Stars, Stripes and Dust: Life and Tunes of Woody Guthrie Come Alive on Stage

Four charismatic performers offer a touching tribute onstage to the life and times of an iconic American folksinger.

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“Woody Sez” is a musical pocket production based on the biography of folksinger, troubadour, poet, composer and singer of protest songs Woody Guthrie. The decision to use the singer’s first name and a slangy form of the verb in the production’s name are deliberate, because what Woody Guthrie was saying to his listeners was, “I’m no more a poet or a composer than you are.” And the audience he addressed was made up of dispossessed, poor, nomadic Americans who were looking for work and food during the Great Depression and the world war that followed soon thereafter. A huge cloud of dust rising out of the parched Dust Bowl hovers over it all.

It’s also the tragic personal story of Woody Guthrie, whose mother was ill with Huntington’s disease, a fact that overshadowed their family as it grew and suffered, one house fire after another. Woody wandered throughout the United States and sang about it and its people. He had three children with his first wife, Mary Jennings, but lived apart from them for many years before divorcing Jennings in 1942. A Jewish woman became his second wife ‏(of three‏); the couple lost a daughter to a tragic home fire. One of his children of this union is Arlo Guthrie.

Guthrie wrote and sang protest songs denouncing the banks, politicians ‏(Republicans and Democrats alike‏) and fascism, both its domestic and foreign manifestations. He fought and sang in Europe during World War II ‏(with Pete Seeger‏) and died in a mental hospital in 1967 of the same disease that killed his mother, unable to play, sing or even speak. Bob Dylan used to visit him, however, because − as is mentioned on stage − it was clear that somewhere in there, Woody Guthrie was still aware and listening.

“Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie” has come to Israel from the United States. Directed by Nick Corley, it is performed with extraordinary charisma by four singer-musician-actors. Helen Jean Russell plays the bass, sings and plays the role of Woody’s mother. Darcie Deaville plays the fiddle, viola, guitar and mandolin, among other instruments, and has formidable stage presence ‏(especially in the role of “the union maid”‏). Andy Teirstein plays the fiddle, banjo and harmonica ‏(and spoons‏) and plays all the male roles. David Lutken plays Woody Guthrie himself, bearing remarkable similarity to his character, highlighted by the fact that a photograph of Guthrie appears on the backdrop .

This is a story of tough times and a tough life. Still, it contains hardly any hatred, outrage or bitterness. Even the despair is measured. There’s protest and sadness and interminable hardship, but there is also solidarity ‏(“This land is my land, this land is your land”‏), joy of life and beautiful, inspirational and wondrously varied music − maybe because it’s an American story and the story of white America .

This production was co-conceived by David Lutken ‏(who is also its musical director‏) and Nick Corley ‏(who also directs‏). The show will be performed in Tel Aviv today and this weekend at Tzavta, and at the Haifa English Theater.

The cast of "Woody Sez" goes to Haifa next.Credit: Todd Oldham

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