Thanks, Harry

My old desk does an arabesque in the morning when I first arrive.

It’s a pleasure to see, it’s waiting there for me to keep my hopes alive.

Such a comfort to know it’s got no place to go,

It’s always there

It’s the one thing I’ve got, a huge success,

My good old desk.

My old desk never needs a rest

and I’ve never once heard it cry.

I’ve never seen it tease it’s always there to please me

From nine to five.

HarryThere was a wonderful innocence about Harry Nilsson in those days. Like Randy Newman and Van Dyke Parks, he was a singer-songwriter with a great appreciation for the commonplace, a love of old (1920s-1940s) music, and an iconoclastic way of telling a story. The Beatles were crazy about him. I was, too, and among those of a certain age, he was the odd musical hero. He never grew old enough to call his fans by name—as he described the slow fade of a pop star. Instead, he flamed out, but, somehow, Nilsson is not included  in most “rock stars who died too young” compendia.

The place to start is not his best known hit, “Everybody’s Talkin’,” the Fred Neil song that he happened to record because he and his producer liked the tune (it became the opening theme for the film Midnight Cowboy, so it became famous). His novelty song “Coconut” was also a top ten hit, but it, too, was an aberration. “Without You” (you know: “I can’t live if living is without you…”) is better, but not on my list of his best work.

Where to start? Early, but not too early. Set your time machine to 1968, 1969 and 1970. Each year presented a very special album by an extraordinary performer, a storyteller with a wonderful sense of melody working, on two of these albums, in spectacular harmony with the ideal producer for these projects, Rick Jarrard.

I would start with the album called Harry because it contains so many of my favorite Nilsson songs—each one handsomely presented with an elaborate arrangement. “Nobody Cares About the Railroads Anymore” and “Morning Glory Story”—the latter is a dignified portrait of a homeless woman, a topic nobody sang or wrote about back in 1970—make sense on an album with similar stories by Bill Martin, “Fairfax Rag” and “Rainmaker” (you know the story; he tells it especially well). And, there’s a song by Randy Newman, then no better known than Nilsson himself: “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear.”

Nilsson’s voice and style was especially well-suited to Randy Newman’s music, and so, the 1970 album was devoted entirely to his work. This is a spectacular pop music milestone, story after story, sensitively and imaginatively told: short stories, really, told with the full power of music and nostalgia. Every song is special, and, in its way, timeless.

The prelude to all of this, an album called Aerial Ballet, is filled with top-notch pop songs that set Nilsson’s bubbly, sensitive, smart style. It’s the album with more familiar songs than the others: “Everybody’s Talkin’” and “One” (a top ten hit for Three Dog Night) among them. It’s great fun, but I like Harry and Nilsson Sings Newman so much that this album takes third position. (In the early 1970s, Nilsson reworked this and an earlier album, including new mixes and some new vocals, to create Aerial Pandemonium Ballet).

If you’re interested in going further, some would claim that Nilsson Schmilson, produced by Richard Perry, is his best. It’s certainly his most commercial, most mainstream (it was produced with that specific intention, and I think it suffers for its success). Better is his salute to the music of the 1940s (mostly) in what turned out to be a career-killer (with a stupid title): A Little Touch of Schmilson in the Night (the link leads to a BBC documentary about the making of the album). This is lovely work, better than most of what Rod Stewart and others have done with similar material, and it’s worth owning. At the time, it was considered wildly narcissistic, part of a larger pattern of disengagement with the realities of the music business, and, sadly, a harbinger of the musician’s disengagement with anything resembling a rational, healthy life.

Nilsson bookThe early days, and the dreadful slide into substance abuse, crappy behavior and, ultimately, death, is told with appropriate accuracy and sensitivity by biographer Alyn Shipton. The book is called Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter, and it’s difficult for fans of the early days to read and comprehend. Happily, the first half of the book explores the good times: the details of the relationships and creative decisions that led to the artist’s finest work, notes from the recording sessions, a rich history of the relationship between Nilsson and masterful arranger George Tipton, stories about so many songs that are so special to long-time Nilsson fans.

