Nora Guthrie :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Woody Guthrie said, “A folk song is what’s wrong and how to fix it.” And when you find Woody at the right time in life, his songs are as good as marching orders. In an instant, there is a pasture of plenty to explore, a freight train to hop, a dust bowl to escape, and a better world to build. From the first line, or the first chord, time ceases to exist and there you are in a hobo camp, in a Steinbeck novel, on the road, bound for glory, and born to win. 

It’s a deep well and there are a lot of Woody Guthries to find. You could discover the proto-Dylan balladeer or the post Joe Hill protest-singer. The sign painter. The cartoonist. The Merchant Marine. The children’s songster. The rover, the romantic or the long shadow on the highway. Whichever you find, more often than not, he’s a two-dimensional image of a very three-dimensional artist, activist, father, and friend. 

In Woody Guthrie: Songs and Art, Words and Wisdom, daughter Nora Guthrie and author Robert Santelli deliver a more comprehensive picture of the legendary folk singer, one that is full color and fully engaged with all aspects of living. Using Woody’s own writing, lyrics, and artwork, along with essays from Arlo Guthrie and Chuck D among others, Songs and Art, Words and Wisdom lands somewhere between an archival almanac and an instruction manual for life. 

If Woody has achieved one thing, beyond his near saint-like canonism, it’s endurant relevance. Whether it’s his unwavering stance against fascism, his lyrical indictment of Fred Trump, or his boots on the ground approach to activism, his writing, much of which is three-quarters of a century old, could’ve just as easily been penned today. But the book is more than a look into what Woody might have to say were he here. It is the manifestation of Bob Dylan’s quote, “You could listen to Woody Guthrie songs and actually learn how to live.” A quote that not only inspired Nora to create this collection, but also perfectly describes it. 

I caught up with Nora Guthrie on the phone for a rambling conversation just after Thanksgiving about Songs and Art, Words and Wisdom, the current that carries Woody’s work forward, and the power of being impulsive for a good cause. | n lekas

**This conversation has been edited for length. 

Aquarium Drunkard: When I first moved to NYC, I made the pilgrimage to Mermaid Ave. Unbeknownst to me, it was long gone, this was before smartphones, so I wandered around a while.

Nora Guthrie: They just named that street Woody Guthrie Way. But you know what Noah? The fact that you were there where his ashes are is probably more important than seeing the building. Unbeknownst to you, you were standing right where my father’s ashes are and his spirit is, so maybe it all worked out after all?

AD: It was a special experience, that you just made infinitely more special. Thank you. One of the things Woody has given me, beyond the work and inspiration, is a sort of pilgrimage, there are certain places, like Mermaid Ave that I had to try and see–almost like a coming-of-age ritual. Not to start our conversation too sentimentally. 

Nora Guthrie: That’s not sentimental. It’s a kind of mentoring in a way. People from Aristotle to Jesus had disciples you know? Everyone’s led on a path by someone else. There’s a connectedness there—that’s sometimes invisible, sometimes it’s visible, and we need both. 

AD: Absolutely, it’s so important to find that connection. I knew Woody’s music, but I first discovered his writing from an audiobook of Arlo reading Bound for Glory—which was incredible. But when I went to buy a copy of the book, I ended up finding Born T’ Win. When I read this new one, it gave me that completely immersive feeling all over again.  

Nora Guthrie: I don’t know if you noticed the last line in the book, “Your turn now.” I’m at a point where I’m looking behind me and going, “So who else is going to be there?” Talking to you right now is getting me a little teary eyed to be honest because I know that you’ll be there, and I know there’s a lot of people that I get to work with and talk to, from Tom Morello to you, it’s very profound to me. There has always been this trail of people that just keep the baton passing. I’m in my 70’s now, and I’m looking behind me to say, “Who are we passing all of this to?” Talking to you, my son, my daughter who works with me, and so many of these young musicians that I’ve worked with over the last 30 years, some of them are not so young anymore–you know Billy Bragg, Tweedy, all those people—and it’s just really very moving to talk to you. 

AD: Thank you. I mean that is one of the most complimentary and encouraging things I’ve ever been told—thank you.

Nora Guthrie: Well, hopefully there’ll be more after this. 

AD: How much do books like Born T’ Win influence your choices when putting together a collection like Woody Guthrie: Songs and Art, Words and Wisdom?

