What Woody Sez

I saw Woody Sez last night – a musical-cum-tribute to the late, great Woody Guthrie, the all-singing American folk hero. Truly, I was eyes-wide in rapture at the music and the stories unfolding in front of me.

Throughout his life, Guthrie drove the length and breadth of the Southern States, crossing the California-Arizona-Texas borders multiple times, as did many men and their families in the early 1900s, desperate for work and a fresh start; desperate to escape the cloying Dust Bowl that reeked with poverty and hollow sadness. I lived in Arizona for a while – a place where people still stick Confederate flag bumper stickers on their UVs, and where Congresswoman Giffords was recently shot. It is a big, beautiful and difficult beast of a state. So hot in the summer that the birds are too wilting to sing, and in the baking silence of the desert you feel like you can still smell its traumatic history.

Unbelievably, Guthrie wasn’t known to me until last night – I say unbelievably because, as with all things newly learnt, it is now impossible to separate him from the cultural norms he has inspired. Bob Dylan to name just one. Woody played his guitar and sang about everything and anything he could lay his chords on. There are thousands of his songs now in the Library of Congress, and I heard just 27 last night – but they were perfect pieces, with gutsy voices, aching strings and stamping feet. It was life laid bare, and it was astonishing. It was – and never has this been more apt a phrase – totally barnstorming.

The timing of when to stage a show is key, and I’d venture this one could run for as long or as little as it liked. But for me it was a timely reminder of the potential for human endeavour and struggle – things Woody knew about, and things that history teaches us that we must never forget. Things we need to remember as our own country faces deep and seismic changes.

It is no wonder that Guthrie’s legacy was palpable at Obama’s inauguration in 2009, when hundreds of thousands of people sang his now infamous This Land is Your Land, his response to God Bless America. We smile now when we hear that, in the later stages of his life when he was suffering the debilitating effects of Huntingdon’s Disease, he spent hours and hours teaching his sons the words to the last few verses. He thought that if he didn’t, no one would ever remember it to sing it again.

Guthrie used to put a sticker on his guitar saying ‘this machine kills fascists’, dryly noting that he was on ‘the black list, the red list, pretty much any coloured list going’ despite the fact he never joined any political organisation. He was the best kind of outsider; the one that occupies only one space – inside our hearts.

So as we storm ahead with our lives, and roll around on the Good Ship Society, I will remember what Woody Sez. And how even a pair of well-timed spoons, played artfully, can get an auditorium up on their feet and howling their blues away.

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