This band is your band

For ‘Woody Sez’ creator David Lutken, it was important to highlight Woody Guthries’s unlikely connection to Jewish themes and Yiddish lyrics as the stage production begins its run in Israel this week.

FOLKSY FEELING: The cast of ‘Woody Sez.’ 370 (photo credit: Courtesy PR)
FOLKSY FEELING: The cast of ‘Woody Sez.’ 370
(photo credit: Courtesy PR)
Anyone over the past 70 years who’s picked up an acoustic guitar and strapped a harmonica holder around his neck owes a debt to Woody Guthrie. The folk and protest-singing troubadour was one of the major influences on the folk revival that began in the United States in the 1940s and peaked around the early to mid-Sixties. Many of the up-and-coming folkies of the late Fifties and early Sixties, most famously Bob Dylan, related to Guthrie as a father figure, and his influence spread to subsequent generations of artists ranging from Bruce Springsteen to American rockers Wilco to British singersongwriter Billy Bragg.
His music also permeated American culture, with “This Land is Your Land” evolving into a staple of patriotism, despite its intention to raise awareness of the plight of the American worker.
Guthrie’s colorful and tragic life, well documented in the 1976 film Bound For Glory starring David Carradine (based on the biography of the same name by Joe Klein), has been given a multi-dimensional treatment over the past six years through the stage production Woody Sez.
First produced at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2007, the show has played to critical acclaim in theaters and at festivals across Europe, London’s West End and the US, and is arriving this week in Israel for the first time, with seven performances lined up in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa between August 21 and August 31.
A musical celebration of nearly 30 songs performed by a four-piece expert group of musicians/actors, Woody Sez intersperses anecdotes, biographical material and humor around the rousing tunes and dustbowl ballads.
“Woody wrote around 3,500 songs, so some choices had to be made to tell the story of his life,” said multi-instrumentalist Andy Tierstein recently from his New York home. The classically-trained musicologist and New York University professor was approached by the founder of Woody Sez, David Lutken to join the troupe in 2007 and he jumped at the chance.
“I was a New York kid on the fringe, and although I appreciated rock & roll, I was looking for something real and close to the earth,” said Tierstein, who eventually learned how to play guitar, banjo and fiddle.
“Woody’s music was all over the place, you couldn’t ignore it. I just started singing his songs with friends and never stopped.”
The 56-year-old Texas native Lutken, who devised Woody Sez along with Nick Corley, and also stars in the onstage proceedings, was introduced to Guthrie’s material at a very early age.
“I had some wonderful teachers at school, and we sang many songs of all different derivations – folk songs of the southern United States, northern United States, England, Ireland, Russia, all kinds of different things,” he recalls. “Among those, my Texan teachers were very proud of Woody Guthrie since, even though he was born in Oklahoma, he grew up in Texas and spent a great deal of time there. So I began to learn his music when I was literally three or four years old.”
Lutken’s infant steps along the path to folk music were also guided by a familial helping hand or two. “I come from a family of musicians – all self-taught musicians,” he declares. “My older brother and sister played musical instruments and, of course, in the 1960s everyone was playing guitars and other things and, when I was seven or eight years old, someone handed me a mandolin and I began to learn to play along with everybody else. We sang all kinds of songs, including Woody’s.”
The repertoire for the regular hootenannies included such Guthrie staples as “Talkin’ Dust Bowl,” “I Ain’t Got No Home” and, possibly Guthrie’s best known song, the definitively stirring protest vehicle “This Land Is Your Land.”
Lutken’s freeway to Woody Sez became clearer when he added an important performance skill to his artistic spread. “Many years later I got into the theater, as a guitar- playing musician-actor, and I have done many shows about music and the people who made it up,” he explains, adding that Guthrie was a strong presence in his burgeoning thespian career.
Gradually, the concept for Lutken’s current professional venture began to take shape.
“I had done a couple of other shows that had Woody Guthrie in them and it occurred to me that the man and his music are in some ways inseparable but, in other ways, I found out that they are quite different,” he muses. “I thought that there was a good theatrical way to present the music with a biography of the man which, to me, makes the music all the more meaningful.”
GUTHRIE’S COLORFUL story provides plenty of raw material for anyone looking to put together an evocative and moving production.
He was born into a well-off family, due to the financial spinoffs of the oil drilling boom which began around the time Guthrie was born, but as the late musician said himself in 1942: “it was over by the time I was eight. We didn’t get any of the profits of the oil, we only got the grease.”
As the United States sank into the depths economic recession, Guthrie started to delve into the lives and hardships of the downtrodden and became something of a spokesman for his fellow Americans to whom fate had dealt a bum hand.
