“You could listen to his songs and actually learn how to live.” Bob Dylan
Woody Guthrie died in 1967, but he remains one of then most influential songwriters and recording artists in American history. His songs, which spoke for the average worker and against racial injustice, are as relevant today as they were when he wrote them beginning in the 1940s and throughout the following decades. A new exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum is a comprehensive and fascinating look inside the life and times of America’s iconic folk singer. The exhibition was curated in collaboration with the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, music historian Bob Santelli, and Woody Guthrie Publications.
Guthrie, born and raised in Oklahoma, lived half of his time in New York City. It is perhaps fitting that the Morgan should showcase Guthrie’s life. “This is the Guthrie we know,” said the exhibition’s curator, Dr. Philip S. Palmer. “He wrote `This Land Is Your Land,’ arguably the most famous protest song of all time. And he’s been an influential touch stone for musician activists ever since he wrote that song a few blocks from the Morgan at 43rd and Sixth Avenue, in February 1940, 82 years ago.” Guthrie had been staying at the now defunct Hanover Hotel.
Palmer said that the stories about Guthrie’s life were extensive, so organizing the exhibition was a massive undertaking. “The exhibition is going to celebrate all the elements of Guthrie, the Guthrie we know, but also show his complexity,” Palmer said. “We have brought together an extraordinary selection of instruments, lyrics, objects, art and media to tell the story of Guthrie’s music and its continued role today. He was a musician, but he was also a poet and an artist. He wrote about politics, but also of love and spirituality.”
Guthrie was married three times, to Mary Jennings, whom he married in 1931 when he was 19, and divorced in 1940. Children with his second wife, Marjorie Greenblatt, include the folk singer, Arlo Guthrie, and Nora Guthrie, president of Woody Guthrie Publications. “[Woody] was a stay at home father for his children with Marjorie, who was teaching dance at the time,” said Deana McCloud, executive director of the Woody Guthrie Center. “While he was certainly an unconventional father, he was an attentive and patient listener to his children, encouraging them to sing, write, draw, create, and simply play. His children were his biggest inspirations during this time of his life. While he did spend long periods away from home as a spokesperson for the people, he knew his children in ways that most parents never do.”
On display are the postcards that Guthrie sent to his daughter, the prose accented with whimsical drawings. “There’s material that is very serious that will make you angry and make you want to wake up and fight,” said Palmer, “but there’s a lot of playful creativity too. A lot of joy.”
Throughout the show, there is an emphasis on Guthrie’s ability to connect with people, not only historical figures of the era and celebrities (he wrote songs about Joe DiMaggio and Ingrid Bergman), but also for the many nameless workers represented in songs like “The Blinding of Isaac Woodward,” and “Union Maid.” “We see Guthrie expressing outrage at the labor and racial injustices felt by his fellow Americans,” said Palmer.
“My hope is that visitors have a fuller understanding of who Woody Guthrie was as a person and how his work spoke for all of the people–the Somebodies and the Nobodies,” said McCloud. “Woody’s work is intended to inspire all of us to find the power of our voices to create positive changes in our society. Whatever it is that you can do–do that, and in Woody’s own words `Be proud of yourself and in your work.'”
Woody Guthrie’s Guitar with the Iconic Phrase, “This Machine Kills Fascists.”
The exhibition is divided into six parts. “The Places I’ve Been” traces Guthries life from his beginnings in Oklahoma, through his time in Texas, California, and the Pacific Northwest. “He had his childhood and his adolescence in the Midwest, including his formative experience with the Dust Bowl in the 1930s,” said Palmer. (Severe dust storms devastated farms and resulted in serious droughts, in many cases lasting eight years.) On display is Guthrie’s first studio album “Dust Bowl Ballads” from 1940. An audio guide will allow visitors to hear from Guthrie himself. “He did this incredible session with Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress in 1940 and some of his stories about the Dust Bowl are really moving,” Palmer said.
Pete Seeger’s Banjo with the Phrase, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”
The section of the exhibition titled, “This Is Our Country Here,” includes Guthrie’s Martin guitar which bears his phrase “This Machine Kills Fascists.” Other instruments in the show include Guthrie’s 1952 guitar, the fiddle he played during Word War II, and Pete Seeger’s banjo, boasting the phrase, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”
Throughout the exhibition, visitors can view Guthrie’s handwritten lyrics, most with notes scribbled in the margins. One can’t help but be in awe seeing these simple words on paper and realizing the enormous impact they had and continue to have decades later.
“Guthrie had this uncanny ability to distill a news story or the account of someone’s life from a book into a topical ballad or a protest song,” said Palmer. “And as he explains in a notebook he kept in 1942, `There is no real trick to creating words to set to music, once you realize that the word is the music and the people are the song.’”
Exploring the exhibition, younger people, who may not be familiar with Guthrie, will discover him, his music, and his continuing inspiration to other musicians. “One of the sections of the exhibition is entitled `I Ain’t Dead Yet,'” said McCloud. “Woody often wrote this, and we firmly believe that he is still with us–through the voices of Chuck D, Tom Morello, Lady Gaga, Mickey Guyton, and so many others who have the courage and empathy to use their platforms as a way of speaking for the people and shining a light on inequity.”
Woody Guthrie: People Are the Song
Through May 22, 2022
The Morgan Library & Museum
225 Madison Avenue
Photos by Charlene Giannetti