Made for you and me
The art of Chautauqua involves more than the simple impersonation; it’s the total immersion into the mind of a historical figure.
“My technique is to pick a character that I have something in common with,” says renowned local Chautauquan David Fenimore. He has performed as many characters, including Western writer Zane Grey, newspaperman Horace Greeley and American troubadour Woody Guthrie.
“I have a similar build to Woody, and the same nasal, penetrating voice, and enough rudimentary musical knowledge to pull off the songs,” says Fenimore.
To help immerse himself in the mind of a figure like Guthrie, Fenimore will prepare note cards with various facts, quotations and opinions and then dump them on a desk or bed to shuffle them and find new arrangements and patterns.
“There are so many of Woody’s words around,” says Fenimore. “He was a poet. He wrote poetry and used his guitar to get people to pay attention to what he was saying. Pete Seeger has a line, ‘A good song is a triumph of over-simplification,’ and Woody was a master of oversimplification.”
Guthrie is a huge influence on many songwriters, including Bob Dylan, who modeled his first persona after Guthrie, and Bruce Springsteen, who covered Guthrie’s best-known song, “This Land is Your Land,” on his Live/1975–85 album. Many other musicians and songwriters, like Joe Strummer of The Clash, Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, Billy Bragg, Steve Earle, and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco have cited Guthrie as a major influence. His legacy is his simple, direct music—punk rock before there was punk rock—as well as his leftist politics.
“He was a communist, a small-c communist,” says Fenimore. “Though, he wrote a column for The Daily Worker called, ‘Woody Sez.’ It was the longest job he ever had. But he understood the internationalism of the working class. … He wrote anthems for the proletariats—though he’d never use that term. He’d make fun of that term.”
Fenimore, a lecturer and the director of undergraduate studies at the University of Nevada, Reno’s English Department, is currently collaborating on a book of Spanish translations of Guthrie lyrics.
Fenimore’s next appearance as Guthrie will be at the fourth annual Hootenanny for the Food Bank of Northern Nevada at Sorenson’s Resort in Hope Valley, Calif. Also appearing will be fellow troubadours Michael Hogan as Cisco Houston, and Tim Gorelangton as “Pete.”
“He looks like Pete Seeger, and he sounds like Pete Seeger, but we don’t use the last name, because Pete Seeger is still around,” says Fenimore.
He describes the Hootenanny event as a family-friendly campfire sing-along “under the moon and the aspens.” And he says the Food Bank is a charity that Guthrie would have supported.
Fenimore has been appearing, lecturing and performing as Guthrie since 2005 and plans to continue doing so for some time.
“I’m now five years older than Woody was when he died,” he says.
Fenimore has appeared as Guthrie all over the United States—in Arkansas, Colorado, Maryland, New Hampshire … from California to the New York Island, from the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters.