, going on to ask hauntingly, “What were their names, what were their names?”
“This Land Is Your Land” is the signature song of the Guthrie output. The lyrics speak truth to power: “This land belongs to you and me.” His view of America is as valid today as ever. Howard Zinn, who occupies an adjacent patch on the American quilt, addresses this real history in The People’s History of the United States. In his songs, Guthrie speaks of an America for, of, and by the people. Lutken and his crew bring home to us today just how valuable Guthrie and his music are to understanding the complexity of America’s past. An astute observer of the American spirit, he needs to be listened to. Those who are close to young children—sons, daughters, grandchildren, neighbors—owe it to them to take them to this production, if only as a way to help them better understand the history of the country they will inherit.