Friday's Labor Folklore 
Con Carbon, Minstrel of the Mine Patch

The Dance of Life   
Sophie Maslow, Marjorie Mazia and Woody Guthrie
Woody couldn't play
the same song - the same way - twice.
"Unlike highly disciplined and organized dancers, folksingers are known to veer." -- Nora Guthrie 

Sophie Maslow (1911-2006) was both a dancer and a choreographer who used dance for social and political change.  Born in New York City to Russian Jewish parents, she joined the Martha Graham Dance Company in 1931.  She set dances to folk music with scenes from the Depression and the Dust Bowl.  In 1942 Sophie produced Folksay, which featured music from Woody Guthrie's recently released album Dust Bowl Ballads.  In her dance she utilized text from Carl Sandburg's poem The People, Yes.
Maslow also worked with the New Dance Company in New York. According to Hallie Chametzky, a 2018 Junior Fellow in the Music Division at the Library of Congress, Maslow considered herself a "choreagrapher of the common people" whose work "promoted socialist and populist values." (Chametzky, Hallie. "A Plan and a Hope : Woody Guthrie, Sophie Maslow and the Many Gifts of Modern Dance."
In the Muse : Performing Arts Blog, Library of Congress,
Aug. 31, 2018)
Sophie Maslow 
Her dance concerts included  
themes of equality, workers' rights,
anti-fascism and democracy.
Photo by Lisa Cohen.
Sophie Maslow, Frieda Flier and Marjorie Mazia
in Martha Graham's American Document.
Photo by Barbara Morgan.
While the dancers were rehearsing for the premier of Folksay at the Humphrey-Weidman Studio Theater, Sophie had a great idea.  Why not invite Woody Guthrie, himself, to be there on opening night -- to perform live, on stage.  She devised a plan.  She would go to Woody's apartment and invite him  - in person - and she would bring with her, for support, Marjorie Mazia, a dancer in her company.  
Sophie's plan worked. Woody happily agreed to the gig and, with guitar in hand, showed up the next morning at the dance studio to rehearse with the dancers.  But the rehearsal did not quite work out as Sophie Maslow had planned.
The story of that fateful rehearsal is told by Nora Guthrie who learned it from her mother - Marjorie Mazia - who married Woody Guthrie in 1945.   

The dances were all choreographed to records (78s) 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 it's 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.

Tony Kraber & Woody Guthrie performing in Folksay.
Photo by David Linton.

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 or 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.
Woody and Marjorie
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.
By Nora Guthrie.  Ms. Guthrie is the president of Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc.  
(Photos: Music Division, Library of Congress)      
Marjorie Mazia Guthrie
  • Marjorie Greenblatt was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey to Russian Jewish immigrants, she graduated from Overbrook High School in Philadelphia.  At age 18 she won a scholarship to study with Martha Graham and moved to New York City.  At age 25 she was recruited, by Sophie Maslow, to teach dance at a left-wing Jewish camp.
  • As a core member of the Martha Graham Company she would become Ms. Graham's assistant and was the first company member - outside of Martha - to teach the Graham technique. Two of her early students were  Erick Hawkins and Merce Cunningham who would later become leaders in modern dance choreography.  In 1950 Marjorie established her own dance school in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. The Marjorie Mazia School of Dance would remain open for 28 years.

  • Marjorie and Woody were married in 1945.  Together they had four children: Cathy Guthrie, Arlo Guthrie, Joady Guthrie and Nora Guthrie. In 1947 Cathy died, tragically, at age four in a fire.
  • After many misdiagnoses Woody, in 1952, was diagnosed with Huntington's Disease, a genetic disorder that causes the progressive breakdown of nerve cells in the brain.  Marjorie would stand by his side as a caregiver, giving up her career as a professional dancer in order to supervise his medical care.
  • In 1966 she put an ad in a New York newspaper asking for anyone who knew anything about Huntington's to please call her.  People responded and she invited them to come to her apartment. This was the beginning of the Committee to Combat Huntington's Disease (HD) which Marjorie founded after Woody's death in 1967.  This organization - which assisted people whose lives were affected by HD - would eventually became the Huntington's Disease Society of America.
  • Marjorie began a crusade against Huntington's Disease, educating the medical community and the public about the disease. She traveled around the country speaking to Huntington families, medical students and legislative committees in Washington, DC and in many states.  She headed a Federal commission for control of the disease (1976), advising and lecturing on how HD affects the patient and the patient's family.  "It's a long way from the world of dance to the world of health care," she said. "and yet, in another way, both depend primarily on communication."
  • Marjorie Guthrie died on March 13, 1983.  After her death scientists at the National Institutes of Health  established a series of lectures in her name at the organization's headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland.
  • In June 2018, at it's annual convention, the non-profit Huntington's Disease Society of America paid tribute to its founder. "Reflecting on Marjorie's impact," said Society president Louise Vetter, "is as astounding as it is inspiring."    (Photos: Woody Guthrie Publications)

Dust Bowl Ballads was issued in 1940 by Victor Records. It included 11 songs on 78 rpm records. According to Wikipedia it was Woody Guthrie's "first commercial recording and the most successful album of his career."

End Notes

Thank you to authors, from a variety of sources, from which I summarized, paraphrased or quoted directly.  Hallie Chametzky in her  Library of Congress 2018 blog post (cited above) inspired me greatly. From Woody Guthrie Publications in New York I found biographical material on Woody and Marjorie, thank you Anna Canoni.  Judith Baskin, Sophie Maslow : Modern Dance Choreographer, 1911-2006, online;  Lynn Matluck Brooks, Sophie Maslow, Dance Heritage website; Wikipedia; Irma Commanday, Marjorie Guthrie, Jewish Women's Archive, online; Huntington's Disease Society of America, HDSA Pays Tribute to Founder Marjorie Guthrie & 50 Years of the Guthrie Family Legacy, online; New York Times obituary, 3/14/83, Marjorie Guthrie, Singers' Widow, 65, online.  I treasure two letters written to me by Marjorie Guthrie in 1982 while I was editing Talkin' Union magazine. The Dance of Life is the title of a book by Havelock Ellis published in 1923.   
-- Saul Schniderman, editor.