- Nora Guthrie
It's impossible to tell the story of American folk music without Woody Guthrie. And it's impossible to tell the story of Woody Guthrie without Pete Seeger. Reams have been written on both folk singers' influences on modern politics, activism and, of course, music. They've been canonized as figures of almost mythic proportions. But Nora Guthrie has a different take on all that.
"My father was a bit of a mess," she says with a chuckle.
Nora is Woody's daughter, Arlo Guthrie's sister, president of the Woody Guthrie Foundation and founder of the Woody Guthrie Archive. In short, she's as much an expert on Woody as anyone alive. But lately she's been focused on his old friend Pete, whose influence on her father she says is huge and rarely recognized.
"Most people talk about how Woody influenced Pete, which he did," Nora says. "But Pete was really important for Woody, too."
This Friday, May 24, at North End Studio A in Burlington, Nora will give a multimedia presentation called "What Pete Taught Woody," illuminating the duo's relationship. The project was inspired in part by wider observances of the centennial of Seeger's birth. Using archival interviews, writing, music and rare film footage, as well as personal anecdotes and interviews with Seeger, Nora will demonstrate the many ways he affected her father. Local folk singer Rik Palieri, who counted Seeger as a personal mentor, will perform.
"Pete is kind of like Paul Bunyan, and people like that iconic image," Nora says. "But, knowing him differently, I can tell a different story about the dynamic dual destiny he and Woody shared."
She can also share a more personal side of Seeger's friendship with her father, whom she freely admits "could be a difficult man to be around."
"One of Pete's famous lines about my father is, 'I couldn't stand him when I was around him, but I miss him when he's gone,'" she says. Seven Days reached her by phone to learn more.
SEVEN DAYS: So, what did Pete teach Woody?
NORA GUTHRIE: [Laughs.] I can't give it all away! But my connection to Pete is a little bit different from most. It's not just music, and it's not just familial — though I grew up with him as a quasi-uncle my whole life.
There are some facts and stories that people don't know about Pete and Woody. Most of them have to do with what Pete learned from Woody, because Woody was a few years older than Pete. [Pete] was a young guy — 19, 20, 21. And Woody was really old at 27, 28, 29. So, if you close your eyes and think about when you were 18 and what a 28-year-old seemed like, that age difference is potent. As Pete was forming his destiny, Woody was really influential.
SD: But you're saying their relationship worked the other way, too.
NG: It was reciprocal. Pete, because of who he was — an academic, a folklore historian, a scholar — he influenced Woody, too. And that's the story nobody talks about.
SD: This is about giving Pete his due, then?
NG: Exactly. Because they were yin and yang, exact opposites. And I wanted to show how they influenced each other. Like, Pete wrote on his banjo, "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender." And of course Woody was like, "Nah, my machine kills fascists." So right there, you have two very different kinds of guys, two different dynamics, two different views of the world. And yet they were bonded forever.
SD: So they really complemented each other.
NG: Right. Pete wouldn't have written on his banjo if he hadn't seen Woody's guitar. But Pete had his own idea of what his "machine" was supposed to do. So the presentation is about connecting simple things like that to more complex and profound ideas.
SD: Has your relationship to Pete and his stories changed since he passed?
NG: Three days ago I saw a tribute concert to Pete, and it had all of this dance and music. It was a full evening. And I told the producers after that I had never looked at Pete that way. I can only now back away enough so that I'm not just seeing Uncle Pete. I'm able to see his influence on the world. I grew up knowing that to some degree, but I kind of didn't get it as an adult until recently.
I had the same thing with my father, too, which is understandable. When you're living with someone daily, it's different. And it was only as I grew older that I was able to back up and be like, "Oh, my God. People actually know the words to 'This Land Is Your Land'!" And I'm kind of having that exact experience now with Pete.
SD: What strikes you about him now?
NG: There isn't anyone like him left on this Earth that I know of. When you go to these tributes, you realize how many millions of people he's affected personally all around the world. And they tell me about it. Like, "Oh, yeah. I built a boat, and Pete helped." Or "I had an asparagus field, and Pete helped me plant it." Everyone has a personal story with Pete Seeger. And the more I back away, the more unreal that sounds. He's like an apparition that appeared in so many people's lives and spent time with them. It's a different kind of fame.
There's a kind of equality that he lived. His relationship with Woody or with Bruce Springsteen or Barack Obama or some guy he built a boat with is the same. It's just another person he related to. No one was special. It was all the same to Pete, and that sort of kindness and generosity was so unique.