Nora Guthrie cannot remember when her father was not sick.
From when she was 2 until he died 15 years later, Woody Guthrie battled Huntington’s disease. It robbed the legendary singer/songwriter of his ability to walk, swallow and speak.
Nora went on to a career in modern dance — her mother’s medium. But around 1990, more than 20 years after Woody died, Harold Leventhal — a Weston resident, and Woody Guthrie’s longtime manager — gave Nora boxes full of material.
They were Woody’s archives.
Nora Guthrie (Photo/Tina Tschirch)
Harold was retiring, and he’d retrieved them from storage. “You should look at these,” he told her.
Unlike other relatives — including her older brother Arlo — Nora had not followed in her father’s footsteps. Her main connection with his legacy was signing legal papers a couple of times a year.
She picked a piece of paper from one of the boxes. It was written by Woody — and seemed to be aimed directly at her.
“He was sick my whole life. So I never had any deep conversations with him,” Nora recalls.
“But I pulled out this wonderful poem he’d written, called ‘I Say To You Woman and Man.’ It had lines like ‘Go dance’ and ‘I go up to your office.’
“I’m a dancer. I was sitting in my office. This was a man I never knew, speaking in a language I never heard. This was a father I never had.”
Woody Guthrie (Photo/Al Aumiller, courtesy of Woody Guthrie Publications Inc.)
As Nora delved into the boxes, she discovered — for the first time — her “healthy father.”
The impact of her discovery soon went far beyond her own life.
The boxes were filled with 3,000 lyrics Woody had written in the 1930s and ’40s — the prime of his career. Some were complete; others unfinished. Some were one or two lines; others ran up to 85 verses.
Nora showed them to Pete Seeger, one of Woody’s oldest friends and most cherished collaborators. He’d never seen them — or heard of them.
No one else in the American folk music world had, either.
There was other remarkable material, like a letter to Woody from John Lennon. Each box offered a previously unknown look into Woody Guthrie’s life.
In 1996, Nora co-produced the first Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tribute series honoring Woody. Bruce Springsteen headlined a star-studded concert. There was also a scholarly symposium.
Listening to the presentations, Nora realized that “80% of what people were saying was incomplete, or incorrect.” Even Woody’s closest friends and fellow musicians had not seen the archival material.
For instance, Fred Hellerman — a Weston resident who as a member of the Weavers helped lead an American folk song revival — said that Woody “hated love songs.”
“But Fred hadn’t seen Woody’s 150 love songs,” Nora says.
She knew she had to get the story right.
“Not everyone wants to hear songs about unions or boycotts,” she says, invoking some of her father’s most famous causes. “He wrote 100 songs about Hanukkah and Judaism. I wanted to find a way to bring everyone into the fold.”
Nora has spent the past quarter century “connecting various spokes to the hub.”
She produced 3 groundbreaking Billy Bragg/Wilco collaborations of previously unknown lyrics.
She curated “This Land Is Your Land: The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie,” in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution. It toured for 3 years at major museums throughout the country, displaying previously unseen notebooks, diaries, artwork, lyrics, photographs, instruments and memorabilia.
And for several years, “Woody Sez” has provided audiences with one more way to understand and appreciate the life and music of “America’s greatest troubadour.”
Part of the cast of “Woody Sez.”
From January 9 to 20, the show will be here. It’s the next big event at the Westport Country Playhouse. Nora is excited.
“It’s unbelievable how true Woody’s music is for our world today,” she says. “There’s every major issue: immigration, refugees, tax reform, religion, greed, freedom of speech, politicians, the environment.
“But there are also love songs, and songs about family. It’s all delivered from Woody’s point of view: personal, friendly, funny, familiar and accessible. You come out feeling empowered and exhilarated — not depressed. You feel your own little self is important.”
It’s family-friendly too. “Woody cut his teeth on Will Rogers’ humor,” she notes. “Children will chuckle.”
Nora has seen “Woody Sez” 100 times. Each time, she is inspired.
Nora Guthrie discovered her father’s “lost” material, and shined a light on a man she — and America — never really knew.
Now “Woody Sez” is doing the same.
“In dark times like these,” Nora says, “I don’t believe the American spirit is dark. Even after all these years, Woody’s light humor, light wisdom and light spirit is important.
“This show reminds us that there have always been amazing people, all over our country. It wakes up the part of you that wants to feel — and do — good.”
(For more information on “Woody Sez” — including tickets — click here.)