On the evening of Saturday, November 29, 2003, my wife and I had the blessing
of sitting front row at Carnegie Hall’s SRO “Tribute to Harold Leventhal.” On the bill that evening were a host of the
impresario’s clients: Arlo Guthrie, Pete
Seeger, the Weavers, Leon Bibb, Theodore Bikel, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and a
score of others. Sitting near us in Carnegie’s
red plush seats I spied such colleagues and clients of Leventhal’s as Judy
Collins, the actor Alan Arkin, Paul Robeson Jr. and what seemed the entirety of
Woody Guthrie’s east coast extended family. This was going to be a night of true celebration.
For the non-cognoscenti, Harold Leventhal was, at various times in his
eighty-six years, a song-plugger for Irving Berlin, a Broadway and off-Broadway
producer, a concert promoter of domestic and international musical acts, a film
producer, a radical, and the manager and publisher of some of America’s most
noted folk music artists. The tribute
was an amazing, unforgettable evening and near the finale of the two-hour long
program, Nora Guthrie, the daughter of legendary folksinger Woody Guthrie,
brought out a reluctant Leventhal to say a few words.
Leventhal, short and stocky, bespectacled and balding, was brief and
humble in his remarks. In a predictably characteristic
attempt to swing the spotlight away from his own considerable accomplishments,
Leventhal remarked in his Bronx-inflected speaking voice that he most treasured
working alongside the people that “America should be proud of,” those rare
artists of “complete integrity” who represented the best attributes of our
country’s ideals: The Weavers, Pete
Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston and Lead Belly. In the program book given to patrons that
night, there was a beautiful resurrected quote courtesy of Pete Seeger. Having been blacklisted and pilloried by
enemies for more than a half a century, Seeger – with Leventhal’s empathizing
guidance - managed to not only to endure the brickbats but handily outlast all his
detractors. “He has done something extraordinary for The Weavers,” Seeger said
of his old friend. “He risked his own
head and believed in us when nobody else did. You might say he believed in America.”
Woody Guthrie, the famed dust bowl balladeer and composer of America’s
unofficial national anthem, “This Land is Your Land,” was not a client of
Leventhal’s in the manner that Seeger was. Guthrie was not a stage performer in any traditional sense; he was a
writer – and a very prolific one – who would often appear on radio, on stage,
at union rallies, and hootenannies. But he
was just as likely to be found playing his guitar on the street, in derelict
saloons, on New York City’s subway system, or to fellow sailors of the merchant
marine. Guthrie’s first novel, the
occasionally self-mythologizing pre-Beat era autobiography Bound for Glory, was published by E.P. Dutton and Co. in 1943.
That book would inadvertently inspire a new generation of folk music
artists, not the least of whom was a nineteen year old fledgling folksinger
named Bob Dylan. Dylan, by his own
admission, became a “Woody Guthrie jukebox” after reading through a friend’s
copy of the book. He immediately abandoned
the coffeehouses of Minneapolis to visit Guthrie at Greystone Hospital in
Morris Plains, New Jersey, where the dying singer was institutionalized. Dylan’s first major concert engagement
following his signing with Columbia Records in the late autumn of 1961 was at Manhattan’s
Town Hall in April of 1963. That concert
was, of course, fittingly produced by Harold Leventhal.
Harold Leventhal had been familiar with Woody Guthrie’s words and
music since the 1940s; he had seen the displaced Okie singer-guitarist perform
at various left-wing functions and hootenannies during this time. He had also been familiar with Guthrie’s
humorous “Woody Sez” columns that had appeared sporadically in the Communist Daily Worker newspaper. But it was only after agreeing to manage Pete
Seeger’s new quartet The Weavers on the eve of the McCarthy-era in 1950 that
Leventhal would become a personal friend of Guthrie, who was already beginning
to demonstrate signs of Huntington’s disease.
In the early winter of 1956, with Guthrie’s health continuing to deteriorate,
Leventhal helped found The Guthrie Children’s Trust Fund, organized to get
Woody’s anarchic business affairs in some semblance of order. It was their ambition that Guthrie’s children
might benefit from the small stream of publishing and record sale royalties
that were, at long last, beginning to trickle in. It was Leventhal who commissioned Millard
Lampell, a blacklisted writer and colleague of Guthrie’s, to skillfully weave
together a program of Guthrie’s prose and songs into a program titled From California to the New York Island. Many of the spoken-word recitations from this
early stage play had been cribbed from Guthrie’s novel Bound for Glory.