Nora Guthrie: Other things don’t influence me too much because for the past 30 years I’ve been more of a spectator of other people’s works. We’ve had the archive here for 25 years, and people would come in and I would be helping them like a librarian. I’ve be in servitude to other writers, and researchers, and I felt at this point in my life, I needed to put down what I know, which is different than what a lot of other people know for obvious reasons. There is so much life in his work, so much friendliness, kindness, love, and beauty in his work. Because people didn’t really know him, and the only pictures they have are sepia tone, black and white, lone guy walking down the street with a guitar on his back–that’s part of it but my experience with him was very colorful, therefore every page is in color. Bob Dylan had said this line years ago, “You can listen to his songs and learn how to live.” It kind of hit me at my age now, I’ve been living with those songs my whole life. It made me ponder what I’ve been taught–how to live. It’s not just about folk music obviously. It’s about family life, it’s about love, it’s about things that are right and things that are wrong. It’s about the people that I’ve known. It’s about the places I’ve been. I felt like I needed to create a level playing field for all those topics because one influences the other, and neither is more important than the other. If you raise a good family or have an interesting love life, all of those emotions penetrate your politics. If you have never loved, that penetrates your politics. If no one’s ever loved you, that penetrates your politics. Where you live, who lives around you, what your neighbors are like penetrates and chisels your soul. And I needed to lay all that out to say, this is the philosophy, this is what Bob Dylan meant “When you listen you learn how to live.” All of us are influenced at one point or other by all the chapters, they all go together. 

AD: I also read that you were aiming to give a more complete perspective on your father, but that implies that there’s been some inaccurate depictions. From Joe Klein’s biography to David Carradine’s portrayal, was there a specific misrepresentation that you wanted to correct?

Nora Guthrie: I could talk to you for hours about this but one example is the mythology that he wasn’t a good father. I don’t know who started that one. But there’s a whole, “He left home, he was a womanizer, he ran away from his family” blah blah blah. There were situations and circumstances in his life, including the dust bowl, the depression, where he did separate from his first family. He was also very, very young. Circumstances played into a lot of that. When he was my father, I never experienced any of that. He loved being with us. He loved playing with us. He wrote millions of songs for us. He was our caretaker. My mother was on tour with the [Martha] Graham Company. She was the one out working every day, teaching classes and rehearsing, and he was home with us, painting, drawing, cleaning, feeding, etc. My memory is that he loved it very, very much, and my memory is also that he got very sick with Huntington’s when I was young. He started behaving badly, not because he was a bad father, but because he had Huntington’s Disease. I think a lot of people don’t know enough about Huntington’s to be able to say, “Oh that’s a symptom.” I know it’s a symptom. My mother started the committee to combat Huntington’s Disease, we worked with Huntington’s Disease organizations every day. I’m well aware that when someone does X, Y, or Z, that’s a symptom of Huntington’s. It’s not their behavior. My father kind of transitioned into that behavior in the 50’s before he was permanently hospitalized. People who don’t know a lot about Huntington’s go, “Oh he drank a lot,” “He was a bum” or “He left the family” or whatever. Those are all, for me, related to Huntington’s. So that’s one of the myths.

AD: This book also dismantles the trope of the stoic folk singer–the guy who’d rather be in a Thoreauvian hermitage analyzing society from a distance. Woody is the antithesis of that sort of thing, he is passionately engaged with life, not trying to escape it. 

Nora Guthrie: One of the things that I wanted to talk about too was love, because many years ago the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame did a tribute to my dad and they had all the scholars who had written about Woody at that time, like Joe Klein, Dave Marsh, Fred Hellerman, and a couple other people. They were talking about his political work, and somebody said, “He didn’t write any of the moon, June, and croon love songs.” Well, I had just found like sixty love songs and I remember sitting in the back going, “Oh my God, I’d better get to work.” The stories that were out there weren’t wrong, but they were incomplete because he wrote so much about love. I could do a whole book just on love songs. The way he was in love was with a woman who was involved in the same fights for justice that he was. When he wrote a love song, it was about the union—the union of a man and women, the union of our beliefs, the union that we both love sharing about the labor movement, about democracy, about racial justice. I wanted to bring out a little bit of that with the lyric that we worked with Jackson Browne on, “You know the night I met you.” I wanted to show that he was romantic. When you’re in love with someone who shares your values and your politics, it’s very romantic. It’s very juicy, it’s not dry, it’s heated, it’s sexy and all that kind of stuff. So, that was another piece of the puzzle I wanted to add. He wasn’t asexual and wasn’t just an intellectual. There was passion. He had a passion for the union. He had a passion for my mother, and other women at times. He had a passion for music. He had a passion for Lead Belly. What he writes about Lead Belly, it’s a love letter, “I will follow you wherever your guitar goes.” I think he ends it with that line. So again, I wanted to add a little of that spice to his image. Protest is not always angry and nasty and negative. Protest can be fun and loving and joyous. 

