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.
Photographs in a temporary gallery space — an exhibit by John Cohen, a member of the New Lost City Ramblers and participant in New York’s burgeoning folk music scene of the 1950s and ’60s — document poignant moments during Guthrie’s stay in a state hospital. A young Arlo Guthrie, Nora’s older brother, pays a visit with his mother. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, a still-active troubadour, gives Woody a hug.
Long path to Guthrie center
Nearly 20 years ago, Nora Guthrie came across a sheet of paper that had her father’s handwritten lyrics for “This Land Is Your Land.” We ought to do something with this, she suggested to a friend at the time. Within a few years the manuscript was highlighted in a traveling exhibit by the Smithsonian Institution.
In the meantime, she learned where Woody Guthrie’s mother, also named Nora Guthrie, was buried after she died from Huntington’s disease. She traveled to Norman, Okla., met with Woody’s younger sister, Mary Jo Edgar, and held a service, some 80 years after the elder Nora’s death in 1929. Nora was in something like a dream state when she sensed her grandmother reaching out to touch her.
“That was the first clue I had that we should be coming to Oklahoma,” Guthrie said.
A confluence of people and visions came together to make Tulsa the center’s home. Bob Santelli, a longtime music researcher and executive director of the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, had envisioned a Guthrie museum. Conversations Nora had with people from the George Kaiser Family Foundation in Tulsa eventually led to the development of a couple of blocks in a near-downtown neighborhood called the Brady Arts District. Voilà, the 12,000-square-foot center was born, along with Guthrie Green, a park across the street with high-end landscaping amenities. It includes a sloping natural amphitheater and a stage with sound system, all powered by a solar roof and a geothermal field underground.
Piece of history, creativity
Guthrie and museum officials expect the new center to tell a larger story of American history, creativity and culture.
“We’re doing more than giving history lessons or a biography of Woody,” said Deana McCloud, executive director of the center and a longtime producer of an annual Woody Guthrie Festival in his hometown of Okemah.
“What we’re doing is showing an example of someone who used his creativity in multiple ways to express his world. His voice was in his lyrics and his art works, and we can learn so much about the creative process if we view these things and take in everything he was doing.
“Our idea,” McCloud added, “is to have people walk away from this with an inspiration to make their own creative works.”
The new center is also intended to paint an increasingly nuanced, continually evolving and often surprising portrait of Guthrie.
“The idea,” said Nora Guthrie, “is not to look up to him, but always to look eye to eye with him.”