I suspect we all believed that Harry’s lyrics to Mr. Richland’s Favorite Song would come true, that each successive decade would find fewer and fewer of us grooving to Nilsson’s fine work and that, in time, the cult would become smaller and perhaps more intimate with a favorite musician from our youth or college days. It didn’t go down that way. Harry became a giant problem: tremendously talented, proven, light-hearted at his best, bad company at his worst. Later albums are, as a rule, dreadful, sarcastic, and lacking in the wonderful subtlety that made his work so very special.

If you feel the need to explore this work, and to try to make sense of the life that included the early albums and the likes of “you’re breakin’ my heart/you’re tearin’ it apart/so f— you” (which only began the nasty period), several options. One is to try to wrap your head around the awful Nilsson collaboration with John Lennon (who was also going through a bad period); it’s called Pussy Cats. Another is explore Knnillssonn with its strange (and sometimes lovely) production experimentation, and the return of the warmth that once characterized everything the man did. As Douglas Hofstadter might describe it, Harry was a strange loop.

Or, if you just want it all, there is a box set with just about all of his work. Click the link for a fascinating, detailed exploration of the whole 17-disc project.

Nilsson box

The Miracles of Mary Whyte

If you can find the time, visit the Facebook page for the Hebron Saint Francis Senior Center located at 2915 Bohicket Road on John’s Island, a ways south of Charleston, SC. It’s an ordinary place, an old church in constant need of loving attention, graveyard over on one side, parking lot on the other. Was about twenty years ago when the watercolorist Mary Whyte wandered in, fresh from Ohio and Pennsylvania, not knowing a soul. Alfreda “recalled their first meeting…

The first time Miss Mary come to the center, we were there sewing and cooking, and in walk this white girl, kind of scraggly an’ all…. Here was this skinny, kind of pitiful white girl comin’ in, not known’ where she was goin’ or what she was looking for, and definitely in need of some love. So the first thing we do is give her a big plate of food. You know, to fatten her up a bit. God know, I’ve been trying to fatten her up for years, but it still not workin’….So I keep feedin’ her and loving’ her because it what she need. It what everybody need.”

Decades later, Mary writes, “This is my dear friend Alfreda in one of her spectacular hats.”

Alfreda Red Hat

Mary Whyte is one of the finest watercolor artists in the world. I’m especially attached to her because she wrote the first book I ever read on the subject, “Watercolors for the Serious Beginner,” and I remember thinking, “how is it possible for an artist, this artist, my first teacher, to coax that kind of humanity from this set of paints?” It seemed impossible. Nearly fifteen years after I read that book, I remain in awe of the technique, but I’m past that. I’m in awe of the dignity, the humanity, the life that Mary Whyte captures time and again.

Whyte’s move to the low country of South Carolina has been beautifully documented. Her early visits to the Hebron Center resulted in more inspiration than most artists experience in a lifetime. She shifted from landscapes and everything else to portraiture, and that made all the difference. Once again borrowing from the archive of her website, here’s one the many paintings of local children—many related in some way to the Hebron ladies—with one of the signature quilts that appear so often, and so lovingly, in Whyte’s work. This one is called “Persimmon” (the one with Alfreda in the hat is called “Red”).

Persimmon - web_08210212One more before I fill-in some more details and tell you about the book. Whyte: “This is Georgeanna, whom I have painted for twenty years and is now almost ninety years old. She lives only a couple of miles from my house. The setting for this painting is her kitchen, where we often spend time visiting.” Two items of note. One, her magnificent handling of steam. Second, the sense of person and place, the warmth, the sense that this woman is someone close to the artist.

sister_heywardArtists grow. I suppose that’s the message that comes across most clearly in a new, altogether wonderful book entitled “More Than a Likeness: The Enduring Art of Mary White.” The book is large format, large enough so that the images are full of life, but smaller than they appear in person (darn! I just did some web research and found out that the Butler Art Museum in Youngstown, Ohio just closed a Whyte exhibit—and I will be there next weekend). I really want to see her work full-sized and in their  glory: to see her work full-size [typically at least two feet on the smallest side] would be a thrill])

Anyway… as I said, artists grow, and it’s fascinating to watch Whyte evolve from her life around the Senior Center to a fuller sense of the Working South, the subject of a book that was featured on CBS Sunday Morning.

