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Woody Guthrie’s folk anthems are iconic American music. His youth in the Midwest during the Dust Bowl and engagement with labor unions and political causes are reflected in songs like “This Land Is Your Land.” Always political, his music has influenced everyone from Pete Seeger to contemporary musicians like Ani DiFranco and Bruce Springsteen. We learn about a new musical, now at Theater J, that explores Guthrie’s life and music.
- David Lutken Actor, musician; creator, "Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie"
- Helen Jean Russell Actor, musician
- David Finch Actor, musician
Cast members from “Woody Sez” perform Woody Guthrie’s iconic “This Land Is Your Land” in the studio.
“Woody Sez” Promo
Woody Guthrie: “This Land Is Your Land”
Woody Guthrie: “Pastures Of Plenty”
Woody Guthrie: “Pretty Boy Floyd”
MR. KOJO NNAMDIOver the course of his lifetime, Woody Guthrie wrote more than 1,000 songs and became one of the most iconic folk musicians in American history. His lyrics reflect the songwriter's hard scrabble life as a child of the Dust Bowl and the Depression, as well as his leftist leanings. His best known tune, "This Land is Your Land" is considered an unofficial national anthem. His influence on the music world can be felt to this day in musicians like Woody who see music as an agent of political change. His life and music are now on stage at Theater J.
MR. PATRICK MADDENJoining us are some of the cast members from that show. David Lutken created the musical "Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie" on stage now at Theater J. He plays Woody in the production. He plays guitar as well as the autoharp. David Lutken, thank you for joining us.
MR. DAVID LUTKENOh, thank you very much for having us.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Helen Jean Russell. She is an actor, singer and musician also appearing in the musical. She plays the upright bass. Helen Jean Russell, thank you for joining us.
MS. HELEN JEAN RUSSELLThank you.
NNAMDIAnd David Finch is an actor and musician specializing in strings and horns. He plays the role of Pete Seeger in "Woody Sez" among other roles that is. I figure since everybody is so familiar with "This Land is Your Land," could you start off by playing that for us?
NNAMDI"This Land is Your Land," David Lutken, Helen Jean Russell, David Finch, all members of the cast in "Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie." If you have questions or comments, give us a call at 800-433-8850. What kind of influence do you think Woody Guthrie had on the music world, 800-433-8850? David Lutken, Woody Guthrie wrote more than 1,000 songs. What kind of influence has the life and music of Woody Guthrie had on American music?
LUTKENA lot. Woody Guthrie, as you say, he wrote -- he really wrote all of his life. He wrote and recorded and published, I guess, about 1,000 songs but he actually wrote a good deal more than that, including a couple of books. And his newspaper column, which was called Woody Sez and that's where the name of the show comes from. And his -- not only his poetry and lyrics, but also his philosophizing I think has had an influence on all kinds of artistic and political and cultural things since then. He really was only active in a big way from about 1935 until 1950.
LUTKENSo in a very short period of time, in just 15 years really, give or take, he produced an awful lot of pithy stuff. And an awful lot of people have used him as a kind of jumping off point and influence for all kinds of things. As I say, political, cultural and musical.
NNAMDIIncluding the song that you just rendered, "This Land is Your Land." Tell us about that song. It's my understanding it was a response to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America."
LUTKENThat's right. In the winter of 1939 and 1940, that song "God Bless America" was very, very popular. And Woody happened to make a road trip during that winter up to New York City, and apparently heard that song on the radio over and over and over and over again. And during his long trip I guess he must've come up with the idea that perhaps there was a little too much emphasis being placed on God and a little -- too little influence being placed on people helping each other out.
LUTKENAnd on February the 23rd of 1940 at a place called Hanover House in New York City, which was kind of a flophouse sort of a place, Woody wrote the first verses -- six, I guess it was -- verses of "This Land is Your Land." And this song, really he sort of set it aside but he did perform it as far as anybody knows. The book just came out about the song "This Land is Your Land" which is a very interesting book. But that was -- he wrote it in 1940 but not really until much later did it become one of his signature songs. And that really, they say, at the suggestion made by Pete Seeger. That Pete really thought it was a great song.
