© 2024 Connecticut Public

FCC Public Inspection Files:
Public Files Contact · ATSC 3.0 FAQ
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Amid inflation, protest music by Depression-era singer Woody Guthrie resonates in 'Woody Sez'

David Lutken performs as Woody Guthrie in Woody Sez.
Provided / Lanny Nagler
TheaterWorks Hartford
David Lutken performs as Woody Guthrie in Woody Sez.

Before Bob Dylan, Joan Baez or Bruce Springsteen, there was Woody Guthrie.

Guthrie, a pioneering folk singer and activist, was pro-union, anti-war and once said he "cussed out high rents ... and punk politicians." His songs include the classic, "This Land is Your Land," and often reflected themes of American socialism and anti-fascism, while influencing countless generations both politically and musically.

The show “Woody Sez” explores the life and music of Guthrie, and it is returning to TheaterWorks Hartford for the first time in a decade. David Lutkin, who was a creator and previously performed as Guthrie in the show, returns to offer music direction for 16 performances, plus three hootenannies from July 13-28.

Lutken joined Connecticut Public’s “Morning Edition” to talk about the evolution of this production and the enduring impact of Guthrie's iconic music.

“The more things change, the more they stay the same,” Lutkin said. “The music still resonates a good deal, just in little bit different ways. And that's one of the reasons I think that everybody at TheaterWorks Hartford wanted to do the show again.”

From Woody Guthrie to ‘Woody Sez’

Born in Oklahoma, Guthrie wrote more than 1,000 songs ranging from the plight of families during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression to songs written from the point of view of children. In fact, children became part of the origin story for Lutkin’s production.

“The evolution of the show really started with a children's show that I did, that we have done many times at TheatreWorks Hartford, actually, for the Hartford school system,” Lutkin said.

Harold Leventhal, who was then Guthrie’s former manager, as well as Guthrie's little sister, got involved to help expand on the program, which eventually became “Woody Sez.”

“They were instrumental," Lutkin said they allowed him to become "chief cook and bottle washer of the whole thing. And I guess to me, that's the same kind of thing that Woody did in his day. Was just to do whatever you had to do to get the message out there."

Guthrie’s ‘greatest’ protest song

One of the messages Lutkin thought was important for Guthrie to get out there was his song “Pastures of Plenty.” It describes the lives of workers during The Great Depression.

“I think it probably is Woody Guthrie's greatest political protest, patriotic song,” Lutkin said. “He wrote it in 1941 during a period when he was actually commissioned to write songs for a documentary film.”

The film was meant to highlight federal efforts to get Americans back to work.

“‘Pastures of Plenty,’ in its own way, is a song to me about the victimization of the workers,” Lutkin said.

Guthrie took the melody from an old murder ballad called “Pretty Polly,” he said, which is a song about the victimization of a woman.

“But unlike ‘Pretty Polly,’ which ends with her murder, ‘Pastures of Plenty’ ends with a very defiant and triumphant verse that says, ‘We rambled, that river and I all along your green valleys, I'll work till I die. My land, I'll defend with my life if need be. Cause my pastures of plenty must always be free.’”

“Even though the narrator is toiling under the strain of an awful lot, he comes out with a great statement at the end,” Lutkin said.

On inclusion and inspiration for ‘This Land is Your Land’

“Pastures of Plenty” was not the only time Guthrie borrowed a melody from songs of significance throughout history.

“Woody was a big consumer of all kinds of literature. He read the Quran, he read the Bible, he read the Bhagavad Gita. He read all these things, and a lot of his songs and a lot of his poetry have little bits of it in and out,” Lutkin said.

“This Land is Your Land,” for example, is written to the tune of an old hymn called “When The World's On Fire.”

Lutkin said Guthrie often chose melodies and lyrics that related to what he was studying or experiencing at the time. At one point, when he was reading about religions, Lutkin recalls Guthrie said he was going to start his own religion.

“He says, ‘it's a one man religion, but it's big enough for everybody. And no matter who you are, you're in it, and no matter what you do, you can't get out of it.’”

Learn more: Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie runs at TheaterWorks Hartford from July 13-28.

Lori Connecticut Public's Morning Edition host.
Cassandra Basler oversees Connecticut Public’s flagship daily news programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She’s also an editor of the station’s limited series podcast, 'In Absentia' and producer of the five-part podcast Unforgotten: Connecticut’s Hidden History of Slavery.

Stand up for civility

This news story is funded in large part by Connecticut Public’s Members — listeners, viewers, and readers like you who value fact-based journalism and trustworthy information.

We hope their support inspires you to donate so that we can continue telling stories that inform, educate, and inspire you and your neighbors. As a community-supported public media service, Connecticut Public has relied on donor support for more than 50 years.

Your donation today will allow us to continue this work on your behalf. Give today at any amount and join the 50,000 members who are building a better—and more civil—Connecticut to live, work, and play.

Related Content