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‘Woody Sez,’ the musical that kills fascists

David Lutken performs in “Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie” at the Arts Theatre, London.
Todd Oldham
David Lutken performs in “Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie” at the Arts Theatre, London.

To the world of folk music, or elementary school classes singing his songs, Woody Guthrie needs no introduction. But David Lutken, who knows the music from California to New York island, turns to the literary giant John Steinbeck for the words to describe Guthrie’s style.

“His voice sounded like a rusty tire iron.”

Lutken stops short of describing himself as the playwright behind “Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie.” He uses the word “devised.” It’s Guthrie’s life, as revealed in Guthrie’s own words, that he’s presenting.

“Woody Sez” opens at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Geva Theatre Center’s Fielding Stage and runs through Feb. 19.

In addition to the show itself, the three 3 p.m. Sunday matinees will be followed by an hourlong hootenanny, a folk music free-for-all where the cast will be joined in the theater lobby by anyone who wants to bring along an instrument, or to just sing and dance, to the music of Guthrie and his era. They’ll start about a half-hour after the show.

“This music is some of the greatest music that America has ever produced, I would say,” Lutken says.

A melting pot of American folk music: Scotch-Irish, Mexican, country-western. A lot of songs that Lutken learned when he was a kid, even though much of it is not kids’ music. Guthrie’s music is, he says, “A combination of many things that sort of came together in him.”

Almost certainly, Joe Hill protest songs were a part of that. It’s a long line of outrage and questions. Woody Guthrie begat Arlo Guthrie. But as much as anyone or anything, it was Joe Hill who begat Woody Guthrie. A songwriter and labor activist, Hill was executed by firing squad in 1915 for a murder he likely did not commit. Perhaps, it’s been said by his biographers, it was an act meant to clear the landscape of Hill’s meddlesome lyrics.

Many of our great protest singers lived short lives of desperation. Phil Ochs was 35 when he died. Steve Earle, he’s still alive, but there were damn near a few times when he wasn’t. And Guthrie was only 55 when he died from complications of the neurological disorder Huntington’s disease in 1967.

But fortunately, most have survived, and carried on the movement. Some of the most prominent big thinkers in American songwriting have said they were influenced by Guthrie’s music: Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Johnny Cash among them.

They were songwriting royalty snared by, “Not only the music of it,” Lutken says, “but the poetry of it.”

And many have been snared by the political and social dust raised by Guthrie.

The slogan, “This machine kills fascists,” was generally displayed on his guitar. He endorsed communist thinking. Yet, unlike fellow folkie Pete Seeger, Guthrie does not appear to have been a member of the Communist Party or any group of anarchists. He wasn’t a joiner. (Although for a short while, he did write a pro-communist newspaper column, “Woody Sez.”)

Lutken has already brought Guthrie to Geva in the past, in a musical called “Woody Guthrie’s American Song.” It’s a part of the deep background in Guthrie’s music, and the folk music of the era.

In fact, through Guthrie is how Lutken and Harold Leventhal connected in the 1990s. Leventhal was Guthrie’s manager and trustee of Guthrie’s estate, as well as the manager of The Weavers, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie and, for a while, Bob Dylan. His office was in the Fisk Building in midtown Manhattan, where he had stashed a big box of Guthrie-related items, which he allowed Lutken to poke through.

Among the treasures was a script for “California to the New York Island,” written in 1956 by Millard Lampell; he had been in a 1940s vocal group called The Almanac Singers, along with Guthrie and Seeger.

“California to the New York Island,” as it turned out, was a tribute show celebrating the music of Guthrie, as his health was failing. A show for 40 actors and singers. Lampell, Seeger, Burl Ives and Guthrie’s wife Marjorie were all involved when it was being staged in the ’50s.

At the suggestion of Leventhal, Lutken rescued it from the box.

“The first thing I did was to cut 36 people out of the cast,” Lutken says.

And that became “Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie.” Leventhal died in 2005, but Lutken has continued to present it across the country and in Europe, China and the Middle East. For the Geva version, Lutken will be joined by three other singers and multi-string instrumentalists: David Finch, Maggie Hollenbeck and Rochester native Megan Loomis. You may have seen her in Geva productions “The Other Josh Cohen” and “The Road to Where” and her one-woman show during the Rochester Fringe Festival, “The Girl in the Band.”

“Woody Sez” offers Guthrie classics such as “Bound for Glory,” “Pastures of Plenty” and “This Land is Your Land,” and lesser-known pieces. He was challenging the passive thinking of the day. Guthrie was from Oklahoma, and his “The Ballad of Tom Joad” was directly drawn from the John Steinbeck novel of the Great Depression and the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Guthrie’s best-known song, “This Land is Your Land,” supposedly a celebration of American values, and today sung in just about every elementary class across the country, was actually meant as a retort to “God Bless America.” Although the version of Guthrie’s song that became popular dropped some of the final verses that were critical of the country. Including this one:

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the Relief Office I saw my people —
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
God blessed America for me.

Many wonder to this day who is blessed. Lutken recalls a Rolling Stone interview with Arlo Guthrie. As Lutken recalls the story, “Woody took him out in the backyard at some point and taught him the last three verses to ‘This Land is Your Land.’ Because he thinks, if I don’t learn them, no one will remember.”

Jeff Spevak has been a Rochester arts reporter for nearly three decades, with seven first-place finishes in the Associated Press New York State Features Writing Awards while working for the Democrat and Chronicle.