The cast of Woody Sez (Photo: Wendy Mutz)

One of the things I love about India is that the stories most sacred to the culture are preserved everywhere. From street shrines to oversized temple statues, references to the ancient Sanskrit epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are ubiquitous. After a while even interlopers like me get good at finding Rama, the Monkey King Hanuman and the Demon Ravana.

Those songlines run deep in subcontinental consciousness, but they also remind me that we have songlines of our own even if they are not quite as ancient. One of the stories most Americans know is about the Great Depression and the devastation of the Dust Bowl. Drought and farming practices in the 1930s led to the loss of millions of acres of farmland, forcing hundreds of thousands of “Okies” to become homeless migrants in search of work at a time when jobs were scarce.

Woody Guthrie lived through the indignities of that era, writing music that came to stand for the rights of the disenfranchised. He believed in “singing for the plain folks and getting tough with the rich folks.” Guthrie lived what he wrote, and his music was for those who were living the “left out” life too. Without Guthrie we have no Pete Seeger, no music of protest, no Bob Dylan. He’s our lynchpin.

Woody Sez, currently at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge before heading next to Germany (cool!) and Chicago, is an unforgettable retelling of that American epic story through the life of Woodrow Wilson Guthrie. A quartet of multi-talented performers—David Lutken, Darcie Deaville, Helen Jean Russell and Andy Teirstein—will grab you from the get go and never let you go. The music is nonstop, and every member of this high energy, well-rehearsed quartet can sing and play muliple instruments. The staging is simple and the set unadorned, just as it should be. And just as Woody would have wanted it.

The relevance of this story for today’s times is powerful. To state the obvious—that we live in a culture that rewards greed, selfishness and personal aggrandizement at any cost—often ends up sounding like a broken record that no longer has any bite. But watching this performance put our American songline of injustice and income inequality into a context that is much deeper and more profound than I had expected.

I absolutely loved seeing Woody Sez, and I would recommend it to everyone.

A few examples of Woody Sez:

***
Was a great high wall there that tried to stop me, A sign was painted said: “Private Property”, But on the back side, it didn’t say nothing. That side was made for you and me.

***
Life has got a habit of not standing hitched. You got to ride it like you find it. You got to change with it. If a day goes by that don’t change some of your old notions for new ones, that is just about like trying to milk a dead cow.

***
I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim or too ugly or too this or too that.

***
It’s round the world I’ve traveled; it’s round the world I’ve roamed; but I’ve yet to see an outlaw drive a family from its home.

***
If you play more than two chords, you’re showing off.


Guthrie in 1944 (Photo: Associated Press)

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