Woody Guthrie’s great American voice gets a new home in Tulsa

05/03/2013 5:23 PM

05/16/2014 3:39 PM

T The woman in the wheelchair and headphones is watching pictures go by and hearing a narrator speak about a place and a moment long ago.

On the screen a typewritten love letter appears and the words scroll down and you can imagine the woman when she first laid eyes on those words. It was 80 years ago in Pampa, Texas, when Mary Jennings, then 16, succumbed to the sweet words and married Woody Guthrie. Here she was, reliving the memory.

Behind her was her daughter from a later marriage, Anne Jennings, who wiped away tears, and on the woman’s right side watching the screen was Nora Guthrie, daughter of Woody Guthrie and his second wife and a driving force of the Woody Guthrie Center, which opened last weekend.

The center, an archive and interactive museum, is devoted to the legacy of a singer, songwriter, artist and novelist whose place in the firmament of great American voices now grows ever brighter.

“Will this be here forever?” Mary Jennings, now Mary Boyle, asked.

Yes, indeed it will, Nora Guthrie assured her.

To listen to contemporary singer/songwriters, all roads lead to Guthrie. To listen to Nora Guthrie, the road from here extends in all directions.

Born in Okemah, Okla., Woodrow Wilson Guthrie would’ve turned 100 in 2012, and a series of celebratory events, concerts and publications put a spotlight on him and his work. Earlier this year a newly discovered novel, “House of Earth,” found in archives at the University of Tulsa, came out to much acclaim and a rash of raised eyebrows, given its combination of populist worldview, poetic prose and graphically frank sexual content.

And now the Woody Guthrie Center focuses his story more than ever before. The center’s opening came amid a weekend of activities, including an afternoon of music and a blended-family reunion of Guthrie relatives from the East, West and inland coasts.

The center includes interactive stations where visitors can learn about Guthrie’s cross-country travels and the stages of his life, from the hardscrabble and dusty years in Oklahoma and Texas, to his arrival in New York, a stint in the Merchant Marines during World War II and his long and sad decline as Huntington’s disease, a nerve disorder, ravaged his body and his life. After 15 years living with the disease, which at the time had no cure or treatment, Guthrie died in 1967 at age 55.

“It was an awful, awful, awful disease,” Nora Guthrie said. Her mother, Marjorie Mazia, a longtime dancer with Martha Graham’s company, became actively involved in raising awareness about the disease and working with genetic scientists to find a cure.

Nora Guthrie was 4 years old when her father was first hospitalized, and 17 when he died, and her involvement with his archives in her New York home over the last few decades has given her a relationship with the father she never really knew. It was many years after his death, she said, “when I started to play with him.... My experience is with the totally healthy man. It’s the joy of my life.”

In the Guthrie Center, a 13-minute video chronicles his life and includes testimony from his musical prodigies: the British singer/songwriter Billy Bragg, the bluegrass guitarist Del McCoury (“There’s only one or two Woody Guthries who come along in a lifetime”), the singer/songwriter Ani DiFranco (“He was all the things you want in your heroes, in your artists”), the Scottish singer Donovan (“Woody was the one that inspired us all”).

One corner of the second-floor exhibit space is devoted to the Dust Bowl, including an excerpt from the recent Ken Burns documentary. Elsewhere display cases hold guitars, his fabled, inscribed fiddle, which he rescued twice when the liberty ships on which he was crewing were torpedoed, drawings and paintings he made on the road and even a small address book, opened to the page listing phone numbers for folk song researcher Alan Lomax and Guthrie’s friend and fellow musician Huddie Ledbetter.

A circular display in the middle of the main room, much like a shrine, features one of the center’s most significant holdings, a handwritten draft of his enduring anthem “This Land Is Your Land,” which is surrounded by pertinent objects and listening stations.

At other kiosks you can dial up songs containing one of a couple of dozen key words. At still another, children and adults can try their hand at writing their own songs.

Photographs in a temporary gallery space — an exhibit by John Cohen, a member of the New Lost City Ramblers and participant in New York’s burgeoning folk music scene of the 1950s and ’60s — document poignant moments during Guthrie’s stay in a state hospital. A young Arlo Guthrie, Nora’s older brother, pays a visit with his mother. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, a still-active troubadour, gives Woody a hug.

In a session with the media, Nora Guthrie talked about the long path to the new center.

Nearly 20 years ago, she came across a sheet of paper that had her father’s handwritten lyrics for “This Land Is Your Land.” We ought to do something with this, she suggested to a friend at the time. Within a few years the manuscript was highlighted in a traveling exhibit by the Smithsonian Institution, and she got training from the Smithsonian people, she said, in how to make an exhibit.

In the meantime, she said she received a letter from a woman in Oklahoma who had been a nurse at an institution where Woody Guthrie’s mother had been warehoused since her son was 9 years old. Guthrie’s mother also had Huntington’s disease.

Turns out the woman knew where the elder Nora Guthrie was buried, and her namesake granddaughter traveled to Norman, met with Woody’s younger sister, Mary Jo Edgar, and held a service, some 80 years after the woman’s death in 1929. Nora was in something like a dream state when she sensed her grandmother reaching out to touch her.

“That was the first clue I had that we should be coming to Oklahoma,” Guthrie said.

