It’s a fair bet that anyone who clicks on this article does not need a backstory on Woody Guthrie — legendary singer-songwriter, activist, poet, artist, writer of “This Land Is Your Land” and many other standards and the single greatest influence on Bob Dylan and a generation of musicians.
But as a stunning, just-opened exhibit at the Morgan Library & Museum shows, there was much more to him than his most well-known songs might indicate. Most striking of all, as manuscripts of his writings show, he was an amazingly deft wordsmith who would have made a hell of a rapper — and many of his verses and casual writings show a rustic, ribald sense of humor that is rarely present, or at least rarely obvious, in most of his songs.
“Woody Guthrie: People Are the Song” — opening today (Feb. 18) and running through May 22, 2022 — features writings, drawings, photos, books, musical instruments, audiovisual media and items from the archives of Dylan, John Lennon and Bruce Springsteen, but the most fascinating material is in the manuscripts, which one could easily lose a couple of hours standing and reading.
There are rare items like the original, handwritten lyrics to “This Land Is Your Land,” which Guthrie composed just a few blocks away from the Morgan; the only known surviving guitar bearing Guthrie’s iconic phrase “This Machine Kills Fascists”; a copy of Bob Dylan’s 1961 debut album that the singer himself handwrote the lyrics to “Song for Woody” on; and even a letter from John Lennon sent to Guthrie’s family in 1975.
But just as fascinating are the less-known items. While not his most socially conscious work, one of the most remarkable manuscripts is “Earthbound Traveler,” a series of at least a couple of hundred alliterative couplets — some of them NSFW! — combining American cities with unusual, often made-up verbs:
“Junked in Jacksonville;
Jacked in Joysburgh;
Junked in Jerusalem;
Flurked in Philly;
Wolfed in Wilmington…
Quacked in Quakerstown;
Brained in Braintree;
Peeled in Port Arthur;
Cooded in Cape Cod;
Looped in LaJolla;
Sunk in Saint Augustine;
Trounced in Three Falls;
Bruised in Buffalo;
Buffaloed in Binghamton;” etc.
Curated in collaboration with the Woody Guthrie Center (based in Tulsa, OK), Woody Guthrie Publications, and music historian Bob Santelli, the exhibition tells the story of his life through objects in remarkably vivid fashion via several interrelated themes: place, politics, family, love, and spirituality. Running through these themes is an emphasis on Guthrie’s connection to people in his life, historical figures, and the workers, soldiers and immigrants who appear in songs like like “My Thirty Thousand,” “Deportee,” “The Blinding of Isaac Woodard,” and “Union Maid.”
Deana McCloud, executive director of the Woody Guthrie Center, said, “We are proud to share some of Woody’s most insightful and inspirational artifacts within this exhibition and invite guests to take a deep dive into Woody’s vast scope of work as a spokesperson for the people through his words, music, and art.”
The Morgan’s Director, Colin B. Bailey, said, “Several years in preparation, we are delighted to bring the work of iconic musician and writer Woody Guthrie to the Morgan Library & Museum. With tremendous help from the Woody Guthrie Center, this exhibition offers a look inside the life of one of the most remarkable recording artists in American history.”