How it’s New York: “Woody Sez” takes place at Irish Repertory Theatre, one of the city’s best residential theatres. Guthrie
influenced the Clancy Brothers and Christy Moore. Andy Irvine, of Planxty, has a wonderful song tribute to Guthrie in his “Never Tire of the Road.”
How it’s (Irish) Scottish: Woody Guthrie was of Scots descent, and his mother sang old ballads to him. The show has been performed at the Edinburgh Fringe and in Belfast.
Somewhere during the thrilling performance of “Woody Sez” at Irish Rep I began to feel depressed.
When did the working man stop believing in unions? When did labor throw in with management? How did this happen? Would Guthrie, whose guitar had “this machine fights fascists” on it, be dismissed as “Antifa” today?
There has hardly been a rally this year that didn’t close (or open) with Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” Maybe, like me, you learned the song in kindergarden (along with “If I Had a Hammer,” written by Pete Seeger, a long-time collaborator of Guthrie’s). Maybe you forgot this song was composed by a 20th-Century American.
Woody Guthrie (1912-1967), the subject of the devised musical byby David M. Lutken with Nick Corley and Darcie Deaville, Helen Jean Russell and Andy Teirstein, is considered the father of American folk-music. Rightly so. His music, which chronicled the Dust Bowl years in particular and fought Fascism, had an impact on not only folk singers but also rock singers.
“Woody Sez” at Irish Rep is already on my Top 10 list. It is one of the best shows of the year.
I know, the year’s not over. This show will not be edged out of Top 10. It will probably stay in Top 3. Hell, it may stay at the top.
It was meant to end in June, but it kept extending. It now will end on Sept. 10. You can still see it: hurry up!
Guthrie’s influence on Bob Dylan is well known: some people even assume “The Ballad of Tom Joad,” which frames and interweaves “Woody Sez,” is by Dylan (it isn’t). Guthrie also has a large impact on Bruce Springsteen (whose “Bruce Springsteen on Broadway” just went on sale and, hurray! has just been extended to February! odds of my getting a press ticket aren’t high, but I’ll cover it as I can!). A Rolling Stone article points out that Springsteen often sang “This Land Is Your Land,” and recorded “The Ghost of Tom Joad” because he was inspired by Guthrie:
“There was always some spiritual center amid Woody’s songs,” Springsteen said in 1996. “He always projected a sense of good times in the face of it all. He always got you thinking about the next guy, he took you out of yourself. I guess his idea was salvation isn’t individual. Maybe we don’t rise and fall on our own.”
You may not realize how many songs of Guthrie’s you know: “This Train is Bound for Glory.” “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Ya.” “Do Re Mi.” “Union Maid.”
And of course, Guthrie also had an impact on the Irish Folk Revival, influencing the Clancy Brothers and Christy Moore. Andy Irvine’s tribute to Guthrie, “Never Tire of the Road,” includes the refrain “All of you fascists bound to lose,” a Guthrie song (snippet, really).
At the NYC Women’s March, someone carried a sign with those words on it:
All of you fascists bound to lose.
If “Woody Sez” were just four talented musicians playing Woody Guthrie songs, with a little intro, it would be great. But it’s so much more than that. It’s a theatrical collage of music and time; it takes us through decades of America, with Woody as the bard: the script opens with the words the open Homer’s “The Iliad,” “Sing, O Muse.”
Guthrie, like Homer, was a bard. His subject was not so much the great hero as the Common Man. Through “Woody Sez” we understand the nobility of the Common Man. It breaks the heart. It uplifts the spirit.
If you go on a Sunday, you can go to the post-show hootenanny after the matinee, around 5:30 p.m. at The Storehouse, 69 West 23rd at 6th Avenue. The cast come and play and sing, and encourage the public to play and sing with them.
It’s very “aw, shucks,” and it’s real. Guthrie was from Oklahoma, and came by his Midwest decency honestly.
Like the incredible Scottish production “The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart” (listen to our podcast about it here!), there are musicians playing as you enter the theatre. And just as they are in that show, the musicians are the actors. Lutken, who plays Woody (and looks incredibly like him, in the photos hanging onstage), described the show to us in our podcast as “guitar theatre.” He didn’t want the actors and the musicians to be separate.
It’s quite a feat: the cast are amazing musicians, and wonderful actors who give heart-rending performances. They play 15 instruments, including fiddle, dulcimer and jaw harp, among them and play a variety of roles: sometimes members of Woody’s band, sometimes his mother (portrayed by Helen Jean Russell), who suffered from Huntington’s disease, which led to dementia. Later in life Woody suffered from it himself. Fire follows his life: his mother was a fire-starter, and Woody’s child from a second marriage was killed in a fire.
The show takes its title from a folksy column Woody wrote in the ’30s for The People’s Daily World Newspaper, itself taking its title as a play on a column by Will Rogers.
Listening to some of the things Woody said and wrote, it’s hard to believe they weren’t expressed yesterday.
“The only time there’d be a brawl is if somebody built a wall around a country and tried to call it theirs.”
This verse from “This Land Is Your Land:”
There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;
And on the sign it said private property;
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing;
That side was made for you and me.
There’s also a funny moment when Woody, doing a radio show with his band, sing “a song for all them Republicans:” “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Ya.”
The show reveals America during the Dust Bowl: the despair, the goodness, the harshness. In “Do, Re, Mi,” slang for dough, of course, there’s this lyric:
Now, the police at the port of entry say,
“You’re number fourteen thousand for today.”
Oh, if you ain’t got the do re mi, folks, you ain’t got the do re mi,
Why, you better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee.
California is a garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see;
But believe it or not, you won’t find it so hot
If you ain’t got the do re mi.
Through all of this, though, we come to care about Woody and his journey. Andy Teirstein plays the male roles and the
guitar, among others, and Megan Loomis takes the soprano harmonies and fiddle solos. Oh, and some ingenue roles.
Yes, it’s a bio play, but not only of Guthrie, but of America. We spoke to Lutken in our podcast about how the show’s meaning has changed since they first began touring it in 2007.
It’s never been more needed than now.
“Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie”
runs through Sunday, Sept. 10 at Irish Repertory Theatre,
132 West 22nd. St.
p.s Andy Irvine’s “Never Tire of the Road” has been recorded with his new group, Ushers Island, a group that includes John Doyle, Donal Lunny, Paddy Glackin, and Mike McGoldrick.
I don’t have a video of them performing it yet, but meanwhile here is Andy alone singing his tribute: