an outdoor concert in Tulsa last weekend, two
granddaughters of Woody Guthrie, sisters Sarah Lee
Guthrie (left) and Annie Guthrie, sang backup vocals
on one song with Oklahoma musician Brad Piccolo.
Okla. — 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.
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
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 April 27.
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.
this be here forever?" Mary Jennings, now Mary Boyle,
indeed it will, Nora Guthrie assured her.
listen to contemporary singer / songwriters, all roads
lead to Guthrie. To listen to Nora Guthrie, the road from
here extends in all directions.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
the Guthrie Center, a 13-minute video chronicles his life
and includes testimony from his musical disciples: 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").
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.
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.
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.
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
session with the media, Nora Guthrie talked about the long
path to the new center.
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.
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
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.
was the first clue I had that we should be coming to
Oklahoma," Guthrie said.
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.
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.
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
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" .)
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.
point is," she said, "what do you do with what
Guthrie and museum officials expect the new center to tell
a larger story of American history, creativity and
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.
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.
idea," McCloud added, "is to have people walk
away from this with an inspiration to make their own
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."
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.
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.
tell Billy Bragg every time I see him," Nora Guthrie
said, "I wouldn’t be here without you."
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
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.
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 on the opening
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
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.
the afternoon concert proceeded, following a civic
ribbon-cutting, Mary Jennings Boyle sat bundled up and
watched with her daughter, Anne Jennings.
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.
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
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.
idea," said Nora Guthrie, "is not to look up to
him, but always to look eye to eye with him."