Daughter Nora Guthrie talks about the life and legacy of music icon Woody Guthrie

A father who she only saw with a severe illness became the man she has now immortalised by documenting his creative works

By Mariella Radaelli

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Nora Guthrie. Photo: ©Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc.
Nora Guthrie. Photo: ©Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc.

Published: Thu 11 May 2023, 7:04 PM

Woody Guthrie’s stupendous creative output was tangible and real. While travelling throughout the American landscape during the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, his unflinching eyes captured the plight of refugees, the homeless and the jobless, the workers and the disenfranchised. “My eyes have been my camera, taking pictures of the world, and my songs have been messages that I tried to scatter across the back sides and along the steps of the fire escapes and on the window sills and through the dark halls,” he wrote in his memoir Bound For Glory.

The legendary American singer-songwriter, who was born in 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma, wrote over 3,000 songs that count timeless masterpieces, such as America’s folk national anthem This Land Is Your Land, Pasture of Plenty, Do Re Mi, Hard Travelling, Hobo’s Lullaby, 1913 Massacre, and many others. Those poignant folk ballads created the modern folk tradition.

What the footloose folk poet witnessed and felt during his first-hand look at the tough American reality of the time changed American popular music forever. His work and life helped shape musicians driven to express the human realm, such as Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Billy Bragg. Guthrie’s vision continues to shine on a new generation of songwriters and interpreters.

Since 1992, his daughter Nora Guthrie has committed to preserving her father’s vast creative legacy. The Woody Guthrie Archives consists of over 10,000 items: typed song lyrics, scribbled notes, recordings, photos and sketches. The Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa houses them. The public museum devoted to Woody just celebrated its tenth anniversary with concerts, the Woodie Guthrie Prize awarded this year to the punk band Pussy Riot and the show Woody Guthrie: People Are the Song curated in collaboration with The Morgan Library & Museum, Woody Guthrie Publications, and music historian Bob Santelli.

But what a cruel twist of fate that he lost his mind too soon. His career was tragically cut short at 42 by the onset of Huntington’s Disease, a genetic illness that affects the brain. He spent most of his last 13 years in mental institutions. The disease was not understood at the time, nor were there treatments. Huntington’s chorea ravaged his body and mind until he died in 1967 in New York.

Photo: ©Woody Guthrie Center, Tulsa, OK
Photo: ©Woody Guthrie Center, Tulsa, OK

“My father continued to write up until the early 1960s when he could no longer hold a pen,” Nora tells wknd. “Even then, we have pages of notes written that are illegible, which only he knows what he is on paper. I’ve tried to decipher many of them and was able to publish some of them in the book Wardy Forty: Greystone Park State Hospital Revisited, which is a retrospective of his life with Huntington’s Disease and his years in the hospital.”

Woody was a giant: a master of realism, a symbol of independent-minded social consciousness, and a committed activist who lived by humanist principles. There was something profound about him. He was a sociological force, a folk hero whose creations occurred on street corners, trains and subways. To him, imagining was experiencing. The founding father of protest music wanted to be absolutely there, in the harsh reality of the country he loved, among the migrant workers, the farmers, the voiceless, the aching ones and the union organisers. His songs express the humanising power of music and the bone-deep connection we all have to certain themes. We landed an exclusive interview with his daughter Nora Guthrie, who is 73.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

Your father’s life was never a bed of roses. How did his early years in Oklahoma, where he experienced a series of tragic personal losses — the death of his sister Clara, his father’s financial ruin and his mother’s institutionalisation — mould his outlook on life?

He developed empathy for others early on. As a child, the events and people around you create the foundational emotions that stay with you for life. Having his family broken by illness, fire, and death, affected him greatly. They made him the man he was. You hear this in all of his songs — songs about tragic circumstances, like the dust bowl ballads, loss of family members, inequities and injustices — because he himself experienced so much and was surrounded by others who were also going through so many tragedies – from environmental disasters to World Wars to Depression, and homelessness and pennilessness, and so many struggles. He had to struggle to keep hoping, which is why he wrote so much about hope. He needed to constantly keep that reaffirmation alive. I think that’s one of the attractions he had for my mother — the world’s best hoper!

Photo: ©Woody Guthrie Center, Tulsa, OK
Photo: ©Woody Guthrie Center, Tulsa, OK

Among the themes he explored, which are more relevant today?

Remember the old saying — in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes. Woody added a few more to the list of things that never seem to change. This Land is Your Land addresses citizenship at its very core and democracy as the tool to ensure people have choices. Today, voting rights are being not just seriously threatened but also literally destroyed in so many ways. Deportee addresses the faceless, nameless invisibility of immigrants who are often the first line of workers who cultivate our nation’s food supplies as well as so many other bedrock jobs in healthcare, transportation, mom-and-pop shops, and so much more. I Ain’t Got No Home reiterates the constant ongoing refugee cycles that are occurring around the world. Dust Bowl Ballads depicts the dangers of climate change and abuse of the land by big agra. Pretty Boy Floyd warns us that “some rob you with a six gun, and some with a fountain pen,” shining the light on white-collar crime, which is also exploding around the world.

