SONG FOR WOODY

by Tony Norman
Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Dec 1, 1995


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Conceived and Adapted by Peter Glazer
Produced in association with Tom Glazer

Arrangements and Orchestrations by Jett Waxman
Pope Theatre Company Production

Cast: Mimi Bessette, Neil Friedman, David M. Lutken, Helen Russell, James J. Stein Jr.

Musicians:
Janice Carper, Guitar, Banjo
Jane Gillman, Guitar, Banjo, Harmonica, Dulcimer
Doug Henrie & Stan Bronski, Bass
L. J. Slavin, Fiddle, Banjo, Mandolin, Jews Harp, Pennywhistle, Autoharp, Harmonica
Neil Woodward, Fiddle, Mandolin, Mandocello, National Steel Guitar, Concertina, Banjo, Harmonica

TRACK LIST:

1. Hard Travelin'
2. So Long It's Been Good To Know You
3. Oklahoma Hills
DOWNLOAD AND LISTEN (Real Audio, 125 KB)
4. Dust Storm Disaster
5. I Ain't Got No Home / So Long
6. Bound For Glory
7. Do Re Mi
8. Worried Man, Ain't Gonna Be Treated This Way
9. End Of My Line
10. Grand Coulee Dam
11. Pastures Of Plenty
12. I Ain't Got No Home
13. Act II Introduction
14. Hard Ain't It Hard
15. I Don't Feel At Home On the Bowery
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16. Talkin' Subway
17. Union Maid
18. The Reuben James
19. Nine Hundred Miles
20. Deportee
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21. Better World A Comin'/Lonesome Valley
22.This Land Is Your Land
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Folksinger Woody Guthrie died in 1967, four years after JFK and a year before Martin and Bobby's names were added to our national martyr sweepstakes.

"Woody Guthrie's American Song," opening today for previews at City Theatre, reminds us why Guthrie's music was as instrumental to this country's moral development as King's marches and the Kennedy's leadership style.

As the author of such uniquely American chronicles as "This Land is Your Land," "Pastures of Plenty," "Union Maid," "Bound for Glory," and "I Ain't Got No Home," Guthrie was privy to both the shame and the glory of our experience as a deeply conflicted people searching for secular and spiritual redemption.

But instead of layering our dense national mythology with yet another patina of lies and flattery, Guthrie took his role as artist and cultural subversive seriously enough to work gently at undermining our illusions with songs that mirrored our experience.

Conceived and directed by Peter Glazer, the son of folk musician and Guthrie contemporary Tom Glazer, "American Song" harks back to an era before popular music was compromised by the tyranny of the image.

Glazer's musical survey of Guthrie's life reminds us there was once a value given to paying attention to things--a time when acoustic-based music wasn't equated with boring.

"[Audiences] once knew that the brilliance of a turn of phrase meant something more than a stupendous presentation," said Glazer, who's based in the Bay Area.

"Woody understood a way of talking about and seeing this country with its virtues and troubles. He understood what made America tick and represented it in an unthreatening, poetic and gritty way. You couldn't help getting caught up in it."

Guthrie's spiritual heir, Bob Dylan, sat at his bedside in an East Orange, N.J. hospital in the early 60s, absorbing as much as he could from his trembling mentor before launching what would become a folk revival that would eventually flower into a rock'n'roll revolution.

Despite Guthrie's stark realism, his Dust Bowl narratives always manage to strike a romantic chord with young people encountering the troubadour for the first time. And while Guthrie's politics aren't always taken to heart by his followers, his style is endlessly appropriated by musicians, writers and other artists who hunger for a veneer of proletarian authenticity.

Arena icon Bruce Springsteen openly evokes Guthrie's spirit with solo-acoustic efforts like "Nebraska" and "The Ghost of Tom Joad," his latest trip into the Steinbeckian milieu.

Nirvana's Kurt Cobain worshipped Guthrie's fellow traveler William "Lead Belly" Ledbetter, an appreciation that foreshadowed the intriguing synthesis of acoustic and grunge that is "Nirvana Unplugged in New York."

