"Woody Sez," the Life and Music of Woody Guthrie at Theaterworks in Hartford

Aug 28, 2014

Helen Russell is an original cast member from "Woody Sez."
Credit Chion Wolf / WNPR

Legendary American folk singer/activist Woody Guthrie, is best known for his classic song, "This Land is Your Land." All of his music gives voice to a restless and profoundly American search for freedom: artistically, politically, and personally.

Guthrie sang of the tough, human struggles of his time. His songs paved the way for musicians like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and a very talented cast of performers who are in a show at TheaterWorks in Hartford called "Woody Sez." The production explores the life and music of Woody Guthrie.

David Lutken, show devisor and lead actor, was joined by cast member Helen Russell in WNPR's studio 3 for music and conversation. They began with Guthrie’s song, "Pastures of Plenty," which you can watch below:

"He was the perfect man, in some ways, for the Dust Bowl and the Depression."
- David Lutken

Lutken is a veteran Broadway actor. He wanted to create the theatrical piece about Guthrie because he’d performed in shows about people like Hank Williams and Patsy Cline. "The character of Woody Guthrie, it’s a very different story," he said. "[It's] not only very theatrical, but a very dramatic one as well."

Lutken talked with WNPR's Diane Orson about Guthrie's life and music.

David Lutken: His life has so many dimensions to it: the most important one being, as that song exemplifies, that he really did try and strive all of his life to broaden everyone’s social consciousness. He tried very hard not just to live just for himself or for his fame or fortune or even for the music. He tried very hard to apply all of those things to something greater than himself.

Diane Orson: I think it was Joe Klein who described Woody as "one of the patron saints of American rebelliousness." What do you think makes Woody Guthrie -- somebody who lived in the Depression era, and in the Dust Bowl era -- what makes him relevant today?

Timing. He was the perfect man, in some ways, for the Dust Bowl and the Depression, the labor movement and his part of World War II with his sticker that said, “This machine kills fascists” on his guitar.

Woody Guthrie performing with his famous guitar.
Credit Al Aumuller/New York World-Telegram and the Sun / Library of Congress
"The show is relevant on more levels than I can possibly relate...It's all Woody."
- David Lutken

We’ve been doing this show since 2007 in various places, and its always amazing to all of us how audiences in different cities all over the place, and all over the world, choose different quotes or songs or parts of Woody’s life that they just snatch right out of the show, because its going on with them where they are right now, particularly of course the political and social unrest around the world. And the continued inequalities in the United States, so evident right now.

In Britain, folk music is very popular and Woody Guthrie is popular all over England, particularly in the north of England and all over Scotland

I understand that you performed in China. Can you talk a little bit about the reaction to Woody Guthrie in China?

David Lutken's well-worn guitar.
Credit Chion Wolf / WNPR

It really was fabulous. We were only over there for a brief period and played at a couple of universities. Almost all of the folks that we met were learning English, or spoke English, but none of them understood what I was saying, of course.

First of all, as far as most people are concerned, I have an accent. When I’m reciting Woody Guthrie-isms, it's pretty difficult to understand. When the music would start, you could see everybody just sit back and listen to the music.

We just recently went to Israel, and played in Tel Aviv and Haifa. Our next job coming up has been postponed. We were headed to Jordan and the West Bank, but then the hostilities postponed things.

The show is relevant on more levels than I can possibly relate.  It comes into people’s consciousness in such an incisive way that we really have nothing to do with it. It's all Woody.

Listen below to a Woody Guthrie song performed by Lutken and Russell, "Blowin' Down This Road."