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Woody Guthrie at the Morgan

The Morgan Library & Museum presents Woody Guthrie: People Are the Song, opening February 18, 2022, and running through May 22, 2022. Curated in collaboration with the Woody Guthrie Center, Woody Guthrie Publications, and music historian Bob Santelli, the exhibition tells the story of the great American troubadour and writer Woody Guthrie in his own words and by his own hand. On view is an extraordinary selection of musical instruments, handwritten lyrics, manuscripts, photographs, books, art, and audiovisual media, assembled from the preeminent holdings of the Woody Guthrie Archive and several private collections. Prominent among these rarely seen objects are the original, handwritten lyrics to This Land Is Your Land, one of the world’s most famous protest songs, which Guthrie composed just a few blocks away from the Morgan in 1940. More than eighty years later, this song remains enduringly popular, as Guthrie’s words maintain a relevance today.

The show traces Guthrie’s life and career through his artistic response to several interrelated themes: place, politics, family, love, and spirituality. Running through these themes is an emphasis on Guthrie’s connection to people: to specific people in his life, historical figures of his era, and the anonymous workers, soldiers, and immigrants whose stories appear in so much of his music. Songs like My Thirty Thousand, Deportee, The Blinding of Isaac Woodard, and Union Maid express Guthrie’s outrage at the injustices experienced by his fellow Americans, while lyrics to Ingrid Bergman and Joe DiMaggio speak to his interest in prominent figures of the 1940s and the compelling stories of their lives.

An icon of the Depression era and the author of more than three thousand folk songs, Woody Guthrie (1912–1967) is one of the most influential songwriters and recording artists in American history. But he was not only a songwriter, and his subject matter extended well beyond labor politics. The full corpus of his creativity—including lyrics, poetry, artwork, and largely unpublished prose writings—encompassed topics such as the environment, love, sex, spirituality, family, and justice. Guthrie developed a personal philosophy that has impacted generations of Americans and inspired musician-activists from Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen to Ani DiFranco and Chuck D. As Bob Dylan noted of Guthrie, “You could listen to his songs and actually learn how to live.”

Highlights of the exhibition include the Martin guitar Guthrie purchased in the early 1940s, which is the only known surviving guitar bearing Guthrie’s iconic phrase “This Machine Kills Fascists.” (He scratched the phrase into the back of the instrument while also incising “Woody” near the neck.) Several more musical instruments will be on display, including a 1952 Guthrie guitar, the fiddle he played during World War II, and Pete Seeger’s banjo bearing the Guthrie-esque phrase, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” Also included is “New Years Rulin’s,” a handwritten manuscript hidden within a seventy-two-page letter to his wife, Marjorie Guthrie, setting out Woody’s endearing New Year’s resolutions for 1943. Written with optimism, his “rulin’s” run the gamut from good hygiene and nutrition to fiscal responsibility. His exhortations to “love everybody,” “learn people better,” “keep [the] hoping machine running,” and “wake up and fight” articulate his personal philosophy, activist mentality, and deep-seated connection to humanity. Additional highlights include original lyrics to iconic songs such as “Do Re Mi,” “Pastures of Plenty,” and “California Stars”; objects from Guthrie’s time in New York, including a subway photo-booth self-portrait and the lyrics to songs like “My Name is New York” and “Talking Subway Blues”; children’s songs and artwork; unpublished notebooks and writing; objects relating to the end of Guthrie’s life and his many afterlives, including his influence on Bob Dylan. Also on view are family photos and artifacts from the collections of Nora and Arlo Guthrie.

An array of public programs will accompany the exhibition which runs from February 18 through May 22, 2022. The Morgan Library & Museum is located at 225 Madison Avenue and 36th Street, New York, NY. For more information contact the library at (917) 805-4128.