Want to see more? There’s a video for her book, Down Bohicket Road, too.

Over time, John’s Island has changed. Tourists become frequent visitors, buy vacation homes, and demand services. Farms become shopping centers. Teenagers, so innocent in her earlier work, deal with different kinds of issues. People get older, and live the way they live. To her great credit, Whyte doesn’t paint an idealized world. She paints what she sees, and tells the contemporary story. From that era, Absolution is one of the highlights. Whyte: “I am always interested in textures, so the idea of painting a model with long hair, a beard and tattoos appealed to me. “Absolution”, refers to our vulnerability as people, and to the seduction of drugs. The shaft of light represents God’s forgiveness, and is also orchestrated as a compositional device to lead the viewer’s eye up and through the painting.”


Compare “Absolution” with “Persimmon”—same remarkable artist working in 2010 and, to my delight, 2012. Whyte sees the hard and the soft, and lovingly attends to each of them.
There is so much here to see. And, for me, at least, there is a strong emotional connection to this work. (I don’t feel that way very often, so I figure it’s worth a mention.)
At $75, “More Than a Likeness” is not an inexpensive holiday gift, but it is something special. And as for my missing out on the Butler exhibit, I’m already studying maps and thinking about a drive down to John’s Island to see what Mary Whyte sees, maybe allowing myself some time to draw, but mainly to visit Coleman Fine Art, owned by Whyte and her husband Smith Coleman (a distinguished fine craftsman known for his frames) over on 79 Church Street in Charleston, maybe hit the Blind Tiger, just a few blocks away, for some local crab with “Mitch’s Voodoo Dust” and a side of fried green tomatoes or fried okra, or both. Art, food, and exploring a place like John’s Island with my own eyes. Sounds like a really good long weekend road trip, come spring.

Thanks, Bill!


Hogarth worked out every minute detail of even image: the angle of the robe behind the gin-soaked mother so that the eye is draw directly to her head; the leering muncher of the large bone, the position of the pawnbroker’s sign above their heads as a kind of upside down religious symbol; the distant grey of the growing city in which these denizens would never take part; so much more. That was the painter, and illustrator, William Hogarth’s intent: to tell remarkable, compelling stories through a series of images sold in a subscription series. His work was widely pirated.

If Bill Hogarth’s father, Richard, was alive today, he’d probably be writing a blog, cleaning up Wikipedia articles, and spending far too much time watching TED Talks. He was always busy writing what he hoped would be a popular play or a textbook for schoolchildren. As a boy, Bill tagged along with his father as he made the rounds from one coffee house to another, for that’s where the printers tended to meet their clients, customers, and friends. In a word, coffee houses in 1700s London were places to network. In time, Richard Hogarth managed to sell of his manuscripts to a a London printer named Curll; it would become a book that would “bring joy to learning through the playing of games” enabling (a then-radical) idea of learning without the direct assistance of a teacher. With tears of joy in his eyes, Richard Hogarth signed the publishing contract, and that, as would be inevitable in a story of this sort, was his undoing. When Curll demanded money to pay printing costs, Hogarth could not pay the bill, could not fulfill the requirements of a contract that he clearly did not understand. Richard Hogarth was placed in debtor’s prison, a nasty place where bribery could, at least, secure better living quarters for the fledgling author and his small family.

Son William was fortunate to secure an apprenticeship with an engraver, made some contacts, eventually earned some money, and became quite popular as both a painter and a storyteller. His prints, including the one pictured at the top of this article, were published in series, offered by subscription. The originals made money, but they were often copied (pirated) by unscrupulous printers throughout London. As he worked his way up London’s economic and social ladder, William Hogarth became a very popular painter, busy with commissions until the very last years of his long career. Battling syphilis (a very common theme in stories of this era), frequently lusting after young women (especially in his younger years), Hogarth often considered the fate of his father, and devoted much of his life to steering clear of any such problems.