NNAMDISpeaking of Pete Seeger, David Finch, you play Pete Seeger among other roles in this show. Pete Seeger is another iconic American folk musician that I love. Tell us a little bit about the relationship between Woody and Pete Seeger.
MR. DAVID FINCHWell, I'll start by saying I don't necessarily play Pete more than just representing him or symbolizing him. I sort of do the same thing with Leadbelly and Cisco Houston and Sonny Terry. So some of the other people that Woody carried on with I more symbolize or represent them. But, yeah, they had a very special relationship. As you probably know, Pete is -- well, he's from the east coast, New Jersey, New York area. And so -- and most of the other folks that Woody played with were from the south and the west. So I think, you know, Pete added a different kind of dynamic to, you know, the playing with Woody, you know.
NNAMDIHelen, you were part of the original cast of this show when it debuted in Edinburgh, Scotland. Your main role in this show is playing Woody's mother, Nora Belle Guthrie. Tell us a little bit about her and the relationship between Woody and his mother.
RUSSELLWell, once again, as David Finch said, it's more representative but she's a very interesting character. The main representation in the show is that she was the first to be diagnosed with Huntington's Disease. Was she actually diagnosed in her lifetime, David?
RUSSELLOkay. Which is a disease that caused her to do some pretty erratic things that kind of focused on what people would say was pyromania I suppose. And that kind of carried through as sort of a fear that Woody had throughout his life of getting the same disease. So that...
NNAMDIAnd he ultimately did.
RUSSELLHe did indeed, yeah.
NNAMDIWoody Guthrie and his family suffered a number of tragedies, did they not?
RUSSELLA lot. And a lot of them had to do with fire, strangely enough. But there was also a lot of his children -- he lost a lot of his children just under tragic circumstances. I think out of the eight that he had there was just the one family that's still all -- is that right David?
RUSSELLI'm looking to David because he's our resident scholar here.
NNAMDIDavid, what caused you to be the scholar? What got you interested in creating a show about the life of Woody Guthrie?
LUTKENWell, when I was a very small child growing up in Texas, I learned a lot of folk music. And I didn't really know at that time when I was four that my teachers were quite progressive folks. But I learned a whole lot of American folk music. And since I was in Texas and my teachers thought that that was important, I also learned a good bit of Woody Guthrie music, since he was born in Oklahoma but he really -- he spent an awful lot of time in Texas. And a lot of the sort of Guthrie clan, family were from North Texas and Southern Oklahoma.
LUTKENAnd at that time I didn't really know much about his life of course, but I then read his autobiography, which is called "Bound for Glory" when I -- I guess I was in high school when I read that book. And it's a pretty fascinating book. It's not exactly truthful. He kind of exaggerated a few things I think. I don't think I'm telling anybody anything new there. But it's quite a beautiful book and has a lot of wonderful things in it about the time and about the people in the 1930s and right around the beginning of World War II.
LUTKENAnd then as I got a little bit older and I was a musical person playing all kinds of things in all kinds of venues, Woody Guthrie was always in my repertoire. And I began to learn gradually more about his life. And Harold Leventhal, who was Woody's old manager and the trustee of Woody's estate for a long time -- Harold Leventhal and I became friends because of another show about Woody Guthrie. There are several shows about Woody and his music. And they're all great and I've had -- Helen and I have done a couple of them. And I wrote a show for children about his music as well.
LUTKENBut in researching his life, Mr. Leventhal encouraged me to do a show that was really the best I could do as a biographical thing. And so that's when I really sort of plunged into the research about his life and all of his travels and marriages and everything else.
NNAMDIAnd Woody helped in more ways than one, it is my understanding, to put this show together because it's my understanding that about 70 percent of the words in this script are his own words.
LUTKENThat's right. I went back to all of the sources that I could find, "Bound for Glory" being the main one, but also of course his column Wood Sez, which has a lot of great quotable stuff in there, and "Born to Win." And there's a great old show, which is really the beginning of it all, which was put together by Millard Lampell, who was one of the Almanac Singers. And Millard, in 1956, put together a concert, sort of a presentation called "California to the New York Island." And he used a lot of Woody's words. And so I really sort of started with that and then expanded and found all kinds of biographical -- autobiographical things that Woody had written about himself.
