The Stuff of Dreams

by Thomas Conner


I want you to pay a lot more attention to all my words longer and deeper and quieter and louder than I ever could. You’ll get more out of them than I did around here.

— Woody Guthrie, 1954

What we have here is a whole lotta fuss about some stuff. Stuff, just like your stuff. Notebooks, journals, pictures, records — it’s witty stuff, poignant stuff, moving stuff. But it’s still stuff.

Look around you, look at your stuff. Let’s say one day you get famous, maybe even infamous. All that stuff — the papers on your desk, the books on your shelves, the bric-a-brac on your knick-knack table — that stuff’ll be worth something. Collectors will want to horde it. Academics will want to examine it. Fans will seek to draw inspiration from the glory of your scribbles and doodles and incidental jottings. Stranger things have happened, or been suggested. Read Walter Miller Jr.’s great sci-fi novel A Canticle for Leibowitz; people build a whole religion founded on a scrap of someone’s shopping list.

Two months ago, the Woody Guthrie Archives, the New York-based repository of the Oklahoma-born folksinger’s stuff, announced the sale of its collection to the Tulsa-based George Kaiser Family Foundation. They paid $3 million for this stuff, and the foundation is building a center in downtown Tulsa to house and display it. We’re talking about more than 10,000 artifacts from Guthrie’s life and creative output — lyrics and poems, scrapbooks, photographs, artwork, home movies, albums, tapes, letters, and effects. The first draft of “This Land Is Your Land,” newspaper columns suggesting ways to help working Americans, essays about the power of music, cartoons about the evils of Hitler, endless jottings, and quotable quips, like this one: “A phonograph record is a funny thing. You talk at it only once and it talks back at you for several years.”

But long before it was protected and enshrined — and before and after the ideas contained within it circled the globe, made Guthrie a household name, and arguably changed at least a few pockets of the world — this was just stuff.

“It was stuff around our house,” says Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter and the creator of the Woody Guthrie Archives. She’s remembering growing up in the 1950s, just as Woody was hospitalized with Huntington’s disease.

“It’s the stuff I knew from our house in Howard Beach [in Queens, New York City]. It was on bookshelves and in drawers. My mom had put his writings into cardboard boxes and stored them in a little room in the house, a little office there. But for the most part it was still lying around the house. The records were on the record shelf with the others we listened to. It wasn’t like it was separated. I remember playing as a kid with the metal plates they used to print Bound for Glory. I used to roll paint on them and make stamps. All his pens he did his illustrations with, they were on the desk and we all used them and broke them. His clothes — I wore his pea jacket that you see in pictures, then I lost it. I left it on the IRT.” She chuckles. “We’ve destroyed as much stuff as we’ve saved.”

This is the story of Woody’s stuff, the stuff that’s survived — how it went from boxes in the basement to a filing cabinet full of things that, well, shouldn’t maybe be thrown out, to an acclaimed professional archive in New York City and, finally, all the way back home to a permanent center in Oklahoma for perpetual safekeeping and continuing discovery.

Items from Woody at 100 exhibit at Gilcrease Museum. Photos by Natasha Ball.


Woody died in 1967, but the corralling of his stuff began years earlier. He’d been institutionalized for his degenerative illness for more than a decade. As it became clear he wouldn’t be coming home again, his second wife, Marjorie, began collecting the papers and notebooks and boxing them up.

Harold Leventhal, Woody’s manager and friend during his last several decades in New York, reported that the effort to build what is now the archives began in 1957. In his foreword to Pastures of Plenty: A Self-Portrait, a collection of material from the archives edited by Leventhal and rock writer Dave Marsh, published in 1990, Leventhal writes that Marjorie not only boxed up what was in the house but sent out a form letter to Woody’s friends and acquaintances, soliciting artifacts.

The letter, Leventhal wrote, stated: “The first phase of this project, as you can see, is to collect all the material that we can, from wherever it may come, no small task considering the extent of Mr. Guthrie’s travels and writings. … We ask your help in bringing to light any letters, stories, articles, etc. that you may have or know the whereabouts of, so we may thoroughly go over all his writings.”

“Friends, relatives and coworkers all responded, and continue to do so,”Leventhal wrote.

That helped fuel the growing mass of papers that filled the boxes at the Guthrie home. Nora remembers that eventually the cache was stored in the basement of the Howard Beach home — where the whole batch was nearly destroyed.