Benefitting from his upscale connections, Hogarth began to pursue a new law, one that would protect creative people from piracy.  At the time, this was extraordinary; in London, and elsewhere, piracy was simply part of the system. Nobody much questioned the many illegal copies of an artist’s work. Printers published whatever they wanted to publish.  Standard business practices were uncommon. An artist who fought the system ran the risk of speaking truth to power, and could well end up in debtor’s prison, or worse (that is,  murders under dark bridges were extremely common at the time).

Hogarth had been painting, on commission, for a Select Committee of Parliament as they investigated gaols (now: “jails”). Hogarth painted the deliberations of the committee, made a friend of Sir Archibald Grant of Monymusk. In time, Hogarth visited the influential man in his home, and over tea and gooseberry tarts, they considered a plan. There was an act of Parliament from Queen Anne’s time that protected writers, so Sir Archibald, in his strong Scots accent, thought aloud:

The connection to the other Act is gud. They like laws that build on other laws.”

Sir Archibald wrote letters to several important people in Parliament. Hogarth hoped that James Oglethorpe would be one of them, but his London home was boarded-up. Sir Archibald explained that Oglethorpe was in the colonies, founding a new one called Georgia. A short time later, Oglethorpe returned, and Hogarth gained his support:

Of course, I’ll support you. The book trade is run by scoundrels and idle incompetents. Always has been, always will be. But we’ll fire a few shots at them, eh, Hogarth?…Show me where to sign!”

Hogarth’s Law eventually passed and became law. Of course, his very next set of prints were his poorest sellers to date–he probably made more money on the previous subscription series, even with the piracy. And then, of course, there was the matter of enforcement of the new law–uneven because there was no system to police the bookseller’s constant practices. Still, times did change, and we benefit from Mr. Hogarth’s good work today.

So: the next time you’re in London, make your way to Leicester Square (Leicester Fields in his day), and take note of the statue of the man who made the world safe for creative professionals.

And, if the story intrigues you, pick up a copy of a lovely novelization of his life entitled I, Hogarth by Michael Dean, from which this article is derived. There is much more to Hogarth’s story–a lusty one, in parts–intentionally reminiscent, in its way, of early British novels that were developing at the same time Bill Hogarth was telling his stories in pictures.


Masterful Visualizing

In my last post, I recommended a book entitled The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler. As a companion, I recommend another book from the same publisher, Michael Weise Productions. This one is entitled Cinematic Storytelling: The 100 Most Powerful Film Conventions Every Filmmaker Must Know. It’s written by Jennifer van Sijll. Like The Writer’s Journey, Cinematic Storytelling is useful to the one telling the story, and to the reader or audience member on the receiving end. Why does this book matter? Because we’re rapidly developing into a world of visual storytellers–smartphones and digital cameras in hand–and it would be wonderful if everyone could do their job just that much better.

CInematicStory_website_largeBasically, this book is an encyclopedia of visual storytelling techniques, but it’s fun to browse because every idea is illustrated by frames from a well-known or significant film–and each sequence is presented with the relevant bit of the screenplay along with perceptive commentary from the author.

Some are easily understood by the audience, and as a result, they must be used judiciously by the filmmaker or storyteller: the slow-motion sequence in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull; the freeze frame that ends Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; the fast-motion sequence in the French film, Amelie; the famous flashback in the Billy Wilder film, Sunset Boulevard; the visual match cut that transforms a bone into a spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey; the long dissolve between young Rose and Old Rose in Titanic.

A specialty lens was used by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane–perhaps the movie most often used as an example to illustrate a variety of techniques. Sometimes, a telephoto is the appropriate storytelling choice, and sometimes, it’s the wide angle. These are not random, on-the-fly choices; instead, they are carefully considered during the storyboard phases of film development.