The idea of bringing an adaptation of Guthrie’s Bound for Glory to the stage had long been in the making. In the late autumn of 1961, the folk music
magazine Sing Out! made a passing
mention of Leventhal’s recent acquisition of "the musical drama rights” to
the book. This was exciting news, with
such folk music world luminaries as musicologist Alan Lomax and promoter Israel
G. Young aggressively promoting the casting of Guthrie protégé Ramblin Jack
Elliott in the role of America’s premier ballad-maker. It was not surprising that Leventhal first saw
Bound for Glory as a stage production;
he had already served as producer of several off-Broadway offerings as Will
Geer’s From Mark Twain to Lynn Riggs
(1952-53) and Rabindranath Tagore’s King
of the Dark Chamber.
It’s not entirely clear why a stage production of Bound for Glory was not realized. The folk-pop music craze of 1963-1964 provided a fertile atmosphere in
which such a project could be fulfilled. Woody Guthrie, now mostly out of sight due to the devastating effects of
the incurable neurological disease Huntington’s Chorea was – perhaps for the
first time in his life - no longer simply a singer of the fringe. He was now and incontestably America’s most
iconic folk music hero. Guthrie would
finally succumb to the malady in October 1967.
Ed Robbin, an editor of the west coast Communist newspaper People’s World, first met Woody Guthrie
in Los Angeles in 1938, during the time the folksinger had a fifteen minute a
day radio program on the politically-liberal station KFVD. Guthrie’s program was one of the station’s most
popular: he quickly cultivated an appreciative audience of dispossessed and
homesick Okies and Arkies. These were
Woody’s people, the poor folk who had fled their dirt ravaged homes and farms in
the dust bowl for the promised “Garden of Eden” that was California. It was Robbin’s suggestion that Guthrie
contribute folksy, humorous Will Rogers-style commentaries to the otherwise staid
People’s World. In 1975 when Bound for Glory was to finally commence production as an ambitious
film project for United Artists, Robbin reminisced that Harold Leventhal had
long “been trying to put together a story of Woody's life that would work for a
movie script. Three different scripts were written over a period of seven
Having long been an amateur scholar and collector of all things Woody
Guthrie, seven years ago I was fortunate enough to acquire an antiquarian copy
of one of the two ultimately unproduced Bound
for Glory screenplays. The one
hundred and thirty-six page screenplay I found, Bound for Glory: the Life and Times of Woody Guthrie, had been
written by William Kronick and Oliver Hailey. Kronick was principally known as a writer-director of documentary films,
Hailey a playwright and television scribe who would contribute scripts to such
1970s shows as McMillan & Wife
and Bracken’s World. With only the slightest information to go on,
I tried my best to research exactly when this unproduced screenplay was first
commissioned. Happily, a visit to the
newspaper archive at the New York Public Library was successful.
In the April 23, 1968 issue of the Los Angeles TimesI uncovered the briefest
of mentions, that Hollywood producer "Harold Hecht has signed playwright
Oliver Hailey to write the screenplay for Bound
for Glory, film biography of folk singer- composer Woody
Guthrie." This bit of news was later confirmed by the actor David
Carradine, who would eventually – if only by default - land the role of Woody
Guthrie. In a 1976 interview with the New York Times, the eccentric, self-satisfied
star of television’s Kung Fu series
recalled, “About eight years ago this producer, Harold Hecht, was going to make
Bound for Glory, based on Woody’s
autobiography, and my agent sent me to see him.” Carradine admitted this meeting at Hecht’s
“palatial mansion in Stone Canyon” didn’t go particularly well. There was a clash of personalities with
neither man having much use for the other.