LUTKENAnother great thing he wrote called American Folksong where he talks a lot about Leadbelly and Aunt Molly Jackson and his people he met and worked with in New York and California. And I did -- you're absolutely right, I took as much of those things as I could find and with a lot of help from collaborators that I brought around me, including Helen Jean Russell here and Andy Teirstein and Darcie Deaville who are the three other original musicians.
LUTKENI also got a great old friend of mine who's a very experienced musical theater director. His name is Nick Corely. And Nick has been our director from the very beginning and a collaborator on the script as well. And I wove together these quotes and stories that Woody told about himself into the script of the show.
NNAMDIWell, I was introduced to the blues when I first heard an album by Huddie Ledbetter. But you mentioned on several occasions "Bound for Glory." So can you therefore play because we really want to hear it. "This Train is Bound for Glory."
NNAMDI"This Train is Bound for Glory." It's all a part of the musical "Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie" performed by David Lutken. He plays guitar as well as the autoharp. And he is the creator of the musical. It's on stage now at Theater J. Helen Jean Russell plays the upright bass and David Finch, he plays violin. And they are all in studio with us. We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Let's talk with Mike in Washington, D.C. Mike, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NNAMDIYeah, that's you, Mike.
MERTOkay. Actually it's M-E-R-T.
MERTAnd I live in Bright Wood, too. How about that?
NNAMDIOh, Bert (sic), I live in Bright Wood. Go ahead.
MERTYou are no longer with (unintelligible) right?
NNAMDIGo ahead, Mert.
MERTNo, anyway I'm just going to say that is a very good song. I was on a different train but I would just say that Pete Seeger played at my elementary school graduation out in Florida and quite a while back.
NNAMDIYeah, that had to be quite a while back.
MERTIt was kind of funny. And actually Joe Scott Herritt (sp?) played at my high school graduation.
NNAMDIAh, you've had some influential people in your life. Are you a Woody Guthrie fan, Mert?
MERTWell, yeah, definitely. But I also like Arlo Guthrie.
NNAMDIOh sure, the son.
MERTAnd of course that's his son, right?
MERTCouple of (unintelligible) L.A. I'm actually a go-go person. How about that?
NNAMDIWell, all of the above. Thank you so much for your call, Mike (sp?) , and I hope you're enjoying the broadcast. You, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. Are you a fan of the folk tunes of Woody Guthrie? Do you think music has the power to fuel social change? That's one of the things we're going to talk about right now. David Lutken, Woody's name was Woodrow Wilson Guthrie. His namesake was Woodrow Wilson, and he proudly carried the name.
LUTKENOh, absolutely. His father -- Woody's father, not Woodrow Wilson's father, but Woody's father was active in politics in Okeman, Oklahoma. And so when he realized that his wife was going to have a child, they determined that he would be named for the then Democratic nominee, actually. Woody was born in July, and Charlie Guthrie was a big Democrat, of course, in those days. And Woody, I guess, it took Woody a little while to become political, but it didn't take him very long to become musical.
LUTKENAnd it was very interesting how those two things got together in him, and really as a result, not only of his dad's influence, I guess. His father was kind of an erstwhile bunch of things. He was a merchant and kind of a lawyer and kind of a politician, and land speculator.
NNAMDIWho did not do very well, or whose finances eventually fell apart.
LUTKENHe certainly had his ups and downs, yes. And -- but Woody, of course, rode along for those ups and downs and talks about them a lot, wrote about them a lot later in his life.
NNAMDIHe says, my father was a hard fist-fighting Woodrow Wilson Democrat, so Woodrow Wilson was my name. We want to get into the politics of Woody Guthrie, but first we've got to take a short break. If you'd like to call, the number is 800-433-8850. What kind of influence do you think Woody Guthrie had on the music world? You can send us email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or send us a tweet @kojoshow. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org, make a comment or ask a question there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about Woody Guthrie in general, and in particular, we're talking about "Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie," now on stage at Theater J. We're talking with the creator of that musical, David Lutken. He plays Woody in the production. He plays guitar as well as the auto harp. Helen Jean Russell is an actress, singer, and musician, also appearing in the musical. She plays the upright bass, and David Finch is an actor and musician specializing in strings and horns. He represents Pete Seeger in "Woody Sez," among other roles.