“Mom originally had the writings and notebooks in file cabinets in the study,” she recalls, “but the turning point came when we grew up and mother left that house and moved to Manhattan. That’s when she put all those things in boxes and stored them in the basement, and then rented the house to another family. She didn’t want to take all that with her, and the family lived there for years with this stuff in the basement. There was a bad rainstorm and the basement flooded. Luckily, the stuff wasn’t on the floor or we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

After that, in 1961, Marjorie moved the boxes to Leventhal’s office on the 17th floor of a midtown Manhattan office building (Nora remembers her mother saying, “Well, we don’t have to worry about flooding here”). The papers remained in cardboard boxes and filing cabinets, and there they existed for two decades.


But shortly before Woody’s death, someone in Oklahoma made a suggestion — the first of three — to bring his papers back home.

A story in Oklahoma Monthly magazine from February 1977 (“Was This Your Land, Woody?” by Bob Gregory) reports that in 1967 Marjorie Guthrie briefly considered sending at least some of the papers to the Okemah Public Library, in Woody’s hometown. The idea was proposed by Okemah resident and library board member Lelia Chowning, then 86, who wanted simply to establish a “Woody Guthrie Corner” in the library with his writings and music.

Chowning is quoted: “Mrs. [Marjorie] Guthrie told me she would send all those papers Woody had under his bed and that she would have those headsets installed so people could listen to Woody’s music without interrupting anybody else. She even said we could have his instrument if we promised not to let it change hands. But then they started all that talk [about Communism] and the board voted against it.”

The board shot down her proposal, 4-1.

(In 1971, Okemah, with a population then around 3,000, was divided by a Hatfield-McCoy-level furor. Another proposal was made to create a permanent memorial to Woody. “Everyone got so upset,” another resident reported. “Good friends and even families fell out over it.” Opposition was based on allegations that Woody was a communist and was led by Okemah banker Allison A. Kelly, who returned to action years later to fight against the town’s now annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival.)

In 1972, Marjorie established the Woody Guthrie Foundation. Nora says the foundation existed to handle day-to-day tasks dealing with royalties and permissions, but its genesis was as a repository for proceeds coming from two albums, A Tribute to Woody Guthrie, Pts. 1 & 2, recordings of two concerts — at Carnegie Hall in 1968 and the Hollywood Bowl in 1970 — featuring Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, and others singing Woody’s songs and reading his prose.

“All the proceeds from those recordings went to the foundation, and the main purpose of the foundation was to pay [Marjorie’s] expenses as she went around working for Huntington’s disease, giving lectures and talking to researchers,” Nora says. “That became the way she was able to start the Committee to Combat Huntington’s Disease.

“But — you know, the things your parents don’t tell you — in the third sentence of the constitution and bylaws for the foundation, she mentions the word ‘archives.’ She hoped things would be collected for an eventual archives where people could come research.” And here, Nora is open-mouthed, dumbfounded. “I just discovered that language 10 years ago! I went, ‘Mom, I can’t believe it! I didn’t know, but it happened!’ It was so spooky. No one in her lifetime had ever mentioned any desire like that.”

When Joe Klein sifted through the collection in 1978- 79, while writing the first biography (Woody Guthrie: A Life), he says Marjorie was referring to the collection as “the archives.”

“I think I was the first outsider granted access to the trove,” says Klein, now a political columnist for Time. “It was all in metal filing cabinets in Harold’s office. She said, ‘You’re not going to believe how much stuff is in there. It’ll take you a year to read it all.’ And she was right. I read every letter, every word that he ever wrote, every song he ever wrote.”

Klein wasn’t the first to dip into the trove, though. Some material from the archives first eked its way into the market with the 1965 publication of Born to Win, a thematic collection of Woody’s stories, drawings and poems edited by Robert Shelton. A decade later, a roundup of his daily column for The People’s World newspaper was published as Woody Sez, with a preface by Studs Terkel. The next year, 1976, saw the publication of a manuscript from the archives, Seeds of Man, Woody’s autobiographical account of a 1931 expedition with family members to south Texas to hunt for a silver mine.


After that, a second plan was hatched to bring the archives to Oklahoma.

Guy Logsdon, now a renowned expert on cowboy music and Woody Guthrie, became the director of libraries at the University of Tulsa the year Woody died. Through the ’70s, his study of Woody led to an acquaintance with Marjorie. In 1981, he pitched the idea to bring the collection to TU.

“I said, ‘Hey, we would like to have the archives here,’ and we started negotiating,” Logsdon says. “We had a contract in the mill with TU’s attorneys. … The figure was $175,000 or $180,000. At the time, part of the collection was still in Marjorie’s home; not all of it was at the New York City office. She had the permission of all three children, and we were writing up the contract when the idea was killed.”

