Woody Guthrie’s American Song

June 1 2008
University Theatre (Indoors)
Directed by Peter Glazer

ACT I When the oil boom ends in late 1920's Oklahoma, young Woody Guthrie does a short stint of travelling, working his way through Texas, and then follows his family to the panhandle boom-town of Pampa. (HARD TRAVELIN') There Woody learns to play guitar, and creates the Corncob Trio with Cluster Baker and Matt Jennings. (OKLAHOMA HILLS) They begin to play regularly at a local tavern and at barn dances. Woody finds that making up songs is a good way of expressing his thoughts, and he toys with the idea of borrowing the words from the people and giving them back in song. (DUST STORM DISASTER) He witnesses the puritanical reaction in Pampa to the apocalyptic dust storms, and writes a song about it. (SO LONG, IT'S BEEN GOOD TO KNOW YUH / I AIN'T GOT NO HOME) Woody gets married, but he's not the type of man to settle down. He works his way west, joining the tidal wave of migrants on their trek to California. On a freight train, he makes personal contact with the rough and tumble migrant lifestyle. (BOUND FOR GLORY) He begins to identify with the DUST BOWL REFUGEES, and his politics begin to take shape. (DO RE MI) In a makeshift refugee camp in California, Woody witnesses the oppressed migrants and listens to their words. (WORRIED MAN / AIN'T GONNA BE TREATED THIS WAY) He realizes what a mess the world is in, that so many people are treated so poorly. Despite the fact that they are willing to work, the migrants are treated like slaves and outcasts. Woody starts to write songs on behalf of the oppressed working class, including END OF MY LINE, GRAND COULEE DAM, and PASTURES OF PLENTY. ACT II Woody tramps off from California, (I AIN'T GOT NO HOME,) traveling around the country, singing on street-corners for his nickels. He ends up on Skid Row in New York City where he meets Cisco Houston (NEW YORK TOWN). Cisco and Woody sing together on the streets and in the bars, making their living together. (HARD, AIN'T IT HARD) But New York isn't all it's cracked up to be. (I DON'T FEEL AT HOME ON THIS BOWERY NO MORE and TALKING SUBWAY BLUES) Woody's mission is clear now, to tell the stories of "wrecks, disasters, floods, trade union troubles, high prices and low pay and politicians." (THE JOLLY BANKER, UNION MAID, THE SINKING OF THE REUBEN JAMES) Woody sings across the nation at union gatherings, strikes, and picket lines, and during the war serves three short tours with the merchant marines. He continues to write lyrics and songs (over 3000 total,) as well as articles and novels. Among the songs are: NINE HUNDRED MILES, DEPORTEES, and BETTER WORLD. At age 40, Woody is diagnosed with Huntington's disease. He leaves a behind a noble legacy that informs generations of musicians in the folk tradition. (THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND) POSTSCRIPT Woody Guthrie influenced a lot of young people in his day. One was a University of Minnesota student named Robert Zimmerman. Zimmerman was so intent on following in Guthrie's footsteps that he traveled all the way to New Jersey in 1961, just to visit him after he was confined to a hospital with Huntington's disease. On a postcard sent to his friends in Minneapolis he wrote: I know Woody. I know Woody . . . I know him and met him and saw him and sang to him. I know Woody - Goddamn. Zimmerman made many visits to Guthrie over a period of several months, singing to him and chatting with him. Guthrie often asked after him, saying, "That boy's got a voice. Maybe he won't make it with his writing, but he can sing it. He can really sing it." Robert Zimmerman soon became recognized and loved by America. We know him as Bob Dylan. Production Notes Virtually all we hear in Woody Guthrie's American Song was written, sung, or said by Woody Guthrie, but Guthrie didn't believe that these words belonged to him. Throughout his career he repeated the idea that his songs belonged to the people. His role was merely that of a "clerk" who borrowed their words, wrote them down, and sang them back. Guthrie's extensive artwork often reflected this philosophy, particularly in his political cartoons, which attempted to express the injustices imposed on the oppressed working class. Guthrie's philosophy is what has motivated Peter Glazer's creation, development, and direction of ...American Song, and at the same time, has determined the somewhat unconventional form of the musical. For example, why is Guthrie's voice manifested through several actors rather than just one? The actors represent both the people and Woody, giving theatrical form to his philosophy. In the same way he borrows their words, Guthrie also becomes an embodiment of the people. The timeless nature of Guthrie's message is evident in the design of ...American Song. Scenic designer Fred Duer highlights this by creating a theatrical environment that is not specific to Woody's era. Duer's design is inspired by Guthrie's artworks, which tended toward collaged images of the written word, bold graphics, and diverse media. These qualities are discernible in a varied landscape of materials and scenic levels. With the same inspiration, costume designer Clare Henkel looks to Guthrie's artwork, as well as the plethora of photographs available from his era. She creates clothing rather than costumes, so that we see people instead of characters. In this way Guthrie's story doesn't remain in the past; it is both current and timeless.

