Dramaworks’ New Musical Celebrates Dust Bowl Populist

Oklahoma balladeer Woody Guthrie died in 1967, but his music and message have not only endured—Mojo named his compilation Dust Bowl Ballads No. 13 on its list of 100 Records That Changed the World—they’ve blossomed.

“It’s amazing how timely all of this stuff is,” says Bruce Linser, director of Palm Beach Dramaworks’ “Woody Guthrie’s American Song.” “It’s pulled straight out of today’s headlines. It’s almost disturbing in some ways.”

Guthrie, who recorded during the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression, World War II and the inchoate pangs of the ‘60s counterculture, documented these momentous changes in song. He penned austere folk tunes about income inequality, social justice, the plight of the workingman and creeping fascism—none of which, in 2018, are distant concerns recovered from the dustbin of history. For Dramaworks, it seemed like an ideal moment to revisit Guthrie’s life and legacy, his timeless populism and calls for unity amid national tumult.

The resulting production, “Woody Guthrie’s American Song,” features five actor-singer-musicians joining the acoustic folk trio The Lubben Brothers. Together, they perform more than two-dozen Guthrie classics on more than 20 instruments, from guitar, banjo and fiddle to box drum, hammer dulcimer and piano. But as director Linser is quick to point out, the show is not a traditional musical revue, nor is it a straightforward Guthrie biography. As he explains in an interview with Bocamag, the production, which runs through Aug. 5, has more on its mind.

Did you have any fondness for Woody Guthrie prior to taking on this project?

I didn’t. I, of course, knew “This Land is Your Land” and “Bound for Glory.” I found that I knew a lot of the music in the show peripherally. I didn’t know that he had written it—things like “Do Re Mi,” like “Hard Travelin’.” Those all sounded familiar to me, and I didn’t know they were his.

Woody’s actual recordings are raw and spartan and lo-fi. Onstage, are you able to take these songs in fuller directions musically?

Yes, the show is constructed in such a way that they take liberties with the arrangements. We’ve done even more with that. We basically have eight musicians onstage, and between the eight of them, they play more than 20 instruments. It’s a much fuller sound than Woody had.

And vocally, do the cast members stray from the Woody would sing something and put their own interpretations on it?

I would say yes to that. The way they arranged the show, it’s a lot more like musical theatre than it is concert. A lot of times when this show is done, they do it as a concert, where they just stand in front of microphones and deliver the material. And it’s great material, and it stands on its own. But we’ve tried to put it into that theatrical world.

Why was it important for the actors to also play the music onstage?

Woody talked about being inspired by the people, that he didn’t really write anything; he just listened and heard the stories of the people and put them to music. So there’s an inherent ownership of the actors playing their own accompaniment, playing their own music, their own soundtrack. So I think that’s a really important part of why the actors play instruments.

Working with the cast now for a few weeks, do you feel they bring out different aspects of Woody’s personality?

Yeah, the show is basically two shows in one. One storyline is Woody’s life. We’ve got three guys that play him at different ages. So that’s a strong storyline, and it’s played by three different actors, so you get three different personalities. The other story that’s going on is really the story of America. I always say it’s how we came to be where we are now. It starts around the Dust Bowl time, goes through the Great Depression, and then World War II, and ends in the late ‘60s when Woody died.

What it talks about is how we became so separate and so divided, which is amazing in a country that was built on unity. I love that aspect of the story. I think the authors took the story of Woody to tell a much larger story of America and how we need to come back to the middle and find empathy for each other, rather than divide. That’s the most powerful story to me. Woody is still really important, but there’s a specific reason they called it “Woody Guthrie’s American Song.”

Are there instances in Woody’s lyrics that specifically that resonate with our current political environment?

There are, but I’m quick to point out that this is not a political show. Woody definitely had his own political bent on things, but the show itself is not designed to be partisan one way or the other. It really is about finding the middle ground and understanding each other and finding that collective humanity, which is what I think is really missing in this partisan divide. I think that’s why we chose to do this show. Everybody is so exhausted with the politics and so tired of the separation, and this show, even with its darkest themes, there’s an inherent hope in Woody, an inherent hope in America. That’s what this show is about. It’s a lot of fun, it’s very rousing, and yes, there are moments where it gets dark and heavy, because we’re talking about things like death and deportation. But what really makes America tick, and always has, and hopefully always will, is that independent spirit of, “I can make this happen and make a life I’m proud of.” That is really where the crux of the story lies.

There was another Woody Guthrie show that Lou Tyrrell mounted a number of years ago at Arts Garage. Did you happen to see that?

I did. David Lutken wrote “Woody Sez,” which is the show you’re referring to, as a response to “Woody Guthrie’s American Song.” He decided he wanted a show that was more about Woody, and more specifically about his life and his experience, so he wrote “Woody Sez.” A lot of the music is similar; it’s a completely different layout and setup for this show.

Since Dramaworks is trying to attract younger audiences, are the kids going to like this?

I think what everybody needs right now is a little hope in America, and I think the younger generation is tapping into that, between the Parkland kids… there’s a whole generation that believes in this idea of, why have we gotten so partisan? Why have we gotten so divided? So I really do think this will speak to that generation, maybe more strongly than the generation who grew up with Woody.

Woody of course influenced legions of protest folksingers, from Bob Dylan to Pete Seeger to Phil Ochs. But is there a Woody Guthrie out there today, or has he left an unfilled void?

We talked a lot about that during our rehearsal process. There isn’t anybody, I don’t think, musically, that hasn’t been affected or influenced by Woody Guthrie. Is there somebody out there today? I guess you could point to Lady Gaga. She would certainly have roots in not necessarily protest songs, but they have a clear point of view about taking care of each other, and that “coming together” idea. And frankly, there are a lot of rap stars out there who are starting to do that as well. Hip-hop music is really starting to stand up to stuff and say, there are other ways of looking at the world. So yeah, I would say all of those people have been influenced, whether they know it or not, by what Woody created.

“Woody Guthrie’s American Song” opens today (July 13) and runs through Aug. 5. Tickets run $90 for opening night (including barbecue at 7 p.m.), and $75 for the remainder of the run. Call 561/514-4042 or visit palmbeachdramaworks.org.