NNAMDIWe're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. We should mention that "Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie" runs through December 14 at Theater J, which is at 1529 16th Street Northwest. We got an email from Trish in Alexandria. "I love Woody Guthrie's music, as well as Bob Dylan and all those who followed. I heard one of Woody's childhood heroes was Will Rogers? Is that true?" Well, Trish, you should know that was going to be my next question because Will Rogers was also from Oklahoma. David Lutken, remind us of Will Rogers' place in American culture at the time Woody was growing up, and yes, he was one of Woody's biggest heroes.
LUTKENOh, absolutely. Will Rogers at the time was really a superstar while Woody was growing up, and it just so happens, of course, I have also played Will Rogers in a couple of things including "The Will Rogers Follies." So I do know a little bit about Will Rogers. My dad actually saw Will Rogers when he was a kid, and got a rope to twirl that we still have somewhere. But Will Rogers, of course, was a generation before Woody, a little more. Well, I guess that's about right.
LUTKENHe was born in 1879 and grew up not too far away in Oologah, Oklahoma, and he became famous, of course, as kind of a -- as a rodeo performer, really, doing rope tricks and all that kind of thing with Wild West shows. But he then rocketed to, as I say, to superstardom as a personality, a philosophizer, I guess that's the second time I've used that word in this interview. And an awful lot of people idolized Will Rogers, and he began, I think in late 19-teens writing a regular newspaper column which was called "Will Rogers Says."
LUTKENAnd that's where Woody got the name for his column, obviously, a few years later. And when radio came out, Will Rogers became the biggest radio star of all very quickly, and all through the twenties and the first part of the 1930s, Will Rogers was the bees knees as far as Woody was concerned. As a matter of fact, Woody named his first born son Will Rogers Guthrie.
NNAMDIHe also admired Will Rogers' politics. Can you talk about that?
LUTKENOh, absolutely. He, you know, Will Rogers was a Democrat as well, and out in California in the middle 1930s, Will Rogers, of course, died in a plane crash in 1935. But Will Rogers had been very influential in the politics of the new deal when Roosevelt was elected, and even though he always said, of course, I never met a man I didn't like, he certainly had his opinions and was not afraid of expressing them at all to audiences of literally millions of people. And in his Democrat-leaning politics, as I say, he was pretty influential as a private citizen in the -- well, I wouldn't say the formation, but I would certainly say the aura of the new deal.
LUTKENAnd Woody fell right along in with that and when Woody traveled to California, I think is when Woody really became interested and infused with the politics of the day because, of course, of the Depression.
NNAMDIGlad you brought that up because Woody headed west to California as many Okies did during the Dust Bowl in search of work, but California was far from a paradise for Dust Bowl refugees. What was life like in California for Okies like Woody Guthrie, and how did that shape his politics?
LUTKENWell, my goodness gracious.
NNAMDIIn 10 words or less.
LUTKENAfter we get through with this interview, nobody will have to come see the show. You will have heard the whole thing.
NNAMDIOh, just tell us a little bit. Just make us hungry for it.
LUTKENI'll do my best. I would say in one sentence, Woody did a pretty good job when he was writing the song "The Ballad of Tom Joad" when he said Tom came to the mountain and he looked to the west and it looked like the promised land. A bright green valley with a river running through it. There'd be work for every single hand. He thought there'd be work for every single hand. And that was really kind of an encapsulation of what Woody experienced out there. That he came out there and just thought it was an amazing place, but it turned out not to be.
NNAMDIBut since Woody communicated so much through music, and he saw music as an agent of change, Woody Guthrie wrote a song about being an Okie far from home at that time. So can you perform "Oklahoma Hills" for us?
LUTKENSure, we'd be glad to. Ready? One, two, three.
