By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Woody Guthrie: ART WORKS
Edited by Steven Brower and Nora guthrie
Rizzoli. 300 pages. $45.
In her management of the Woody Guthrie Archives, Nora Guthrie has seemed determined to make a Renaissance man out of her famous folksinger father. On paper, the projects that have come out of the archives during the last decade are often head-scratchers (Woody Guthrie's klezmer music?). But each one has proven not merely illuminating but also wholly inspiring in subtle, powerful ways. By lighting the shadowy corners of her dad's life, she not only broadens his legacy — she widens the scope of human possibility. Woody, it seems, could and did do anything, not because he had inherent skills but because he was possessed with an unshakable "Why not?" kind of confidence. Such examples fill us ordinary folks with hope and that, more than anything he ever specifically sang about, was Woody's persistent goal.
The best thing to emerge from the archives is the handsome Woody Guthrie: Art Works (Rizzoli, $45). It's an exploration of Guthrie's visual art, most of which has been unpublished and unseen for decades. In light of his status as a musical icon ("This Land Is Your Land," etc.) and the fountainhead of Bob Dylan, this thorough visual examination is worthwhile because of the startling fact on which it's founded: Woody almost didn't become a songwriter at all.
"Contrary to popular mythology, it was with paintbrushes in hand, not a guitar, that Woody Guthrie hit the road for California," Nora Guthrie writes in her introduction. She then recounts an episode from that first westward journey from Oklahoma that, she argues, decided exactly which legacy he would leave.
Woody was hitchhiking with several other young men when the car ran out of gas. Woody headed into town to drum up food and gas money by painting signs, as he'd done for years in Pampa, Texas. He was successful, but when he went back to the car to retrieve his supplies — the guys, the car and his brushes were gone. That week, he discovered he could feed himself much better by playing old folk tunes for misty-eyed migrants.
"Had fortune and destiny worked a slight shift of the hand," Nora writes, "it's very possible that Woody Guthrie might have become a visual artist. And this book might just as easily have been an episode uncovering the unknown songs of Woody Guthrie, rather than his unknown art."
As such, this dignified romp through Woody's sketches, cartoons, paintings and illustrations (alas, the signs throughout the Southwest are long gone) is interesting to Guthrie acolytes and tone-deaf art lovers alike. Steven Brower's insightful — and, thankfully, concise — analysis of the works provides both historical and biographical context for each phase of Woody's expression, from the early line drawings (most of which are infinitely more inventive than, say, John Lennon's) to later abstract swaths and dabs (often smeared right over typed lyrics).
Brower even notes the slight importance of Woody's visit to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1944 as contributing to his knowledge of art history. The day after that visit, Woody wrote home to his wife of the whirlwind experience and how it reminded him of his first passion (in a letter from my own research at the archives, not from the book): "We saw the original of the Guitar Player [by Picasso] you liked so well. ... It was in the same room as Van Gogh, Cezanne, and some others. I always feel like a painter when I come out of a gallery. When I'm inside one, I feel like a sniffing dog."
Aside from the esthetic of its subject, the book itself is beautiful. The reproductions are excellent — worthy of note, given that most of these "works" are doodles from daily calendar books and personal journals (one of Woody's pocket notebooks is cleverly re-created, actual size, in the back pages) — and the design is clever.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
The first words displayed at the trailhead of "This Land
Is Your Land: The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie," the
Smithsonian Institution's traveling exhibit on the
Oklahoman songwriter's life and work, are, "I don't know how
far I'm going to have to go to see my own self or to hear
my own voice."
In Guthrie's life, which ended in 1967 from
complication's of Huntington's disease, that route was a
long one. Guthrie was a virtual vagabond, criss-crossing
the country in search of that voice — an echo of his own, a
metaphor of the American commoner — and transcribing that
voice into thousands of songs, some of which made him
famous. In the exhibit, fortunately, the curious have a
shorter road to travel, simply the length of one small
showroom in which is neatly encapsulated the life of one of
America's greatest artists.
I will call him an artist, too, instead of the more
specific word by which he is usually referred — songwriter.
"This Land Is Your Land" is the physical history of an
artist, a novelist, a painter, a tunesmith and a
philosopher (which has a substantial footing in art,
surely). If this exhibit does nothing else, it broadens our
understanding of Guthrie, not only of his biographical
details and overall social significance but of his creative
mind and the multitudes of outlets he found for his ideas --
In addition to the requisite manuscripts, the exhibit
hall is a riot of scrawls, photos, sketches, artifacts,
drawings and paintings. What's astonishing — and empowering --
is the unity of expression throughout every medium. It's
all the same voice, speaking different languages.
The unifying text in the display is Guthrie's landmark
poem, "Voice," from which those initial lines come from. It's
a poem in which Guthrie explores America's cultural
diversity and lays claim to the unspoken threads tying
together our expression. At the end of the poem, it boils
down to a more nebulous sensory assurance — the "voice" has
become a "feeling." The Smithsonian show, designed by Jim
Simms, re-creates that sense of commonality in all the
blurts of Guthrie's artistic voice.