A confluence of people and visions came together to make Tulsa the center’s home. Bob Santelli, a longtime music researcher and executive director of the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, had envisioned a Guthrie museum. Nora Guthrie, who serves as president of the Woody Guthrie Foundation, had conversations with people from the George Kaiser Family Foundation in Tulsa, which amounted to brainstorming sessions on ways to honor her father. Maybe a statue. Maybe something else.

In the end, the Kaiser Foundation bought the Guthrie archives from Woody Guthrie Publications in 2011, and began to develop a couple of square blocks in a near-downtown neighborhood called the Brady Arts District.

Voila, the 12,000-square-foot center was born, along with Guthrie Green, a park across the street with high-end landscaping amenities. It includes a sloping natural amphitheater and a well-designed stage with sound system, all powered by a solar roof on a raised pavilion and a geothermal field underground.

Guthrie answered the obligatory media question about the possible irony connecting her father, whose life and work was all about standing up and giving voice to the working poor, and a prominent banking billionaire (Kaiser) in Tulsa. (For reference, see Wilco’s online recording of Guthrie’s dark satire,

“The Jolly Banker.”

)

Nora Guthrie deflected the observation with grace and reason. Old political fights are boring, she said, and if her father’s work means anything, then inclusiveness and generosity are virtues for all.

“The point is,” she said, “what do you do with what you’re given?”

Overall, Guthrie and museum officials expect the new center to tell a larger story of American history, creativity and culture.

“We’re doing more than giving history lessons or a biography of Woody,” said Deana McCloud, executive director of the center and a longtime producer of an annual Woody Guthrie Festival in his hometown of Okemah.

“What we’re doing is showing an example of someone who used his creativity in multiple ways to express his world. His voice was in his lyrics and his art works, and we can learn so much about the creative process if we view these things and take in everything he was doing.

“Our idea,” McCloud added, “is to have people walk away from this with an inspiration to make their own creative works.”

The Guthrie center is the first official affiliate site of the Grammy Museum and a precedent for projects elsewhere, said Santelli. “This is a story that’s bigger than Woody Guthrie,” he said of the center. “The goal is to make that story come alive.”

Guthrie spent more time on the road than in recording studios and as a result, only a small fraction of his 3,000 songs have found a permanent home in the soundscape. Nora Guthrie has been working to change that, at least in part prompted by the interest of Billy Bragg.

His explorations in her boxes of old documents resulted in the “Mermaid Avenue” recordings in 1998 — all previously unheard lyrics by Woody Guthrie and new music and arrangements by Bragg and Wilco. The two-disc project (a third disc came later) helped launch a new generation’s interest in the old master.

“I tell Billy Bragg every time I see him,” Nora Guthrie said, “I wouldn’t be here without you.”

In 2012, Guthrie’s centennial year, a similar project, “New Multitudes” featured Jay Farrar, Will Johnson, Yim Yames (elsewhere known as Jim James) and Anders Parker making fresh work of more Guthrie fragments, journal entries and lyrics. Among highlights of that project are “Hoping Machine,” which feels like a long-hidden classic, and “No Fear,” which captures an essential piece of the Guthrie philosophy: “I got no fears in life, I got no fears in death.” (A second disc in a deluxe edition includes Guthrie-inspired songs written and played by Farrar and Parker.)

The Guthrie family commissioned composer David Amram to write a symphony based on “This Land Is Your Land.” And musicians as varied as the Klezmatics, Natalie Merchant, Tom Morello and Jimmy LaFave have developed their own projects with Nora Guthrie’s help. This summer Nora Guthrie’s niece, Sarah Lee Guthrie, daughter of Arlo, will release a disc of her grandfather’s tunes with her husband, Johnny Irion, and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy.

Sarah Lee Guthrie came to her grandfather’s music rather late in her 12-year music career. She was more comfortable leaning toward punk, she said, but just in the last couple of years, as the Guthrie centennial approached, she started learning some of his songs. And last weekend, in the chill of a Tulsa afternoon, she gave a riveting a capella rendition of “Birds and Ships,” a lovely short song featured on “Mermaid Avenue.”

She was a third generation musical Guthrie, but she also introduced her 5-year-old daughter, Sophia, who sang her own song about shoes and later joined in the concert finale, a “This Land Is Your Land” singalong.

As the afternoon concert proceeded, following a civic ribbon-cutting, Mary Jennings Boyle sat bundled up and watched with her daughter, Anne Jennings.

Tiffany Colaninno, the Guthrie archivist, was beaming about the center’s first donation. It was a letter to a new-born niece, which Guthrie wrote in 1937. Over 10 pages, Guthrie laid out his view of the world and the universe. The letter affirms, Colaninno said, what some have recognized as a deep spiritual and mystical current running through the artist’s mind and work.

Despite the fact that the letter had been published in a biography, having the original artifact was like finding the holy grail for the collection, she said, and it gave her confidence that more material would be coming out of the woodwork.

All of the words, the objects, the music and the interactivity in the new center is intended to paint an increasingly nuanced, continually evolving and often-surprising portrait of Guthrie.

“The idea,” said Nora Guthrie, “is not to look up to him, but always to look eye to eye with him.”

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