Guthrie On Guthrie, Part 2
For the last two decades Nora Guthrie has worked with musicians, allowing them to make their own music based on unrecorded songs in the Woody Guthrie archives.
Cowboys & Indians: What went through your head when you first discovered thousands of songs that your father had written and never recorded?
Nora Guthrie: I stopped in my tracks and I thought, Am I having a dream? I’m looking at one lyric after the next. They’re not scraps. They’re completely finished lyrics. And I’m not in the folk music world. I knew everyone in it, but I’m not a folk singer. And I really thought I was the dummy in the class. But then when I went and I showed all the smart guys these lyrics — people that Woody knew really well, that he’s travelled with and sang with, like Pete Seeger, etcetera, and said, “Well I know that I don’t know this lyric but you must.” And, they’d say, “Nope, nope, never seen it before.”
And it’s just spooky. How could there be so many Woody Guthrie lyrics that no living person knows about? I really don’t have a clear answer about it. All I know is that they exist and they’re in his notebooks. They were completely finished — not just little scraps of ideas. Some of them are 86 verses long. Talk about completed songs.
C&I: Did you find all these notebooks together?
Guthrie: They were in loose pieces of paper in three-hole binders. They were in notebooks, written right next to a piece of writing about something in a diary. They were in letters he wrote to other people. Like: “Oh, so and so, I was just thinking about you. I wrote this song about blah, blah, blah. Maybe you guys can sing it.” Sometimes two or three or four in a letter. They were all over the place for the most part, already organized in binders. They were kind of a playlist in a way. It looks to me like he was very carefully cataloging and saving his songs. A lot of the songs had one or two notes next to it. Like, “Sing it in D.”
• July 14 marks the 100th birthday of Woody Guthrie. Read the July 2012 feature story on his life and legacy.
• Click here to read about the album projects overseen by Nora Guthrie.
• Click here to read an interview with Arlo Guthrie about his dad.
You do get the feeling that he actually sang a lot of these songs at least once for a particular event. So he’d write something like. “I wrote this on a the IRT train heading to the Electrical Workers Union. Did it for those guys there.” Then he’ll actually put the date.
C&I: Your father passed when you were just a child. What memories do you have of him?
Guthrie: The memories that stand out are sad ones. You know, he had Huntington’s disease most of his life. Our relationship was completely that of caretaking — doing his laundry, helping him eat, holding his hand as he walked, lighting his cigarette. It overwhelmed anything else. All of my dad’s friends were telling me, “Man, he wrote some great songs.” But for a 10-year-old, a 5-year-old, you just think, Oh my God, this is tough. I didn’t see him as a songwriter; I just saw him as my dad.
When you’re young, saying, “Let’s play ball. Let’s go to the zoo. Let’s do this. Let’s do that.” Actually, that’s what we’ve been doing for the last 20 years now — playing. Let’s go to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and open up a museum. Let’s go here and put on a concert. Let’s make a record. I really feel that playfulness now with everything he left behind and it’s just pure fun.
C&I: How do you decide which musicians you’re going to let work with his music?
Guthrie: On our birth certificate, for religion, our dad wrote, “All or none.” I think we’re going in the direction of “all.” I think that’s what my life is like. I just thought, Who else can we bring in that hasn’t done a Woody song? We’ve done punk, we’ve done rap, we’ve done blues, we’ve done spoken word, we’ve done symphonies. And you know what? They’re all sincere. These are not adaptations. These are initial births. The ripples just keep widening and widening and these songs keep being born in a lot of different genres. It’s a very mystical experience.