AD: His love letters and love songs are remarkably unguarded in their lack of self-editing, although I’m sure there was some level of self-editing…

Nora Guthrie: Not usually, no. He didn’t censor himself very much and I really appreciate that in his writing. 

AD: The willingness to write it as you feel it, to just to let it go, I think that really comes through in this book. To your point, seeing that really adds new perspective, or new pieces to the puzzle like you said.  

Nora Guthrie: He existed in all those ways equally–whether anybody likes it or not. One of the things that is really interesting about the book is that we were able to publish his secret journals. Not that he wanted them to be secret, but they weren’t meant to be published. A lot of time he is writing openly and spontaneously on an idea not thinking that anyone is ever going to read it. He writes for himself a lot of the time. He writes to get through an idea. I was able to edit some of that. Born T’ Win is somewhat edited but some of the other books are long winded. He could write ten pages and not get to the idea until the last page. 

AD: Absolutely. I also have a copy of Seeds of Man, which is a bit more work to get through than Bound for Glory

Nora Guthrie: Right, you know what I mean. With this book, I really wanted to hit the nail on the head. Do you know who Ramblin’ Jack Elliot is? 

AD: Of course. 

Nora Guthrie: I was at a concert years ago with his daughter, and he was going on and on, he also rambles in nine different directions. His daughter screamed out from the back of the room, “Just sing the fucking song Dad.” Only a daughter can do that right? Everybody laughed and he went, “Oh yeah OK” and then he sang the song. I felt the same way, “Dad just get to the point.” I don’t want your whole life story here. I don’t want your whole train of thinking. What’s the point? So, I did take some liberties, a lot of liberties, and said, “I think this is what he’s really trying to say.” I’m not a Woody Guthrie scholar. For me, it’s like an almanac. It’s like a bible. Do this, don’t do that. Don’t lie, don’t cheat. Woody says it in Woody words. “Some rob you with a six gun, some with a fountain pen.” Bada bing, Bada boom, ya know? That’s it. That’s the message. I love those messages because I’m not a folk singer, I don’t play guitar. There are things in here that resonate with me just as a human being, and that’s what I was trying to lean towards. This is about learning how to live. I want to be able to give it to my kids. I want to be able to give it to my friends. I was trying to make it friendly—that’s the word that kept coming to my mind when I was working on it. I don’t want anyone to have to struggle to understand his messages. You don’t have to go to college to understand Woody Guthrie. I think that we are missing some of that friendliness in our society. Especially with what’s happening in the country now, I just said, I need to make something that brings us all together so we’re all on the same page–literally. 

AD: I think in a sense, getting everyone on the same page and organized is a role Woody has always played for me. There is something about this book, opposed to the others that just feels closer, like everything isn’t so far off. 

Nora Guthrie: You feel like you are with the guy. 

AD: Exactly. And inside his work time stands still. There has always been something about Woody, his words, his writing, that exists outside of time for me. It’s a dimension all its own that you can just fall into, where like you said, right is right, and wrong is wrong. It’s a place outside of time, but somehow always right on time, anytime you need it.   

Nora Guthrie: You want to know what Woody thought about anything, it’s in there. That is the difference between all the other books. People have studied his writing and come to their conclusion, and their conclusions are based on their life and who they are. They are seeing Woody through their lens. What I tried to do is, “Dad, this is your chance, you tell us everything.” I’m going to put a little note at the bottom if someone doesn’t understand context or something like that but keep me out of it as much as possible. I get the same feeling that you just described, I just fall into this timeless place when I read his words. I read them slowly. It’s not the kind of thing that you want to read quickly. I just let certain words sink in, lines like, “I don’t care how good your old times were, they’re not good enough for me.” I just sit with that line. 

AD: Yes, “There’s a better world a-coming” right?

Nora Guthrie: I’m very touched and moved by young people and what they’re doing right now. I’m still around and I’m still marching and doing my part, it gets a little more tiring every year. I saw Tom [Morello] the other night on Jimmy Fallon, Tom with Grandchild did you see that?

