Friday, June 15, 2012

Q & A with Robin Wheeler (Bound for Glory - The Woody Guthrie Centennial Project)

Before the Occupy Wall Street movement woke Americans back up to the opportunity of protest…

Before the Civil Rights movement, anti-war demonstrations, and the counterculture revolution…

Before Bruce Springsteen or Steve Earle, before punk rock, before Bob Dylan, and even before Pete Seeger…

There was Woody Guthrie.

Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Guthrie was as Bruce Springsteen once said, “an average guy with a slightly above average gift”.  Born in Okemah, Oklahoma – the heart of the American Dust Bowl, Guthrie hopped trains and traveled with migrant workers out west during the Great Depression.  He saw the peoples’ struggles and turned them into folk songs that changed the world. 

This rabble-rousing folk singer and oft-accused Communist is now considered an American treasure and icon and his catalog is maintained by Smithsonian Folkways, the record label branch of the Smithsonian Institution.

This July 14th marks Woody’s 100th birth anniversary and many activities have been planned to commemorate the Centennial.  Smithsonian Folkways has an expansive box set on the way and many special concert events, websites, blogs, etc. have been launched. 

St. Louis-based freelance writer Robin Wheeler has initiated her own project to commemorate the life and impact of Guthrie called Bound for Glory: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Project.

Robin Wheeler & Woody
In 1943, Guthrie published his autobiography, “Bound for Glory”.  Bob Dylan –Guthrie’s most famous disciple – has said that as big an impact as Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” had on him, “Bound for Glory” had a bigger one. 

Wheeler is encouraging anyone interested in celebrating this milestone and learning – or re-learning about Guthrie’s importance and legacy, to join her in reading “Bound for Glory” sometime this year and sharing your thoughts about the book and the experience of reading it on her blog.

Wheeler at the site of Woody Guthrie's first home in Okemah, OK

I spoke with Robin Wheeler about her discovery and appreciation of Woody Guthrie, the importance of his work, and her Woody Guthrie Centennial Project.

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Tell us about yourself to get things started…

I'm 39 years old, a freelance writer focusing on music (Riverfront Times from 2009-11, www.KDHX.org for the past six months, occasional rants at www.3minuterecord.wordpress.com) food (RFT's Gut Check blog, St. Louis Magazine's Relish blog, and Sauce Magazine many moons ago) and the occasional mommy blog ramble (www.poppymom.com).

I live in Belleville, Illinois, on America's longest Main Street with my husband, our eight-year-old daughter, and our pack of two cats and two dogs. I'm a lifelong music and book junkie. Born and raised in Sedalia, Missouri. Came to St. Louis by way of Columbia, Missouri in 1999.

Tell us all about the “Bound for Glory: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Project”.

Last New Year's Eve my friend Scott Allen from 3minuterecord and I had an exchange via Twitter about Woody Guthrie's centennial being in 2012, and how we should do something. The initial idea was to get other music writers to read Guthrie's 1942 book, "Bound for Glory," write about it, and we'd publish it on a blog (www.boundforglory100.com). Then we decided to expand to anyone who might be interested in participating. The main goal was to get people to revisit Guthrie's words beyond "This Land is Your Land" and outside of a musical realm. With his 100th birthday and the current economic and political environment, it seemed like good timing.

Talk a bit about your interest in Woody Guthrie and your inspiration to do this project.

My intro to Woody was the same as every American kid – singing "This Land is Your Land" in elementary school, with the three controversial verses deleted.

I discovered Springsteen when I was 12, with "Born in the U.S.A.” and it was like my world had been set to music. I grew up in a farming and factory town. Very blue collar. My dad was a factory worker. He'd been laid off from his job as a dairy truck driver a few years prior. We weren't poor, but we weren't living in the prosperous '80s. Most people in my world were just getting by. I was a weird, creative kid, and Bruce just spoke to me. He's two months younger than my dad, and it was through his music that I felt like I could understand my dad. Plus, he just rocked. It wasn't a teen girl rock star crush – Bruce became my guide and mentor.

When I was 14, I got his 1986 three-album live set for Christmas. There's a live version of "This Land is Your Land" on the album, which he prefaced with some history about the song being an angry protest song. Of course, I had no idea. I learned about Woody from Bruce. It wasn't a big epiphany, but it was always there in the back of my brain, filed away for later use.

Around the same time I started discovering punk. Specifically, The Clash, and this whole realm of angry music that I related to. I was worked up socially and politically from an early age. The world never seemed fair and it always pissed me off. I've never been a folkie; I like loud and passionate music. There wasn't much access to punk in pre-internet Sedalia, but I devoured what I could find.

