Musical Alarm Clocks (Waking Up to Hank and Woody)
Musical Alarm Clocks (Waking Up to Hank and Woody)
A Q&A with Randy Noojin
By Geoff Gehman
Randy Noojin and Hank Williams are almost as thick as thieves. In fourth grade Noojin woke up to Williams records played extremely loud by his father, a Williams fan who recognized the power of Hank as a musical alarm clock. In fifth grade Noojin learned to yodel from listening to Williams yodel in “Lovesick Blues,” a skill that kept a bully at bay. The skill came in handy when Noojin played the title character in three productions of the musical “Hank Williams: Lost Highway,” a highlight of his four-decade career as a professional actor, playwright and roots storyteller.
An affinity for playing Williams led Noojin to an affinity for playing Woody Guthrie, another tragic troubadour and hillbilly Shakespeare. In 2011 Noojin turned his fascination into the solo show “Hard Travelin’ with Woody.” For 80 minutes his Guthrie performs for a 1940 union meeting of striking miners, mining having been the occupation of one of Noojin’s grandfathers. Woody spins tall tales, cracks corny jokes, pledges his allegiance to the laboring man in stories and songs ranging from “Pastures of Plenty” to “Which Side Are You On?”
“Hard Travelin’ with Woody” has traveled to fringe festivals, union gatherings and a soup kitchen. Noojin will christen the show on Jan. 17 at the Mauch Chunk Opera House in Jim Thorpe, which was ground zero for the Molly Maguires, a secret 19th-century society of radical miners. During a recent telephone interview from his home in Astoria, Queens, he discussed his admiration for Guthrie’s poetry and activism, kindness and wanderlust.
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that absolutely floored you? Could it have been one of those Hank Williams tunes that your father cranked up to wake you up on Sunday mornings?
A: That’s true: my dad used to wake us up with “Lovesick Blues” and whatever Hank was on that 33-and-a-third album. But the song I really remember, the synapses that started firing when you mentioned it, was Merle Travis’ “Dark as a Dungeon.” I heard Johnny Cash do it on a 45 when I was a kid. I listened to it over and over again because I was learning to play guitar at the time. It’s a song about working in the mine and it’s got terrific lyrics. I think it was so haunting to me because my grandfather worked in a mine. I think that’s why I have so much empathy for miners. When that Chilean mine collapsed [in 2010], I couldn’t rest until the miners were saved.
Q: What was your first important meeting with Woody Guthrie’s music and legacy, that pivotal encounter that made you think he’d be a good lifetime traveling companion?
A: About 15 years ago I was in a show called “Woody Guthrie’s American Song.” Nobody really portrays Woody; it’s sort of a group evocation. That gave me a sort of education in where Woody’s music went. It turned out to be so much fun; I realized I really enjoyed playing music onstage.
Based on my good experience playing Hank [Williams], I started looking for a one-man show about Woody. A friend of mine is good friends with Nora Guthrie [Woody’s daughter] and she had a recording of Nora singing this Woody song called “My Peace” in a bar. What she sang made me weep. I began to realize that it was the energy of Woody’s kindness that made him so special. There’s a kindness around the people who love Woody, the village that surrounds him. I wanted to tap into those good feelings, that empathy. I wanted to be in a room with people who love Woody.
Q: Why did you decide to play Guthrie? On paper you and he seem like kindred spirits. You share his long, deep involvement with music, theater and the extraordinary stories of ordinary folk. Both of you made the big jump to New York City; both of you have done a lot of traveling, hard and otherwise. You could be pod mates.
A: Absolutely. Woody was an explorer. The first thing I wanted to be as a child was an explorer. I wanted to know what’s around the next corner, what’s on the next hillside. I still have an unquenchable wanderlust; I still have a hobo wish. And I love his idea of using your guitar as a machine–for entertaining, storytelling and opposing oppression.
Q: And why did you set your show in 1940? It certainly was a turnaround time for Woody, the year when he moved to New York and befriended important folks like Lead Belly and Pete Seeger.
A: It was also the year he heard Kate Smith sing “God Bless America,” which is what made him write “This Land Is Your Land.” That date has been my bedrock for a long time. For a long time I didn’t want to take the show into [World War II], because that would have been distracting. I tried to keep it about labor relations and Woody’s work within the labor movement. I wanted the bad guy to be the bosses, not Germany.
But that’s changing now. I think I can handle one step into World War II and Woody’s small contribution to the war effort. I may change the year of the union meeting to after 1946, when Woody was still living in New York. I’m thinking of adding the song “[All You Fascists] Bound to Lose”; that would go nicely with the sign he had on his guitar: “This Machine Kills Fascists.” It also has a good beat; it’s not a downer. It’s better than “Round and Round Hitler’s Grave.” [laughs]
Q: What do you appreciate about Woody that you didn’t appreciate before you began playing him?
A: Four years ago I realized I hardly knew anything about him, even though I had been in a play about him. I didn’t know much about his activism. I sort of saw him wandering in the idyllic countryside, like a Johnny Appleseed character, without the bite of his intense support for labor rights.
