Sarah Lee Guthrie, Woody's granddaughter, to perform in D.C.

By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 19, 2010; C01

After a slow whoosh comes a gasp. Jeff Place, an archivist at Smithsonian Folkways, slides a black platter out of its weathered paper sleeve and folk singer Sarah Lee Guthrie -- daughter of Arlo, granddaughter of Woody -- appears to lose her breath.

Place is holding the very first acetate recording of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," one of the most recognizable songs ever recorded. This is the original -- with its infamous lyrical jabs at the concept of "private property" that are often omitted from the version sung in grade schools from sea to shining sea. It's the first time Sarah Lee has seen this shiny black disc from 1944 and she's practically speechless.

Flurries are falling on a January afternoon in Washington and Place is guiding the 31-year-old singer through the stacks of Smithsonian Folkways on Maryland Avenue SW, just off the Mall. The archival record label houses one of the largest collections of Woody Guthrie recordings, drawings, lyrics and letters. Folkways still releases new music, too, including Sarah Lee's recent children's album, "Go Waggaloo." She'll be performing songs from it -- as well as other chestnuts from the multi-generational Guthrie songbook -- at the Birchmere in Alexandria on Friday, alongside her father, her siblings, her daughters and her husband, Johnny Irion.

Leading Guthrie through the Folkways collection, Place is garrulous, dishing out factoids about the label's founder Moses Asch and his friendship with Woody Guthrie. The pensive granddaughter soaks it all in.

A family affair

"Go Waggaloo" is Sarah Lee's first children's album, but not her first altogether. She's been making handsome folk-rock records with her husband since 2002. "Waggaloo" was even more of a family affair, recorded at the couple's Massachusetts home with the assistance of their daughters Olivia and Sophie -- as well as some help from Sarah Lee's late grandfather.

The lyrics for the album's title track were penned by Woody Guthrie in the late 1940s but the song was never recorded. Place mailed the lyrics to Sarah Lee last spring, who set them to music. "Through that lyric, we have a connection that's undeniable," Sarah Lee says of the song. "It was a really neat way to get close to my grandfather."

Place's Folkways tour includes numerous drawers of Woody Guthrie's lyrics, drawings and letters, but Sarah Lee says the tour's highlight was seeing the "This Land" acetate.

"I couldn't wipe the smile off my face. . . . That's what people know of him all over the world," she says. "That piece right there -- that's it. That's how it started."

Folk songs weren't Sarah Lee's first musical love. "I listened to Minor Threat and the Exploited and a lot of underground punk rock," she says of her teenage years. "I could never have pictured myself as a folk singer when I was getting into trouble, listening to Minor Threat at 15."

In the late '90s, after moving to Los Angeles with Irion, she flew back to Massachusetts for the winter holidays and found a trove of records under her dad's pool table. "I went home for Christmas and just raided," she says. "I had no idea we had all these treasures in my house. It turns out we had the entire Folkways collection . . . Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee and Leadbelly."

On the tour, Place yanks Leadbelly's first Folkways record from the shelf -- a kids' album whose cover is adorned with a strange photo of the towering bluesman performing for a circle of schoolkids. "It stirred up quite a controversy," says Place, his smile poking through a brambly, salt-and-pepper beard. "You know, a convicted murderer singing for children."

Not sugarcoated

Guthrie laughs, but she appreciates children's songs that don't sugarcoat the cold, hard facts of life. "Nursery rhymes, if you look back at those, aren't exactly all bright and sunny," she says. "There's death and there's life and there's love and there's not love. I think life's experiences should be completely shared. And in what better way than in a song?"

It's an attitude that's flowed through her bloodline. Woody Guthrie sang protest anthems and playful children's ditties in the same reedy breath. Sarah Lee's father, Arlo, followed suit. And while Sarah Lee remains proud of her family heritage, she struggles with her audience's perception of it.

"There's a wall that gets thrown up every once in a while," she says of fans who see her and Irion's music as only another leaf on the Guthrie family tree. "It's sometimes hard when you can't get past that wall and listen to the music and get real and get in the moment with us."

She and her husband hope to counter that with "Bright Examples," a forthcoming album recorded by Andy Cabic of the acclaimed neo-folk troupe Vetiver. It's the pair's strongest offering yet, but until they decide on a label to release it, Sarah Lee is happy to sing tunes from "Go Waggaloo" at schools and at Guthrie family concerts like the one at Birchmere. It's moments like those when the word "Guthrie" feels less like a legacy and more like a family.

"We hold this torch and I think it's a light," she says. "I'm never shadowed by this. You just can't look at it that way."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company