Woody Guthrie – a Great American Poet

by David Rosenberg

Who speaks for America? Poets or politicians? Or both? After a year of gigantic hurricanes, global warming warnings, terrorism, species extinctions, mass shootings and threats of atomic annihilation, to whom do we turn for solace and hope?

One of the great American poets is Woody Guthrie, subject of a raved-about tribute, “Woody Sez,” now at the Westport Country Playhouse. Inheriting the mantle of Walt Whitman, who was dubbed “the bard of democracy,” Guthrie remained ever-hopeful. “Woody Sez,” a fully-staged work that combines biography, history and music, stars award-winning David M. Lutken as the legendary folk singer. According to the New York Times, the evening is “exhilarating.”

Although born a century apart, both Whitman (1819-1892) and Guthrie (1912-1967) represent the fast-fading dream of a kind, tolerant, empathetic, welcoming, honest, dignified, respectful America in which individuals come together to form a more perfect union. They were also controversial: Whitman for his so-called immorality; Guthrie for his ideology.

Regard Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” which opens with, “One’s-Self I sing, a simple separate person / Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.” From there, it’s a straight line to Guthrie, whose “This Land is Your Land” demands, “Nobody living can ever stop me / As I go walking that freedom highway; / Nobody living can ever make me turn back / This land was made for you and me.”

Further cementing the synergy, one of Woody’s songs is titled “Walt Whitman’s Niece” (“My girl had told us that she was a niece / of Walt Whitman, but not which niece / And it takes a night and a girl / and a book of this kind / A long long time to find its way back.”

Born in an oil-boom Oklahoma town that soon went off the rails in the Great Depression, Woody was an “Okie” in many ways. Heading west to escape the infamous Dust Bowl, he soon got a job singing on the radio. Songs like “Talking Dust Bowl Blues” and “Dust Storm Disaster” became part of his first album, “Dust Bowl Ballads.”

From the beginning, Woody’s leftist bent of championing the underdog ran afoul of censors and eventually got him blacklisted. By that time, on his own and with the hugely successful Weavers, Woody had become America’s bard, a precursor of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. Author John Steinbeck said of Woody’s activism, “There is the will of a people to endure and fight against oppression. I think we call this the American spirit.”

Restless, never alighting in any one place for too long, Woody lived in Texas, New York, Oregon, Florida and, finally, Brooklyn where he came across none other than Fred C. Trump, the current president’s father. It was a volatile pairing between the songwriter who championed equality and his landlord, the real estate mogul who was brought up on charges of racial discrimination by the U. S. Department of Justice, years after Woody died.

On a Web site called “The Conversation,” British Professor Will Kaufman wrote, “Only a year into his Beach Haven residency, Guthrie – himself a veteran – was already lamenting the bigotry that pervaded his new, lily-white neighborhood, which he’d taken to calling Bitch Havens. In his notebooks, he conjured up a scenario of smashing the colour line to transform the Trump complex into a diverse cornucopia, with ‘a face of every bright color laffing and joshing in these old darkly weeperish empty shadowed windows.’ He imagined himself calling out in Whitman-esque free verse to the ‘negro girl yonder that walks along against this headwind, holding onto her purse and her fur coat.’”

Woody, who served in the Merchant Marines and the Army during World War II, had a particular hatred for Adolf Hitler. In “All You Fascists,” he wrote “The people in this world / Are getting organized / You’re bound to lose / You fascists bound to lose.” A slogan pasted on his guitar read, “This Machine Kills Fascists.”

Another for whom he had antipathy was Charles Lindbergh, the Nazi-loving airplane hero who championed the idea of America First. In “Mister Charlie Lindbergh,” Woody wrote:

“So I’m a gonna tell you people, if Hitler’s gonna be beat,

The common workin’ people has to take the seat

In Washington, Washington.

And I’m gonna tell you workers, ‘fore you cash in your checks:

They say ‘America First,’ but they mean ‘America Next!’

In Washington, Washington.”

Let Woody have the last word: “The note of hope is the only note that can help us or save us from falling to the bottom of the heap of evolution, because, largely, about all a human being is, anyway, is just a hoping machine.”