In any event the proposed Hecht/Hailey/Kronick film project was soon abandoned. Robert Getchell (scripter of Martin
Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
(1974), would be the lone screenwriter to eventually deliver a workable
storyline. Robert F. Blumofe, who would
co-produce Bound for Glory with
Leventhal, offered that Getchell was hired because "early scripts, written
by friends of Guthrie, were too broad, too close to the man.” "You
can't tell all of Woody's life," Blumofe told the Los Angeles Times, who suggested the process to bring Bound for Glory to the big screen took
nearly four years. This
remembrance corresponds to Harold Leventhal's own assessment. Leventhal conceded there were serious and
ultimately fatal issues with the pre-Getchell screenplay drafts under
consideration: "Our trouble was that we were trying to cover too much
ground... When we finally decided to center our story on the two or three
key years of Woody's development, around 1938, then the whole thing came
In April of 1975 Arthur Krim of United Artists gave director Hal Ashby
(Shampoo, The Last Detail, Harold and
Maude) the green light to get Bound
for Glory into production. This gesture was a display of great confidence
in Ashby as helmsman, since the role of Woody Guthrie had not yet been cast. The original casting process was an
interesting one, rife with unrealized possibilities. Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson were reportedly
both offered the role. The former balked
due to his inability to play the guitar in even the most rudimentary manner, the
latter choosing instead to star opposite a hero, Marlon Brando, in The Missouri Breaks.
Ed Robbin suggested Woody’s son Arlo Guthrie had shown interest in the role but it was Leventhal – ironically, Arlo’s manager – who dissuaded him from considering it Acknowledging that while Arlo could most authoritatively capture the spirit of the songs and most authentically replicate Woody’s style of guitar-playing, Leventhal argued that his presence in the film would be too distracting. Since the 1967 recording of his debut LP Alice’s Restaurant - and his subsequent appearance of the Arthur Penn film of the same name in 1969 - Arlo Guthrie had achieved a level of popular-culture recognition that far surpassed that of his father. Woody Guthrie remained, primarily, a legendary figure to comrades on the fringes of the Old Left or to mostly non-political young people who recognized him as the spiritual father of Bob Dylan.
One contemporary musician, the talented but not terribly well-known singer-songwriter Tim Buckley, was about to be offered the role when, in June of 1975, the sobering news came in that the twenty-eight year old had died of a drug overdose. Through information gleaned from an old girlfriend in Hollywood, an intrigued David Carradine learned the role of Woody Guthrie had become available once again. Though he was again auditioned for the role, Ashby ,too, chose to pass on Carradine. He later admitted that his reservations were mostly the result of his belief that the actor was a complete physical mismatch. He looked nothing like Woody, standing at least a foot taller and bearing not a single curl in his hair. But with the beginning of principal photography looming, Carradine was called back in July 1975 and subsequently offered the role. Ashby reckoned while Carradine wasn’t physically well-suited to the role, the moody and sometimes belligerent actor shared Guthrie’s “maverick spirit.”
In my own estimation, Carradine was not able to pull off the Guthrie masquerade. When a journalist visited him on set in his private trailer in the setting of agricultural Stockton, California, the actor sulked “I’m playing the part not because I’m interested in Woody Guthrie but because I’m walking down the same roads as him. I don’t know anything about him, I’m just like him. I’m just doing me.” This demonstrates, to me, an unwelcome measure of hubris, and herein is the problem. I was only five years old when Woody Guthrie died. I only know Woody Guthrie from his songs and recordings, his books, his prose, from the many biographies written about him, and from recollections of the man from both his friends and enemies. I simply don’t recognize that Woody Guthrie in Carradine’s portrayal.
To be fair, in 1975 when this film was being photographed, there were far fewer books to study. But there were Guthrie’s own books Bound for Glory, Born to Win, and American Folksong, the Henrietta Yurchenco biography for teenage-readers A Mighty Hard Road: The Life of Woody Guthrie, and any number of tattered songbooks and Guthrie LPs that would have been at Carradine’s disposal. Visitors to the set included many members of Guthrie’s own family and colleagues, including Harold Leventhal, Ed Robbin, Will Geer, Marjorie Guthrie… even Haskell Wexler, the film’s Academy Award winning cinematographer, had been familiar with Guthrie’s work in the late 1930s and 1940s. Regrettably, Carradine seems to have not chosen to avail himself of the insight that many of these people could have provided.
That said, the eccentric David Carradine nonetheless may have given Bound for Glory the best performance of his decidedly quirky film career. His moody underplaying in the film is actually very good (he was rightfully nominated for a Golden Globe as “Best Actor” for his interpretation). Whether or not his on-screen personification of Woody Guthrie was an authentic one was the subject of some debate and consternation even amongst members of the folksinger’s own family.
