Thursday, 4:13pm
28 June 2012

Folk memory

Woody Guthrie Art Works [WEB ONLY]

By Steven Brower and Nora Guthrie<br>With contributions from Billy Bragg and Jeff Tweedy<br>Rizzoli, 45 dollars<br> <br>

As a kid I listened to Woody Guthrie’s songs about labour struggles, mostly renditions by Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and other Greenwich Village folkies. At the ‘red diaper’ high school I attended, during assembly we’d always sing his anthem, ‘This Land is Your Land’ and sometimes ‘The Weaver’s Song’. I even spent part of the summer of 1972 roaming around music festivals on the west coast of Ireland with Woody’s son Arlo (he of Alice’s Restaurant fame). So I was pretty well immersed in the Guthrie legacy. Of course, I knew he was an extraordinarily prolific songwriter (in fact, recently a trove of his lost unrecorded lyrics were rediscovered). What I didn’t know, however, was that he was a prolific scribbler and drawer – a witty comics artist – and a commercial artist (despite having glimpsed his drawings in the autobiography Bound for Glory).

For me this revelation came to light with the recent publication of a truly wonderful book that faithfully reproduces scores of pages from Woody’s journals and sketchbooks, as well as sketched-over letters, notes and even a few of his oil paintings – including a rather earnest, though clumsy 1936 portrait of Abe Lincoln and a few free-form clay pieces from when he took a ceramics class in the 1950s. Funny, I would never have thought that Woody Guthrie would be one to take a ceramics class. But this fact, and a good many other curious biographical notes are happily revealed by co-authors Steven Brower, the former art director of Print magazine, and Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter and co-founder of the Woody Guthrie Archives in New York. And it’s a very illuminating read too.

Brower’s elegant design format faithfully preserves the artefact-quality of the pencil, watercolour and ink drawings, and given such respectful presentation a case is made that these images may just be as biographically significant as Woody’s music itself. In fact, one of the most surprising inclusions is a 1948 songbook by Woody and wife Marjorie, Woody’s 20 Grow Big Songs, which is a paste-up dummy of images and typed lyrics (some of which were eventually recorded for children). Brower’s choice of endpapers, particularly the last one in the book with ‘Peace’ scrawled six times in blue and brown watercolour, which is reminiscent of Lorraine Schneider’s famous 1960s War is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things poster, add a warm dimension to the entire project.

Woody was not, however, an elegant draftsman – in fact, most of his work was childlike or laboured. But this is neither meant as a critique nor the point of the book. Rather this critical mass of cartoons and illustrations, some done for left-wing newspapers, record covers and as posters (including a 1939 series for voter registration in support of progressive candidates) shows how this quintessential populist American storyteller graphically complimented his music and illustrated his writing. Art was his third language, and though he would never have become famous entirely based on his art, it is inspiring to see how this other art form plays out. The majority of the political and social cartoons are kind of folksy, but his more abstract work, including a 1949 brush sketch on which he wrote ‘I got tears in both eyes’, suggests Paul Klee.

It is interesting how many famous musicians were artists or illustrators – Dylan (who illustrated a couple of his own album covers), John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Joni Mitchell to name a few – and to realise, despite their renown, that music was not enough to satisfy their artistic passions. In each case art shows a creative dimension that is usually overshadowed by their hits. This book makes clear Woody Guthrie was serious about his art. Nonetheless it’s a good thing he became famous for his songs. This book is a wonderful record of his ‘other’ life, but his music is still a more important contribution to American culture.

Steven Heller