The Play


Woody Guthrie's American Song

Prop Drawings, Philip Jung (1988)


I got the idea for Woody Guthrie’s American Song in 1977, reading Robert Shelton’s edited collection of Woody’s writings, Born to Win, which opened with a piece called “The People I Owe,” now excerpted in the opening moments of the show. Here is a section of the original:

. . . I have heard a storm of words in me, enough to write several hundred songs and that many books. I know that these words I hear are not my own private property.

I borrowed them from you, the same as I walked through the high winds and borrowed enough air to keep me moving. I borrowed enough to eat and drink to keep me alive. I borrowed the shirt you made, the coat you spun, the underwear you fixed, and those socks you wove. I went on and walked down my road, you went on and walked your path. And the weather's winds, snows, sleets, ices, and hailstones cut down the oat straw, beat through the car top, knocked holes in shingles and went through awnings broke window lights, but never separated our works. Your works and my works held hands and our memories never did separate. I borrowed my life from the works of your life. I have felt your energy in me and seen mine move in you.

This passage described a relationship between artist and audience that Woody took for granted. Information and ideas do not flow in one direction, from the art object to its viewer, but is always an exchange, a mutual give and take. Art becomes an opportunity for collective inspiration. As a young theater artist, I read Woody's words as a call to bring the work of this remarkable artist to the stage.

Woody believed that what he made only came to life in the lives of others. “It is you, the reader of the page, that catches the cannon breath and the drum beat off the written page,” he wrote to conclude this essay. “I am no more, no less, than your clerk that writes it down, like a debt always owed and partly paid. This book is a book of debt and part payment.”  Woody Guthrie’s American Song is very much the same, a work of debt and part payment: to Woody, to all the people who inspired him, and to the thousands of people who have taken this show into their hearts over the years. 

Become a part of this journey!

Peter Glazer, Emeryville, CA


Original Version:

Cast - 3 men, 2 women

Band - 3 to 4 musicians, covering guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, harmonica, bass

Expanded Version:

Cast - 6 men, 4 women

Projection Design, Philip Jung (1988)

Woody Guthrie's American Song is an ensemble musical theater piece adapted from the songs and writings of "America's premiere folk poet." The show uses Guthrie's storytelling to create narrative contexts for his music: the song "Bound For Glory" is sung in a crowded freight car heading west in the 1930s, a scene vividly described in Guthrie's autobiography. (To read this scene, see "Script Sample" under "rights" tab.) Another scene from his book, which takes place in a camp for migrant workers in Redding, California in 1938, becomes the setting for an evening of shared songs and stories. Throughout the play, the importance of music in helping people find meaning in their lives is always at the fore.

No one actor plays Woody Guthrie - this piece is not intended to be an impersonation of Woody or a traditional biography. In fact, every member of the ensemble takes on the first person perspective at some point in the piece. Woody believed that his works were best heard coming from the people around him, and Woody Guthrie's American Song takes that philosophy to heart.  

The script is available in two versions: the original, written for 5 actor/singers and 3-4 musicians, and the expanded version, the same material adapted for 10 actor/singers. The line between "musician" and "actor" is a soft one. The script suggests that at least two of the men in the acting company be able to play guitar well, and that one of the women have basic guitar skills, and this is preferred. But those recommendations are flexible, depending on the concept for individual productions, and the skills of the available actors. The band, however should include accomplished musicians, preferably with experience in bluegrass.