He rode freight train cars with the dispossessed looking for a way out of their misfortunes by getting arduous jobs on construction sites, farms or oilfields.
Guthrie learned the migrant workers’ traditional blues and folk songs, and the numbers he later wrote, and which became so emblematic of the era, were based on personal experience.
That, says Lutken, comes through in Woody Sez which, is named after a daily column Guthrie wrote for The People’s Daily World communist newspaper from May 1939 to January 1940. “The man and the meaning of his music are quite something when you put it all together. In some ways the show is a theatrical narrative, and in other ways it is a narrative concert.”
According to Lutken, the Woody Sez production is based on a 1956 tribute show written by Millard Lampell, who was with Woody in a group called the Almanac Singers.
“The concert was given in Manhattan, and Woody’s manager Harold Leventhal published the script of the tribute concert, and in it Mr. Lampell used a lot of [what] Woody wrote about his own life, his autobiographical musings and sections from his autobiographical novel, as Woody called it [Bound for Glory], and sort of wove this together with a bunch of songs.”
“In 2002, Mr. Leventhal presented me with the idea of expanding on the script, which is called California to the New York Island (taken from the refrain of ‘This Land Is Your Land’). I took that and ran with it and made it into a sort of biographical show about Woody which has about 30 songs in it.”
Lutken recruited a cast of versatile musicians to flesh out the performance, which includes everything from guitar and fiddle to jaw harp and dulcimer. Joining him onstage in period clothing are Teirstein, Darcie Deaville and Helen J. Russell.
One of the overlooked aspects of Guthrie’s career, which the group is going to revive for their shows in Israel, is his unlikely connection to Jewish themes, and Yiddish lyrics in his oeuvre.
The second of Guthrie’s three wives was a Jewish woman called Marjorie Mazia, née Greenblatt, and her mother, Aliza Greenblatt, was a well-known Yiddish poet. Guthrie and Greenblatt wrote numerous lyrics together and their collaboration proved to be highly successful in 1940s Brooklyn.
Back then Jewish culture was interwoven with music, modern dance, poetry and anti-fascist, pro-labor, classic socialist activism. Guthrie was inspired to write songs that came directly out of this unlikely synergy with his mother-in-law, and he saw similarities between the difficulties experienced by Jews and those of his fellow Okies and other oppressed peoples.
“There was a lot of common ground between Woody and Aliza, who was involved in anti-fascist labor organizations,” said Teirstein. “Woody even took classes at Brooklyn Community College to learn more about Judaism. He and Marjorie used to go to Aliza’s house in Coney Island for Shabbes. During that time, he would sing in Jewish community centers and wrote songs about Hanukka and Jewish history.
“The [Grammy Award winning klezmer band] Klezmatics did an album of Guthrie’s Jewish stuff [Wonder Wheel – Lyrics by Woody Guthrie] a few years ago,” said Lutken.
Teirstein added that he and Lutken were slightly revising the script for Woody Sez to incorporate some of the Jewish themes in the show. Guthrie’s liaison with his Jewish wife also had another kind of impact on his output. “He and Marjorie had four children, and at that time, there was an explosion of Woody’s songs for children,” says Lutken.
There is clearly far more to Guthrie’s songwriting dossier than the aforementioned staples. “The songs we do in the show cover just about every phase of his work,” explains Lutken, “from some of his earliest stuff, to the popular songs and the wildly obscure. We try our best to run the gamut.”
Lutken says he is looking forward to bringing the show to Israel, after it doing the rounds of much of the world for the past six years.
“I hope the audiences in Israel enjoy the show, and that some of the people who are too young to remember Woody will be introduced to some of his work. I believe the messages and the things he wrote about all those years ago are just as relevant today.”
According to Teirstein, the shows in Israel almost didn’t come to pass due to budgetary restrictions, and it was Guthrie’s daughter Nora, who is in charge of Woody Guthrie Publications, who provided the required funds to make the trip possible.
“It looked like we weren’t going to be able to come, so I said, ‘Let me call Nora,’” said Teirstein. “She said, ‘how much do you need?’ and I gave her a figure and she said, ‘Let’s do it.’ She’s been wonderfully supportive, and she and everybody else involved has taken to the idea of bringing the show to Israel.”
Performances of Woody Sez will take place at the Khan Theater in Jerusalem on August 21, 22 and 24 (8:30 p.m., 8:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.), Tzavta in Tel Aviv on August 26 and 27 (both 9 p.m.) and the Haifa English Theater on August 29 and 31 ( 8 p.m. and 9 p.m.).