A recently opened exhibition dedicated to the life and work of the social crusader and influential folk singer and songwriter Woody Guthrie is on view at the Morgan Library and Museum through 22 May. It is a fitting place for an overview of Guthrie’s life. The troubadour composed the lyrics to his most well-known tune, “This Land Is Your Land”, just a few blocks away. The exhibition traces Guthrie’s career though the themes that were most prevalent in his art: place, politics, spirituality, family, love and the commonality that binds those themes, the citizens of the world.
The show, curated in collaboration with the Woody Guthrie Center, Woody Guthrie Publications and the music historian Bob Santell, includes a wealth of ephemera, from handwritten lyrics and original artwork to musical instruments Guthrie owned and played, including a Martin guitar Guthrie purchased in the early 1940s, the only known surviving guitar inscribed with Guthrie’s maxim, “This Machine Kills Fascists.”
Appalled by the labour and racial injustices that dominated the first half of the 20th century, Guthrie made a reputation as a protest singer. But he was also a keen observer of American life who wrote songs about mid-century celebrities like baseball player Joe DiMaggio and actor Ingrid Bergman, intimate poems about love and sex, and reams of prose that went largely unpublished.
Among the original works of art on view are an announcement of the birth of Guthrie’s son, the folk musician Arlo Guthrie, with the words “I am born here to pay for the little mistakes of my mama Marjorie and for the sins of my father Woody”, scrawled behind the young child’s painted name in lively cursive letters.
Guthrie served as inspiration to some of the most well-known names in American music, including Bruce Springsteen, Ani DiFranco and the rapper Chuck D. His spiritual heir, Bob Dylan, who sought out Guthrie when he first arrived in New York from Minnesota, said of his mentor’s work, “You could listen to his songs and actually learn how to live.” Perhaps this show, which beats with Guthrie’s unending optimism, can teach us a thing or two.
- Woody Guthrie: People Are the Song, until 22 May, Morgan Library & Museum