‘I know Woody.I know Woody! I know him and met him and saw him and sang to him.I know Woody! Goddam.’
David M Lutken smiles as he recalls the youthful excitement of a 1961 postcard, written by Bob Dylan after the first meeting with his hero, Woody Guthrie. As someone who has portrayed Guthrie and performed his music for more than 20 years, in a variety of projects, Lutken knows Woody’s life and work in exceptional detail.
At present, the actor/musician is on tour in England with ‘Woody Sez, ‘ in the company of three multi talented cast members, Ruth Clarke-Irons, Helen J Russell and William Wolfe Hogan. Between them they take on a variety of roles, play a staggering array of instruments and sing evocative, exclusively acoustic versions of the songs that relate the moving saga of Woody’s extraordinary life.
In between two Saturday shows at The Lowry Theatre, Salford Quays, on a stage draped with backdrops of Woody Guthrie images and locations plus a vintage Gibson mandolin,upright bass, a road worn Martin guitar (ready to kill Fascists) banjo, dulcimer, autoharp, fiddles, harmonicas and spoons, Visions of Dylan was warmly welcomed by the cast to the temporary home of ‘Woody Sez’.
We began by reflecting on early memories of Guthrie’s songs. Lutken and Russell are now based in New York but grew up in Dallas, Texas and Frederick, Maryland, respectively.They both had similar experiences as small children in the US school system of the late 1950s/early 1960s .Both recall learning songs of national significance from progressive teachers, including several works by Woody Guthrie such as ‘This Land Is Your Land’ and ‘Bound For Glory.’At the age of three, Lutken was taught such songs…….’I was aware of Woody before I knew who Woody was’.
Throughout the 1950s and 60s, there was a conscious effort to raise the profile of American folk songs-principally through the efforts of Woody Guthrie’s manager, Harold Leventhal, in conjunction with music pioneers such as Moses Asch of Folkways Records-the original publisher of ‘This Land Is Your Land.’ In the pre TV era, an emphasis was also placed on home and church music. Both of these areas were important in Russell’s childhood music making. Weekly hootenannys at home featured songs by Woody Guthrie, The Kingston Trio, Pete Seeger et al.In the early 1960s,and by now, resident in New York, it was inevitable that the young Bob Dylan would soon reach an audience now more familiar with popular folk songs -many of which were also a massive part of his musical education contributing to his rise to prominence in Greenwich Village.
‘Blowin’ In The Wind ‘was the first Dylan song to make a major impact, initially as a hit single for Peter, Paul and Mary. Lutken recalls his first sighting of the author performing the song-viewing a friend’s television as Dylan sang ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ -alone on a sailing ship watched by a massive audience on shore.Years later, there is crystal clear recall of him seeing Dylan for the first time-the composer of such an emotive song. Russell recalls repeatedly playing her older brother’s copy of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and being struck by the song’s power,whilst simultaneously lamenting Dylan’s departure from his acoustic, folky sound.She also fondly recalled the frequent playing of ‘The Times They Are a Changin”, perceptively thinking of it as an extension of Woody’s approach to songwriting.
The younger, British members of the cast, Ruth Clarke-Irons and William Wolfe Hogan had little direct exposure to Guthrie’s music prior to their involvement with’ Woody Sez’. However, both were familiar with folk/acoustic music from an impressionable age.Clarke-Irons’ parents had the foresight to expose young Ruth to records by ‘Fairport Convention’and ‘Steeleye Span’ with Joni Mitchell’s LPs serving as guitar tutorials. Hogan’s interest focused on songs and genius guitar playing of Nick Drake, John Martyn and Richard Thompson. It was an excellent grounding for both actors’ future involvement with the stories and imagery re created in the songs performed in ‘Woody Sez.’
2012 was memorable for the commemoration of Woody Guthrie’s centenary, part of which saw’ Woody Sez’ sharing the bill with singer/guitarist / social commentator, Tom Morello and German folk singer, Wenzel at a Woody 100 concert in Berlin. Surely apt that a performance celebrating Woody’s life and work featured Morello,who, having worked as a member of ‘Rage Against The Machine’,would probably have raised a wry smile from the master songwriter at such an appropriate epithet being linked to his songs.
At the present time, Guthrie’s legacy remains as prominent as Dylan’s continued creativity, where the latter keeps up a globetrotting concert schedule, doing art exhibitions while releasing the much praised ‘Tempest’ album.’Woody Sez’ thrives on international stages Lutken and Russell also play alongside friends in an ace covers group ‘The Seat Of The Pants Band’.Their repertoire includes several Dylan songs amongst immaculately played folk/country based material , with bonus surprises such as a bluegrass tinged ‘Once In A Lifetime’,which should move fans of ‘Talking Heads’ to take note.
Martin Carthy,the highly respected English folk musician -and an early influence on Dylan, is fond of quoting the theory that the worst thing that can happen to folk music is for it not to be played……..it is resilient.So,’Woody Sez’ member,Will Wolfe Hogan’s recent chat with punk folk fans,who praised the work of Woody Guthrie came as little surprise.Visitors to punknews .org are greeted by photographs of Woody, whilst the Seattle grunge scene also embraces and adapts Guthrie songs.The Woody Guthrie Archives continue to welcome access to all, with particular encouragement to young enthusiasts.
‘Woody Sez’ includes in excess of 30 Guthrie songs, with some of the favourites of cast members such as ‘Deportees’ and ‘Pretty Boy Floyd’ yet to be featured.Woody’s songs sound as powerful as ever and it is obvious to hear the appeal to a worldwide audience and performers.There is a continued relevance of many songs too, sadly in some cases. David Lutken cites ‘Pretty Boy Floyd’ as his favourite Woody Guthrie song. How astute of Woody, how relevant to world wide crises to see that life can still so easily take a bad turn….
‘some rob you with a six gun, some with a fountain pen’.
Even Dylan might struggle to better that sentiment, but his interaction with Woody Guthrie was a powerful catalyst for so much exciting music that was to follow. Subsequent interest in Guthrie’s songs and sentiments has flourished, coupled with productions such as ‘Woody Sez’ and tribute projects promoting interest in folk/world music, social history and the human condition.
Woody Guthrie would have thought carefully when he was planning the structure of his epic book ‘Bound For Glory’. Chapter 1 is entitled ‘Soldiers In The Dust’……..it is typical Guthrie imagery but it also conjures up a powerful vision of young Bob visiting an ailing Woody, bringing with him the gift of song…..
‘ here’s to the hearts and the hands of the men who come with the dust and are gone with the wind.’
By David Burrows
(Pic: Helen Russell, David Lutkin)