A well-used adage says, “If you want to know a man, just walk a mile in his shoes.
Well, we walked thousands of miles thanks to the heartwarming production, “Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie,” now playing at Seattle Repertory Theatre.
We shared the life and journey of songwriter/singer Woodrow Wilson Guthrie — Woody — a homespun troubadour for the common man, the plight of the poor and downtrodden people of the US.
I wasn’t expecting such down-home charm, but it was the perfect play to take our minds off the current political insanity and remind us that one person can make a difference, if they speak up for what they believe. In Woody’s case, no subject was taboo, not the rich, not segregation, not politics, not greed and not the suffering caused by greed.
Directed by Nick Corley, four amazing musicians delivered the story of folk hero Woody Guthrie with stories, quotes and songs.
Guitarist/singer David M. Lutken led the narration and took on the role of Woody, backed by singer-musicians David Finch, Darcie Deaville and Helen Jean Russell, They displayed their versatility on the guitar, harmonica, fiddle, bass, banjo, and mandolin.
Overall, they performed almost 40 of Woody’s tunes. His song “The Ballad of Tom Joad,” payed tribute to John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer-Prize novel, “The Grapes of Wrath.”
Other songs included “So Long It’s Been Good to Know Ya,” “Curly Headed Baby,” “Jolly Banker,” “Union Maid,” “Why Do You Stand There in the Rain?,” “This Train Is Bound for Glory,” and the anthem, “This Land is Your Land.”
Various photos of Guthrie were hung at different heights above Luke Hegel-Cantarella’s rustic set design. Maybe it was a front porch, or the outside a feed store, with rough-hewn wooden boxes surrounding the performance area. The women’s dresses put me in mind of what my grandmother had worn back in Missouri.
Born on July 14, 1912 in the small country town of Okemah, Oklahoma, Woody’s life was like a beat-up roller coaster, up and down, down and out.
His family went from moderately well-off to dirt poor. Their house burned down — they were left homeless. His mother developed dementia, which led to her diagnosis of Huntington Disease. Woody eventually succumbed to the same malady and died in 1967. He was 55. His surviving son Arlo also suffers from the condition.
Throughout his life, Woody moved around. He’d leave his wife and children, as he roamed the country, sometimes hopping trains, sometimes hobnobbing with hobos, other times just walking, sometimes driving an old rundown jalopy.
Living in migrant camps, and like the rest of them, working when he could. Eating when he could.
He waited with hundreds at the California border until he was allowed to enter and work. But always, he was writing, playing his guitar and singing, as he protested the inequalities of society and justice.
We heard stories about\hootenannies and “Rockyfeller Center,” the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression, and World War II.
Ironically, one story involved our president-elect’s father, Fred Trump, who at one time was Woody’s landlord. Evidently, Woody was upset about the segregated lily-white population of his Beach Haven neighborhood. He even wrote a song, “I Ain’t Got No Home,” with lyrics citing “Old man Trump.”
During his short lifetime, Woody wrote and sang hundreds of songs, inspiring future superstars, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Johnny Cash, John Mellencamp, and Bruce Springsteen, plus a slew of others. At one point Woody hooked up with Pete Seeger and toured with the Almanac Singers.
Woody Guthrie’s legacy lives on. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, and in 2000, he received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award posthumously.
The opening night of “Woody Sez” was so disarming, that the audience spontaneously joined in for a round of “This Land is Your Land,” followed by another song Guthrie wrote, the unofficial anthem for Washington State, “Roll On, Columbia, Roll On.”
The show is much more than a concert of Woody’s best hits. It’s an inspiring bio-musical, and we left the theater with a warm heart and a bit of hope.
The production gave us something to “think upon,” as my daddy would say.
A day or so after the play, I spent the good part of an afternoon sitting on my back steps looking at the sky and the waters of Puget Sound. Seagulls were flying en masse, and as I watched their flight, their wings turned silver and twinkled like stars against the sky blue vista. Woody’s song, “This Is Your Land,” echoed through my mind.
Thank you, Woody.
“Woody Sez” runs through Jan. 29, tickets $17-$52, 206-443-2222 or seattlerep.org.