He was a political analyst through his writing. In his own words, “Left-wing, right-wing, chicken wing, it don’t make no difference to me”. Why was he erroneously associated with the communists?

The 1920s, ’30s and ’40s were a wild time in politics! The ideas coming from Europe regarding the unionisation of workers were particularly timely in the USA. Ideas of class warfare ignited by the Russian Revolution were also a fascinating option to many Americans. All these ideas, entering a country just grown up enough, must have been fascinating options to explore. Whether it was communist, socialist, populist, democratic, or republican, they were all out there vying for people’s attention and support. The movements changed and evolved frequently, as did their followers. Everyone, at some point, even in Oklahoma, was interested in socialism, which, at one point, had the largest number of socialist parties in the country. Everyone in the cities was interested in what the communists had to say about working conditions in manufacturing. The suffragette and civil rights movement were in the petri dish of the first half of the century. Most people supported pieces of all of these movements that were eventually incorporated into two major parties, whether it was the eight-hour working day, public education, social security, etc. So, he was erroneously associated solely with the Communist Party. But he preferred to call himself a “commonist”.

You said his poverty was an opportunity “to go deeper within yourself and say that it’s about who I am looking at in the mirror. It’s not about my house or my car or whatever. It’s about who I am”. Did Woody find freedom in possessing nothing?

When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose. He could be fearless that way. Although he did have ambitions and very much wanted his songs to be sung, and his words to be published and read. He had nothing against having some money and material goods, but it didn’t rule his purpose. He did hope to be able to support his family to some degree, but again, that wasn’t his priority. When he did make some money, he enjoyed it. But he wouldn’t make compromises to get it.

You followed your mother’s path, a dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company and dance teacher. But when you turned 40, you began to look into your father’s notebooks and diaries, found many amazing things, and realised he was not just a folk singer. Can you go through that feeling of wonder? What were the main surprises?

There were a few significant surprises for me. The first thing I found in the boxes was a letter from John Lennon. He wrote, “Woody lives and I’m glad!” Wow! That was an interesting connection. Over the years, I’ve discovered so many more connections with other artistes like Lonny Donegan, Joe Strummer, David Bowie, John Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen, and dozens more. The second thing I found was a notebook with a poem titled I Say To You Woman and Man. It basically tells women to go out in the world and enjoy it, work in it, even go out and run it! And if your husband ties your heart up, go out and find yourself a new man! It’s a powerful ode to women. And it was the first time I heard him, not as the dust bowl balladeer talking to folk musicians, but as my father talking directly to me. That poem changed the trajectory of my life since.

Photo: ©Woody Guthrie Center, Tulsa, OK
Photo: ©Woody Guthrie Center, Tulsa, OK

Your dad loved to listen to his songs in the hospital. And when the 19-year-old Bob Dylan visited him multiple times, he sang Woody’s songs. How do you recall that experience?

Yes. My memory of Bob was that he very much wanted to be around Woody, even though the hospital setting was bad. And my dad’s physical self was even worse. Bob seemed determined to be near him and to help out. He often sang my father’s songs to him, which was so comforting to my dad, knowing that his songs would survive him. As Bob said, ‘I was a Woody Guthrie jukebox. I knew them all!’ Nothing could have been more beautiful at that time.

Dylan said, “You could listen to Woody Guthrie songs and learn to live.” What do you consider your dad’s best life teachings?

You can grow from wherever you are starting. My father knew that change was a good thing and that we are all capable of evolving, i.e., changing. One of my favourite lines, which I found in one of his journals, was, “I am a changer. A constant changer. I have to be or die. Because whatever stops changing is dead. And I am alive.” I love this philosophy because it gives us all the permission to change. We don’t have to belong to a club or to one tribe or one political party or philosophy. We are allowed to allow change to happen naturally as we grow. Otherwise, we die or become like algae in a stagnant pond. Movement is what keeps us alive.

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A number of hotels and resorts in the UAE are offering packages that are rooted in promoting health and well-being

What was your father’s method of songwriting?

He had two methods. First, he could write on the cuff. On the way to a rally, on the way to a party, or any event, he could quickly pen something up for that day’s event and perform it that day as well. He always carried a pocket-sized notebook and a pencil to scribble down words as he was on a train, plane, or in a car. The second was he would get a line or an idea in his head and write down a title. Sometimes, he would go back and write the lyrics, and sometimes the page with the title was left blank for months or years before he would go back to it. The music part was the least inventive, as he was content to use pretty much the same chords for all the songs. As he would say, “The words are the music, and the people are the song”.


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