AD: Yes, he was playing “Hold the Line.”

Nora Guthrie: Yeah, “Hold the Line.” I love it. Sing it in your voice, your instrument, your rhythm, whatever it is. That’s what I love–when I recognize that moving forward. I recognize that current, as in a water current, that’s flowing and just keeps going through generation after generation. Because you know, human beings are always going to be screwed up. There is always going to be bad guys. There is always going to be injustice, so it’s a constant current to act as a dam in a way to hold that back. Our job is to create a dam so that it doesn’t overflow and drown the town. That’s what you do. That’s what Tom does. That’s what Greta Thunberg does and all the kids in Parkland. I am just so moved by everybody to be honest. 

AD: I’ve thought a lot about what a Woody Guthrie-like character looks like in 2022. It’s not hard to imagine him having a prolific twitter account, but I suppose he would be doing exactly what he’s already said and done. 

Nora Guthrie: The thing that I do miss, if I miss a character like Woody in our society, because everyone is tweeting, they are not at the picket lines. One of his favorite lines was, Lenin said “Where there are three balalaika players, one of them ought to be a communist.” Woody says, “Where there are three communists, one of them ought to be a guitar player.” He was the soundtrack of that movement. He wasn’t a member. I know exactly where he’d be and what he’d be doing. He’d be down on the border. He’d be singing. He would be writing about immigration. He would be on the picket line at Deere, and Kellogg. He would be there playing for the people on the picket line. He would be playing at the rallies. That’s the big difference. I’m not quite sure, unless I’m completely out of it, I don’t see that character out there. In terms of artists and musicians, Tom is out there. Somebody asked me the other day, “What would [Woody] be doing?” My Mom would tell me, he’d leave home and come back two weeks later. She’d say, “Woody where the hell have you been?” And he’d go, “Well, I was down at the corner store, and I ran into someone and they said there was a rally in Union Square so I took the train in with them and went to the rally cause they needed a singer. When I was there someone else said there was another boycott down in Pennsylvania, they could really use you down there.” He was in the moment and maybe someone would say that’s irresponsible to the family, but my mother understood him completely and said, “That’s where his work is. His job is to be ready and able to sing for causes and for people.” He had to improvise constantly. I miss that interaction, artists particularly participating, not just doing a one-off song, “We Are the World.” It’s a nice thought but where are they now? If we are the world then you should all be working for that world together with your bodies, not just your tweets. Maybe you can correct me if I’m not up to date on what’s happening. 

AD: I think in a sense, music holds a different role in culture today. Music was social media, and often the most effective way to transfer information socially. You found out about the 1913 Massacre because of the song. Today, you find out because your phone gives you a push notification. But even so, I understand your point. When I interviewed Tom Morello a while back, he described music as having the ability to “Steel the spine and put wind in the sails of struggle.”   

Nora Guthrie: I miss the artists. When I was watching the Deere guys on strike, I immediately called up a couple of musicians I knew and said, “Why aren’t the musicians down there entertaining the troops?” They are out there in the cold in Wisconsin marching back and forth for two weeks, aren’t we supposed to be there taking care of them? Helping them in some way? When I was growing up, we always had songs to accompany our protests because it made it nicer and easier, and you could go longer and further. A great song like “We Shall Overcome” kept your feet marching without feeling the pain. 

AD: I think you’re right. Music as morale fuel will never diminish or change.  

Nora Guthrie: Maybe there are people doing it, I haven’t seen it in the news, so like I said, I could be out of the loop. but I just thought, “Ah man, my dad would be there in a heartbeat,” Where three communist people are gathered, one should be a guitar player. Where people are picketing one should be a guitar player. 

AD: I think you’re right. It always comes down to showing up.  

Nora Guthrie: I do a lot of marches, it’s always on the fly. I think I learned how to do that from my father–how to be impulsive for good causes. When your soul says, “I got to be there.” Get there. That’s it. And if your soul says, “I don’t want to go” then don’t go. I learned that it’s ok to just follow that little voice inside that tells you what’s right and what’s wrong. Sometimes I go down to Washington and there’s like 100 people. Sometimes I go and there’s 800,000 people and it doesn’t matter to me. I just know that I need to be there. That’s all I know. I do thank my parents for allowing me to listen to that voice, to know what’s right and wrong. When that voice says, “You have to get there,” I just go. 

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