Reintroducing America to a folk pioneer

Bob Dylan would never have written about Rubin "Hurricane" Carter were it not for Woody Guthrie. Bruce Springsteen wouldn't have recorded "Born in the U.S.A." if he hadn't been moved by Guthrie's musical commentaries.

When it comes to people who write songs with a social edge, notes disciple Billy Bragg, "All roads lead to Woody Guthrie."

His multifaceted career is now documented in "This Land is Your Land: The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie," an exhibition on display through April 23 at the Museum of the City of New York. It is among a flurry of activities aimed at building awareness of Guthrie's impact on American culture.

Some recognition, such as the Lifetime Achievement Grammy to be awarded Feb. 22 (a day before the televised award show) and the exhibition - the first about this folk-music legend - is quite belated.

But other efforts, such as the album "Mermaid Avenue" and its soon-to-be-released follow-up - in which Bragg and the alternative-country band Wilco set unpublished Guthrie lyrics to music - are the result of new ideas inspired by the five-year-old Woody Guthrie Archives, curated by his daughter, Nora. (The Smithsonian's Traveling Exhibition Service organized the New York show, along with the Guthrie Archives.)

More albums, three new illustrated books with versions of his songs for children, and a new biography are also in the pipeline.

Even though scores of artists claim Guthrie as a major influence, and even though just about every American over the age of five can sing some of the lyrics to his "This Land is Your Land," most people know little else about his legacy.

The romanticized image of Guthrie is that of a lonely troubadour, a dust-covered hobo who championed the downtrodden and wrote songs of protest.

He was a balladeer, union supporter, and radical left-winger with a nomadic streak. But he also was a radio star, newspaper columnist, folklorist, humorist, and surprisingly, a visual artist.

Guthrie was amazingly prolific. He wrote constantly, filling scores of composition books, penning countless letters, even scribbling on newspaper scraps if he had to. But he started out as a visual artist, and this display is filled with his cartoon images, quickly stroked but thoughtful figures, and whimsical sketches.

These and the accompanying text, audio, and video reveal the life of a husband and father who was driven by a restless spirit, a childlike playfulness, and a sense that injustice shouldn't be tolerated.

"The real ideas come from the work itself.... It's like the work just knows what it wants to be," said his daughter, Nora, in a recent interview, sitting in the New York archives among books, videos, albums, awards, mementos, and boxes full of her father's writing and art. "Woody has been in a box, metaphorically speaking, all this time."

Guthrie archivist Jorge Arevalo says Nora Guthrie and Woody Guthrie's former manager, Harold Leventhal, are undertaking such projects because they want to bring her father "back into the cultural bloodstream, so to speak" - to convey his importance not as an icon, but as a real historical figure.

*After New York, 'This Land is Your Land: The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie' will travel to Washington, D.C., and Tacoma, Wash.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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