Saturday, August 13, 2011

History Comes to Life at ITAC

By James E. Trainor III

Amana - ITAC's Woody Guthrie's American Song, conceived and adapted Peter Glazer, is one part history lecture and one part rousing sing-a-long. However, this unique musical show has a very engaging dramatic structure, as the songs are arranged to tell us the story of the life of this incredible American.

Woody Guthrie was born in Oklahoma in 1912. He spent his early years working odd jobs and developing his passion for music. He was soon pushed west with many others, due to the Dust Bowl, and found much to sing about in California, chronicling the lives of struggling workers in the mythical American West. Soon he crossed the country to New York and became involved in the folk music community there. He began writing songs about WWII and Germany, and even did a stint in the Merchant Marines. Guthrie died in 1967 of Huntingson's disease, but his short career was very prolific. Today he is an American institution; his songs, most notably "This Land Is Your Land," are still popular today, and both his son Arlo and his granddaughter Sarah Lee are folk musicians.

Woody Guthrie's American Song tells his story primarily by singing his songs - a seven-piece band sits in front of a welcoming porch on one side of the stage, and a slide show featuring pictures of Guthrie, notable events, or picturesque American landscapes on the other. They talk between songs, telling in Guthrie's words what he said about his music, sometimes giving historical context, but mainly they just sing - and quite well, too - filling the works with their original passion and vigor.

Guthrie was very generous about sharing his music, and talked about "borrowing words" from the people he listened to during his travels. He was delighted to hear people singing things he had written, and was very involved in the communal nature of folk music. ITAC dramatizes this idea quite well, by giving us three Guthries throughout the night. Through a simple change of a hat, Ryan Westwood gives the storytelling mantle over to Mark Wilson, who later passes it on to Randy Sandersfeld.

Westwood embodies the young Guthrie quite well. He's sweet-faced and easy to like, talks in a friendly, casual way, and is very energetic as the first few songs kick off and we see Guthrie's star rising. The joy of the young artist finding his place in the world is clear in Westwood's face and in his voice. When he is forced to go west and endure trials ("This Train Is Bound for Glory," "Dust Bowl Refugee"), the fear and determination in his performance is compelling. During "This Train," the most basic of staging is quite effective: a drunk kicks him off of the stage (and thus the train), and Westwood sings the rest of the song down-center, clutching his guitar for dear life. It's the Hero's Journey without any need for bells and whistles, and it's quite inspiring.

Mark Wilson is a more mature Woody, working in California and further growing as a musician. He's more relaxed, more humble, but still has that creative spark. Wilson is excellent in showing us the compassion Guthrie had for the people he met in his travels, a bold but simple compassion that lives on in his songs. In this period we hear Guthrie's tales of labor struggles ("Union Maid"), migrant workers ("Pastures of Plenty"), and WWII ("The Reuben James"). He sings loud and clear about things we might not want to hear, but Wilson doesn't come off as a rabble-rouser; he's a kind man with a great big smile on his face who loves to hear people sing and see people dance. He's a man who wants to bring a little healing to the world.

Randy Sandersfeld gives us Guthrie at the end of his career. Most striking is his deep voice and his soulful, expressive face. He is most effective on the lonesome blues numbers such as "Nine Hundred Miles." He's got a humor to him, too, though, and the same compassion as the others; he tells how music should inspire and kicks off the closer, an energetic rendition of "This Land Is Your Land."

Meg Merckens, Paul Roberts, Joy Ward, and Karenza Yoder round out the ensemble. Playing a variety of instruments and sharing singing duties, this group works incredibly well together, and everyone is really into the music. On opening night, the crowd wasn't afraid to sing along when encouraged by these friendly, energetic performers.

Enjoying folk music has always been a social thing, so the sing-a-long fits right in. As amusing as it is to see ITAC encouraging a crowd of 21st-Century Iowans to sing "I'm sticking to the Union," this show also allows us to reflect on what the work of folk music actually is. There's a lot of suffering and atrocity that's glossed over in our high school history books, and I'm not convinced we'd remember things like the Ludlow Massacre if not for people like Guthrie who wouldn't shut up about them.

A portrait of an American life in the 1930s and '40s is not only an inspiring tale of the American spirit; it is often a chilling picture of a nation reeling from a series of economic, social, and geopolitical blows. It is not entirely unlike the America of today, but we sometimes forget this due to the aesthetic distance our textbooks and documentaries allow us. Guthrie takes that distance away from us; he's at the core a voice of dissatisfaction, blown out of its complacency by the Oklahoma dust. He wants to tell very direct, very emotional stories about people suffering, and those stories still ring true, decades after the fact.

The most striking example of this in ITAC's show is "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)." Joy Ward and Karenza Yoder lead a haunting a capella version of this song which literally brought tears to my eyes. As in "Pastures of Plenty," Guthrie expresses his anger at the hypocrisy of an America that denies a slice of the pie to those migrant workers who harvest the crops that make that pie. The newspaper article names the four Americans who died in the crash, but didn't name the twenty-eight "deportees." Guthrie gives them names, chanting

"Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;
You won't have your names when you ride the big airplane,
All they will call you will be 'deportees' "

It is a very somber moment, not only because of the highly effective emotional content of the song itself, but because, as late as 2011, we're still having this same conversation. A lot of the rhetoric flying around in the American Southwest is just as racist and just as dismissive as the newspaper article that stirred Guthrie's blood sixty-three years ago. We like to think that this sort of thing has gone the way of lynchings and segregated drinking fountains - has, in other words, been relegated to history - but history doesn't move quite as quickly as we like to think it does.

So we still, even in our enlightened age, need folk singers. Or, to use Guthrie's words from the show, when he responds in American Song to a skeptic in New York who tells him "folk songs are on the way out:"

"As long as their are floods, disasters, trade union troubles, politicians...folk songs is on the way in."

Woody Guthrie's American Song runs through August 28th, Fridays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 1:30 pm and 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 1:30 pm. Tickets are $20 and can be ordered here.

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