Radical media, politics and culture.

Joan Anderman, "The Filmmaker and the Protest Singer"

The Filmmaker and the Protest Singer

Joan Anderman,
Boston Globe

Peter Frumkin's PBS documentary blows the dust off Woody Guthrie's legend to find the man and his legacy

"A lot of people know Woody Guthrie as the guy in dungarees with a guitar on his back who played three-chord songs," says Peter Frumkin. "But there's a lot more to him than that."

That's why Frumkin, a Cambridge-based filmmaker, devoted the last seven years to making the PBS "American Masters" documentary "Woody Guthrie: Ain't Got No Home." The film, which premieres tomorrow on WGBH-TV (Channel 2), is a painstakingly crafted portrait of the folk icon's life, the roots of his music, and Guthrie's political and artistic legacy.It was, Frumkin says, a labor of love whose seeds were planted many years ago.

"When I was growing up I listened to a lot of music by people who were influenced by Woody Guthrie," Frumkin says. "He was this sort of mythical presence in the background; you heard the name but nobody really knew that much about him. At some point I bought an LP copy of the Library of Congress recordings, interviews he did with Alan Lomax. I thought they were weird and cool. Then about 10 years ago I read Joe Klein's book [ Woody Guthrie: A Life] and it struck me that there was a really engrossing, tragic arc to Woody Guthrie's life, and it would make a good film."

At the time, not everyone agreed. Frumkin spent long hours in discussion with staff at the Woody Guthrie Archives in New York, some of whom overtly discouraged him from making the movie. One of them was the organization's director, Woody's daughter Nora.

"I always feel that whenever you see these documentaries it's all these sepia-toned stories about the Dust Bowl," says Nora Guthrie. "Then he comes to New York, meets Leadbelly, gets Huntington's [disease], and dies. Woody wrote 1,500 songs after moving to New York in 1940. But I went along with Peter and my thinking really turned around. You have to keep telling these stories or else it gets forgotten and trivialized. Woody's story is a mirror of American history."

Finding a new way to present the story was a challenge, says Frumkin, whose documentary work has appeared on PBS, the Discovery Channel, and the Learning Channel. Frumkin received an Emmy nomination for his work as producer on the 2004 NOVA film "The Most Dangerous Woman in America," about "Typhoid Mary" Mallon. During five years of research , the filmmaker labored to unearth images and anecdotes that would shed new light on the life and times of an American hero.

The home movies that close the 90-minute documentary have been made public only once, in the 2000 film "Ballad of Ramblin' Jack," about folksinger Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Some of the archival photos Frumkin discovered had never been seen, even by the Guthrie family. He scoured the files at the local history museum in Pampa, Texas, where Guthrie moved in 1929, for a pair of astonishing, previously unreleased photos of the walls of smoke generated during the Dust Bowl. The film's soundtrack includes half a dozen Woody Guthrie songs made from original metal masters that have never before been heard in their pristine form — among them an early-1940s recording of "This Land is Your Land."

Frumkin also investigates Guthrie's lesser-known creative pursuits, as a visual artist and a prolific writer of prose, and reveals — fascinatingly — a comfortably middle-class fellow who created and nurtured his image as a hick minstrel.

"It's a time in the country's history when people wanted to find truth in rural America," says Frumkin, "and Guthrie very consciously cultivated that persona. He was clearly putting it on for Alan [Lomax]. Lomax wanted a rural sage and Woody knew it and played to it." Or, as Nora Guthrie explains it: "He was a performer. He worked a room like Sinatra. He was reaching out. And he's performing mostly for very poor people. Don't you think it would be inappropriate to perform in a suit at a migrant camp?"

Artifice notwithstanding, Guthrie's art captured the country's mood during the dark days of the Depression, the Dust Bowl, and World War II. As most people know, Guthrie wrote "This Land is Your Land" as a response to the Kate Smith hit ``God Bless America." His was a people's version of a national anthem, one that reflected the country's turbulence and its citizens' struggles, and Frumkin opens the film, powerfully, with the story of that song.

"How that song came to be is so representative of who Woody Guthrie was," says Frumkin. "He saw something that pissed him off and wrote a really good song about it."

It's that simple imperative, delivered in plain-spoken language in what is believed to be between 2,000 and 3,000 song lyrics, that continues to draw a remarkably broad cross-section of contemporary musicians to Guthrie's songs.

Later this month the Klezmatics will release "Wonder Wheel," a collection of Guthrie songs inspired by the melting-pot life in Coney Island, where the songwriter lived during the late 1940s. In recent years artists as diverse as Wilco and Billy Bragg, the Native American rock trio Blackfire, and the Boston punk band Dropkick Murphys have set Guthrie's words to their own music.

"These songs will remain rallying points for generation after generation after generation," explains Bruce Springsteen in the film. "Some people are going to rap them. Some people are going to thrash them out. But people are going to return to them and find something in them."

When a friend asked Frumkin several months ago what he thought Woody Guthrie would be doing if he were alive today, the filmmaker said he believed Woody would be writing the same songs, but that he would probably be a punk musician.

"He was so in-your-face," Frumkin says. "It was all about the message. I think that given the politics of the country right now, Woody is more relevant than ever."