Handwritten lyrics for “This Land Is Your Land” inspired the legendary singer/songwriter’s daughter to push for a museum to commemorate his legacy.
The woman in the wheelchair and headphones is watching pictures go by and hearing a narrator speak about a place and a moment long ago.
On the screen a typewritten love letter appears and as the words scroll down, you can imagine the woman when she first laid eyes on those words. It was 80 years ago in Pampa, Texas, when Mary Jennings, then 16, succumbed to the sweet words and married Woody Guthrie. Here she was, at the opening of the Woody Guthrie Center, in Tulsa, Okla., reliving the memory.
Behind her was her daughter from a later marriage, Anne Jennings, and on her right side was Nora Guthrie, daughter of Woody Guthrie and his second wife and a driving force of the center, which opened on April 27.
The center, an archive and interactive museum, is devoted to the legacy of a singer, songwriter, artist and novelist whose place in the firmament of great American voices grows ever brighter.
“Will this be here forever?” Mary Jennings, now Mary Boyle, asked.
Yes, indeed it will, Nora Guthrie assured her.
To listen to contemporary singer/songwriters, all roads lead to Guthrie. To listen to Nora Guthrie, the road from here extends in all directions.
Born in Okemah, Okla., Woodrow Wilson Guthrie would have turned 100 in 2012, and a series of celebratory events, concerts and publications put a spotlight on him and his work. Now the Woody Guthrie Center focuses his story more than ever.
The center includes interactive stations where visitors can learn about Guthrie’s cross-country travels and the stages of his life, from the hardscrabble and dusty years in Oklahoma and Texas, to his arrival in New York, a stint in the Merchant Marines during World War II and his long and sad decline as Huntington’s disease, a nerve disorder, ravaged his body and his life. After 15 years living with the disease, Guthrie died in 1967 at age 55.
“It was an awful, awful, awful disease,” Nora Guthrie said.
Nora was 4 years old when her father was first hospitalized, and 17 when he died, and her involvement with his archives in her New York home over the past few decades has given her a relationship with the father she never really knew. It was many years after his death, she said, “when I started to play with him. … My experience is with the totally healthy man.”
Testimonies from musicians
In the Guthrie Center, a 13-minute video chronicles his life and includes testimony from his musical disciples: the British singer/songwriter Billy Bragg, the bluegrass guitarist Del McCoury, the singer/songwriter Ani DiFranco (“He was all the things you want in your heroes, in your artists”), the Scottish singer Donovan (“Woody was the one that inspired us all”).
One corner of the second-floor exhibit space is devoted to the Dust Bowl, including an excerpt from the recent Ken Burns documentary on the era. Elsewhere display cases hold guitars, his fabled, inscribed fiddle, which he rescued twice when the liberty ships on which he was crewing were torpedoed, drawings and paintings he made on the road and even a small address book, opened to the page listing phone numbers for folk song researcher Alan Lomax and Guthrie’s friend and fellow musician Huddie Ledbetter.
A circular display in the main room features one of the center’s most significant holdings, a handwritten draft of his enduring anthem “This Land Is Your Land,” which is surrounded by pertinent objects and listening stations.
At other kiosks you can dial up songs. At still another, children and adults can try their hand at writing their own songs.