-END–

“Woody Sez” is at the Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport, through Jan. 20. Call 203-227-4177 or visit westportplayhouse.org

“This Land is Your Land” Words & Music by Woody Guthrie © 1956 (renewed), 1958 (renewed), 1970 and 1972 by Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc. & TRO-Ludlow Music, Inc. (BMI)

“Walt Whitman’s Niece” Words by Woody Guthrie, Music by Billy Bragg
© Copyright Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc. & BMG Songs (BMI)

“Mister Charlie Lindbergh” Words and Music by Woody Guthrie © Copyright 1977 (renewed), 1999 by Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc.

“All You Fascists” Words by Woody Guthrie, Music by Billy Bragg
© Copyright Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc. & BMG Songs (BMI)

Actor Dorothy Stanley Comes Home to “Steel Magnolias”

by Bonnie Goldberg

While some people catch a cold or the flu with great annoyance, Dorothy Stanley caught the acting “bug” with tremendous joy when she was four years old and it is still actively in her system.  She performed “Oh, You Beautiful Doll” as part of a dance recital, as a soloist, and her fate was sealed.  Now she is busy cruising the streets of West Hartford,  her hometown, reacquainting herself with the places she grew up visiting, as she prepares for a new role, that of Clairee, the mayor’s wife, in that sentimental Southern saga “Steel Magnolias” coming to Playhouse on Park from January 10 to 28.
Stanley is “waxing nostalgic” as she revisits all the old familiar places from her youth.  Born at Hartford Hospital, she is calling it “great to be back.”  Now she lives in Vermont, and recounts happily all the plays from summer theater at the Weston Playhouse where she honed her craft. She moved around a lot due to her father’s profession with the Air National Guard, allowing her unique experiences from the Bushnell, to Pittsburgh, New Hampshire, Juilliard and Broadway.  Originally a professional violist, she soon found acting her passion and has performed in such classics as “Bye, Bye Birdie,” “Carousel,” “Sound of Music,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “Dames  at Sea,” “Once” and “Billy Elliot,” to name but a few.  She credits her audition for “Kiss Me Kate,” the moment everything fell into place and her career officially took wing.
Whether she is playing one of the strippers in “Gypsy” or a happy “tapper” in “Sugar Babies,” Stanley has found joy in singing, dancing and acting on stage.  She especially likes feel good shows and this one at Playhouse on Park  definitely fills the bill. Even though it is the story of a mother and her ill daughter, there is a lot of humor to wrap around the sadness.  This  is a sisterhood of women, strong women of the South, who stand together.  As Stanley sees it, “We are all there for each other.  We feel like sisters.  We all get along and are supportive.”  Stanley credits Susan Haefner, the director, for how well the cast is performing.  “We’re having a ball.  First Susan had us discussing our feelings about each other and about diabetes, the disease that affects the every day existence  of Shelby, a main character, and how close we are at different stages in life.”  Thanks to Susan, “we all feel like family. We are working in an extremely positive, professional yet relaxed atmosphere and that’s a delightful way to work.”
“Steel Magnolias” was written three decades ago as a celebration of the life of the playwright’s sister Susan by Robert Harling.  He was having trouble coping with his younger sister’s sudden death, after receiving a kidney from their mom, and it was suggested he write about it to help heal.  In ten days, he penned this tribute to the family and friends whose love surrounded them. Harling wanted to capture his sister’s life and spirit.  He set the story in the place where he grew up, Natchitoches, Louisiana. He placed it in a beauty parlor, the private place for women where they gathered for inspiration, support and strength.  The title comes from “something beautiful, made of very strong stuff.”
For tickets ($25-40), call Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Road, West Hartford  at 860-523-5900, ext. 10, or online atwww.playhouseonpark.org.  Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.  There is an added performance on Tuesday, January 23 at 2 p.m.
In addition to everything else, Dorothy Stanley admits to being a Stephen Sondheim fanatic, having played 14 roles in seven of his shows over the years, like “Follies,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Gypsy.”  She even confesses, “I would perform a Sondheim musical in a barn for free.”  Since that may not happen any time soon, join Stanley’s bevy of high school friends who are coming to the Playhouse to see her shine as Clairee.