I wanted to sing along to the pulse-quickening rendition of "This Land Is Your Land" that closes Woody Guthrie's American Song — as the cast of this Colorado Shakespeare Festival production was urging us to do, and everyone around me was doing — but I couldn't, because I was crying.
Guthrie's music seems particularly pertinent right now — not just the lyrics, but the spirit and world-view that drive the songs. When this musical first opened in New York ten years ago, the New York Times reviewer noted that "at a time of record stock market highs and low levels of unemployment," it was important to evoke "an era when one-third of the nation lost home and work and savings but clung to pride and dignity." How times change. Today, it's impossible not to apply these laments and observations from the 1930s to our current situation.
Woody Guthrie's American Song
Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 14, Mary Rippon Theatre, University of Colorado at Boulder, 303-492-0554, www.coloradoshakes.org.
Guthrie made himself the voice of the people; he believed that he took their words and returned those words in song. He grieved for those driven out of their homes by the Dust Bowl ("I Ain't Got No Home in This World Anymore"), and mocked "The Jolly Banker" who'll help you out, then "come and foreclose, take your car and your clothes." His bittersweet song "Deportee" commemorated a group of Mexican workers killed in a plane crash while being sent back home: "We died in your hills, we died in your deserts/ We died in your valleys and died on your plains/We died 'neath your trees and we died in your bushes/Both sides of the river, we died just the same." And he immortalized the migrant workers who moved from crop to crop in his beautiful "Pastures of Plenty." Peter Glazer, who created the musical, also found a song that Guthrie had written about the Ludlow massacre: Sung by Lisa Asher to a rhythmic accompaniment beaten out on the wooden bodies of musical instruments, it chills your blood.
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Woody Guthrie's American Song gives us the story of the composer's life through an almost seamless tapestry of his music. In a nod to his Everyman persona, three actors play Guthrie: Sam Misner has an impish charm as the young Woody, the expressive and dryly humorous Matt Mueller is the mature man, and Daver Morrison, whose honeyed voice sometimes sounds like a tenor and sometimes resonates deep in the bass, plays the older version. The cast is rounded out by two women: Megan Pearl Smith has a clear sweet voice, and I remember Asher's fine, warm tones and centered presence with pleasure from the Denver Center Theatre Company's Almost Heaven. Four musicians — Mike Koertgen, Vicki Taylor, Duane Webster and David Williams — play a variety of instruments, including harmonica, bass, fiddle and banjo; they're all interesting presences, and integral to the action. Jeff Waxman has done a terrific job of musical arrangement, both on songs you've never heard before (there's a hilarious vocal and guitar duel between Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston on "New York Town") and ones like "Nine Hundred Miles," which have been knocking around in the back of your mind forever.
It's hard to love America these days, with the nihilism and sheer stupidity of our political discourse, with a government that's set up a network of secret prisons into which people disappear indefinitely and where they are tortured. Hunger has returned for millions of people, while corporations suck the air from our lungs and the rich become ever more callous and ostentatious. This is a country where immigrants are treated with meanness and racism, patriotism has been defined as flying ever-larger flags, and the airwaves are filled with spittle-flying rage at every perceived insult to the president or the National Anthem. These days, the very concept of loving your country has become polluted.
But Woody Guthrie, this crazy itinerant singer who wandered from place to place and gave voice to so many voiceless people — he's America, too. And so are all the thinkers, idealists, artists and reformers who throng the pages of our history. Watching Woody Guthrie's American Song, I remembered a cartoon that was published soon after Abbie Hoffman's death. It showed a hippie with a shock of wild black hair standing outside the gates of heaven while St. Peter conferred urgently with God: "There's a guy outside who says he won't come in until you let everybody in." Other countries have produced rebels — serious guys with serious goals, many of them highly romantic figures — but no other country could have come up with a tough revolutionary joker like Abbie. And no country less vast, less full of possibility, could have produced Woody's combination of loneliness, rambling and burning commitment to social justice.
Aren't we about due for another prophet?