Logsdon cites a conflict with TU administrators as the reason for the deal falling through. Neither Nora nor Thomas Staley, then provost at TU and currently director of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, say they can remember hearing about this proposal, but neither do they think it might not have been in the works.

The very idea was doomed shortly thereafter as Marjorie contracted cancer. She died in 1983 at age 65, and was survived by her three children with Woody: Nora, Joady, and Arlo, a famous folksinger in his own right. The two sons opted out of shepherding Woody’s things and moved away from New York. Nora recently told the New York Times, “[Arlo] was filled up with being Woody Guthrie’s son, so he was glad the responsibility moved to me.” (Arlo, though, briefly considered making some kind of archives part of a facility he acquired in 1992 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, that housed his record label, among other things. Arlo possesses Woody’s collection of 78rpm records and some of his annotated books.)

Nora, however, still in New York, eventually succumbed to the gravity of the filing cabinets.

“I came along in 1992, and I’d been raising kids for 10 years,” she says. “Harold called one day and said, ‘Nora, I’m thinking about retiring, and there’s a lot of stuff here that belongs to your dad. Maybe you should come take a look at it.’ … I started going once a week. I wasn’t on salary, just helping out. The first job: he gave me all these interview tapes of Joe Klein’s and said, ‘We need labels typed up.’ So I typed up all the labels. The more I did, the more my curiosity was piqued.

“These were all people I’d grown up with but as a child had never talked to them. I was 42 now, and I said, ‘I wonder what Will Geer said.’ Or, ‘I wonder what Bess Hawes said.’ I started going in twice a week. Harold said, ‘I’ll give you a little desk.’ He’d walk by and just throw something on my desk. ‘I just found this in a file.’ A letter or a notebook. They were scattered all over his office. So I’d read. One day he put a box in there. I was browsing through and found this envelope that said Lennon Music Publishing. I unfolded it and there was a letter from John Lennon that said, ‘Woody lives, and I’m glad!’ — from 1975. I went to Harold. He said, ‘There is?’ Nobody knew it. Mom read it and probably smiled and put it in the box. Another day, I’m turning pages and it’s song lyrics — and there’s ‘This Land,’ written out. I said, ‘Harold, have you ever seen this copy?’ ‘No.’ ‘This is kinda cool, right?’

“So I called the Smithsonian and said, ‘Hey, I just found the original copy of “This Land Is Your Land.” Should I put it in plastic or something?’ ”


Fortunately, the folks at the Smithsonian connected Nora Guthrie and Harold Leventhal with someone who could help. Jorge Arevalo was, at the time, an archivist at Queens College working for the Louis Armstrong Archive. They met at an event, and Arevalo agreed to come by Leventhal’s office and take a gander at Woody’s stuff.

“It was appalling,” Arevalo says, laughing. “As you can imagine, this stuff was crammed into cabinets and boxes — assorted boxes, shoeboxes, all kinds — and it needed a lot of work.”

“I showed him this and that, and I said, ‘I should probably do something to protect this, right?’ ” Nora says. “I’m with my coffee and bagel, with ‘This Land’ in my hands. I’d grown up with this stuff. No one ever told me, ‘Move the coffee away.’ Jorge very, very sweetly said something like, ‘Can I do something?’ He took my coffee and moved it away.”

“Within five minutes, I was like, ‘Holy moly!’ But I didn’t say ‘moly,’ ” Arevalo says. “It was just beyond what anyone ever imagined. … Right away, I knew this was a collection that spoke volumes about music, folk music, American life, American history and attitudes. It’s become that, too, a source of not just music performances but volumes of literature and scholarship.”

Arevalo agreed to a one-year contract to inventory the material. One year turned into two, then three. That was in the early ’90s, and he’s still the archives’ curator.

With a $100,000 donation from recording artists and companies, Arevalo and an assistant, Amy Danelian, sorted, organized and placed into protective archival boxes the mass of now decades-old, delicate, brittle papers. In April 1996, the archive — still housed in one room of Leventhal’s office on West 57th Street — opened to the public.

“Once it was organized, [Jorge] said, ‘It would be really nice if people could come and look at this,’ ” Nora says. “I said, ‘Yeah, I guess. Do you think anyone would come?’ He said yes, that it wasn’t just dad’s stuff anymore, it was part of American history. So I thought, well, we’ll need a table where people can sit.”


Four years later, in 2000–2001, I spent three days a week for nine months sitting at that table. On leave from my post as a music critic at the Tulsa World, and on a fellowship with the National Arts Journalism Program, I wrote research for the archives (“Tracking Woody’s HD: From Instinct to Institution”) and collected my own seedlings from the newly planted garden. Many of those sprouted in further journalism at the World and in my current post as a critic at the Chicago Sun-Times, as well as stories for this publication (“Woody Guthrie and Unions, Amen,” July 2011) and a play (“Time Changes Everything,” co-authored with John Wooley).

