Remembering Woody Guthrie

If you have any touchpoints to the 1960’s, you’ve probably sung This Land is Your Land a lot of times. And I’ll bet you know what a hootenanny was, and that you’ve heard of Pete Seeger and Lee Hays, who along with Woody Guthrie and Millard Lampell were the Almanac Singers. Woody Guthrie  was a gifted, complicated, and ultimately tragic man who died at 55 from Huntington’s disease, a lethal neurological ailment he inherited from his mother. He influenced generations of musicians who came after, including Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Johnny Cash, Phil Mellencamp, and a host of others. Guthrie sang the songs of poor farmers dispossessed from the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. and their tragic legacy endures in his music.

On Sunday evening a friend and I went to Seattle Repertory Theater for a performance of Woody * Sez, The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie. The two hour performance by four exceptionally talented singer/musicians offered up 37 Guthrie songs, and the mostly gray haired audience knew them all. In between, actor David M. Lutken — who played Guthrie — told the Woody Guthrie story. That story was essentially the story of all the poor families who set out in their jalopies, few possessions tied above, kids inside, after they lost their farms and went on the road looking for work that was rarely there. It was a life of grinding poverty, hunger, sickness, ultimately hopelessness, lived out in gullies along railroad tracks in tar paper shanties made of scraps, or sometimes without any shelter at all. This was before the New Deal, before there were social supports for hard working people who’d lost everything — the very safety network Paul Ryan and the Republican Congress funded by Koch brother libertarianism is hell bent on ripping to shreds.

The cast said they’ve performed in 78 cities around the world, and it seems as if the show is nearing the end of its run. If you do have a chance to go see it, by all means do. It will remind you what we’re fighting for, yet again.

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