Struck down at 43 by Huntington's chorea, a degenerative neurological disease that kept him far from the crossroads of the American experience he breathed the way we breathe air, Guthrie spent the last 12 years of his life bedridden and in pain.

Scholars of American folklore and folk music estimate that Guthrie composed and performed as many as 1,000 songs before the hereditary disorder forced him off the roads boxcars and tramp steamers that provided a context for his most memorable songs.

"Woody was not dogmatic and I didn't want the show to be dogmatic," Glazer said of the play he's lived with in various incarnations since 1988.

"I've always been concerned about the same sort of things Woody was...I was trying to find projects that interested me."

As a child of the '60s and the son of parents who were deeply involved in the labor movement, Glazer's political instincts have remained consistently with the downtrodden, though he quickly adds it isn't a litmus test for his art.

While writing "Woody Guthrie's American Song," in the late '80s, when unbridled greed was rampant, Glazer knew the material would find a sympathetic audience even though he didn't conceive it was a "protest piece" against Reaganomics per se.

"Woody's material is seductive in any time," Glazer said. "It resonated in its moment many decades ago as well as the late '80s. It isn't any less seductive given the climate it appears in, and that's its beauty."

Basing the musical on Guthrie's prose writings and autobiography, "Bound for Glory," Glazer leaned heavily on the folk singer's humor and humanism without becoming unduly preoccupied with his politics. "I didn't want to strip it of politics," he said, "but I didn't want the audience to forget they were dealing with theatrical entertainment [either]."

The musical uses old photographs projected on backdrops, Glazer says, because "I was careful to make sure audiences knew we were dealing with a real place and time. I didn't want people to dismiss the landscape Woody thrived in as being immaterial to the story."

"American Song," which has been staged in theaters from Chicago to Milford, N.H., is carried along by a five-person ensemble and three backup musicians.

Maria Becoates-Bey, Lawrence Bullock, D.C. Fitzgerald, Richard Glover and Myrna Paris play a variety of roles and take turns delivering Guthrie's dialogue in the first person.

The production features each actor prominently in solos throughout the production with skillful and sensitive explorations of the folk singer's world through his songs.

"One of the wonderful things about working with new people is watching a cast get caught up in the material," Glazer said, "It's a constant reminder of how remarkable Woody's writing was."

Some actors, like Paris and Fitzgerald, have roots in the folk music scene and were already familiar with Guthrie's music; Becoates-Bey was familiar with only a song or two before she was cast in the production.

"This is the hardest kind of show for me to do because it isn't a straight-up musical. It's narration about someone's life, but you're trying to act and put everything into a scene and not make it look staged," Becoates-Bey says.

"I like this production because of the kind of person Woody was. His music is uplifting and inspiring because he focused on important things."

"People who come into the show with minimal reference to Guthrie mirror the experience of the audience," Glazer said, "I think this keeps me honest as the director because I want to see the material resonate with her."

"The early rehearsals were particularly interesting," says Paris, an operatically trained singer and the veteran of several folk- music groups in the '60s and early '70s. "It's interesting how Peter worked in two different women into the show. He could have made a one-man show, but he felt that would have been too limiting."

Glazer expects this production of "Woody Guthrie's American Song" to go over especially well with those who remember Guthrie and understand his impact, but he hopes it spreads a much wider net.

"The most exciting and difficult audience is young people because the music on MTV is so slick and dark," Glazer said, "Many young people have a predisposition against folk music. Fortunately this show has something to say to this generation."

At the end of the Pittsburgh run, Glazer and the entire cast will take the production on the road for a national tour until March.

Tim Russell, from left, William Wisnowski, Susan Lang, Richard Reimold, Lani Peck and Michael Pasternack perform ``I Ain't Gonna Be Treated This Way'' in ``Woody Guthrie's American Song'' at Danbury Theatre Company, 25 West St.

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