By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer
When you think of Woody Guthrie, you think in black and white.
You think of dust bowls and desperation, of socialism and slow train rides. His image – earnest folkie troubadour, roaming America from sea to shining sea – is as set in stone as the faces in Mount Rushmore.
So how does it change things to know he thought about flying saucers? That he fantasized about Ingrid Bergman? That he wrote songs he called “supersonic boogies?”
How does it change the image of a legend to learn that he was a man, not an icon?
Woody Guthrie, dead three decades, is being reborn, and the new Woody is far from the dour left-winger who inspired the folk movement of the 1960s. Instead, he’s a little bit silly, and a lot more human.
“He’s not just a serious folk singer,” says Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter and fighter for his image, the person singly most responsible for the man’s belated comeback.
Nora Guthrie’s most potent weapon in her battles sits on West 57th Street in New York City. There, she runs the Woody Guthrie Archive, and one of the most astonishing collections of untapped art American music has ever seen: 3,000 Woody Guthrie songs never recorded, some never read by anyone.
And now, she’s letting other artists get their hands on those songs to convince the world that her father’s songs aren’t stuck in the 1930s, or trapped in the purist constraints of folk music. They’re as up-to-date as you want them to be.
“You wanna kill a song? Tell someone they have to play it a certain way, that’s how,” Nora Guthrie says.
Woody Guthrie’s life was an unending string of tragedies. As a child in Okemah, Okla., his sister was burned up in a fire, his father went broke, and his mother was committed to a mental hospital.
But he did manage to write beautiful, brilliant songs about the poor and downtrodden, stirring songs about America’s beauty and the need for a classless society. He was the first self-appointed Voice of the Common Man, The Grapes of Wrath with a six-string, leavened with his Okie wit.
(Schoolchildren will know him best as the man who wrote the song they sing after the Pledge of Allegiance, “This Land Is Your Land.” That it is sung reverently as a patriotic hymn is ironic, considering that Woody was branded a Communist throughout the McCarthy era, and was certainly a socialist.(His famous quote on the topic: “I’m not a Communist, but I’ve been in the red all my life.”)
Music historians disagree, as they always do, but Woody Guthrie has been called everything from the first folk singer to the first singer-songwriter. And what is unquestionable is that he had an enormous influence on rock and roll, mostly through the conduit of Bob Dylan, who idolized him.
A lot of Woody’s songs had what the wags would call a “message,” pushing for things like unionization or equality. But to limit your view of him to those message songs – railing against capitalism or racism or poverty – is to miss a whole other side to his music.
Find, for example, the “message” in this:
Hoodoo voodoo, seven twenty one two
Haystacka hostacka A B C
High poker, low joker, ninety nine a zero
Sidewalk, streetcar, dance a goofy dance
No need to summon up your inner English major to analyze those lines: It’s a song Woody wrote for his children – and there’s nary a complaint about fascists to be found.
“He wrote some incredible stuff, but because of illness and war and other things that stopped him, we’re stuck in time with him as an artist,” Nora says. “Let’s just say the truth, that he wrote songs about Joe DiMaggio and Ingrid Bergman and not just Dust Bowl stuff.”
“Hoodoo Voodoo” was never recorded in Woody’s lifetime. It’s one of the thousands of lyrics – scrawled on scraps of paper, in notebooks, or in diaries – that rests in the Guthrie Archive.
The reason those songs never got played is that Woody was too sick. In 1952, after his behavior had become more and more erratic, he was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, a debilitating nerve disorder that took his body and his voice. He stayed in a mental ward and a hospital bed until his death in 1967.
But he didn’t stop writing until near the very end, and those songs, thousands of them, are what make up the archives.
After Woody’s death, all his papers were boxed and toted from place to place around New York City by his wife, who would also answer fan mail out of a Manhattan office. Eventually, responsibility passed to Nora. (Woody has two other living children, including folk singer Arlo Guthrie.)
Nora had been busy raising a family of her own, after working as a dancer and choreographer. When her youngest was old enough, Nora started coming into the office to help out, stuffing envelopes and licking stamps.
“It just escalated,” she says. “The material kept nudging me. I started going through all the file cabinets and said, Oh, this is cool. My creative mind just got tapped.”
