Woody Guthrie's Music Lives On

More than 40 years after the celebrated folk singer's death, a trove of 3,000 unrecorded songs is inspiring musicians to lay new tracks

Woody Guthrie was never known as a lyrical provocateur but he wrote about everything from A to Z. (Bettmann / Corbis)

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Dipping into both archives for the children’s album was a chance for Sarah Lee Guthrie to work with the grandfather she never knew. She intends to revisit the archives. “I’m hanging out with him; we’re writing a song together,” she says. “It’s pretty magical.”

The matchmaker for most of these collaborations is Nora Guthrie, Woody’s youngest, born in 1950. She describes the process as “very intuitive and organic” and jokes that she’s “in touch with everyone on the planet” about using the archives. Her father, she notes, wrote “all or none” under religion on the birth certificates of his children.

“Everything is all about all or none,” she says. “Not just religion. Music is all or none.” So the metal punk revolutionary Tom Morello, who also performs as the political folkie the Nightwatchman, has cut a song. So have the Klezmatics, a klezmer band that released “Wonder Wheel,” an album celebrating Woody Guthrie’s Jewish connection (his mother-in-law, Aliza Greenblatt was a famous Yiddish poet) and the Dropkick Murphys, an Irish-American Celtic band. Lou Reed, Jackson Browne, Ani DiFranco, Van Dkye Parks, the late Chris Whitley, and Nellie McKay have all worked with the lyrics on a project orchestrated by the bassist Rob Wasserman over the past decade.

“I’m trying to find who he would be interested in today,” she says. “Who would he want to see eye to eye? Who would he want to have a drink with? Who would he hang out with? Knowing him, I just try to expand that out to today’s world.”

The material that formed the foundation of the archives was crammed into boxes for years in a Queens basement. After a flood in the late 1960s, the boxes were moved to the Manhattan office of Harold Leventhal, the longtime manager of Woody Guthrie’s estate. They languished there for years until Leventhal, contemplating retirement, called in Nora Guthrie and said she should get to know the family business. She volunteered once a week, typing labels and doing the mail.

One day he put a box on her desk and told her to look through it. It was stuffed with her father’s work, lyrics, letters, art and diaries. There was the original of “This Land Is Your Land,” all six verses. She called the Smithsonian seeking recommendations about how to handle the material. When the Institution’s Jorge Arevalo Mateus visited, the first thing he suggested was that she move the coffee on her desk away from the copy of “This Land.” He stayed to become curator of the archives.

Then she started reading. “Everything I pulled out was something I’d never seen before or heard of before,” she says.

She started showing material to Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie’s longtime co-conspirator, and he had never seen a lot of it. “That’s when things got goofy,” she says. “Suddenly, there was a parting of the waters.”

She assumed folklorists had documented everything Woody, but he was so prolific that that was impossible. She went to a conference in 1996 and sat in the back, listening to scholars who described her father as someone who didn’t believe writing “moon croon June songs.“ She knew better. “I felt like I was at a conference on Picasso and nobody was talking about the Blue Period because they didn’t know about it. There was a huge gap in history and in the story.”

About Jim Morrison
Jim Morrison

Jim Morrison is a freelance writer whose stories, reported from two dozen countries, have appeared in numerous publications including Smithsonian.com, the New York Times, and National Wildlife.

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