American fire

Detail of a 1938 Ernest Fiene mural: History of the Needlecraft Industry

Audition notices sped across the virtual byways recently as Arizona School for the Artstheatre department put out the call for their next student production — based on a play called “The Triangle Factory Fire Project.”

“Triangle” recounts historical events surrounding a 1911 fire at a Manhattan factory where most workers were young female immigrants — and explores the social upheaval that followed.

I got to thinking about the audition notice Saturday as I learned a little something I’d never known about folk singer, songwriter and visual artist Woody Guthrie (who lived from 1912 to 1967).

That he was plagued by devastating fires — both during childhood and beyond.

Americans who can afford safe places to sleep at night, to feed their families and to enjoy other comforts that are luxuries for the 1 in 5 children who live in poverty in this country sometimes engage in an odd ritual during the holiday season.

Guthrie sang around outdoor campfires rather than a televised yule log

They turn on their big screen televisions to enjoy a virtual fire — a sort of electric log that gives a small measure of emotional warmth but none of the real stuff. I wonder what Guthrie might have to say about that one.

Guthrie had much to say about many things. But he preferred to sing — sharing stories of those he’d met during his travels to more than 40 states — as a way to help folks remember the smaller experiences that make up our larger collective history.

We learn less about others from their words, according to Guthrie, than we do from the music they listen to. I imagine a modern-day Guthrie borrowing the iPods of friends old and new. In many ways, Guthrie strikes me as a sort of before-his-time blogger.

His “This Land is Your Land,” according to daughter Nora Guthrie, is a work of journalism rather than poetry. It’s certainly compelling evidence for the possibility of integrating the two.

Like the best writers, Guthrie was a keen observer — and he recorded what he saw. He fancied himself a “word singer” who simply helped folks remember what they pretty much knew already.

Guthrie died after living for many years with Huntington’s disease — and his cremated ashes were taken by his family to the sea off of Coney Island in New York.

I spent much of New Year’s Day enjoying the work of Woody Guthrie, preparing to attend opening night of the Arizona Theatre Company production “Woody Guthrie’s American Song” — being presented through Jan 16 at the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix.

Springsteen is one of many contemporary storytellers and musicians influenced by American folk music

Much of what I know of Guthrie comes from secondary sources, since my generation came well after the Depression and Dust Bowl era struggles of Guthrie’s America — but it’s clear that his music offers important insights for contemporary society.

Having heard that the show closes with cast and audience members joining together to sing “This Land is Your Land,” I decided to brush up on my lyrics a bit.

Not the ones we all learned in school or at camp, but the ones that were nixed as Americans worried about fueling the embers of Communism.

I went back and watched the Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen performance of “This Land is Your Land” at the inauguration of president Barack Obama.

And dug up info on artists who’ve covered Guthrie songs through the years. Think Ry Cooder, Willie Nelson, The Byrds, Bob Dylan, U2 and plenty more.

Woody Guthrie’s fire still burns bright in America — something I’m grateful for during what continue to be tough times for so many.

— Lynn

Note: Watch for a companion post hightlighting Guthrie’s work for parents and teachers, and sharing the reflections of folks who’ve seen the show. To learn more about Depression-era artwork like the mural featured above, visit the New Deal Network of the Roosevelt Institute.

Coming up: Social justice in all shapes and sizes


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