Sophie Maslow and Woody Guthrie
by Nora Guthrie
"Sophie's body looked so healthy and so active it looked like it would do almost anything she told it to do. All she had to do was notify it." -- Woody Guthrie
My mother, Marjorie Mazia, and Sophie Maslow were both dancers with the Martha Graham Dance Company in the 1930s - 50s. It was an important time in modern dance, as Graham and her troupe were redefining modern dance and how it fit into the culture. With her works like Appalachian Spring and American Document, Graham was looking to American "roots" art for inspiration, incorporating American writers, poetry and music into her collaborations.
Sophie Maslow had formed a small dance company of her own on the side, which Marjorie Mazia was also working in. Sophie's inspirations, like Graham's, were leaning towards American "roots" artists. Delving even deeper, she had choreographed what was to become a historic piece in modern dance history called Folksay. Folksay brought to life a more authentic American rural life using movements of jigs, hoe downs, along with the rhythms of the southern blues and Appalachia. Included in the soundtrack for Folksay were pieces from Woody Guthrie's recently released Dust Bowl Ballads.
The dances were all choreographed to records (78's) and the dancers used these recordings to rehearse. What happened then has become part of our family lore -- something that we told and retold over the years, and still do. A story that, with all its humor and chaos, always seemed to define much of what fueled, and still fuels, our Guthrie family life -- chaos and humor! My mother would act it out, with all of us laughing hysterically as she dramatically reenacted the story:
Sophie had heard that Woody Guthrie was in town, living with the Almanac Singers in Greenwich Village, and thought it would be a great idea to invite him to sing the songs live for the opening performances of Folksay only a few days away. For support, she asked my mother to go with her to Guthrie's apartment. The two dancers walked up the stairs to the top floor of the 6th Avenue apartment and knocked on the door. My mother, whose favorite song was "Tom Joad," had imagined her Woody Guthrie to be tall, slim, and strong, somewhat Lincolnesque in stature. She figured anyone who could write such moving ballads about the people, such as his "Tom Joad," must be larger than life. But when Woody opened the door, there stood instead a slight, 5'6", 125 lb. man with a twinkle in his eye. (Years later, my mother said that it was at that moment when he looked her in the eye that she said to herself, "I'm going to marry that man"). Woody, responding to these two delightful, pretty dancers, immediately responded, "Sure." So the deal was done, and rehearsals with the live musician began.
Woody showed up the next day with his guitar, sat down, and began to play as the dancers began their moves which had been carefully choreographed to every beat, note, and breath of the record. "I watched their pretty bodies and wished I was a dancer. I swore to quit whiskey and tobacco and start out taking physical exercise." But Woody (who didn't listen much to his own records) played the song totally differently, adding new chords, changing beats, and even improvising a few new verses. Unlike highly disciplined and organized dancers, folksingers are known to veer. Woody would simply state, "If you're the same, the weather's different, and if the weather is the same, and even you're the same, you breathe different, and if you breathe the same, you rest or pause different." Later he would explain, "if I want to take a breath between verses, I play a few extra chords. And if I forget the lines and want to remember them, I play a few extra chords. And if I want to get up and leave town, I get up and leave town."
The first rehearsal was a complete disaster, as Woody could/would not play the song the same way as he recorded it. Nor could he even play it through the same way twice. Rushing to get to their places, dancers were bumping into each other, falling all over each other, and being thrown up in the air with no one there to catch them on the way down. My dad was having a great time -- and something had to be done to stop him!
Sophie pleaded for my mother, who was known for her organizational skills, to go and try to see what she could do. So Marjorie went with a mission: to teach Woody Guthrie how to play a song the same way twice.
Like a patient teacher with a slow, but willing student, my mother worked with him that night. She created flash cards with numbers and beats and words written out which Woody would faithfully follow. He played along, enjoying the company of this pretty dancer, and fascinated by her ability to organize and direct him. No one else had come close. They spent the night together . . . working, talking. And then the next. And the next. And he performed in Folksay beautifully, and came in just at the right times, with the right beats, and the right pauses. And the performances were a complete success, and Woody Guthrie learned that sometimes being organized had its points. "I learned a good lesson here in team work, cooperation, and also in union organization. I saw why socialism is the only hope for any of us, because I was singing under the old rules of 'every man for his self' and the dancers was working according to a plan and a hope."
And he decided to marry his tutor. Sophie Maslow joined Woody and Marjorie Guthrie at New York City's City Hall, and signed as the witness to their marriage. And so our family life -- humor and chaos both -- was born with this wonderfully talented and smart lady, Sophie Maslow, who knew who should go rehearse the musician, and who should not.
We are forever indebted to Sophie, not just for our actual existence, but also for all the years of laughter we've had telling and retelling this story. The cast of Folksay is now holding rehearsals in heaven. And Woody is still singing the same song -- differently.
Nora Guthrie is President of Woody Guthrie Archives.