Woody Guthrie—father of Arlo Guthrie and author of “This Land Is My Land”—was born more than a century ago in Okemah, Oklahoma, on July 14, 1912. And yet, many of his political protest songs of the 1940s and ’50s are as relevant now as they were then. This week, the Heritage Theatre Festival brings Guthrie back to the stage in Woody Guthrie’s American Song.
The show, directed by Bryan Garey—a Charlottesville resident who has been working in theater for 30 years—features five actors and three musicians. All the actors, including two women, alternate portrayals of Woody Guthrie throughout the show and play other characters whom Guthrie encountered in his life.
The cast includes local musician Michael Clem—who has toured with Eddie from Ohio—Greg Phelps and Alisa Ledyard from the American Shakespeare Center, Jonathan Elliott Coarsey, who has done several seasons with the HTF, and local actor Deandra Irving. Garey describes the show as “a folk music experience steeped in storytelling. …The dialogue is [Guthrie’s] own words, what he spoke or what he wrote. It’s a postcard or a letter, if you will, done in typical Woody Guthrie fashion.”
That fashion is twangy folk with a deliberate delivery and often a social justice message. The nearly 30 songs in the two-hour show span Guthrie’s prolific career. “What’s remarkable is how relevant it is today,” Garey says. He points to one song called “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos),” a protest song that commemorates the January 28, 1948, crash of a plane carrying migrant farm workers deported from California to Mexico. “It sounds like it could be written in 2017, right from the headlines today,” he says. “It’s an amazingly beautiful piece of music that calls to mind the way we should be treating people.”
Guthrie grew up in a middle-class family in Oklahoma, no stranger to personal and economic loss. His sister died in an accident when he was 7, and his mother died of Huntington’s disease while he was a teenager. Guthrie also witnessed the oil boom and subsequent economic downturn in his town, as well as the impact of the Dust Bowl, during which he migrated to California. Such experiences influenced the songs he would later write about the plight of the working class. However, at the start of the 20th century, Guthrie had a limited view on race.
In 1937, at age 25, Guthrie sang a song on the radio that contained a racial slur. According to Will Kaufman’s 2011 biography, Woody Guthrie, American Radical, Guthrie received a letter from an African-American college student in response to the song. Guthrie was so affected by the letter, he read it aloud on the radio, apologized and promised to never use the word again. He then became not only an advocate for the working man, but also for racial justice. In Peekskill, New York, in 1949, Guthrie joined African-American singer Paul Robeson at a concert benefiting the Civil Rights Congress, after which Klansmen taunted concertgoers and musicians; they broke Guthrie’s car windows with rocks. In the early 1950s, Guthrie would pen some choice words against his Brooklyn landlord, whom he accused of racial discrimination in renting practices. His landlord? Fred C. Trump, father of President Donald Trump.
The more than 1,000 songs Guthrie wrote during his career span subjects such as World War II, racial and environmental justice and Jewish culture. Guthrie, too, developed Huntington’s disease and died in Queens, New York, on October 3, 1967, just before his son, Arlo, released his recording of “Alice’s Restaurant.”