Woody Guthrie sang of America’s “redwood forests” and “gulf stream waters.” The traveling troubadour and American folk poet electrified a nation with his paeans to America’s indomitable spirit and beauty.
Oklahoma-born and Texas-raised, he also ignited mighty debates with songs and writings that took on the establishment and sought to elevate the working masses. His guitar bore the message: “This machine kills fascists.” And he even has a Jewish connection, that lives on in some of his music and his ideals.
His baldly patriotic hymn to his country, “This Land Is Your Land,” features a stanza that states: “In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people, / By the relief office I seen my people; / As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking / Is this land made for you and me?”
Guthrie’s songs, spirit and life have been brought to the stage in a 90-minute musical biography written and performed by actor and musician David Lutken. His “Woody Sez,” developed with Nick Corley, tells the singer/songwriter’s story in song.
“Growing up in Texas I learned a lot of folk songs that had to do with the West and with America,” Lutken said. “Woody Guthrie was right in there. I didn’t know at the time when I was singing his ‘Take Me Riding in the Car Car’ when I was 5 that that was job training.” The show premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe festival in 2007 and has since toured the U.S. and beyond. It returns to Washington, D.C.’s Theater J through December 14 and then moves to Milwaukee Repertory Theater in January.
A proletarian poet, Guthrie developed a deep and abiding relationship with Jews and Jewish virtues through his marriage to modern dancer Marjorie Mazia. Eventually the couple settled in a house on Mermaid Avenue, not far from Guthrie’s Yiddish-speaking in-laws on Coney Island. In fact, composer and instrumentalist Andy Teirstein, who performs in the show, said Guthrie took Judaism classes at Brooklyn College and had Shabbos dinners at home. His mother-in-law, Aliza Greenblatt, was a kindred spirit. The Yiddish poet and the Okie with a guitar found common ground in writing.
Lutken and Teirstein added a new song to “Woody Sez” this year for its first Israeli tour in August. Greenblatt wrote the lyrics for the song, “Du Du,” in the early 1930s based on an old Hebrew melody. Teirstein updated the arrangement. While on tour in Israel, aside from stops in major theaters in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa, Lutken and Teirstein brought Guthrie’s music and democratic ideals to the Arlozorov Encampment — an Occupy-like protest — at the Northern Train Station in Tel Aviv and to Lahavim Junction to protest the demolition of El-Araqib, a Bedouin village in the Negev.
Invited to the village sheik’s tent afterwards, Teirstein said the leader reminded him of a biblical Moses. “He was very, very generous. He invited us to his tent and served us coffee and he spoke in very eloquent Hebrew about how his village had been there for centuries and their ancestors were buried there.” “I felt we shared a history,” Teirstein said, and he took out his viola and began to improvise on the melody for “Du Du.” Lutken picked up the story: “Instantaneously the sheik began to sing. I was accompanying on guitar and the hair on the back of my neck was standing up.” The melody, rooted in pre-state Israel, clearly connected with the sheik, Teirstein said. Lutken added that many of the rabbis and volunteers who had known the village leader for a decade or more said they never heard him sing.
“Singing those Woody Guthrie songs in Israel just made perfect sense,” Teirstein said. “We should sing about what we care about; that’s the way people connect. Music does teach the political world a lot about how we all identify as human beings first.”
Guthrie was an artist of and for the common folk. He penned 300 or more songs, writing about what he knew: the dispossessed, the working poor, their struggles and triumphs in lives lived simply. While Teirstein won’t go as far as to say Guthrie’s songs deliver a Jewish message, he noted: “I see in his words a commonality that went beyond the stereotypes and pigeonholes of society to connect people. That, I think, is very Jewish. Humanism is at the root of what he has most in common with Jews. His songs are just looking for what’s real and what’s honest and celebrating the common person, the underdog.”