An excerpt from a speech given at the opening of the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on April 26, 2013. By Nora Guthrie, Woody Guthrie.
My father’s favorite line was “I’m out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work”… My dad wrote many songs about auto mechanics as well. A lot of this information wasn’t known until about 1992, which is surprisingly late. You’d think so many years after his death in 1967 there should be more known about him. But because there was no archive and there was just all this stuff in boxes around my house, and then later housed in an office in New York, no one had the opportunity, including me, to go through this material. We kind of all thought we knew it all. We thought we knew it all because of what Bob Dylan told us, what Peter, Paul, and Mary told us. You know, there were hits along the way, where suddenly there was interest in Woody. But again, it was through very specific eyes and very specific livelihoods that we learned about Woody.
My experience actually started in the early 1990s when I went to work in the office where my dad’s boxes were housed. They were still in boxes and I went to volunteer. Harold Leventhal, who was Pete Seeger’s manager and handled my father’s business affairs, was about to retire, and he wanted me to come in and help around the office. So I went in and I licked envelopes and I typed labels for the first year, and then one day Harold came in and he dropped this box on the table next to me. He said, “You ought to look through this.” I said, “What is it?” He said, “It’s your dad’s stuff .” Oh, OK, cool. I guess I had finished licking envelopes and typing letters and I thought, well, let’s take a peek.
I just wanted to read you one of the first things. I literally just went like that and pulled it out of the box and this is what I found. It is a piece of writing. It’s called I Say to You Woman and Man. This is when I start to cry again.
I’ll say to you, woman, come out from your home and be the
wild dancer of my breed.
I’ll say to my man, come out of your walls and move in your
space as free and as wild as my woman
I’m married and wed to a dancer in my front line and the ways
she moves while I beat my skin drum would knock your
soul and your lights out.
I beat my old drum skin and sing to my big family, you, Arlo, you,
Stacks, you Teeny, you Stew Ball, you, Bill, you Marjorie
Come out from your made walls and out from your sins and
out from your sick spell and dance to high glory.
You poor sick head poet that sung to my woman to stay here in
these sod walls and laze around sleepy and doze around
sheepy while your man is the one to go out and see action.
You jail home poets are dead in my dust. I sing your song
but I sing it just backwards.
I say to my woman dance out of our home.
Dance out and see fighting.
Dance out and see people.
Dance out to run factories.
Dance out to see street meats.
Dance out in the deep stream.
Dance out to your vote box.
Dance down to your office.
Dance over to your counter.
Dance up your big stairs.
If your husband gets jealous, dance out to new lovers.
If your man keeps your heat tied, dance out and untie it.
Dance out to sing equal.
Dance up and be pretty.
Dance around and be free.
And if I just had this one thing to say to a husband it would be
Just jump up and let go and dance.
Dance in your own way.
Sing your own song.
Whoop your own kind of a yell in the start and in the finish
of your dance.
Mammy of nature gave birth to you in her body and hills. You
give birth now to old female mommy nature in the male
feelings and rivers.
Both of you.
That was a piece of writing that stirred me to tears. Literally, because to be honest, I had not been involved in folk music at all other than it was around the house and I could sing the chorus to every folk song in the world. But I never memorized the verses, and I felt suddenly there was a place in Woody’s world for people like me, who were running out to work behind counters. Running out to dance to their offices. Running out to vote, to get involved in politics. Whatever everyone wanted to do. I just thought there was so much content in that. I suddenly realized that is what I could work for. It wasn’t about just the legacy of keeping Dust Bowl ballads alive and things like that. You don’t have to play an instrument to love Woody’s philosophy. You don’t even have to like folk music to love Woody’s philosophy. It is included there if you want it. But if you don’t, there is a road to Woody’s heart that is open and available to anyone who would like to enter that.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4, Issue 13. July 1, 2013.