In this entry featuring The Graduate, the author explains the use of a "rack-focus"--here, shifting the focal point from one character to another. The author explains, "Unseen by Elaine, who is still facing Ben, Mrs. Robinson stands in the doorway. Mrs. Robinson is out-of-focus and ghost-like. When Elaine spins around, Mrs. Robinson is pulled into focus, and Elaine is thrown out of focus (Image 4). Every line in Mrs. Robinson's defeated face now shows. After a beat, Mrs. Robinson disappears from the door. When Elaine turns back to Ben, her face remains momentarily blurred, externalizing her confusion. At the moment of recognition, her face is pulled back into focus.

In this entry featuring The Graduate, the author explains the use of a “rack-focus”–here, shifting the focal point from one character to another. The author explains, “Unseen by Elaine, who is still facing Ben, Mrs. Robinson stands in the doorway. Mrs. Robinson is out-of-focus and ghost-like. When Elaine spins around, Mrs. Robinson is pulled into focus, and Elaine is thrown out of focus (Image 4). Every line in Mrs. Robinson’s defeated face now shows. After a beat, Mrs. Robinson disappears from the door. When Elaine turns back to Ben, her face remains momentarily blurred, externalizing her confusion. At the moment of recognition, her face is pulled back into focus.

Selecting a particular point-of-view (POV) can be a critically important aspect of storytelling, as with the below-the-swimmer underwater sequence just before the first swimmer is killed by a shark in JAWS. For which scenes is a low-angle shot most appropriate (character POV for E.T. would be one example), or for which would a high-angle shot be the better creative choice? When does it make sense to use a tracking shot (the camera is mounted on a tripod that glides along tracks; some low-budget achieve similar results by employing a wheelchair)?

Lighting is another variable. In American Beauty, there’s a scene illuminated by candlelight. In E.T., the search is conducted by flashlights and car headlights that illuminate an otherwise dark nighttime landscape.

In Barton Fink, individual shots of props (hotel stationery, an old typewriter) add visual context. Wardrobe is another defining option. So, too, is the use of location as a theme, a concept so masterfully used by director David Lynch in the vaguely creepy Blue Velvet.

It’s not always about what is seen. Sometimes, the scene contains less information, and the story or theme is carried by music or sound effects. Back to Barton Fink for the eerie sense of surreal sound and its ability to paint a picture of each character’s inner world.

Masterful Storytelling

WritersJourney3rddropWe live in remarkable times. Stories are told in every part of the world, and shared with millions of people. Once, this was the domain of the rich and powerful. Today, anybody can tell a story, and share the majesty of their ideas.

Of course, some stories are better than others. There is an art and a craft to all of this, a discipline studied in college programs and in private instruction taught by masters.

One such master is a Hollywood story consultant named Christopher Vogler. Since 1998, Vogler has been the industry expert on a particular, popular type of storytelling and character development. He explains it all in a wonderful book entitled The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers,  now published in its third edition by Michael Weise Productions.

No doubt, you are familiar with the structure of the mythical hero’s journey. You’ve seen it in so many movies. The hero of the story does not begin as a hero. Instead, he or she (more often, he) is an ordinary guy doing ordinary things every day. Then, something happens, and suddenly, he is thrust into an uncomfortable role, reluctant to proceed in anything resembling a heroic journey. Inevitably, the wizened old mentor or the playful talking dog shows up, and the ordinary guy begins to understand that he has no choice, that he must pursue the journey whether or not he wants to do so.

It’s Star WarsThe Wizard of Oz, Sister Act, Big, Raiders of the Lost Ark… you know the routine, but it’s still a story we love to experience, a story we love to tell. It’s the human experience, each time presented anew.

We’re on a mission from God” — Dan Ackroyd and John Landis, screenplay, Blues Brothers

So what’s so special about this book? Well, Vogler has a tidy way of breaking down each of the steps along the journey. For example, after leaving the ordinary world; hearing the call to adventure; refusing the call; meeting with the mentor; encountering tests, enemies and allies; and approaching an innermost cave, the hero is inevitably faced with an ordeal that must be overcome in order to move ahead with the journey. Joseph Campbell, whose book, Hero with A Thousand Faces, covers much of the same territory from a mythological analysis perspective, also arrives, at this point in the journey, at the greatest challenge and the fiercest opponent. So here’s the secret of the ordeal:

Heroes must die so they can be reborn.

