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In a new book about Woody Guthrie, his daughter tells his story through what he left behind

‘I thought: Maybe there are people out there who need some folk talk,’ says Nora Guthrie of the new book about her famous father.

Pages from "Woody Guthrie: Songs and Art * Words and Wisdom," a new book curated by his daughter, Nora Guthrie

Woody Guthrie has long loomed large over American Folk Music — a Dust Bowl-era folk icon who fought for the little guy, and spoke for the disenfranchised. His “This Land Is Your Land,” remains one of the country’s best known folk songs.

Now “Woody Guthrie: Songs and Art * Words and Wisdom,” by the musician’s daughter Nora Guthrie and music historian Robert Santelli, offers “unprecedented access” to the folk legend’s archives in book form.

There are pages of handwritten and typed lyrics (including his famous, “This Land Is Your Land“), diary pages, sketches, drawings, paintings, and photographs made by the Oklahoma native, as well as letters, notebook pages, family photos, and candid interviews from the 1940s.

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Guthrie’s long, handwritten list of resolutions from Jan. 1, 1943, “New Year’s Rulin’s,” which tend to get posted on social media this time of year, is also here. “Write a song a day,” “Don’t get lonesome,” “Wake up and fight,” are some of the entries.

“I tried to create something for everyone, like an emotional almanac,” Nora Guthrie tells me. “On any page, someone could say: “That’s me. That’s what I’m going through.” People sometimes say, “What Would Woody Do?” This is a collection of What Would Woody Do?”

She was 17 when her dad died of Huntington’s disease.

“I’m not a folk musician. I’m like the only one in my family — and I always thought that there’s value in my father that might extend beyond a folk song. That was my impetus, really.”

The Guthrie family has quite a few Massachusetts ties. Nora’s brother Arlo, a longtime Berkshires resident, wrote the State Folk Song, “Massachusetts” — as well as a famous song about a Stockbridge Thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat.

Arlo contributes thoughts here, as do Guthrie devotees Douglas Brinkley, Rosanne Cash, Chuck D, Jeff Daniels, and Ani DiFranco.

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Since discovering her father’s journals and writings in her 40s, Nora has been the keeper of what the family calls “dad’s stuff.” She’s helped people looking for Guthrie songs to record — from Billy Bragg to Boston’s Dropkick Murphys.

"Woody Guthrie: Songs and Art * Words and Wisdom," by Nora Guthrie and Robert Santellihandout

She serves as president of the Woody Guthrie Foundation, and founded the Woody Guthrie Archives and the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Okla.

I caught up with Guthrie recently to talk about the book, her childhood memories, and her father’s legacy.

Q. So what sparked the book now?

A. It started with the Morgan Library [and Museum in New York City] wanting to do an exhibit. [It opens Feb. 18.] I was going to do a catalog, [but] everyone said, “Nora, do a book.” My daughter said, “Mom, you’re in your 70s, you’ve helped so many researchers and musicians on projects — you’ve never put in your two cents.”

I found this piece called “I say to you woman and man go dance.” I burst out crying. I said, “Oh my God, Dad.” This is his note to me as a woman. It’s about being yourself, and going out there in the world, and don’t let anyone stop you. He unleashed something in me as a daughter. That’s when I started looking at his stuff with a different eye.

I thought: Maybe there are people out there who need some folk talk.

Q. I love his art, too.

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A. There were 7 chapters on different ideas. I wanted to show that when he writes about something like fascism, or union or love — it’s not a flash in the pan. When he believed something, that belief existed in song lyrics, diaries, notebooks, letters, journals, essays, art — it was all over the place.

He was a very quiet and understated person in a world where everyone is screaming at everyone. But then there was this revolutionary side to him — passion and emotion. He never really sold his soul in terms of becoming a star.

Q. What are your memories of him personally?

A. He developed Huntington’s when I was toddler and was hospitalized permanently when I was about 5, 6. He came home on weekends. It was tragic because no one knew what Huntington’s was. The doctors had no place for him — they put him in a mental ward in a hospital in New Jersey.

For the first 17 years of my life, we were all caretakers — feeding him, clothing him. It was tough. There was no help, no medication.

There was a healing that happened when I found that piece: “I say to you woman and man go dance.” I didn’t know that part of him. That was the father I never had.

Q. Your family has a few Massachusetts ties.

A. I spent many summers in the Berkshires. My mother was one of the head counselors at the music and arts camp, Indian Hill. My brother liked it so much he decided to stay [laughs].

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We have the best connection to Boston: One of my father’s most ridiculous lyrics was called “Shipping up to Boston.” I worked with the Dropkick Murphys, a punk band from Boston — that was the year the Red Sox won the series. So here’s [Jonathan] Papelbon dancing the jig on the final game, and everyone’s out there dancing to my dad’s song.

Interview was edited and condensed.

Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurendaley1.


Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurendaley1.