For most of three decades, Nora Guthrie managed the Woody Guthrie Archives, guiding people through the huge collection of lyrics and letters and other personal material left behind by her father, the iconic American singer-songwriter.
“I noticed that most of the people that research in the archive come with a topic in mind,” Guthrie says on a recent call. “They want to research Woody in the union movement, or Woody in World War II, or Woody and Bob Dylan.
“They really come with an idea,” she says.
But Guthrie, 71, had no single point of view. She saw multitudes in her memories of her father and the words and work he’d left behind.
“I thought, I’m in a completely different relationship with him,” Guthrie says. “I don’t come with all those ideas. I can’t separate family and childhood and politics and music and identity. All those things are the things that I lived with.”
So when the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City asked her to write a catalog for a 2022 exhibit she was co-curating, Guthrie says she agreed because, “I thought it would be the right time for me,” she says.
“Woody Guthrie: Songs and Art, Words and Wisdom” is the new book that Guthrie wrote with music historian Robert Santelli.
It’s a large book that includes images from the archives, many of them never before seen. They offer glimpses of Woody in the handwritten or typed lyrics, which were sometimes colored on by his children, and through pages from his diaries and in sketches, paintings and photographs.
Interspersed are essays by Nora Guthrie and her singer-songwriter brother Arlo Guthrie, as well as Woody fans including rapper Chuck D of Public Enemy, actor Jeff Daniels, and singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco.
It’s intended as a 3-D portrait of Woody Guthrie in the same way, as Nora Guthrie writes in her introduction, that she recalls rotating on a stool at the Coney Island deli counter where her father often took her and her brothers. She’d revolve slowly to take the whole of the world in.
“I thought I’d do this now because there’s no one else alive that knew Woody in that kind of 360-degree thing that I write about,” she says. “Of sitting on those stools that go round and round and round.
“My whole life has been in the round with my father, and my mother, too,” Guthrie says. “It was music and dance and this and that. History and politics. It was all there every single day.”
Nora Guthrie says she started the project as a way to share the Woody Guthrie she knows; she ended it thinking the book would actually let Woody share his own story with readers.
“I’m hopefully giving you that feeling of just being with him,” Guthrie says. “If you were sitting on a deli counter stool and you’re looking out the window with him? What would he say?
“It’s as close to bringing him to life as I could possibly do.”
A father first
For the first four decades of her life, Nora Guthrie primarily thought of Woody Guthrie as a father more than a public figure.
“Those very early years were actually a lot of fun,” she says of life in Coney Island as a child. “Because he was a complete child. Very playful and very funny and very gregarious.
“He’s been memorialized as the lone folk singer walking down a road with a lone guitar,” Guthrie says. “And of course there were earlier periods in his life when that was his life.
“But once he came to New York City, and our life with him, on Mermaid Avenue, it was just crowded with people all over the place, speaking five different languages. And he knew everybody.
“He was a neighborhood guy, and really, really embraced that,” Guthrie says. “He just loved that, I think probably because he was such a homeless person himself, because of his own childhood. He really took to the community life around us.”
Nora Guthrie was 5 or 6 when the neurological disorder known as Huntington’s disease forced her father into the first of several hospitals where he’d live for the rest of his life.
“There was absolutely no hoopla about Woody Guthrie in those years,” Guthrie says of her childhood and adolescence when her father’s only caregivers outside of hospital staff were her, her older siblings and her mother Marjorie Mazia, even though she was now divorced from him.
“He was just a sick guy in the hospital and there were maybe 10 people who cared,” she says.
When he died in 1967, Nora was 17 and her life and work followed the path of her mother, a dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company and dance teacher.
“The music part wasn’t particularly fascinating to me,” Guthrie says. “The folk singers I was around, from Jack Elliott to Bob to Arlo to everybody, they were all there. But I never really associated liking folk music much until I was much older, actually.”
It was only around the time she turned 40 that she started to know her father for more of his public works and private thoughts, she says.
“It wasn’t until I looked into my father’s notebooks and diaries,” Guthrie says. “There were so many different kinds of writings that touched me for the first time in my life.
“And I went, ‘Wow, he’s not just a folk singer,’” she says. “There’s a whole bunch of stuff here that has to do with living and teaching. And, you know, and what he’d want to give to a daughter, not just folk songs for guys.”
His back pages
One of the first things she discovered in Woody Guthrie’s voluminous papers was a poem titled “I Say to You Woman and Man” in a diary from 1947, a beautiful ode to feminine power, and a call for women to embrace all of life.
“When I saw that, I burst out crying,” Guthrie says. “I just said, ‘Wow, like, why didn’t I know this?’ Nobody even told me he wrote things like this.
“So that was really the beginning,” she says. “I started turning the pages.”
Years later, as she began work on the book, Guthrie says her deep knowledge of the archive made it easy to put together.
“I could close my eyes and just rant off all the songs, my favorites, the writings, my favorites,” she says.
The book is organized around themes such as songwriting, love, politics, justice, and family.
“I’d remember this funny line of my dad’s, he says, ‘A song is as long as the story you’re going to tell,’” Guthrie says. “I’m like, ‘OK, so that’s your idea of songwriting, that’s interesting.’
“So I have the shortest song he ever wrote, which was ‘Shipping Up to Boston,’ which I did with the Dropkick Murphys,” she says, referencing her efforts to pair her father’s unrecorded lyrics with music by artists including Billy Bragg, Wilco and the Klezmatics.
“And I knew my longest song, one of the songs about tipping,” Guthrie says, of a lyric that spans five typewritten pages to make the case that tipping benefits the owner over the worker. “I thought this was a perfect way to show that little thought.”
Some things she included as a way to correct the record on misconceptions about her dad.
“I’m really sick of people saying he was a terrible father, he left home, he left his family, he was on wanderlust and a rambler,” she says, laughing. “I just went, ‘Oh my God, shut up, it’s not true!
“He loved being a dad. Look at all the children’s songs he wrote and songs about labor and holding babies. He couldn’t have written that if he didn’t care.”
As well, the idea that “This Land is Your Land” was written as a musical poke in the eye to Irving Berlin and his tune “God Bless America” is a similarly false narrative, she says.
“He didn’t hate Irving Berlin or ‘God Bless America,’” Guthrie says. “He was just responding to it. Woody was reacting to that because he was in a different class than the theater crowd and the Irving Berlins and the Broadway crowd that were singing those songs at the time.”
What would Woody do?
In many ways, Guthrie sees lessons that are timeless for readers today in the words and works of her father.
“There’s nothing in the book that doesn’t relate to somebody,” she says. “These ideas are not owned by Woody Guthrie; these are eternal ideas.
“I see him as a conduit, as a channeler,” Guthrie says. “Of how do we live? Where do we go? Who do we see? Who do we love? What do we do when we die?
“He’s just in line with being a channeler in his time. He is available to you, in every stage of life.”
And the book, she adds, lets Woody Guthrie share his own story in lyrics and diary entries, sketches and photographs, with the reader, a job at which he always strived to do his best.
“A couple of his lines say, ‘All of my words, if not well said, are well-meant,’” Guthrie says of the epigraph of the book. “I thought that expressed his personality so succinctly, and his psychology so clearly.
“That’s exactly who he was: It was well-meant. I’m sorry if you don’t like it, but I’m going to try to say it the best I can. And just know I really mean well.”