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 It's an exploration of Guthrie's visual art, most of which has been unpublished and unseen for decades.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.
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.