NNAMDI"Oklahoma Hills" from the musical "Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie" performed by David Lutken, the creator, and performers Helen Jean Russell and David Finch. Let's go to the phones and talk with Jonathan who is in Montgomery Village, Md. Jonathan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JONATHANHi. Great to talk to you all. It's an honor to be on your show, Kojo.
JONATHANThank you. A couple of things. I'm an admirer of Woody Guthrie, and I had actually forgotten until it fairly recently came up in another radio show that I was listening to somewhere, where it said that he was named after Woodrow Wilson.
JONATHANNow, I knew that his father was a Democrat, and I knew that in addition to being a populist, what that meant at that time really bears mentioning for us today, when we look back at our history and where we've come from, you know, at that time that really meant that he was a supporter of racist policies. So the populism did not extend beyond his race. And I read -- I don't remember what it was called, but I did read, not an autobiography, but a biography of Mr. Guthrie, and that particular biography didn't cover this topic, but later I learned from an interview with his ex-wife, or excuse me, his widow, that he underwent a transformation in his lifetime.
JONATHANAfter he started to become pretty popular, actually, and he was getting on radio shows, he got called out on his rather insensitive racism, and he made a turnaround, and I wonder if your show deals with that.
LUTKENWell, first of all, now, let's not confuse Charlie with Woody.
JONATHANNo. No. I don't mean to. Forgive me. I get a little nervous when I'm on the radio.
LUTKENNo. No. I get nervous when I'm on the radio, too.
LUTKENBut Woody -- you're absolutely right. Woody experienced quite a transformation when he went to California, but I think like an awful lot of Americans, people's transformations are difficult to track. But you are correct that when he first got to California and he was writing songs and making up songs on the radio, some of his songs were quite insensitive. But the people that he met in California, Frank Burke who ran the radio station KFVD and Ed Robins who wrote for the People's Daily World newspaper and got Woody his job writing his column, and particularly Will Geer, actor and activist who was married to Herta Geer, and they were very big in the Socialist movement and the Communist party, all those folks.
LUTKENAnd they, I believe, your -- they were a big influence on him, and in particular having to do with his inclusiveness which he was very proud of in his later -- not very long after that when he would frequently find a way to have himself photographed with Brownie McGhee and blind Sonny Terry in a restaurant, for instance, in New York City, so that they would all be photographed together eating lunch.
NNAMDII'm glad you mentioned New York, because when you're talking about the evolution of Woody Guthrie, he ended up in New York City a little later in his career in the forties where he fell in with a crowd of like-minded artists and union organizer, and his politics were also further shaped during this period by World War II. We don't have a lot of time left, but can you talk a little about the famous slogan on his guitar?
LUTKENOh, sure. Well, thank you very much for your question, first of all. That's a very good question, and it does lead directly what Kojo is mentioning, which is that during the war, Woody joined the Merchant Marine and wanted to participate in the war, even though he was a draft dodger, but he believed that the best way that he could participate was to play music and to sing songs because he believed, and he put a sticker on his guitar that said that this machine kills fascists. And he wrote other things and had other stickers on his guitar as well, but that was certainly the most famous one.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid we're just about out of time. David Lutken created the musical "Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie," on stage now at Theater J. It runs through December 14. Theater J is at 1529 16th Street Northwest. David joins us in studio along with Helen Jean Russell who is also appearing in the musical. She plays the upright bass. And David Finch who represents the role of Pete Seeger in "Woody Sez." He plays violin. I'm going to ask you if we can go out on "Gypsy Davy."
LUTKENOh, gosh. Well, we've already heard Woody Guthrie do "Gypsy Davy" if I remember correctly.
RUSSELLAnd we don't really have the right instruments for that one, but thank you for asking. You'll have to come see it at the show.
LUTKENI'll tell you what, "Gypsy Davy" was right up in there with an old song called "Red Wing."
LUTKENAnd Woody Guthrie wrote some new words to "Red Wing" which was one of my grandfather's favorite songs.
NNAMDIWe got 30 seconds of it. Let's do it.
NNAMDIThank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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