Woody Guthrie’s song “This Land is Your Land,” has become as much of an American national anthem as “The Star-Spangled Banner,” yet upon watching Woody Sez, the rousing two-hour musical at the Irish Repertory Theatre, the audience realizes that the song was intended to reflect more than patriotism. Guthrie’s music represented the downtrodden and working people of the country. His music, written during the harsh days of the Dust Bowl and The Depression, still resonates with current themes.
The “hobo-poet” roamed through the country working, writing and performing. His life was hard and his tragedies great. His mother suffered from a genetic illness, Huntington’s disease, which struck him later in life, leaving him unable to communicate. Guthrie wrote music and articles and was a talented artist as well. An exhibit on the second floor of the theater details his history and also displays some of his artwork.
All four performers, creator David M. Lutken, Megan Loomis, Helen Jean Russell and Andy Teirstein, play several instruments, which hang all around the intimate stage, and they perform all the parts. Lutken, as Guthrie, delivers most of the dialogue, some taken from Guthrie’s own writings. The musical is generally lively and toe tapping, and it’s fun watching the musicians play. Teirstein even plays the spoons. The performers are engaging and most of the older audience really seemed delighted. (One man announced that he was 88 and remembered seeing Guthrie perform, and another man, looking around upon entering, observed that there wouldn’t be any Trump supporters in our midst.)
Guthrie’s lyrics are evocative of the time but are also classic. One song, “Deportees,” is about Mexicans who died in a plane crash but instead of having identities are merely called “deportees.” How timely given our current immigrant policies. Guthrie’s lyrics mock the bankers and wealthy as he sides with the working man and union workers.
Some of his more famous songs include “So Long It’s Been Good To Know Yuh,” ”Riding in My Car” and “The Ballad of Tom Joad,” and his music influenced some of the greats who followed him, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Judy Collins.
Guthrie’s musical legacy lives on, but sadly many of the issues he protested are unchanged. As his mother said, “Everything we do is aimed at going on.” Perhaps it’s all about the struggle and endurance.