She decided that her father’s material was too important not to preserve. She hired an archivist to protect and organize all the lyrics, as well as the thousands of other writings, artwork, and belongings in the archives. Now, to examine the lyrics, scholars put on white gloves and handle with care.
And, just as important, she decided that her father’s material was too important not to share. Nora wanted to get her father’s work into the public eye, to convince the world it knew only part of him.
The first project was an ani mated children’s video based on “This Land Is Your Land,” modeled in part after the videos Nora’s kids had watched. Then came a record of Woody songs sung by his family, based on a long-lost songbook from the 1940s. That record earned a Grammy nomination.
After her initial successes, Nora started to think about how best to get attention for Woody’s music. “I thought, we should be producing stuff and getting this stuff out, instead of waiting for people to come to us.”
That’s when she decided she would approach British protest singer and punk-folkie Billy Bragg, for what has become the centerpiece of the Woody revival.
Nora had long been a fan of Bragg, the brash cockney who in the 1980s scrawled “This guitar says sorry” on the face of his guitar to emulate Guthrie, who famously wrote, “This machine kills fascists” on the face of his.
She proposed that Bragg have a look at the archives’ lyrical stash, choose what he liked, and make an album.
“I sent him a little bag full of stuff, and said, It’s stuff like this,” Nora remembers. “He said, I’ll be right over.”
Bragg brought in the American roots-pop band Wilco to help him on the album. Woody left no musical notation for any of the lyrics, so Bragg and Wilco songwriters Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett had to construct a tune for each song.
The result, an album called “Mermaid Avenue” after the Coney Island street the Guthries lived on in the 1950s, is extraordinary. Bragg and Wilco reinvent Woody’s old songs and make them their own – which is precisely what Nora Guthrie wanted.
“Some of them sound like Billy’s songs, and some of them sound like Jeff’s,” Nora says. “I told them, Make believe some guy next door brought over some lyrics and said, Here, play with this. I didn’t want them to be inhibited because they’re Woody Guthrie songs.”
The music ranges from rollicking drinking songs to acoustic ballads and does just what Nora wanted – that Woody Guthrie was more than just a Dust Bowl singer.
There are joyous songs about a late-night carousing with Walt Whitman’s niece, the silly rhymes of “Hoodoo Voodoo,” and a fantasy about making love to Ingrid Bergman on a volcano. There are also songs on more traditional Guthrie topics, like the great union song “I Guess I Planted” and the political irony of “Christ For President.” But folk purists looking for Pete Seeger-style strumming might be disappointed by the variety.
“Mermaid Avenue” has gotten universally positive reviews, and will no doubt make many critics’ year-end top 10 lists. It has also made Woody Guthrie, never fashionable or famous during his playing days, hot.
Bragg and Wilco recorded about 40 songs for “Mermaid Avenue,” and the rest could be released on a second album next year. (That one would likely include “My Flying Saucer,” Woody’s 1950 lyric he wanted to be played as a “supersonic boogie.”) And alt-folkie Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe label will release a live album of a Woody tribute concert held at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Work has just been completed on a Smithsonian Institute touring exhibit on Woody’s life; it will go around the country in late 1999 or early 2000. Several children’s books are in the works, including one based on “This Land Is Your Land.”
Otherwise, Nora is busy doling out lyrics to the people she thinks they work for, like some ersatz Santa. “I’ll just read a lyric and say, `This is a Lou Reed song,’ or `This is a Dylan song,’ or `This is a heavy metal song or a rap tune’,” she says.
Her current project: working with klezmer superstars The Klezmatics to release an album of Woody’s Jewish songs. “The Klezmatics aren’t going to come to me and say, `Hey, got any Jewish songs?”‘ she laughs. “So I’ve got to go to them.”
Eventually Nora will open up the lyric archives to anyone from Joan Baez to the Jungle Brothers. Until then, though, she wants to keep some control of the lenses through which her father’s work is viewed.
It’s an odd position for Nora to be in, essentially serving as the agent and publicist of a man dead for 31 years. But she said she is having the time of her life getting her father’s work out.
“We just laugh and say Woody’s in charge of this,” she says. “I just answer the phone.”