In a seamless blend of song, narration, and brief vignettes, Woody Sez (at the ART through June 3rd) brings the life and politics of America’s greatest folk hero to the stage. A cast of four performs 28 songs that survey the Guthrie songbook and essay his life.
As much as Woody Sez is about what Woody Guthrie said in song, it’s about the source of those words. The show traces the history of Depression-era Populist politics, the Dust Bowl, and Communism, as not just a historical context for Guthrie’s songs, but the source of his voice and the lessons of his political education. This all comes in a kind of continual genesis story that divides Guthrie’s life into several distinct periods.
Generally, Woody Sez keeps things light & fun, if a little homespun, in what ends up being an enjoyable and truly immersive experience. The performers are fantastically talented musicians, particularly Darcy Deaville and Andy Teirstein on their fiddles. The band could probably use a really great folk vocalist to fill things out, but it’s clear the music has come first here. Aside from Lutken’s characterization of Guthrie, the acting is light and the production is spare. The show relies on its songs and it’s a real pleasure to hear them unamplified and on the beautiful collection of instruments they’ve assembled.
The Guthrie recordings we have today are characterized by the grittiness that’s pervasive among most historical recordings; from Robert Johnson to Pablo Casals. Alan Lomax’s Library of Congress recordings of Guthrie were made in 1940, before tape had been invented. Audio was cut directly into lacquered aluminum discs highly susceptible to degradation on their surfaces. And they did degrade, resulting in surface noise impossible to remove without removing some of Guthrie too. But it’s with all those “clicks” and “hisses” that most of us know Guthrie’s music–some contemporary folk acts even try to emulate that historical sound. I don’t know what Woody Guthrie actually sounded like. All I can say is that this grit is noticeably absent from Lutken’s performance, where the songs, although they often dwell on Guthrie’s personal tragedies, have a distinctly positive sheen. I think the comparison below shows what I mean. (Sorry for the difference in volume.)
So Long It’s Been Good to Know You from Guthrie’s 1940 Library of Congress Sessions
Lutken’s cover of So Long It’s Been Good to Know You in Woody Sez
This lack of grit extends to the narrative as well and how Lutken has chosen to represent Guthrie’s consciousness, political or otherwise. Take this excerpt from a 25-page stream of consciousness prose piece Woody typed out while staying on Lomax’s floor, after Lomax asked him to write a paragraph to incorporate into the “script” of their recording session.
I am writing this on Christmas paper and I think all election speeches ought to be wrapped in gift boxes with a red and green string tied around them, and that a way we would be sure at least of a Christmas package whether there was anything in it or not. No, what I’m really doing here tonight is seeing if I write better on the brown butcher paper that I wrote you on last time or this flimsy tissue paper. I didn’t buy nothing down at the butcher shop, but I bought a couple of bright coloerd shirts and got skinned pretty bad. I went out with twenty dollars and come back with two new shirts and a candidate for Congress at Large.
…this isn’t the clear accessible voice we get in Woody Sez. What we get is more the voice of the biographer, an educator trying to communicate a man’s legacy and life. Come to think of it, aside from some platforms, the set is made up of large photographs hanging from the ceiling–the kind you’d see in a sleek museum installation. I think that’s what Woody Sez is really about and it’s what it does well.