Timeless anthems, Hanukkah lyrics and Yiddish illustrations — Woody Guthrie contained multitudes
Just about everyone can sing a verse or two of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” a folk ballad so popular that it can almost double as an American hymn.
But did you know that Guthrie also wrote Hanukkah lyrics, sketched illustrations for Yiddish poems, drew a colorful birth announcement of his son Arlo dedicated to the newborn’s Yiddish-speaking Bubbie, and once wrote that in the “reflections, recollections” and voices fluttering” through “Coney Island’s Jewish air,” he “felt that here was my own voice?”
You won’t be alone if you’re surprised by these works on display at the captivating exhibit “Woody Guthrie: People Are the Song’ on display at New York’s Morgan Library and Museum through May 22. You’ll discover that the streets of Brooklyn were among the highways and byways that comprised Guthrie’s journey from the Oklahoma hills where he was born in 1912 to his status today as an unparalleled songwriter and archetypal model for singing truth to injustice. And the road that led him to Mermaid Avenue in Brooklyn also brought him to some of the most productive years of his life.
Curated by the Morgan’s Philip S. Palmer in collaboration with the Woody Guthrie Center, Woody Guthrie Publications and the music historian Bob Santelli, the show chronicles his life and works in a multimedia mélange of words, pictures and music. Handwritten lyrics of some of his most famous songs (including “This Land Is Your Land”) as well as personal notebooks and other writings appear alongside selections from his artwork, which ranges painting and drawing to goofy doodles and biting political cartoons. His characteristic nasal twang also resonates in vintage audio recordings of him singing, talking, playing the harmonica and strumming his guitar.
Oh, and speaking of guitars, the exhibit features a Martin from the early 1940s, the only known remaining guitar of his that bears the phrase he made famous (and scratched onto the instrument’s back), “This Machine Kills Fascists.”
It’s a phrase that resonates powerfully today,” curator Philip Palmer said in an interview, “It can be seen metaphorically — for your voice, your artistic skill, so many things,” he said. “You can ask others, what is your machine to stand up for what is right?”
You can also glean additional tips for living from Guthrie ‘s illustrated “New Year’s Rulin’s” of 1943, also on display, which includes the memorable resolution, “Wake up and fight.”
From Oklahoma, Guthrie moved on to Texas, and then west. By the time Guthrie’s roaming landed him in California in 1937, his mother had already died of Huntington’s, the same genetic degenerative disease that would claim his life in 1967. He had also survived the breath-choking dust storms that further devastated the drought-stricken region known as the Dust Bowl and witnessed, and personally experienced, the daily hardships and frustrations of impoverished Dust Bowl migrants whose high hopes in heading west had been met with low-paying jobs, if any and primitive living conditions.
Armed with harmonica and guitar, Guthrie started performing a mix of traditional songs and some of his own — such as “Do Re Mi,” whose typewritten lyrics appear here — which would become known as his “Dustbowl Ballads” on the Los Angeles radio station KFVD. When his songs became too politically pointed — “I ain’t necessarily a communist, but I’ve been in the red all my life,” he quipped — he was fired, and went on the road again, sometimes accompanied by his new friend, singer-songwriter Pete Seeger.
Together Seeger and Guthrie sang at benefits to raise funds for striking workers, male and female and of all skin colors. Guthrie’s support for unions is on display in his typed lyrics to his 1940 song “Union Maid,” which become a labor standard famous for its refrain “I’m sticking to the union.”
Hitchhiking east, with images of hard-pressed workers and homeless vagrants swirling in his mind, he was irritated by the ubiquitous radio presence of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” a song whose sugar-coated vision of America seemed blind to the realities of the times.
Soon after he arrived in New York City in 1940, he composed “This Land Is Your Land” in response. Its popularity spread, earning him increased recognition, singing engagements, recording contracts and many fans.
Among them was the woman who would become his second wife, Marjorie Greenblatt Mazia, a dancer in Martha Graham’s company. They married in 1945 and moved to Brooklyn, close by to Marjorie’s Russian-Jewish immigrant parents and Yiddish-speaking father Isidore and Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt. Among Guthrie’s illustrations for Greenblatt’s work is the drawing, “The Light That Burned.” Beside it hangs the typescript for his holiday song, “Hannuka’s [sic] Flame.”
Living on Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island, the family grew. Guthrie composed children’s songs and ditties galore, a number of which he recorded. He drew sketches to accompany them in children’s books—some of which appear here. But he was so prolific that he never got around to setting many of his lyrics to music, and after Guthrie’s death in 1967, these manuscripts along with many other notebooks and papers were boxed and stored and mostly forgotten about.
By the mid-1950s, Guthrie’s deterioration from Huntington’s — his loss of motor control visible in the exhibit in the decline of his tidy penmanship into a disorderly jumble — had become so pronounced that he was hospitalized in various institutions until his death in 1967. The family visited regularly, as did many singers who came to pay him homage. The most famous was Bob Dylan, whose handwritten lyrics for his “Song to Woody” are on display.
Over time, Guthrie lost the ability to speak. Still, his mind remained alert, as attested to by the “yes” and “no” cards on display here that he used to communicate.
As for those boxes: Fast forward to the1990s when daughter Nora Guthrie and her siblings began to sort through them and discovered a vast trove of unpublished songs and other writings, including lyrics and musings on Jewish subjects.
Nora Guthrie and Lorin Sklamberg of the Klezmatics set a number of these lyrics to music and recorded them on “Wonder Wheel” and “Happy Joyous Hanukkah.” These will be part of a program at the Morgan highlighting Guthrie’s Jewish connection May 20.
Nora Guthrie also asked the band Wilco and musician Billy Bragg to create musical settings for more of the newly discovered lyrics. The albums that resulted were titled — what else – “Mermaid Avenue.” The popularity of these recordings — and Guthrie’s enduring influence on musicians ranging from John Lennon to Bruce Springsteen and many others, whose Guthrie-related comments also appear here — demonstrate the truth of one of Guthrie’s favorite sayings, “I ain’t dead yet.”
His contemporary relevance also resounds in drawings like the 1938 “Civil Rights Behind Bars,” which depicts two jailed civil rights protesters and their shotgun-wielding sheriff. In another cartoon, citizens wave a dollar-emblazoned flag and vow: “BANKERS: We pledge our allegiance to our flag….and to Wall St., for which it stands…..one dollar, ungettable.”
That drawing, more than anything else in the exhibit brings home the inescapable irony that Guthrie, who stood for the downtrodden is now being celebrated at the museum founded by the most famous banker in American history, J. P. Morgan.
Then again, Morgan’s vast manuscript holdings do include 15th century editions in Hebrew of the Five Books of Moses and of the Prophets. And make no mistake, stanzas from Guthrie’s most famous song also echo the verses from Second Isaiah chanted from the pulpit every Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, in which the prophet invokes his listeners to “share your bread with the hungry” and also, “take the wretched poor into your home.”
Now, in Morgan’s library, too, you can also read, and hear, how Guthrie put it, in one of the lesser-known, and not-always-sung verses of “This Land Is Your Land.”
Down in the city, in the shadow of the steeple
By the relief office, I saw my people
As they stood there hungry I stood there
Whistling: This land was made for you and me.
This visitor stood there listening, and whispering, “Amen.”
Diane Cole is the author of the memoir “After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges” and writes for The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.