“A Plan and a Hope:” Woody Guthrie, Sophie Maslow, and the Many Gifts of Modern Dance

The following is a guest post from Hallie Chametzky, one of the Music Division’s Fellows from this past summer. Dance Archivist Libby Smigel introduces her.

Hallie Chametzky

 

Meet Hallie Chametzky, a senior in dance at Virginia Commonwealth University. Selected this past summer as a Junior Fellow working on the Martha Graham Legacy Project, Hallie chose to work on the papers of distinguished choreographer, Graham company dancer, and social activist Sophie Maslow. The finding aid Hallie created that indexes the items found in the Maslow collection will be posted online in September. Meanwhile, enjoy this first of two posts Hallie contributed that share some of the unusual stories the Maslow collection has saved for us.

 

Views on the relationship between choreographers and performers vary. Some view dancers as a type of material whose job is to execute the choreographer’s vision as precisely as possible. Others argue that choreographers should accept that each individual performer will bring his or her own artistry to the process, and no two dancers will perform the same way, no matter how exacting the director. Still others view choreography as deeply collaborative, with each dancer joining the choreographer as artist and contributor in the process.

Sophie Maslow. Photo by Lisa Cohen, circa 1980s. Box 10/Folder 26, Sophie Maslow Papers, Music Division, Library of Congress.

A refreshing perspective on the creative process of dance-making comes from a surprising source: American folk music legend Woody Guthrie. I encountered the story while processing the Sophie Maslow Papers here in the Music Division, and fleshed it out with additional material from the collections of scholar Victoria Phillips and Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc. In 1942, Guthrie was approached by choreographer Sophie Maslow with an interesting proposition: she wanted him to perform live with the Sophie Maslow Dance Company in the world-premiere of a new dance she had crafted. Guthrie’s experience with the company would deeply shape his artistic, political, and personal perspectives.

Sophie Maslow began her professional dance career with the Martha Graham Dance Company, where she performed as a soloist from 1931 until 1943. Influenced by her Russian-Jewish upbringing, she soon began making her own work, crafting a series of leftwing, progressive, often revolutionary solos throughout the 1930s. She joined the New Dance Group, an important New York City organization whose mission was to promote social change through dance, and later founded the Sophie Maslow Dance Company. Her work promoted socialist and populist values. She considered herself, along with her New Dance Group colleagues, choreographers “of the common people.”

 

In 1942 Sophie Maslow produced her seminal work, a medley of American folk-inspired dances set to music by Woody Guthrie and text from Carl Sandburg’s poem “The People, Yes.” She called this dance Folksay, and decided that it would be best performed with the man himself: she would ask Guthrie to join the company for the work’s premiere, replacing the recorded sound they had been rehearsing with. For solidarity, she brought Marjorie Mazia, a friend, company performer, and fellow Graham dancer, to Guthrie’s door to request his accompaniment. Guthrie happily agreed, and the very next day showed up in the dance studio, famous guitar in hand. He would later write about his experiences in an article published in Dance Observer. The story, as he tells it, follows.

Tony Kraber and Woody Guthrie performing in Folksay. Photo by David Linton, 1942. Box 3/Folder 24, Sophie Maslow Papers, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Nina Caiserman, Lili Mann, Mark Ryder, and William Bales in Folksay. Photo by David Linton, 1942. Box 3/Folder 27, Sophie Maslow Papers, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Woody Guthrie never sang the same way twice. In his own words, “… if you’re the same the weather’s different and if the weather is the same and even if you’re the same, you breathe different, and if you breathe the same you rest or pause different.” Woody was not exactly playing the music the dancers had rehearsed to. He recalls being absolutely mesmerized by the beauty, grace, precision, physical health, and skill of the dancers, while simultaneously being aware that he, by playing according to his instincts rather than the rhythms, tempos, and other qualities set out by his recordings, was causing the dancers a whole lot of trouble.

The diligent dancers, used to hard work, set out to teach Guthrie how to imitate himself. They stayed up all night with flashcards trying to teach Woody his own music. The experience had a profound effect on him. “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 acording [sic] to a plan and a hope” (Guthrie, 104).

Sometimes it takes an outsider’s perspective to see our worlds, which we feel we know so intimately, for what they truly are. As a dancer/choreographer myself, Guthrie’s wide-eyed wonder at the collective power of a dance rehearsal reminds me of what makes dance so special: people. With the human body as form, dance has the opportunity to be a supremely egalitarian art. The New Dance Group understood this, and indeed it was their guiding philosophy. As the first integrated dance school in New York City, the New Dance Group offered a school for beginners all the way through professional dancers, and provided full scholarships for promising dance newcomers (a young Donald McKayle, for example) to have access to high-quality modern dance training.

Guthrie’s point of view also offers a counter to views of art-making that stress exceptionalism. Portrayals of great artists often focus on their intense creativity, often leading to unhealthy physical and social habits, or leave out the many people who helped them along the way, instead espousing a narrative of the lone “genius.”

Sophie Maslow, Frieda Flier, and Marjorie Mazia in Martha Graham’s American Document. Photo by Barbara Morgan, circa 1930s. Box 12/Folder 27, Sophie Maslow Papers, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Guthrie’s view of Sophie Maslow and company was the polar opposite: without the contributions of every individual involved, including himself, there was no great art. Sophie Maslow’s kindness and ability to organize, rather than her genius, were what made her successful in his eyes.

Not only did his time in the dance world convince Guthrie of the need for communal effort, but it also gave him something more personal. Marjorie Mazia, the dancer who had accompanied Sophie to Woody’s door, was also the flashcard-bearing teacher who helped him learn to play like the recording. The two took a liking to each other. Sophie Maslow would eventually serve as witness to their wedding.

Woody Guthrie grew in intensely personal and political ways in his time with the Sophie Maslow Dance Company. To thank is Sophie Maslow, champion of the people and choreographer for the workers. Kind, yet hardworking; accomplished, yet grounded; technically skilled, yet always interested in dance for “common people;” Sophie seems to have truly embodied the philosophies she harnessed for choreographic inspiration. Guthrie writes, “I can’t tell you how pretty and how nice Sophie is. That first day I had my suspicions that she was an awful good person—you know—one of the kind that works hard and likes everybody she sees” (Guthrie, 104).

I suspect that Woody suspected right. My work processing the photographs, production materials, writings, and music of the Sophie Maslow Papers paints a picture of a choreographer deeply concerned with the human condition. Perhaps an under-recognized choreographer, Maslow’s work is now more easily accessible to researchers, dance enthusiasts, die-hard Guthrie fans, and every person in-between—a natural continuation of the legacy of a choreographer who was always for the people.


Cited quotations in this article are from the following resource:

Guthrie, Woody. “Singing, Dancing, and Team-work.” Dance Observer (January 1943): 104-105.

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