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Woody Guthrie exhibition in NYC examines his public and personal life

Woody Guthrie: People Are the Song at The Morgan Library & Museum provides a comprehensive overview of the legendary American troubadour.
Robin Carson, Woody Guthrie, 1938. Courtesy of the Woody Guthrie Archive.

Robin Carson, Woody Guthrie, 1938. Courtesy of the Woody Guthrie Archive.

By John Curley

Held in conjunction with the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the current exhibition Woody Guthrie: People Are the Song at The Morgan Library & Museum in New York City traces the life and times of Guthrie and includes displays of Guthrie’s lyric notebooks, audio tapes containing home recordings, and other items including the lone guitar in possession of the Center that bears the famous inscription “This Machine Kills Fascists.” On that guitar, it is scratched into the back. A notebook of phone numbers, including those of archivist Alan Lomax and singer-songwriter Leadbelly, is also displayed. The many artists that have covered Guthrie’s songs are acknowledged in the exhibition.

In addition to being a singer-songwriter and activist, Guthrie was also a painter and illustrator. Several of his paintings and illustrations are displayed at the exhibition.

There is a section of the exhibition that is devoted to Guthrie’s most famous composition, “This Land Is Your Land,” which Guthrie wrote when he was 27 years old. It was about what he witnessed on his journey from California to New York City. Guthrie had been in New York City for a week when he wrote it. The song was a response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” Guthrie saw Berlin’s song as too blindly patriotic. An asterisk at the bottom of the handwritten lyrics for “This Land Is Your Land” reads “All you can write is what you see.” In that section, there is also a response to “This Land Is Your Land” by The Cherokee Nation that criticizes the song for not mentioning America’s indigenous people.

Guthrie wrote about race relations and police brutality, two subjects that have been much discussed in recent years. He wrote 21 songs in response to the Peekskill, New York race riots in 1949. When Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson attempted to perform in Peekskill, they were attacked by members of the Ku Klux Klan and Klan sympathizers. In one song about racism, Guthrie singled out Fred Trump, his one-time landlord and the father of former President Donald Trump.

I attended the exhibition on Thursday, March 10th. On that evening, there was a terrific program that teamed Guthrie’s daughter Nora Guthrie with the musician/actor/playwright David M. Lutken. Nora Guthrie told stories about her father while using a slideshow of images from the exhibition. And Lutken performed several of Guthrie’s songs in such a wonderfully spot-on manner that it had the feel of a live performance by Guthrie himself.

The exhibition runs through Sunday, May 22nd. The Morgan Library & Museum is located at 225 Madison Avenue at 36th Street in Manhattan.

Additional information about the exhibition, including upcoming special programs related to it, can be found at https://www.themorgan.org/exhibitions/woody-guthrie.

A 3D view of the exhibition space can be seen at https://www.themorgan.org/exhibitions/online/guthrie.

Woody Guthrie, "This Land Is Your Land," autograph lyrics signed, February 23, 1940. ©Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc.

Woody Guthrie, "This Land Is Your Land," autograph lyrics signed, February 23, 1940. ©Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc.