Woody Guthrie's American Song
Colorado Shakespeare Festival
Thursday, July 3, 2008
The Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of "Woody Guthrie's American Song" finds its greatest depth by digging into blood spilled in local soil.
Adaptor and director Peter Glazer first staged the musical 20 years ago. Special for this summer's staging -- the first musical ever at CSF -- Glazer unearthed a song the legendary folksinger had written about the Ludlow Massacre, a bloody incident in a small southern Colorado town in 1914, where National Guardsmen killed 20 people, including children of mine workers who were on strike.
Glazer inserted the song into the top of Act II just for the CSF show. Two the five actors in the musical, Lisa Asher and Megan Pearl Smith, sing the song, accompanied by a haunting rhythm pounded out on the wooden bodies of stringed instruments. It's a chilling rendition. It's also the most dramatic example of what's at the heart of the show.
"Woody Guthrie" includes 28 songs penned by the legendary folksinger from Oklahoma. Most of the songs give voice to the less powerful, the have-nots living through hard times in America not so long ago. There are farmers forced from their lands by "jolly bankers." Homeless men looking for work. Workers taken advantage of by big companies, or ignored by an indifferent government.
This is as overtly political a show as CSF has staged, at least in the past two decades. And while some of the specific political references sound dated -- pressed on the issue, Guthrie famously says, "I'm not a Communist ... necessarily" -- the issues in Guthrie's songs presented here still resonate.
Glazer, whose father, Tom Glazer, was a folksinger and contemporary of Guthrie, uses three actors in the show to represent Guthrie at different periods of his life.
Sam Misner is the young Guthrie, suffering through the Dust Bowl strife in Oklahoma, then setting out on trains headed westward. Matt Mueller plays the Guthrie who arrives at the work camps in California, only to find there's not much work to be had. Daver Morrison plays the older Guthrie, after he's settled in New York years later.
As its title suggests, this isn't a deep exploration of Guthrie as a personality. Instead, it allows the characters and subjects in his songs to weave together a mural of life among America's working poor in the 1930s, '40s and '50s.
The Great Depression, the era in which the show begins, seems worlds away, at first. It's difficult to imagine an America without a Starbucks down the street and 24-hour television, not to mention indoor plumbing.
Natural disasters like the drought and dust storms that ravaged parts of the middle of America in the 1930s, and drove thousands of people from their homes, feel like ancient history as songs like "Dust Storm Disaster" and "I Ain't Got No Home In This World Anymore" ring from the stage in the University Theatre Building.
But then this verse blows forth: "We had a house and a home, about like you/We had jobs, about like you/Then somethin' hit us ..."
Suddenly, the character could be singing about 2005 and Hurricane Katrina. Later, the song "Plane Wreck At Los Gatos" details a crash in which several Mexican migrant farmers, who had been rounded up and pointed back south across the border, are killed. The news callously refers to the people as "deportees." It could be taken from today's headlines.
Maybe Guthrie's most radical song is his most well-known. When you get down to it, the lyrics in the chorus of "This Land Is Your Land" go against the American grain. This production includes two verses usually omitted when the song is sung around the campfire. They mention a "no trespassing" sign, hungry people gathered under the shadow of a church steeple and the author's determination to live an unfettered life.
When he sang about how this land is our land, and this land is his land, Guthrie wasn't dividing up properties, or even talking about our country's national park system. He was talking against the idea of the haves owning the land and its profits, while the have-nots toil away with little or nothing.
(Kind of puts a different perspective on the recent private-land disputes that have cropped up in south Boulder of late.)
"The Sinking Of The Reuben James" feels contemporary, as well. When a man in a bar finds the sentiments in "Union Maid," a song about organizing a workers union, objectionable and even un-patriotic, Guthrie pulls out another tune that tells the story of the Reuben James, the first U.S. military vessel sunk by the Germans during World War II.
The song remembers the soldiers lost in the incident. It echoes a familiar theme today when many people say they don't support the war in Iraq, but they support and honor the troops serving there.
Four musicians, who play a variety of acoustic instruments, join the five-person cast onstage. The cast and musicians make up a strong ensemble. If there's a star in "Woody Guthrie," though, it's Jeff Waxman, the show's musical director and arranger.
Waxman's harmonies -- delivered robustly by the cast -- are exquisite, and his arrangements reinvent several of Guthrie's songs.
"New York Town" becomes a delightful comic interaction between Misner and Mueller, playing Cisco Houston and Guthrie, the two singing partners, on their first encounter. "Bound For Glory," played in a minor key with a restless backbeat, becomes a haunting warning more than a song filled with cheerful anticipation. "Another Man Done Gone," with lead vocals by Morrison, is an aching and intimate moment, perfectly rendered.
As you might expect, "This Land Is Your Land" is a cathartic show ender. Long before then, we're ready to sing along. We finally get the chance.
Contact Camera Theater Critic Mark Collins at 303-473-1369 or BDCTheater@comcast.net
Editor's note: And it is good to see a play with Cisco in it by name. The film version of "Bound for Glory" had the quasi-Cisco character, played by Ronny Cox, renamed "Ozark Bule" for no good reason! In the movie, Bule sings on the radio with Woody in L.A., which is what a woman did with him in real life, Lefty Lou. Cisco sang a bit with him out there in the migrant camps, along with Will Geer. Ronny wears a moustache and his role as Woody's best friend is probably a composite of Cisco, Lefty Lou and Will.