Last weekend, the folk world celebrated 100 years since the birth of pioneer troubadour icon Woody Guthrie. His music was performed in music halls across the country, at festivals and parties thrown in his honor. The celebration will continue all year, with a number of new album releases and other events worldwide, including a special gala concert slated for October at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Here in Asheville, this weekend only, N.C. Stage is presenting Hard Travelin’ with Woody — a 2011 NYC Fringe Festival production written by its star, Randy Noojin.
It’s a one-hour, one-man show that pays tribute to the great folk singer, at the same time as endearing his story, music and motivation to a contemporary audience. The plot, like that of any Woody Guthrie song, is simple: Woody is on hand for a union meeting in Oklahoma. The union has been on strike, but after some violence from scabs or bosses, they’re thinking of calling it quits on their struggle for fair wages. His job is to entertain the union men for an hour and try to lift their spirits before dinner is served. This is the sort of thing on which Guthrie built his early career, and those familiar with his life and work can appreciate being a fly on the wall. Those unfamiliar will learn something new.
Clearly Noojin did his homework. His one-man show is peppered with quotes from Guthrie’s various writings, musings, interviews and recordings. He works in stories Guthrie told, and manages to cram much of the singer’s life story into his one-hour set.
Not all songs in this show were written by Guthrie, granted, but they all come from the same time and place, and are sung in the same spirit. (The first one Noojin sings in the show, for example, is “Which Side Are You On?” — a tune penned by Florence Reece, which Guthrie sang as part of the Almanac Singers with Pete Seeger and others).
Hard-core folkies will recognize Noojin’s singing as a little more Springsteen-grit than Guthrie-pure, but this is just more proof that Guthrie’s essence is something not easily captured. And really, that’s not important. He embodies all the things for which Guthrie stood, easily interweaving seemingly meandering thought patterns into a consistent message about the plight of the common man. Much like Guthrie would have done, he keeps the show simple and direct, with no need to pack in more than an hour.
What’s more, he makes clear without explicitly saying so that there’s not much different between then and now. The people Guthrie sang for 70 years ago would be the same sorts for whom he’d sing today, with similar concerns, interests, hopes, and fears.
Indeed, it’s a timely show for a number of reasons — Guthrie’s centennial as well as the sociopolitical climate in the U.S. this election year, economic woes, etc. Besides all that, it’s a fun show with great music and Noojin encourages the audience to sing along.
Shows at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 19 through Saturday, July 21 and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, July 22. Learn more at N.C. Stage’s website.