Even on opening day, visitors voiced their surprise at
the volume of imagery in the show. They had come to see the
works of an old-timey wordsmith — and there are many
examples of his writing — and were confronted with the less
frequently discussed and surprisingly colorful visual
aspect of Guthrie's expression. Watching his visual art
develop as one winds through the snaking canyons of the
display is interesting, too. We start with the simple,
comic cartoon "Boom Town," a pen-and-ink depiction of
rollicking Okemah, the central Oklahoma oil boom town where
Guthrie grew up. Next, we move with Guthrie to Pampa,
Texas, where his first solitary wages were earned as a sign
painter. On display in the exhibit is Guthrie's 1937 oil
portrait of Abraham Lincoln, a simple copy of a picture but
one that already illustrates a distinct style — bold curves
and an overtly geometric understanding of form.
Jump to 1942 — another line drawing, cartoonish, of an
Okie grabbing the rails of a passing truck, entitled "Move."
That same year, though, Guthrie drew "Rounded Up in Tracy,
California," a depiction of Okies fleeing bullish cops in
the misadvertised "garden of Eden." The clear, simple lines
of the police car in the background give way to a more
fluid foreground — a nebulous crowd dominated by one man
silhouetted in the police headlights, the only details
being the buttons and collar of his work shirt and his
white, angelic hands.
From this point on, the crisp lines of Guthrie's
drawings bleed into wider, bolder strokes of ink and paint,
and the forms of his subjects relax into more nebulous,
ghostly figures. "Starvation Disease," undated, features a
face — barely — in muted watercolors and only three lines of
facial features to communicate an oceanic depth of
melancholy. Along one wall is a series of half a dozen
prints from April 1946, each panel a depiction of a woman
from behind in different modes of physical labor. She is
faceless each time, allowing the viewer to more easily
enter the scene and feel her weary but unyielding
"Hootenanny," from the same month, is a virtual stick
figure, a curly-headed guitar player assembled completely
from lines and circles. It looks like the kind of image
that accompanied ancient Oriental calligraphy — few strokes,
but big, sweeping ones — or the work of a more carefree (or
harried) Leroy Neiman. "Figures in Embrace" is a swirl of
only 17 strokes, but they're in there, that couple --
hugging, maybe even dancing.
It's no coincidence that Guthrie's visual art became
more pliable — and more prolific — as he grew older. The
immovable convictions of his younger days and older songs
softened in a broader understanding of the world. More
significantly, the onset of Huntington's disease began
making detail work more difficult. With shaky hands, he
could more easily sweep a fat brush across a large sketch
pad than trace the intricate lines of a wooden Okemah
sidewalk with a fine-pointed pen.
It's also no coincidence that the panel in this
exhibition depicting Guthrie's deteriorated state prior to
entering the hospital in the early '50s returns again to
the words of "Voice." Over an enlarged photo of a bedraggled,
bearded, hollow-eyed Guthrie playing guitar in New York's
Washington Square Park, we read, "And I thought as I saw a
drunken streetwalking man mutter and spit and curse into
the wind out of the cafe's plate glass, that maybe, if I
looked close enough, I might hear some more of my voice." At
this stage, Guthrie was that drunken streetwalking man,
finishing his interminable expedition for that common
sound, that absolute feeling, that universal voice.
It's too bad that a couple of things inhibit our
reception of Guthrie's voice throughout the exhibit. A show
that's designed to be displayed in 3,400 square feet has
been crammed into about 1,300. In several places, the
lighting has all the candlepower of a dashboard, which
makes reading Guthrie's all-important words especially
trying. Noisy humidifiers rage throughout the tour, too,
drowning out many of the speakers broadcasting various
snippets of Guthrie's singing and speaking voice. It's
annoying, but Guthrie's signal still gets through.
The show also features numerous interesting tidbits
beyond the visual aspect focused here: these include his
copy of Omar Khayyam's "Rubaiyat," several of Guthrie's
notebooks and datebooks open to interesting pages, his
shipboard fiddle (which also had carved upon it the slogan
"This Machine Kills Fascists"), a few watermark original song
lyrics, one of his business cards from KFVD in Los Angeles,
his address book (open to Pete Seeger's address and phone
number in Greenwich Village) and the "yes" and "no" cards with
which he communicated in the hospital once his voice was
At the end of the show, we are left with the ultimate
Guthrie send-off. From his bed in the Brooklyn State
Hospital, Guthrie scrawled with a brush the chorus of his
signature tune, "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You." Each
panel advances the line a few words, with a little doodle
in that broad-brush style to accompany it. It's the
convergence of his languages, visual and written
expressions coming together in a more refined voice, a
voice still echoing from the redwood forests to the
The exhibit continues at the Oklahoma Museum of History,
2100 N. Lincoln Boulevard in Oklahoma City, near the state
Capitol. For information, call (405) 522-5248.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.