To be clear, “the dramatic movement that audiences enjoy more than any other is death and rebirth. In some way, in every story, heroes face death or something like it: their greatest fears, the failure of an enterprise, the end of a relationship, the death of an old personality. Most of the time, they magically survive this death and are literally or symbolically reborn to reap the consequences of having cheated death. They have passed the main test of being a hero.”

Vogler goes on to explain that heroes “don’t just visit death and come home. They return changed, transformed.” So, the ordeal serves as a central core to the story, the place where the variety of story threads begin to tie together in a meaningful way. BUT–the crisis is not the climax of the story. That’s a completely different concept, a part of the story that arrives much later on (near the end, in fact.)

One reason why we love to watch the hero’s journey time and again is because every story is unique. Vogler explains how and why this may be true. Most often, the crisis occurs at the story’s mid-point, which Vogler describes as a tent pole–if it’s too far to one side, the tent sags / the audience’s interest wanes. (He reminds us that our word “crisis” comes from a Greek word meaning “to separate.” Vogler looks at the question of ordeal from many different perspectives, each one a driver that we’ve all experienced in the movies or in good fiction: a crisis of the heart, standing up to a parent, witnessing the death of a loved one, going crazy with emotion, and the list goes on.

If you’re sensing that The Writer’s Journey might be a useful tool for both constructing and de-construcing stories, you’re beginning to understand the value of Volger’s accomplishment. For the writer attempting to tell a story in a way that will ring true for the reader or the audience, this would seem to be an essential tool. For the reader, or the movie fan who wants to better understand the art and craft of storytelling, the deep secrets of the creative team, this book exposes the magic for the trickery that it is, then waves its cape to reveal far deeper magic within. For the English teacher, or professor, in search of a far better way to connect with students who ought to read or write with greater proficiency, here’s the elixir.

Of course, that’s only part of the story: the writing. Next up, from the same publisher: how to tell the visual story to ignite the audience’s imagination.

Film with Feeling

Alex Kirke is a director with a keen interest in the cinematic experience, and, as it turns out, an equally keen interest in the measurement of biophysical responses to storytelling. Inevitably, this led Mr. Kirke to the development of software that would read sensors attached to the bodies of audience members. The sensors provide real-time feedback on muscle tension, perspiration, heart rate, and brain wave activity. As the software collects the data, it compiles the results, and, in accordance with the director’s wishes, the film automatically branches from one audio-visual file to another.

By using this technology, a director can amplify or dial-down emotional impact, shorten or lengthen the story, cut to another sequence entirely, and so on. Of course, all of the branching must be worked out before production begins because each sequence must be produced, edited, and integrated into the file management system.

Says one of the actresses:

It will be quite interesting to know, so well, how the audience reacts. The ending they choose reflects their reactions.

Not just the ending, of course. Anywhere in the film, the story can change course. So, too, can the soundtrack. Or any visual or visuals. In theory, there may be a large number of branches (for the professional, this becomes an obsessive, difficult way to tell a story, but it’s interesting to consider the possibilities). And, in theory, the sensors could be connected to the seats or the armrests throughout the theater, but that’s all in the future.

For the present, do watch the video. It’s rough, more of a professorial demonstration that any sort of slick production, and, if time permits, have a look at Mr. Kirke’s blog, too. There, he covers an interesting range of technical innovations related to entertainment and storytelling.

Learning from Woody

On July 12, 2012, Woody Guthrie would have been 100 years old. This poster commemorates a life well-lived, and a voice that has never rested. You can support the Woody Guthrie Foundation if you buy this poster. You can learn a lot from Woody. I did, as explained below.

“Hey kids, want to sing a song? Some of you might know this song, but the words can be hard to remember. Here’s a sheet with the lyrics…”

This land is your land, this land is my land

From California to the New York Island

From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters

This land was made for you and me.

