Woody Sez at Ivoryton Playhouse: You’ll Want to Sing Along
“This Land Is Your Land” is a song almost all of us know. School children learn it. But do you know who wrote it? If you’ve forgotten, it was Woody Guthrie, a man who helped revive and popularize folk music in America.
Woody Sez—the Life & Music of Woody Guthrie, now at Ivoryton Playhouse through Sunday, Nov. 10, intersperses his life story, mostly told by David M. Lutken as Woody, with renditions of the music he made so famous.
This show is bound to have you clapping in time with the rhythms and even wanting to sing along. The night I saw it, most of the audience, stood, clapped, and sang along with “This Land Is Your Land.”
If you have watched the Ken Burns multi-episode documentary on country music, you heard references to Woody and his influence on both the folk and country genres. But for many people, Woody Guthrie is best known as Arlo Guthrie’s father.
Woody Guthrie lived a hard-scrabble life. He was born in Oklahoma but lived in both Texas and California as well as New York City. While he had brief periods of affluence, for the most part his life was the same as the farmers, oil rig workers, and dust bowl refugees he sang about. He hopped rails, went to bed hungry, and did whatever manual labor was available.
Yet, while doing that, Guthrie was a wandering minstrel who helped preserve classic folk songs as well as creating new ones that touched on social protest and political observation. A staunch member of the political left—and a good friend to many who were blacklisted in the ’40s and ’50s, Guthrie also wrote a newspaper column, “Woody Sez”—hence the title of the show—that commented on political and social issues in a rural dialect.
He wrote of the dust bowl, the Okies and Arkies who went to California to try to survive, of the union members who fought the bosses, and even the merchant marines who helped win World War II. (He was one of them.)
Along the way he collected folk songs and wrote hundreds of others. Alan Lomax, the great folklorist, recorded him for the Library of Congress series.
When he came to New York, he hung out with Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, Burl Ives, and other great singer/writers. He was a founding member of the Almanacs, a folk group that helped lead to the Weavers and the folk revival.
Lutken, who plays Woody, not only devised the show (with Nick Corley, Darcie Deaville, Helen J. Russell, and Andy Teirstein) but also serves as the music director. Lutken has the lean look that we associate with Guthrie and a casual friendly manner that brings the audience into the story of Guthrie’s life.
Guthrie’s life had many tragic elements. His mother, who ended her life in a mental institution, is thought to have set several fires, one of which killed his older sister. She suffered from the genetic neurological disorder Huntington’s disease. His father experienced economic ups and downs, and ended up leaving his children in Oklahoma while he went to work in Texas. Some people suspect the father also suffered from the disease, for which there is no cure. Woody himself developed Huntington’s disease and died in 1967 after having spent years in a variety of mental institutions. The disease causes severe neurological and psychological symptoms.
The show opens with “This Train Is Bound for Glory” and ends with “This Land Is Your Land,” but in between are more than 20 other Guthrie songs from “Why Do You Stand There in the Rain?” “So Long It’s Been Good to Know Yuh,” “Union Maid,” and “Do Re Mi” and lesser known works (to me) such as “Pastures of Plenty,” “Oklahoma Hills,” “Dust Storm Disaster,” and more.
Lutken is joined by three talented musicians/actors who not only play a variety of roles—Will Geer, Guthrie’s mother and his sister, Pete Seeger, and Guthrie’s radio partner Lefty Lou—but they also play multiple folk instruments including mandolin, banjo, violin, and others.
David Finch, Darcie Deaville, and Maggie Hollinbeck all bring charm and musicality to the show. All have performed the show before.
The set by Luke Cantarella is flexible and simple: some large photos of Woody, instruments placed around the stage, and a barnlike feel.
This is a well-performed and fascinating remembrance of an important man in American musical history. It would be an excellent show for teens and young adults who would find the stories of America in the ’20s and ’30s more compelling than any history book.
Woody Sez runs through Sunday, Nov. 10. For tickets, visit ivorytonplayhouse.org.