I discovered Uncle Tupelo about two minutes after starting college at MU in 1991. Blending the country from my youth with the punk that was speaking to me was another revelation. That led to loving all the bands that came from Uncle Tupelo over the years. When Wilco and Billy Bragg released the first "Mermaid Avenue" album, it sparked my interest in Woody Guthrie once again. It blew my mind that the guy who wrote the simple sing-songy "This Land..." could also pull off the emotional depth and literary scope of songs like "Remember the Mountain Bed" and the whimsy of "My Flying Saucer".

I'd never been a huge Guthrie fan/advocate, but he's popped up so often as my musical tastes have developed. All these different musicians I love keep coming back to this one connecting factor: Woody Guthrie. If all these artists who speak to my soul are connected to this one early influence, perhaps I should learn more. And I'm still learning.

What kind of response have you had?  Any unique submissions/involvement?

Right away lots of people volunteered to read and write. With this being a year-long project, we opted to not have many rules. Just read it and write about it sometime in 2012. Well, nearly halfway through the year, we've only had one volunteer submit a blog post. But that's okay, because I know people are reading. I'm still hoping to get responses, but I'm not pushing or nagging. I want people to participate because they want to. Not out of some misguided obligation to me.

The project has spawned things I never anticipated, though. Like KDHX's "Just One Big Soul" Woody Guthrie tribute concert on his birthday, July 14 (http://kdhx.org/calendar/just-one-big-soul-woody-guthrie-100th-birthday-party-tribute-and-881-kdhx-benefit-28984), and Corey Woodruff's "New Year's Rulin's" photo exhibit (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/977301537/new-years-rulins-photos-inspired-by-woody-guthrie). Just talking about Guthrie has gotten people to get creative and find new ways to express themselves, and that's what it's all about. A few weeks ago an artist named John Michael Barone in West Virginia contacted me through the project's Facebook page, saying he wanted to participate in some way. He's made a beautiful relief cut

I know the Project has evolved a little bit…tell us about what it’s become.

It's become the beast that's taken over my life. But I'm good with that.

In March the whole project shifted for me, from being this communal reading experiment to a research/experience project that's taken over my life. The Grammy Museum and Woody Guthrie Archives are doing a series of educational seminars and tribute concerts around the country, called Woody 100 (http://www.woody100.com). The first event was at Tulsa University in March. On a whim my friend Aimee Levitt and I decided to see if we could get press passes and attend. It worked. The Riverfront Times gave her a feature, and I wrote blog posts about the academic symposium, and a concert review. It all fell together so easily, and was such an enlightening weekend. Aimee and I spent a few hours lost in Okemah, Woody's hometown, wandering around in the rain, eventually poking around the remains of his last childhood home.

A few weeks later my friend Mary Duan in Salinas, California, contacted me. Every year she nags me to come visit her during the John Steinbeck Festival, since he's my favorite author. I've never been able to justify the trip. This year, she pointed out that the Steinbeck Festival was incorporating Woody Guthrie. Mary's the editor-in-chief of the Monterey County Weekly, so I decided to abuse our friendship a bit and asked if she needed some freelance coverage of the event. What started as a couple of short blurbs in the weekly turned into the cover story that hit newsstands the day the festival began (http://www.montereycountyweekly.com/news/2012/may/03/woody-and-john-30). As for the festival itself, all I can say is it was life-changing. I'm still trying to process just how profound it was.

All these Woody Guthrie events keep falling into my lap, and I keep chasing them. Having entrenched myself in Guthrie's life, learning about him beyond the Okie caricature that pervades, I've gained a respect for the way he lived his life. He was extremely intelligent, didn't have much use for rules, and celebrated the human spirit in a way I don't think we've seen since. As the events roll my way, I find myself taking a more and more Guthrie-style approach - let's go! Don't worry about the money, how I'm going to get there, what's going to happen. Don't worry if it's going to be uncomfortable, of if something might go wrong. And things have gone wrong. Every trip and event has been a comedy of errors at one point or another. Really, that just makes it better. I just keep going. Do it. And then write about it in hopes of making some sense out of the world.

I made a last-minute trip to Chicago the weekend of the NATO summit to see Tom Morello (ex of Rage Against the Machine) do a Woody Guthrie tribute concert with over thirty Chicago musicians from just about every genre in a sold-out club full of Occupy protestors. Next weekend, I'm going back. Billy Bragg's doing two shows of Guthrie covers at the Old Town School of Folk Music. I don't have concert tickets; it sold out before I knew about it. No biggie. I've got my trip planned, hotel booked, and I'm talking to everyone I can. Because I'm learning that's how things happen. Talk to like-minded people and it's amazing how eager they are to cooperate and help.