What I’ve discovered is that I love his activist side. I admire that he converted from his racist past. He was an Oklahoman who told N-word jokes through his life. He had a sort of enlightenment when people wrote in to complain about his off-color remarks on a Los Angeles radio show [in the late 1930s]. He became a pro-civil rights person who hated Jim Crow laws and poll taxes.
Woody was a troubadour for the blue-collar man. We need him now.
Q: Were there any memorable reactions during or after your performances for members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers or that soup kitchen in Chattanooga?
A: Union audiences are quite tough. Getting these guys to sing along is very difficult. They can tell you after the show that they really like it, but that’s the only way you’ll know.
The soup -kitchen folks were the most joyous crowd. Maybe it was because it was Labor Day and there was free lunch after my show. Maybe it was because they recognized themselves in the hobo songs and hobo stories. Whatever it was, they were really enthusiastic. At times they were even talking to Woody. It felt like a Pentecostal church service. It almost threw me off.
You know, I conceived the play [in 2011], the year of [the] Occupy Wall Street [movement]. I performed fragments of the show down in Zuccotti Park [in Manhattan]. I’ve always wanted to take theater to underserved theater audiences. My father was a steelworker who had a typical skepticism about the theater. So maybe this show is a tribute to my dad; maybe I’m still seeking the approval of the working man.
Q: I’ve read that as a youngster you escaped being bullied by yodeling like Hank Williams. Until I read that I’d never thought of yodeling as a weapon of peace. How the hell did yodeling prevent you from getting pummeled?
A: Well, there was a local fellow named Joe who loved to make you flinch and hit you in the shoulder. I was always trying to be on this guy’s good side. I discovered I could find that yodel break in “Lovesick Blues.” In music class we got to bring in something we liked, so I sang “Lovesick Blues.” Joe couldn’t get over the sound of the yodel. Since he needed something from me, he would let me do that and he would spare me the flinch. So we became friends–at least on a non-shoulder-hit level [laughs].
Q: Is there a Williams song you’d pick for your funeral or some other rite of passage? I wouldn’t mind going out to “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”
A: A Hank tune at my funeral … hmmm. That would be hard to pick; he was so vindictive so often. “I Saw the Light” was his big religious song. I’d probably choose “Lovesick Blues” because I was singing it in fifth grade and it is the song that made Hank a superstar. He sang at the [Grand Ole] Opry and he got five or nine standing ovations and the next day he was the biggest country musician in the world.
I made the mistake of singing “Lovesick Blues” at a wedding. It’s not a song about being happy in love; it’s a song about being miserable in love. Luckily, my friends were very forgiving.
Q: Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre, your theatrical home in North Carolina for nearly 30 years, commissioned your 2007 play “The Memory Collection,” where a fictional folksinger travels from New York to North Carolina to meet his hero, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, a real-life lawyer, banjo player and song catcher. Why do you find Lunsford so fascinating?
A: Well, he was famous for his preservation of clogging songs and fiddle tunes and haunting Scots-Irish a cappella ballads. And he founded the first mountain-music folk festival. In Pete Seeger’s [autobiography] he mentions that Bascom taught him to play four-string banjo. Writing a vehicle for all that singing, picking and dancing was a great research opportunity. It might have something to do with why I’m so interested in Woody.
Q: What would you like to do in the near future? Are there any other memorable musicians you want to impersonate?
A: [Laughs] Not off the top of my head. I am trying to find a one-man vehicle for Hank, but I keep running into dead ends. I have a fragment of [a] [Jack] Kerouac [show]. I guess I just like playing lonesome travelers.
Q: In July you’re scheduled to perform at the new Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa. Are there any other Woody epicenters you’re dying to play?
A: I’d like to take the show to Mount Kisco, N.Y., where the Guthries have a sort of soup kitchen/music venue. And I’d love to play for Pete Seeger’s Hudson River mini-Lollapalooza project [the Great Hudson River Revival]. I’d like to weasel my way into his festival and maybe do a piece of my show for him. I think he’d like it.
Q: So, Randy, how’s your yodeling these days?
A: [Laughs] You know, it’s good. I just did a tour of Canada and they wanted two sets: my 80-minute Woody piece and a comeback. So I strung a bunch of Hank together, just song song song, and I got to yodel. Yodeling takes practice. It’s not easy and I do miss occasionally. That octave jump is not always an octave anymore. But I keep trying. I’m ready to pull it out again.
Randy Noojin: The Scoop
He’s performed in plays for such distinguished organizations as Circle Repertory Company and Actors Theatre of Louisville.
He’s appeared in episodes of the TV series “Royal Pains” and “Boardwalk Empire.”
His play “Unbeatable Harold” became a Showtime movie featuring Dylan McDermott, Charles Durning and Gladys Knight.
His musical heroes include Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, whose musical heroes include Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie.
One of the characters in his play “The Memory Collection” is a 40ish musician named Woodrow, as in Woody Guthrie.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. One of his favorite Woody Guthrie sayings is: “About all a human being is, anyway, is a hoping machine.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.