Review - Dusting off Woody Guthrie

Woody Sez which is playing at Harrogate Theatre.
Woody Sez which is playing at Harrogate Theatre.

By Adam Chambers

Woody Sez, Harrogate Theatre.

Any self-respecting singer-songwriter who has ever harboured aspirations to combine music with even the mildest of political protest, can list as many influences as they like, but ultimately at the top of that list will be the name, Woodrow Wilson Guthrie.

Woody Guthrie was a key musician of the 20th Century whose poetry and protest songs were to inspire the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, Bruce Springsteen, Lonnie Donegan, Billy Bragg and many more.

With Woody Sez - the creation of Broadway and recording artist David Lutken – we are told the life and times of Guthrie through song and spoken word. Lutken is joined by three exceptionally talented folk musicians, Helen Russell, Ruth Clarke-Irons and William Wolfe-Hogan. This captivating quartet play a wide range of acoustic instruments including fiddle, dulcimer, cello, mandolin, harmonica, jaw harp and, naturally enough, guitar.

Against a backdrop of a glorious cornfield sunset and monochrome portraits of Guthrie at various points of his life the actors treat us to an informal warm-up and we are soon engaged for an excellent evening of songs and storytelling.

Born in Oklahoma in 1912, Guthrie’s childhood was blighted by tragedy; his sister died in a fire when he was just six years old and his mother was later committed to an asylum.

Both tragic episodes were told with moving performances and mournful violin playing. But the mood was lifted as some of the happier aspects of Guthrie’s early life unfolded and his busking days in pool halls, barber shops and sidewalks were played out with gracious timing and genuine enthusiasm.

In the 1930s, America still punch-drunk from the abject desolation of the Great Depression and the devastating Midwest dust storms, Guthrie hitch-hiked and rode the rails, like so many others towards the Promised Land of California, scratching a living from busking and casual work.

Guthrie consistently challenged the politics of the day, and tunes such as So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You, a snipe at Herbert Hoover’s woefully inept Presidency and Jolly Banker that fires broadsides at America’s callous and avaricious bankers and land grabbers, are delivered with gusto by the cast.

As the story reaches America’s entry to the Second World War, Lutken recreates the moment when Guthrie, serving in the Merchant Navy, slapped the now iconic sticker on his guitar This Machine Kills Fascists emphasising his willingness to fight the Nazis.

This Land is Your Land, Guthrie’s heartfelt American anthem, concludes one of the most memorable evenings at Harrogate Theatre for many years; both cast and audience enjoying the life and times of the Dust Bowl Troubadour.

A perfect performance.