A few years following the film’s release – and it was a box office disappointment for United Artists despite it having received a total of six Oscar nominations – Arlo Guthrie told guests on The Mike Douglas Showthat he thought the film was a not particularly accurate portrayal of his father: “I think it was great for some people,” Arlo offered, “like my age and younger, who didn’t know anything about the Depression. In that sense, it was nice, historically.” But Arlo thought Carradine totally missed the mark since his portrayal of his father was unrelentingly insular, not demonstrative at all of his father’s gift of edgy “survival” humor. He thought anyone who didn’t understand this most crucial aspect of Woody Guthrie’s art “shouldn’t have done that part… I wasn’t happy with it.” Woody’s second wife and Arlo’s mother, Marjorie, told Rolling Stone she was “pleased” with the film, “especially when you consider how Hollywood might have distorted his life.” Perhaps I’m misinterpreting the former Mrs. Guthrie’s generous appraisal, but it always seemed to me that such imprimatur was weak tea at best, a decidedly polite way of her saying, “Well, it could have been much worse.”
The film is beautifully photographed by Haskell Wexler who deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography at the 1977 ceremonies. Though photographed in Eastman color, the cinematography astutely mimics the monochrome Roosevelt-era “New Deal” FSA photographs of migrant workers toiling in the fields and of dispossessed Americans eking out the merest of existences in forlorn shanty towns. The colors are almost entirely muted throughout. The scenery, especially in the early scenes set in Pampa, Texas, are awash with brown, taupe, beige, tan, gray, and vanilla tones. Several of the film’s early sequences seem to have been shot through cheesecloth, this diffusion masterfully conveying the heaviness of the atmosphere and the spirits of those living in this American Diaspora. Michael Haller’s production design is also perfect, the dirty plank board streets and homes of Pampa besieged by dust and cinders, yellow scrub brush and smoke. Albert Whitlock’s special visual effect of a county-encompassing black dust cloud descending upon Pampa was a perfect representation of Guthrie’s own remembrance of the great storms, which he described as resembling something akin to “God’s Own Judgment.”
Composer Leonard Rosenman also picked up a well-deserved Oscar for his adaptations of Guthrie’s music. Wisely choosing not to favor ornate orchestrations for the film’s soundtrack, Rosenman instead made restrained use of simple guitar, fiddle, and 5-string banjo accompaniments to serve as incidental musical cues. Sadly, David Carradine’s elemental guitar and harmonica playing and crude warbling did not serve Guthrie’s more plain-spoken style very well. The thought that his tuneless caterwauling at the radio microphone and on auditions would be so lauded over is too much of a stretch. It would have served the film better had he been dubbed by someone with a better understanding of Guthrie’s more nuanced style.
Though Ashby would originally deliver to UA a three hour edit, studio executives wisely asked for further edits. The film still runs a long two hours and twenty-seven minutes, which probably hurt the potential box office. A title card in the film’s opening informs us the film begins in Pampa, Texas, in July of 1938; the film more-or-less covers a two-year period where Guthrie abandons Pampa to seek out a better future in California. Along the route to this promised land he rides freight trains, hitchhikes rides in jalopies, encounters hobos, sadistic railroad bulls, exploitative fruit growers, cruel vigilantes, dispossessed Okies living in squalid shanty towns, union organizers, and radio station executives who wave piles of money at him if he’d only sell-out to station sponsors and stop singing those damned radical songs on air.
Due to the two-year containment of the screenplay there is a huge amount of fudging on the facts. The two dozen or so Woody Guthrie songs that grace the soundtrack were in actuality mostly written and recorded after 1940, the year he would abandon California for a new life in New York City. Guthrie scholars will also be amused to watch Carradine as Woody sing his “Jesus Christ” while tickling the ivories in a honky-tonk saloon. The real Woody Guthrie did not play the piano at all.
These are pedantic quibbles, of course. This is a beautifully crafted film, and Twilight Time should be commended for making this film available – for the very first time on Blu-Ray – if only as a cautious limited edition release of 3,000 copies. (The release includes an isolated score track, original trailer and collector's booklet with notes by film historian Julie Kirgo). If nothing else, the timing of this release is providential. I imagine that some of us here in the U.S. could use a good, healthy dose of Woody Guthrie’s inclusive brand of Americanism right now. For the uninitiated, Bound for Glory just might prove to be a useful and encouraging starting point.