A new exhibit at the Morgan Library & Museum takes a look back at the life of renowned musician Woody Guthrie through a collection of music lyrics, instruments, photographs, and art from his time. “Woody Guthrie: People are the Song” will run until May 22 at the historical library in Murray Hill. The exhibit was put together by music historian Bob Santelli in collaboration with the Woody Guthrie Center and Woody Guthrie Publications, as well as the Woody Guthrie Archive.
The folk singer remains one of the most influential American songwriters in history and produced music that touched on themes of politics, spirituality, and family. Guthrie had a particular interest in connecting with other people, inspiring the title of the exhibit. Songs like “Joe DiMaggio” and “Ingrid Bergman” discuss public figures he was fascinated with during the 1940s, while “Deportee” and “The Blinding of Isaac Woodward” put an emphasis on the social injustices of American society during the Depression era. His most notable production was arguably “This Land is Your Land,” which is still sung in elementary schools across the country to this day. His work came to inspire other great American songwriters like Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger, and even Bob Dylan, who mentioned that “You could listen to his songs and actually learn how to live.”
Tour of Woody Guthrie Exhibit
The exhibit at the Morgan Library takes a deeper look into not only the impact that Guthrie had on American music culture but also the people he encountered throughout his life. In many portions of the exhibit, there are photographs and drawings that show him outside interacting with all different kinds of people. Farmers in Oklahoma, bar-goers in New York, and many others surrounded the singer and embraced his compassionate personality. The way he bonded with individuals from all different social and ethnic backgrounds was crucial in demonstrating to the American public what it really meant to be together as a collective society without prejudice or segregation.
Guthrie grew up in the town of Okemah, Oklahoma from the time he was born in 1912 until around the 1930s when he moved out to California to flee the impact of the Dust Bowl. When he moved, he got the opportunity to start his singing career on a radio station but was fired near the start of World War II when it was revealed that he supported the communist party. His legacy truly began when he took on the opportunity to move east to New York City, where he came to be known as the “Oklahoma cowboy.” He took the city’s diversity very well and was immediately embraced by the folk music community. It was here in 1940 when he wrote “This Land is Your Land” in response to the song “God Bless America,” which he thought was an unrealistic portrayal of what the United States was really like.
Woody Guthrie spent the next few years of his life looking for jobs in different parts of the country, traveling with folk music groups, and even participating in the war as a merchant marine. The singer was enlisted in 1943 and took part in major events throughout the Battle of the Atlantic until he was drafted by the army shortly before the war ended in 1945. Coming back to the United States after his experiences in war, Guthrie settled along Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island, Brooklyn with his wife and daughters. By that time, his mental and physical health had already been deteriorating due to Huntington’s disease, which was passed on from his mother. After years of influence on all different generations of people, Guthrie died in 1967 from the disease.
What the exhibit offers its visitors is a purposeful look back at the mind of Woody Guthrie and his spirit. The genuine creativity that was present in not just his music but also his drawings and poems is one that is truly inspiring. His presence reverberates throughout America today as dozens of artists have sampled and reproduced his works for the sake of bringing people closer together.
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Tour of Woody Guthrie Exhibit
Next, check out the Frederick Douglass exhibition at the New-York Historical Society!