Yesterday I learned that Bragg's doing a protest songwriting workshop the weekend of his concerts and I managed to score a ticket to that. I think I'm more excited about that than the concerts. Although I'm now on the waiting list for a possible press pass to the show. It's an exercise in asking for help, something I've never been good at doing. And in trusting that if I do everything I can, something will come from it. Maybe not what I planned or expected, but it's always something worthwhile. Studying someone as ballsy as Guthrie, who spent the last 15 years of his life hospitalized with Huntington's Disease and kept writing until he physically couldn't, has made me a lot ballsier. If he could do the things he did, what's my excuse? I'm not living in the Dust Bowl in the Great Depression. My mother wasn't institutionalized when I was a teen. I didn't lose several childhood homes to fire. I don't have a debilitating disease. Therefore, I need to get off my ass and do something.

Bragg's also playing in Woody's hometown of Okemah, OK, on July 12. I'm planning to make the trek to see that show, make it back here for Corey's exhibit the next night, and the KDHX show the night after that. The rational part of my brain says, "You are almost 40 years old. You like sleep. It's going to be 300 degrees. You have responsibilities and a child." But my gut says, "Yeah, you do. And it'll all work out. It always does."

I haven't hopped a train hobo-style yet, and I hope I don't have to. But if I have to? Well ...

I'm trying to catch as many artists in concert who've been inspired by Guthrie, which means shows by My Morning Jacket (St. Louis), Wilco (Ohio), and Springsteen (Chicago) in two-week span at the end of the summer. Old Crow Medicine Show in St. Louis a few days after all the birthday tributes. And along the way, I'm trying to talk to as many of the artists as I can, along with local musicians, just to get a sense of how deep Guthrie's influence runs.

What’s been the most interesting and/or rewarding aspect of taking this on?

Seeing the chain reaction of other projects has been the most rewarding aspect, by far. From a selfish perspective, that includes my own creative output. I feel like I've finally found what I'm supposed to write about.

The most interesting moment was at the Steinbeck Festival. Before the festival I interviewed so many interesting people for my cover story. Robert Santelli, the executive director of the Grammy Museum, was one of them. This guy's one of the world's foremost experts on Guthrie, Dylan, and Springsteen. He gave the first panel discussion I attended at the festival. It's a really small event, so after his talk I had no problem walking up and introducing myself to him. He complimented my article, which in and of itself was pretty awesome, and we talked shop for a bit. Then he said, "Have you met Nora? Here, let me introduce you." So here I am, in all my awkward chubby Midwest mom glory, being introduced to Woody's daughter/executive director of his archives by one of the founders of the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame. That alone was pretty cool.

The next presentation about ten minutes after the meeting was an amazing performance by author Tim Z. Hernandez and musician Lance Canales. I'd interviewed Hernandez and was so excited about what he was doing. The room was maybe one-quarter full, if that. Lots and lots of empty seats. So I was pretty surprised when Nora sat down next to me. I mean, this is the keeper of her father's legacy. She's the one responsible for the "Mermaid Avenue" albums being made, and that's just for starters. I don't get star-struck, but I've been in awe of her for years.

The performance ended with Canales doing a gut-wrenching, stunning performance of Guthrie's song, "Deportees (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)".  The song's a heartbreaker anyway, but as the closer to their performance, it was flat-out devastating. One of the most moving performances I have ever seen. I'd been fighting tears for the last ten minutes as it was. I'm a noisy sobber and I didn't want to break the quiet, so it was a big struggle. Then, about halfway through her father's song, I heard Ms. Guthrie sniffle. I handed her my packet of tissues and she looked at me like I was deranged. Still, I like to think we had ourselves a bonding moment. Even if she thought I was nuts, I still came away with the experience of being next to Nora Guthrie as she experienced an amazing interpretation of her father's work. In this project of seeing his affect on people ... that's pretty much the pinnacle.

Why, in your opinion, should folks get involved in this endeavor?  Likewise, why should they take the time to read Woody’s autobiography and learn more about him, in general?

For starters, Guthrie was a hell of a writer. Just to experience his talent is reason enough.

Guthrie also provides history lessons that aren't in the text books. He wrote based on what he saw, news stories he read. He documented the most tumultuous time in the 20th century - the Great Depression and World War II. Considering the economic and political environment of the past decade (at least), we can learn a lot from his writings and observations that might prevent us from repeating some mistakes of the past.

I'm a communicator, obviously, and I don't think we talk about things that matter enough. So let's talk about this book. Let's focus on one person who made a difference, go in-depth, get different views and perspectives.

How can people find out more about Bound for Glory: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Project?

The blog, of course: www.boundforglory100.com. That's where I'm writing about my adventures and posting what people write about the book.

For specific information on how to participate: http://boundforglory100.com/?page_id=2.

We also have a Facebook page under "Bound for Glory: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Project," as well as an under-utilized Twitter account (@bound4glory100). Email address is boundforglory1912@gmail.com

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