By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Woody Guthrie, despite his aw-shucks Okie persona, was no fool. He knew how the fame game worked — it hasn't changed much, even since his 1940s folksinging heyday — and he seemed to know exactly what would happen to his own musical legacy.
"The hungrier you get up here in New York, the more they run your picture," Guthrie wrote to his younger sister in 1949, inserting a photo of himself from The New York Times. "After you starve clean to the rim of death they call you a professional, and after you die off they call you a great genius."
He continued, foreshadowing the collection of his notebooks, lyrics and artwork that now constitutes the Woody Guthrie Archives: "And when somebody steps in and buys up all of your diaries and scribblings and songs and poems they call you the greatest feller which ever lived, so's your debtors and loaners can get rich off the stink of your dead bones and yaller pages of ideas."
Guthrie himself certainly never got rich off his music, and I don't think anyone else has, either. But as Nora Guthrie, Woody's daughter and the overseer of the Archives, told me earlier this year, "The influence of my father's music lives today, and will live throughout the 21st century."
That would have been clear this year — even without a string of celebrations marking Guthrie's 100th birthday.
In a post-Occupy landscape, Guthrie's topical, rabble-rousing spirit seems infused into everything from the street-marching "guitararmy" in New York City and elsewhere, often led by Chicago-area native Tom Morello, to the latest output from Bruce Springsteen (his new album, his SXSW keynote speech).
The varied Woody100 centennial events this year featured many posthumously hailing Guthrie, indeed, as a "great genius." They included six academic conferences (I spoke at one in March in my and Guthrie's home state), folk concerts big (a Los Angeles hoedown in April featuring Graham Nash, John Doe, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Kris Kristopherson and more) and small (Chicago's own tribute show in May), plus exhibits, plays and more. A few more national concerts are on tap — Sept. 22 in Brooklyn (with Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Billy Bragg, Steve Earle and more) and Oct. 14 at D.C.'s Kennedy Center (with Arlo Guthrie, John Mellencamp, Jackson Browne, Donovan, Lucinda Williams and more) — before wrapping the centennial and moving the Archives from New York to its new home in Tulsa, Okla.
Chicagoans can catch one last centennial event — a good one — during the next few weeks.
"Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie," a stage musical presenting just that, opens Sept. 21 and runs through Oct. 21 at Northlight Theatre, inside the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd. in Skokie.
Guthrie and Broadway? Have no fear. "Woody Sez" is a low-key, high-spirited celebration of Guthrie's music, featuring 30 folk songs (Guthrie's and other traditional tunes). It's far less jukebox musical than a kind of down-home playlist — a splendid swirl of tunes coming and going, each telling and supporting the story.
The Northlight production — featuring the show's creators, Nick Corley (director) and David M. Lutken (starring as Guthrie) — features a simple stage littered with musical instruments: four guitars, mandolin, upright bass, autoharp, dobro, three fiddles, banjo, dulcimer and a harmonica. In an hour and a half, the four actor-musicians keep snatching them up for a verse here, a chorus there, a full song or a reprise. This is how Guthrie lived — applying bits of songs to aid both speech and memory — and it's not so different a method from our own YouTube samples and iPod shuffles. Guthrie just happened to be a walking folk-music Google.
Lutken is great, warmly telling Guthrie's story and differing from his source material only in ways that aren't exactly complaints (unlike Guthrie, Lutken is a tall drink of water and sings beautifully). The cast also features David Finch, the delightful Helen Jean Russell and Austin musician (and formidable "Jill of all trades") Darcie Deaville. They act, they sing, they juggle, they tell bipartisan political jokes.
(There might even be an unintentional gay-marriage laugh in the show. "I married a girl," Lutken narrates as Guthrie, then continues after a slight but significant beat, "Most of us did in those days" — likely an innocent Guthrieism that the Sept. 14 audience reacted to with a slow wave of winking chuckles. Ever-adaptable, that Woody.)
Knitted together by verses from Guthrie's "The Ballad of Tom Joad," "Woody Sez" hopscotches through the folksinger's biography (in fact, taking giant leaps through his later years), ably chronicling what happens when a man with a singular voice not only finds it but figures out what to do with it. "I began to see the difference," Lutken says as Guthrie, "between wanting something to stop — and wanting to stop it."
Guthrie's legacy remains a bottomless well of inspiration for like-minded souls, and these centennial celebrations hopefully seeded more to come.
Deep down, though, Guthrie knew something else about celebrity, and — despite his pure and sainted status — he was happy for the attention. Perhaps channeling Oscar Wilde, he closed a 1948 manuscript with these lines: "I don't care / What you say about me / Just so you say it."
'WOODY SEZ; THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF WOODY GUTHRIE'
• Sept. 21-Oct. 21
• Northlight Theatre, inside the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd. in Skokie.
• Tickets: $25-$72; (847) 673-6300; northlight.org
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.