Date Time
Sunday June 1 12:00 am
Closed

Thirty years ago, in a bookstore on the corner of 8th Street and University in Greenwich Village, I came upon a collection of Woody Guthrie's writings. "I think back through my life . . . to everybody that I owe," it began. "The amount that we owe is all that we have. And the only way I can pay back all of you good walkers and talkers is to work." I was an aspiring playwright, and this idea - of the exchange between an artist and the source of his inspiration, of "owing" them and paying them back with our work - this was an inspiration to me, and also seemed the essence of a socially conscious theater. With Woody's words, and the ideas embedded in them, a play was born, and in 1988, Woody Guthrie's American Song had its world premiere. That was 20 years ago this summer. "Why not a one-man show?" producers asked in the early going. Because Woody was writing about a community of which he saw himself a part, and to limit his words to one person would deny that community a place on the stage. Folk music, after all, could never be the creation of an auteur, interested in realizing an individual artistic vision, and I felt compelled not to compress the big world in which Woody traveled onto one set of shoulders. And a one-man show would eliminate the possibility of harmony, and as someone who grew up listening to the Weavers, harmony - voices building on these engrained American melodies and thereby embodying "the people" to whom Woody felt so indebted - was inescapable. "I borrowed my life from the works of your life," he wrote, and whether or not his ego might at times have challenged the ideas he espoused, his understanding of the folk process - this borrowing and giving back - gave me strength. Before I worked as a playwright, I was a director, and as Woody Guthrie's American Song took shape, those roles were soon inseparable. How could I bring this world to life? Drawing from Woody's prose, letters, journals, and his autobiography Bound for Glory, I saw the scenes on stage as I wrote them. Woody was a performer, but he was also inspired by performance writ large; by people trying to make their way in a difficult world. "They don't just set along in the sun," he wrote of California's migrant workers in Bound for Glory, "they go by the sun, and it lights up the country that they know is theirs." His songs and stories captured scenes of Americans struggling to stake their claim. How could we see them? How could we know them? I wanted to make a piece of theater, and that "making" came to be about bringing those people and their times to life as much as it was about Woody's music. In truth, it was about both at the same time. "Your works and my works held hands," he wrote to them, to you, to us all, "and our memories never did separate." Thirty years in the making, 20 years since its premiere, Woody Guthrie's American Song draws on an incredible body of work for its scenes and texts - all Woody - but it came to breath through its first singers, actors, and musicians, to whom Jeff Waxman and I are in debt. Jeff played the very first reading of this musical in the late 1970s, and went on to orchestrate and arrange these songs with an impeccable ear and an irrepressible passion for this music. Without that music, there'd be no Woody Guthrie's American Song, and without you, there'd be nothing to sing about.

ACT I When the oil boom ends in late 1920's Oklahoma, young Woody Guthrie does a short stint of travelling, working his way through Texas, and then follows his family to the panhandle boom-town of Pampa. (HARD TRAVELIN') There Woody learns to play guitar, and creates the Corncob Trio with Cluster Baker and Matt Jennings. (OKLAHOMA HILLS) They begin to play regularly at a local tavern and at barn dances. Woody finds that making up songs is a good way of expressing his thoughts, and he toys with the idea of borrowing the words from the people and giving them back in song. (DUST STORM DISASTER) He witnesses the puritanical reaction in Pampa to the apocalyptic dust storms, and writes a song about it. (SO LONG, IT'S BEEN GOOD TO KNOW YUH / I AIN'T GOT NO HOME) Woody gets married, but he's not the type of man to settle down. He works his way west, joining the tidal wave of migrants on their trek to California. On a freight train, he makes personal contact with the rough and tumble migrant lifestyle. (BOUND FOR GLORY) He begins to identify with the DUST BOWL REFUGEES, and his politics begin to take shape. (DO RE MI) In a makeshift refugee camp in California, Woody witnesses the oppressed migrants and listens to their words. (WORRIED MAN / AIN'T GONNA BE TREATED THIS WAY) He realizes what a mess the world is in, that so many people are treated so poorly. Despite the fact that they are willing to work, the migrants are treated like slaves and outcasts. Woody starts to write songs on behalf of the oppressed working class, including END OF MY LINE, GRAND COULEE DAM, and PASTURES OF PLENTY. ACT II Woody tramps off from California, (I AIN'T GOT NO HOME,) traveling around the country, singing on street-corners for his nickels. He ends up on Skid Row in New York City where he meets Cisco Houston (NEW YORK TOWN). Cisco and Woody sing together on the streets and in the bars, making their living together. (HARD, AIN'T IT HARD) But New York isn't all it's cracked up to be. (I DON'T FEEL AT HOME ON THIS BOWERY NO MORE and TALKING SUBWAY BLUES) Woody's mission is clear now, to tell the stories of "wrecks, disasters, floods, trade union troubles, high prices and low pay and politicians." (THE JOLLY BANKER, UNION MAID, THE SINKING OF THE REUBEN JAMES) Woody sings across the nation at union gatherings, strikes, and picket lines, and during the war serves three short tours with the merchant marines. He continues to write lyrics and songs (over 3000 total,) as well as articles and novels. Among the songs are: NINE HUNDRED MILES, DEPORTEES, and BETTER WORLD. At age 40, Woody is diagnosed with Huntington's disease. He leaves a behind a noble legacy that informs generations of musicians in the folk tradition. (THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND) POSTSCRIPT Woody Guthrie influenced a lot of young people in his day. One was a University of Minnesota student named Robert Zimmerman. Zimmerman was so intent on following in Guthrie's footsteps that he traveled all the way to New Jersey in 1961, just to visit him after he was confined to a hospital with Huntington's disease. On a postcard sent to his friends in Minneapolis he wrote: I know Woody. I know Woody . . . I know him and met him and saw him and sang to him. I know Woody - Goddamn. Zimmerman made many visits to Guthrie over a period of several months, singing to him and chatting with him. Guthrie often asked after him, saying, "That boy's got a voice. Maybe he won't make it with his writing, but he can sing it. He can really sing it." Robert Zimmerman soon became recognized and loved by America. We know him as Bob Dylan. Production Notes Virtually all we hear in Woody Guthrie's American Song was written, sung, or said by Woody Guthrie, but Guthrie didn't believe that these words belonged to him. Throughout his career he repeated the idea that his songs belonged to the people. His role was merely that of a "clerk" who borrowed their words, wrote them down, and sang them back. Guthrie's extensive artwork often reflected this philosophy, particularly in his political cartoons, which attempted to express the injustices imposed on the oppressed working class. Guthrie's philosophy is what has motivated Peter Glazer's creation, development, and direction of ...American Song, and at the same time, has determined the somewhat unconventional form of the musical. For example, why is Guthrie's voice manifested through several actors rather than just one? The actors represent both the people and Woody, giving theatrical form to his philosophy. In the same way he borrows their words, Guthrie also becomes an embodiment of the people. The timeless nature of Guthrie's message is evident in the design of ...American Song. Scenic designer Fred Duer highlights this by creating a theatrical environment that is not specific to Woody's era. Duer's design is inspired by Guthrie's artworks, which tended toward collaged images of the written word, bold graphics, and diverse media. These qualities are discernible in a varied landscape of materials and scenic levels. With the same inspiration, costume designer Clare Henkel looks to Guthrie's artwork, as well as the plethora of photographs available from his era. She creates clothing rather than costumes, so that we see people instead of characters. In this way Guthrie's story doesn't remain in the past; it is both current and timeless.

