By Joe Fuller
In 1962, I was in the sixth grade. Mrs. McGowan was my teacher.
She was a crusty old woman who told me several times a day, “You think you’re funny but you’re not.”
I didn’t care much for her, either. In fact, the only time we got along was when she provided piano accompaniment for the class during music time.
I loved music time. I loved singing the “Songs of America.”
My favorites were “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “This Land is Your Land.” I memorized all of the lyrics to both songs.
I wondered why two people were given credit for the Civil War classic while the other was attributed to Anonymous. Even as a kid, I thought, “Someone should find out who really wrote that song.”
A couple of years later, my cousin Paula put a Bob Dylan record on her turntable and my head spun around. I wanted to find out all about this guy
I found out Dylan idolized a songwriter by the name of Woody Guthrie, so I wanted to find out all about him, too.
I found out he, not Anonymous, wrote “This Land is Your Land.” I also discovered additional “communist influenced” verses to the song not included in my sixth grade lyric sheet.
Later, I read Woody’s autobiography Bound for Glory and studied up on the Great Depression. Instead of attending class at Riverside City College, I went to the library and found out about my father’s time from Dos Passos, James Agee and Studs Terkel.
I read fiction and poetry, and listened to music from the Depression era. I started to have more patience with people twice my age. I’d do my best to listen when they’d start to tell me about hard times.
After a while, having to deal with my own problems, I became less interested and stopped listening. I started to discount the chroniclers of that era, focusing on their failings rather than their achievements.
I was tired and bitter. I was done with other people’s stories.
I eventually leveled out, but like a lot of other folks, I’ve been focused on the negative aspects of our culture and country, convinced we’re going straight down the toilet.
Then my friend Jeff Glickman invited me to the PenArts production of Woody Guthrie’s American Song. He was playing one of the three Guthries represented in the musical, and he said he was honored to have been chosen for the role.
I told him I’d be there opening night.
In preparation, I listened to the original cast recording of the Broadway production. It reminded me of an Up With People concert. I wasn’t impressed.
I didn’t want to be closed-minded but I had doubts PenArts could do a better job. I wondered, “How are the locals going to make this more convincing?”
Well, the first thing they did was stage their production at the Live Juice Bar and More in Pensacola. This establishment has its beverage and food service in one room and its littlest of little theaters in the other.
Everything about the performance room was conducive to intimacy between the actors and audience. Not much separated one from the other, and this made it easy for me to become emotionally invested to all elements of the musical “story.”
The string band “pit orchestra” was spot on. The musicians were excellent, and musical director Tom Baroco provided quiet, confident leadership.
Mr. Baroco’s introductory remarks to the audience explained almost all the words and music were taken from Woody Guthrie’s prose, lyrics and songs. He also reminded us that Woody was a folk singer, taking people’s stories and “tellin’ them back.”
The ensemble on stage, directed by Christine Kellogg, did a damn good job portraying folks who had lost everything—families forced to leave their homes and say goodbye forever to loved ones while enduring every hardship on the road to “California,” the “Garden of Eden.” They did an even better job describing how these dust bowl victims were chased, beaten, extorted and cheated by politicians, bankers, the National Guard, police and railroad bulls.
But what they did best on that little stage was tell the tale Woody told about a woman’s beautiful voice providing respite for the souls of 2,000 fellow travelers. A union maid sang, “You can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union.” Of course, she encouraged the audience to sing along.
We didn’t do a very good job. We were sitting in a theater somewhere in Pensacola, for God’s sake, less than a mile from the Civic Center where Trump has held SRO rallies.
We were in Florida, a right to work state, being asked to sing a union song. Even in 2019, that’s scary.
I don’t know how the “Bound for Glory” generation survived the Great Depression, but I think the songs of Woody Guthrie helped. I think they helped because he was singing their stories back to them. He was reminding them, and us, that no matter our status, we are worthwhile.
We were not born to be mocked, and we are all equal. From the Wall Street tycoon to the nameless deportee, Woody Guthrie was reminding them (and us), “This land was made for you and me.”