When you say the word “archives,” sometimes people conjure up images of heavy vault doors and museum-like pristineness. But during its tenure in New York

City, the Woody Guthrie Archives existed very much as its namesake did. It was just a three-room office in a nondescript building. The documents were kept in acid-free boxes on a series of shelves, like those in your doctor’s office, that slide on tracks against one another. It was free, and open by appointment.

People often dropped by, though. Famous people — I remember Lou Reed and Pete Seeger — but ordinary folks, too. Writers, professors, students. A lot of hands in white cotton gloves began plucking notebooks and song lyrics from the shelves. Projects began pouring forth, and Woody once again found himself and his ideas touring the land he loved.

The most publicized project was Mermaid Avenue, an album by British folk-rock singer Billy Bragg and Chicago roots-rock band Wilco. They started what would become a trademark for the archives—they selected song lyrics and, since Woody wrote down his words but never his tunes, wrote and recorded new music for them. Other artists to do the same include Jonatha Brooke, Joel Rafael, Slaid Cleaves, even the Klezmatics (Woody wrote a lot of music with Jewish themes), plus a great new album of reinterpretations by Jay Farrar (formerly of Uncle Tupelo), Will Johnson, Anders Parker, and Yim Yames, New Multitudes.

Books, too — This Land Was Made For You And Me, by Elizabeth Partridge; “There’s a Better World a-Comin’: Resolving the Tension Between the Urban and Rural Visions in the Writings of Woody Guthrie” by John S. Partington; Ed Cray’s biography Ramblin’ Man; Will Kaufman’s great Woody Guthrie: American Radical; and the beautiful, wondrous scholarly coffee-table book, Woody Guthrie Artworks.


Not long after Leventhal died in 2005, Nora moved the archives out of his old office to a site in Mt. Kisco, New York, deep in the suburbs north of the city. There, she started to think about the future.

“For years, Jorge kept trying to talk to me, asking, ‘What are you going to do?’ ” Nora says. “I knew my limitations. I’m not a fundraiser. To raise a million dollars, you’ve got to schmooze for years. I’m just a jeans girl. I can’t do this by myself. … People don’t really think about the future. I thought, I’m not going to be like that. While I still have my brain, body, some intelligence and discrimination, I’m going to make the very important decisions that need to be made about the future of this archive. You want to have all your marbles for something like this.”

The Kaiser Foundation, an organization with a $4 billion endowment dedicated to helping Tulsa’s disadvantaged, contacted Nora a couple of years ago — just by way of introducing themselves to a like-minded organization — and a slow courtship began. As she began speaking with executive director Ken Levit and senior program officer Stanton Doyle, she realized she might have found the right caretakers.

The third time Oklahoma reached out for Woody’s stuff was the charm.

“I’m not even going to call it a courtship,” she says. “We just got to know each other a couple of years and tried to figure out if, when, how we could belong together in any way. It wasn’t impulsive. … I went out and totally fell in love with Tulsa. It reminded me of SoHo in the ’70s when I was dancing there. We went to the Brady district and saw the violin makers and artists working in old spaces of old warehouses, and met all these really good people doing really wonderful things. But it’s different from New York in that not only do they have the literal space for something like this, they have the psychological space for it.”

The multimillion-dollar deal, which Nora says hinged on the idea of creating a facility for the archives, will result in the Woody Guthrie Center at 116 E. Brady St., in the former Tulsa Paper Company building. The site will house the collection, display exhibits and include educational and performance spaces. Work on clearing and rehabbing the site has begun, and the collection is expected to be moved from New York and installed in its new Tulsa home within the next year.

“I’m working with the Tulsa people for a year or two on the design of the interior of the building,” Nora says. “I wanted Woody on the main floor where people have access to him, not up in a tower in a hall of fame. There are some institutions like this where you have to climb stairs and show a pass. Woody should have ground-level, easy access. There should be stages to the relationship. You walk in and there will be an exhibit, some interactive things. If you’re interested and want to engage further, then you climb some stairs to the archives. You can get to know him on many levels.”

This is where Oklahomans find themselves: getting to know Woody again. The different levels of engagement — the howjadoos, the next steps — may be crucial to a difficult homecoming that probably started with, and now is somewhat realizing, Mrs. Chowning’s library crusade.

“In a way,” Nora says, thoughtfully, “Oklahoma was like Woody’s mother. He roamed and rambled, and always will, but it’ll be nice for him to be back in mother’s arms.”