Woody Guthrie and Colorado: The Ludlow Massacre Guthrie was a passionate supporter of the labor movement. He traveled the nation singing for union meetings, and often wrote songs based on local events and stories. In this way he was able to personalize his message and propagate his vision for basic human rights. "Ludlow Massacre", written in 1958, is an example that looks back at a failed coal strike in Ludlow, Colorado, 12 miles northwest of Trinidad near the New Mexico border. In 1913-14, roughly 9000 miners (mostly Slavic, Greek, Italian, and Mexican immigrants,) stood up against the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company, the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company, the Victor-American Fuel Company, and many other smaller coal-mining concerns in Southern Colorado. The miners chose to strike for many reasons. Working conditions were dangerous, and many were injured or died as a result. Disease was frequent and spread quickly because unfiltered drinking water was piped into the communities from the mines. The miners were required to stay in shabby company-owned housing, to shop at company-owned stores, and often the company owned the only schools and churches as well. The companies paid wages based on the weight of extracted coal, and were accused of cheating when calculating workers' productivity. To complain about company policy meant to lose one's job and home at the same time. To ask for protection from local authorities was also to ask for trouble: civil authorities were most often in the control of the coal companies. In September 1913, 9000 miners took their families out of the company-owned communities, and moved into tent colonies provided by the United Mine Workers union. The companies responded by hiring hundreds of thugs, creating an army of deputized sheriffs. These men harassed and terrorized the striking miners, and violence continued throughout the winter. They employed armored cars mounted with machine guns (Death Specials) to assist in applying pressure to the tent colonies. Colorado Governor Ammons sent in the National Guard to protect the companies' interests. On April 20, 1914, at the largest of the colonies near Ludlow, Colorado, the hired "army" set out to achieve results. Dynamite bombs, twelve hours of gunfire, open execution of a colony leader, and arson filled the day's terror. The dead bodies of women and children were found in makeshift dugouts under the tents where they had sought refuge from the gunfire. They had died in these pits, having been suffocated by the fires. A week later, as violence escalated between company goons, Colorado National Guardsmen, and striking miners from all over Southern Colorado, President Wilson sent in federal troops to restore peace in the region. The demands of the strikers were not fully met until 1928. Instead of recognizing the union, (one of the primary demands of the workers,) the companies initiated a new tactic against the labor struggle. Spearheaded by Rockefeller and the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company, the company union was born. Known as the Industrial Representation Plan, the new "union" was managed by the company and merely gave the appearance of workers' representation. And the red neck miners mowed down them troopers
You should have seen those poor boys run
We took some cement and walled that cave up
Where you killed those thirteen children inside
I said, "God bless the Mine Workers' Union"
And then I hung my head and cried -Woody Guthrie's "Ludlow Massacre" - Robert Blush, dramaturg