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'Woody Guthrie: Songs and Art * Words and Wisdom' paints a warm picture

Nora Guthrie says that a new coffee table book she co-edited represents "how he would have raised me" if her father Woody Guthrie had lived.
Nora Guthrie says that a new coffee table book she co-edited represents "how he would have raised me" if her father Woody Guthrie had lived.Jay Gabler/MPR

by Jay Gabler

November 18, 2021

Paging through Woody Guthrie: Songs and Art * Words and Wisdom is both inspiring and discouraging. Inspiring, because of the amount of art and impact the legendary folksinger achieved in his too-short life; discouraging, because his songs about racism and economic oppression remain all too relevant.

The new coffee table book was co-edited by Woody’s daughter Nora Guthrie along with Robert Santelli, a music scholar who co-developed the Woody Guthrie Center with Nora. It’s a 340-page volume that follows Woody’s own suggestions regarding a lyrics collection, reprinted near the book’s end. “Why not let the book be a story about the mood of the man?” Woody wrote. “Pick a song I made up at every turn.”

Songs and Art functions as a biography, following Woody’s notion of a volume that unfolds chronologically. The book includes dozens of lyrics; some to well-known songs like “This Land Is Your Land,” some to songs set to music by Billy Bragg and Wilco for the Mermaid Avenue albums, and some that only existed as titles. (A list of possible song titles includes “Dead Bachelor,” “Gas Bill Scuttle,” “I Beat Thugs Up,” and “The Hot Union Kiss.”) Some are handwritten, some are typed, and many were annotated by Woody himself, who was always diligent to note where and when he wrote each one.

In addition to the song lyrics - which show the range of Woody’s gifts, from stark narrative to fun flirtation - the book includes numerous family photos from the artist’s childhood to his death. Informative captions contextualize the material, but the bulk of the words are Woody’s: the book also includes extended excerpts from interviews he gave over the years, as well as letters, poems, and more. In a few cases, historical documents help set the scene. For example, the devastating “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” is placed next to the newspaper article that reported the news of 32 deaths - including 28 Mexican workers being deported - without mentioning their names. A full list appears on the opposite page.

As its title promises, the book also features numerous drawings and paintings by Woody, demonstrating the artist’s prolific creativity across media. He even participated in a 1941 ballet performance, where he met his second wife - and Nora’s mother - Marjorie Mazia. A chapter is largely dedicated to their tender connection, representing not only Woody’s thoughts about the woman who seems to have been the love of his life but also the reflections of his daughter, who’s clearly spent decades thinking about her parents’ relationship and how she was raised.

“I am often surprised when I hear folks saying that my father wasn’t a good father,” writes Nora, “that he rambled, that he womanized, that he didn’t bring home the bacon. All true. He certainly was not a conventional father. But what is a ‘good’ father?”

Before Huntington’s disease debilitated Woody in the 1950s, ultimately leading to his hospitalization and death, he was a stay-at-home dad while his wife ran a dance school and went on tour. Stunningly, after losing a sister to an accidental fire in his childhood home, he then also lost one of his young daughters in very similar circumstances. In an incredibly moving passage, Woody recalls watching his sister Clara die of severe burns.

“Clara calls me in over to her side of the bed and makes me laugh at everybody that’s crying,” he wrote. “And Clara turned her eyes to ask her schoolteacher, ‘Did I pass?’ And I heard the schoolteacher lady tell Clara, ‘Yes. You passed.’ And then I saw the teacher touch her fingers to both of Clara’s eyes and push them closed. I never did cry. I held it back so tight it blinded me, and I ran around and around our house holding my breath till I finally fell down into papa’s arms.”

Songs and Art is full of moments like that: insights into the life of an extraordinary artist, carefully curated by two people with intimate knowledge of who he was. If you only know Woody Guthrie as a Dylan influence, or as the guy whose guitar said THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS (“it means just what it says too,” wrote Woody about the motto), this new book will open your eyes to a complex, incredibly brave voice.

In fact, if any part of the book feels inessential, it’s the contributions from contemporary artists: an interview with Roseanne Cash, a poem by Ani DiFranco, a short essay by Chuck D. Woody Guthrie’s influence is so widespread, it’s clear that these testimonials are just a drop in the bucket. However apt, they nonetheless only distract from the content the book promises and so richly delivers: Woody Guthrie: Songs and Art * Words and Wisdom.

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Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

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