Northlight Theatre


Sheffield’s School Street Cafe

Woody Guthrie is credited with the remark that if one writes a thousand songs, the law of averages says one or two of them have got to be good. His estimate was characteristically modest. His thousand-plus songs include many compositions rightfully left to obscurity, but they also include an astonishing number that have become so much a part of our national idiom that even music ethnographers sometimes classify them as traditional folk songs (Guthrie frequently did borrow from anonymous old tunes, but he put his own stamp on them). If Peter Glazer’s Woody Guthrie’s American Song does nothing more than correct the popular misconception that Bob Dylan (or Pete Seeger) invented the “talking blues,” it will have accomplished plenty.

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie’s music is frequently difficult to identify because he wrote on so many topics. He traveled widely, rarely remaining in one place for long, after leaving his birthplace of Okemah, Oklahoma, in 1936. Okemah had been an oil-boom town in the early 1920s, but it was one of the first places hit by the great dust storms of the mid-1930s that sent thousands of “Okies” west to California in search of jobs. It was not uncommon at that time to see 60 or more people–men, women, and children–packed into a boxcar, hitchhiking on slow freight trains. (“I heard the voices of the 66 hoboes. There had been 69,” Guthrie wrote in his autobiography, Bound for Glory. “One of them threw his own self into the lake. He pushed two more out the door with him, but they caught onto the ladder again. Then the two little kids mounted the top of our car and were caught in the cloudburst like drowned rats. Men fighting against men. Color against color. Kin against kin. Race pushing against race. And all of us battling against the wind and the rain and that bright crackling lightning. . . . Strike, goddam you, strike! There’s lots of folks you can’t hurt!”) Guthrie drifted for many years, earning a meager living singing in camps and on local radio stations before migrating to New York City, where he was discovered in 1940 by Alan Lomax, assistant director of the Library of Congress Folk Song Archives. After recording several of his “dust-bowl ballads,” as they would later be called, Guthrie teamed up with another musician, Cisco Houston, and played in saloons, at political rallies, and at the occasional folklore-society gathering. When World War II broke out, he signed up with the merchant marine and later served in the Army; he emerged in 1946 with new songs telling of his experiences. But more hard times followed. McCarthyites blackballed him for his left-wing politics, and in 1952 he was diagnosed as having Huntington’s chorea, the degenerative disease of the nervous system characterized by convulsions and hallucinations that killed him in 1967.

There’s more to the story than this show covers. Guthrie was married three times and left four children (including the well-known songwriter Arlo). Martha Graham’s company once danced one of his songs, which he played and sang. He also wrote “The Ballad of Tom Joad” after seeing the film version of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Woody Guthrie’s American Song does not purport to be an exhaustive biography, but neither is it simply a “Woody’s greatest hits” music revue. Instead, adapter and director Glazer has tried to document a period of great domestic upheaval through the words of one supremely articulate individual who somehow managed to live through it. As a result, the selections included tend more toward the social than the personal, though they always keep a human touch.

The narrative line, such as it is, follows Guthrie from the blighted plains to California, the land of empty promises, where “the men at the point of entry say / “You’re number 14,000 for today!”‘ Then he’s on to New York City, where he sees “the difference ‘tween the rich and the poor.” We hear him sing of the miseries of the refugee camps in the haunting “Pastures of Plenty” (“Every state in the Union us migrants has been / We come with the dust and are gone with the wind”), of the disasters of war in “The Sinking of the Reuben James,” and of hope in “Better World” (though it’s presented in medley with the grim “Lonesome Valley”: “Folks may beg you to go with them / But they cannot go for you. / You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley. / You’ve got to walk it by yourself”). At several points in the evening the onstage musicians invite the audience to sing along with them, one result of which was the amusing sight of a well-dressed, opening-night crowd chorusing heartily, “You can’t stop me! / I’m sticking to the Union / Till the day I die.” The musical numbers are interspersed with prose passages excerpted from Bound for Glory and Guthrie’s anthology Born to Win, the simplicity of which cannot disguise an eloquence that rings like music: “You’ve seen a million people like this already. . . . They are the people that follow the seasons, follow the buds and the early leaves and come when the fruit and crops are ready to gather, and leave when the work is done. They go by the sun, and it lights up the country they know is theirs.”

Northlight has assembled a cast of talented and enthusiastic performers: Brian Gunter and Christopher Walz, both of whom pick some right fancy guitar; John Reeger, with his growling baritone; and Ora Jones, whose strong, chesty contralto blends seamlessly with Susan Moniz’s plaintive soprano. They are supported by a three-piece orchestra of almost superhuman versatility, most notably L.J. Slavin playing guitar, fiddle, two kinds of mouth harp, and a 24-inch carpenter’s saw. Some of the presentations are less than perfect: “Deportee” is rendered a bit too weepy by Moniz’s country-western delivery, and the ironic “I Don’t Feel at Home on the Bowery No More” is speeded up to hoedown tempo, awakening irritating memories of Pump Boys and Dinettes. In addition, Malcolm Ruhl’s arrangements are more Kingston Trio than Weavers (perhaps inevitable with a string bass in the orchestra). But these flaws are negligible. “I don’t care what you say about me,” Guthrie wrote in Born to Win. “Just so you say it.” Northlight may say it slick, but it’s still sincere. Woody Guthrie’s American Song is fitting homage to a vision as limitless as it was humble.

Simone de Beauvoir was anything but humble. She decided at a precocious age that she “would not be as others were” and grew up to be one of the most prominent women of letters in Europe. She took her degree at the Sorbonne (where she met Jean-Paul Sartre) in philosophy, because “in those days, the women who had a doctorate in philosophy could be counted on one hand. I wanted to be one of those pioneers!” And she declared that the man she would love must be her superior in every way; with the head start that society bestowed upon the male gender, she reasoned, a specimen who was merely her equal must be sadly deficient in some way. Though her 1949 book The Second Sex was a milestone in 20th-century feminism, de Beauvoir’s elitist stance and natural egocentricity has caused her to fall out of favor with modern American feminists, for whom the notion of independence doesn’t rule out a loyalty to the community.

In the Paris of 1922, however, a woman bent on distinguishing herself required the self-esteem even to conceive of such an undertaking. In her one-woman show Simone de Beauvoir: A Woman Evolved (from de Beauvoir’s statement that one “is not born, but rather, becomes a woman”), Amanda Sullivan generously allows her character’s ego to dominate the presentation. Sullivan immerses herself so completely in the personality of her subject that within minutes I had almost forgotten that I was not watching the actual person. To create such an illusion requires not only skill (the text of the monologue is taken from the writings of de Beauvoir, many of which have been clumsily translated into English) but the humility to let the character speak for herself, plainly and articulately, as de Beauvoir always did.

She was a fascinating and forthright woman who struggled for excellence in all things, and in doing so became one of those women who give all women permission to be excellent. Amanda Sullivan achieves this excellence in her portrayal of this memorable and significant woman.