Woody Guthrie's American Song

26 years of standing ovations

songs and writings by Woody Guthrie         conceived and adapted by Peter Glazer     

orchestrations and vocal arrangements by Jeff Waxman

Woody Guthrie’s American Song - an ensemble musical based on Guthrie's songs and writingshad its world premiere on July 20th, 1988. Twenty-four years later, the show opened in a concert staging at the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse in Berkeley, California, to coincide with Woody’s 100th birthday on July 14, 2012. The show exploded from the stage, and if anything, felt more urgent and more exciting than it had nearly a quarter century ago. Woody’s message hasn’t lost a drop of relevance, and his music still packs a wallop.

I got the idea for Woody Guthrie’s American Song in 1977, reading Robert Shelton’s edited collection of Woody’s writings, Born to Win, which opened with a piece called “The People I Owe,” now excerpted in the opening moments of the show. Here is a section of the original:

. . . I have heard a storm of words in me, enough to write several hundred songs and that many books. I know that these words I hear are not my own private property.

I borrowed them from you, the same as I walked through the high winds and borrowed enough air to keep me moving. I borrowed enough to eat and drink to keep me alive. I borrowed the shirt you made, the coat you spun, the underwear you fixed, and those socks you wove. I went on and walked down my road, you went on and walked your path. And the weather's winds, snows, sleets, ices, and hailstones cut down the oat straw, beat through the car top, knocked holes in shingles and went through awnings broke window lights, but never separated our works. Your works and my works held hands and our memories never did separate. I borrowed my life from the works of your life. I have felt your energy in me and seen mine move in you.

This passage described a relationship between artist and audience that Woody took for granted. Information and ideas do not flow in one direction, from the art object to its viewer, but is always an exchange, a mutual give and take. Art becomes an opportunity for collective inspiration. As a young theater artist, I read Woody's words as a call to bring the work of this remarkable artist to the stage.

Woody believed that what he made only came to life in the lives of others. “It is you, the reader of the page, that catches the cannon breath and the drum beat off the written page,” he wrote to conclude this essay. “I am no more, no less, than your clerk that writes it down, like a debt always owed and partly paid. This book is a book of debt and part payment.”  Woody Guthrie’s American Song is very much the same, a work of debt and part payment: to Woody, to all the people who inspired him, and to the thousands of people who have taken this show into their hearts over the years. 

Become a part of this journey!

Peter Glazer, Emeryville, California

Watch the Video

Filmed in the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse listening room, this 6 minute video includes music from the show, still photographs of the show at the Freight, and interviews with writer/director Peter Glazer and cast members Megan Smith and Sam Misner.

Buy the Music 

Connect to the CD Baby website by clicking the icon below, where you can purchase an MP3  of  the new live CD recording of Woody Guthrie's American Song. The CD itself,  with a dozen photographs and an 8 page booklet, will be available soon, also from CD Baby.  To hear sample tracks, click here.

Cast of Woody Guthrie