The great folk singer Woody Guthrie would have turned 100 this year, and the Kennedy Center is celebrating his centennial with a concert featuring a variety of artists like Arlo Guthrie, John Mellencamp, Jackson Browne, Tom Morello, Donovan and Roseanne Cash. Guthrie was a Rosenwald fellow and back in July we talked about the discovery of an unknown novel by him that may have been the product of his 1943 Rosenwald fellowship. We are still awaiting an answer from Douglas Brinkley, who is editing the book with Johnny Depp.
Tickets for the concert are officially sold out but they may be available secondhand. It should be a great show and a great tribute to Guthrie’s enormous legacy.
By Michael Rose
Last week, in the New York Times, Felicia R. Lee reported about a Columbia doctoral student’s discovery of a heretofore unpublished and basically unknown manuscript by the great Harlem Renaissance writer, intellectual and Rosenwald fellow, Claude McKay. Amiable With Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep was found in a personal collection of rare books and papers left by deceased publisher Samuel Roth. The novel has been authenticated by several scholars and McKay’s estate gave its permission for it to be published.
McKay received his first Rosenwald grant at a turning point in his career. In 1935, he had already published his famous novel, Home to Harlem, and two others, and after this time he focused on autobiography and poetry. The discovery of this new manuscript changes that picture, however. 1933’s Banana Bottom was thought to be McKay’s final novel, but now it appears this 1941 book is his last work of fiction. Two years after completing Amiable With Big Teeth, McKay received another grant from the Rosenwald Fund in 1943 (again for creative writing).
Quoted in the Times, Henry Louis Gates Jr. is enthusiastic about the discovery of the novel for its contemporary depiction of attitudes in black cultural life and for the light it sheds on the later, less well documented, period of the Harlem Renaissance. The novel’s satire of communists illuminates McKay’s personal politics and also provides a look into a different facet of his artistic practice.
Earlier this year, another unknown novel by a Rosenwald fellow was discovered: Woody Guthrie’s House of Earth.
By Michael Rose
Theater J in Washington D.C. has released its schedule for the 2012-2013 season and several of the productions sound very intriguing. One is The Hampton Years, by Jacqueline E. Lawton, which will have its world premiere on May 29th at Theater J and run until June 30th. Lawton’s play, based on a true story, is set between 1939 and 1946 at Hampton University and deals with two young artists named John Biggers and Samella Lewis who are taught by an Austrian Jewish immigrant named Viktor Lowenfeld. The small cast includes two more artists, Rosenwald Fund grantees Elizabeth Catlett and Charles White, who, according to an interview with Lawton, play the part of “mentors and instigators” to the young artists. It’s a fascinating story and it resonates with the Rosenwald Fund in two ways. It’s another example of a remarkable pre-Civil Rights partnership between Jews and African Americans, but it also shows how Rosenwald fellows often went on to mentor other artists.
Coming this November to Theater J is a play about another Rosenwald fellow, Woody Guthrie. Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie tells the story of Guthrie’s life through music. The cast consists of four “actor/musicians” who will play a variety of parts and instruments. This production is one of many tributes taking place this year, marking what would have been the late Guthrie’s 100th birthday. Woody Sez plays from November 8th to December 2nd at Theater J.
By Michael Rose
On July 9th, five days before the late Woody Guthrie would have turned 100, Douglas Brinkley and Johnny Depp published some surprising news about the folk singer in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. Brinkley and Depp have discovered an unpublished and basically unknown novel that Guthrie wrote in the mid-1940s entitled House of Earth. Inspired by his time spent in the Dust Bowl, the novel is an anti-capitalist ode to rural folks of modest means. The novel’s title comes from the partially underground, sun-dried brick dwellings constructed by poor tenant farmers in New Mexico during the Great Depression.
Woody Guthrie in 1943
Photo credit: New York World-Telegram and the Sun / Library of Congress
Guthrie was one of the better-known personages to receive a Rosenwald Fund grant. In 1943, the New York Times reported that he was given a fellowship from the Rosenwald Fund for “folklore” (Rosenwald archives list it under “Language & Literature”) a financial award that would enable him to “write books, ballads, songs and novels that will help people know each other’s work better” (The New York Times, May 10, 1943). Until now it’s been unclear what use Guthrie put this award to: unlike many arts fellowships, the Rosenwald Fund did not require benchmarks and updates from its awardees. Guthrie likely received the award on the strength of his 1943-published and critically acclaimed autobiography Bound for Glory and with this news, it seems entirely possible that he used it to write House of Earth.
The mid to late 1940s were Guthrie’s last productive years (after 1950, Huntington’s disease began to take its toll) and the freedom provided by his Rosenwald grant allowed him to craft the stories, drawings, poems and songs he produced during this period. Depp and Brinkley’s report hints that House of Earth may be the most significant piece of art Guthrie produced after Bound for Glory. In their article, they call it a “minor masterpiece,” saying that it “successfully mixes Steinbeck’s narrative verve with D. H. Lawrence’s openness to erotic exploration.”
It’s unclear why the novel was never published. Alan Lomax, Guthrie’s friend and supporter at the Archive of Folk Song of the Library of Congress (who also encouraged him to apply to the Rosenwald Fund) was enthusiastic about getting it published after reading the first chapter. Depp and Brinkley are currently co-editing the manuscript and looking for a publisher. If it’s published this year (65 years after Guthrie completed it in 1947) it will be a fitting tribute to the great folk singer on this centennial of his birth. Celebrations of his work including concerts and panel discussions will take place nationwide through the end of the year.
By Michael Rose