Singing “This Land Is Your Land” as a group exercise begins an exploration of surprising dimensions. Note how broad, deep and wide Woody Guthrie’s river of highway manages to travel.

Just as most people’s knowledge of Martin Luther King begins and ends with an “I Have a Dream” speech and a murder in Memphis, most people’s knowledge of Woody Guthrie begins and ends with one popular song. Turns out, there was a lot more to Woody, and, a lot more to this particular song. Here’s a lyric that you might not have heard Woody sing:

 There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;

Sign was painted, it said private property.

But on the back side it didn’t say nothing;

That side was made for you and me.

Woody sang this song (and many of his songs) with different verses (see note 1 below). Among folk singers, and storytellers, this remains common practice (also, among jazz musicians, but rarely among the commercial performers whose recordings are usually the definitive versions of their songs). In fact, Woody’s own life story can be difficult to follow because he often recalled his own life as a storyteller might– with different details depending upon his audience.

As I think about Woody Guthrie, and about how people learn, I envision a different kind of education than most people find at school, an education based upon individual learning and ideas that connect with one another, and with the heart and soul. I think that’s a better way to learn, or, at least, i think that’s the way I learn.

Turns out, Woody’s full name was Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, and he was named for a presidential candidate, then president of Princeton University. By age 14, Woody was living pretty much on his own in his hometown, Okemah, Oklahoma; his mother had been institutionalized with the Huntington’s Disease that would later take her life, and his father was living in Texas (see note 2 below). Woody becomes a street musician, then leaves for promise of California, one more Okie whose life was shaped by the Dust Bowl tragedy. In Los Angeles, he sang hillbilly music on the radio as part of a duo, but spent lots of his spare time thinking about, and writing about, working class people who could not find work. Woody wrote protest songs, and, for a few months, wrote for a Communist newspaper (though he was never a member of the Party).

Learning about Woody in the 1930s leads the interested student (me, among them) into the plight of real people during the Depression; ways in which creative people somehow earn a living; why creative people sometimes find traditional work difficult to do; the importance of unions for the working man; the story of the Grand Coulee Dam and the Columbia River; socialism and communal living; the blacklists of the early 1950s; life in a singing group; writing an autobiography; the usefulness of cartooning (Woody drew cartoons); the work of the Library of Congress in preserving the nation’s heritage; the slow demise of Coney Island and Brooklyn in the 1940s; deportation of immigrants; the emergence of Bob Dylan and 1960s folk singers in Greenwich Village; the life of Leadbelly, an ex-convict (doing time for murder) who sang his way out of lifetime in prison to become a popular folksinger (he was Woody’s friend; “Goodnight Irene” was one of his songs); Sacco & Vanzetti and questions regarding fair trials; the concept of an artist’s legacy; a son carrying on his father’s work and then finding his own way as an artist and a man; a granddaughter finding her way through the music industry, too.

Clearly, Woody’s music and Woody’s story appeals to me. In writing these two pages, I’ve learned a lot, and I’m certain that I will follow up. That’s how I learn. I wonder whether most people learn this way. I suspect they do.


1 – An interesting question for aspiring musicians: when is a song “finished?” Is a song a continuing work of art that should be malleable, or is it final at the time it is recorded. This conversation quickly leads to another about copyrights and how they work: which version of the song would be protected by copyright, and why?

2 – Later, Woody Guthrie would die from the same hereditary disease. This leads the student to a study of genetics, family trees and genealogy, and diseases of the nervous system. George Huntington’s 1872 discovery of the disease is an interesting story about how diseases are identified, and how medical research has evolved. Back further, one theory of the “witches” burned in 1672 in Salem, Massachusetts connects the women involved with symptoms associated with Huntington’s disease. Playwright Arthur Miller told this Salem story differently when he wrote his play, The Crucible, to get people to think more critically about anti-Communist campaign waged by the dubious Senator Joseph McCarthy.

3 – Further encouragement: I’m not the first to see the value of Woody Guthrie’s life and art as a platform for further learning in a many related areas of knowledge. Guthrie curriculum materials can be found here.

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