Bringing history to life
Kings Beach resident David Fenimore knows Woody Guthrie so well he’s on a first-name basis with the guy.”There’s something about Woody that is very relevant today,” Fenimore said in a telephone interview this week. “The issues he talked about are eerily similar.”Fenimore, a University of Nevada professor, will perform as the Dust-Bowl songster at the Donner Lake Pavilion on Friday, July 29 in a show that will benefit the Truckee Library.The chautauqua – or living history event – will display the hundreds of hours of research Fenimore has done on Guthrie, a Depression-era radio personality made famous by his songs about the working class and his controversial social commentary.In his research for the character, Fenimore became intimately familiar with the balladeer, from Guthrie’s mannerisms to learning a few of the thousands of ditties Guthrie strummed on his guitar – songs in favor of the low-wage worker and against bankers, landlords, politicians and everyone in between.
Before his first performance as Guthrie at Sand Harbor last summer, Fenimore spent hours reading biographies, listening to Guthrie’s recordings and practicing in character at home.”I call it ‘talking to the wall,'” Fenimore said. “I’ll talk to the wall, like it’s one of those scary moments on stage when they say ‘Ladies and gentlemen, here’s Woody Guthrie.'”But not all of the chautauqua experience can be rehearsed. There will be a portion when Fenimore will take questions from the audience. He’ll have to think on his feet and answer in character.The audience has stumped Fenimore with questions before, but that only means Fenimore gets to go home and do more research.”It’s like a detective. I like the research. I like that my particular position [as a college professor] has allowed me to do this,” he said. “Instead of writing a paper about Woody’s lost letters to [folklorist] Alan Lomax, I’m facing my audience.”Guthrie is Fenimore’s fifth chautauqua character. He has also performed as Civil War era publisher Horace Greeley, Gold Rush settler John A. Sutter, western writer Zane Gray and Donner Party survivor and bad-guy Lewis Keseberg, who Fenimore brought to Donner Memorial State Park last fall.
When the Friends of the Truckee Library heard Fenimore was performing as Guthrie, they jumped on the opportunity for him to perform in Truckee.”I think that [Guthrie’s] message is so pertinent today,” said Ruth Hall, member of the Friends of the Truckee Library. “His music is universally appreciated. He wrote a lot of standard folk songs.”However, much like Guthrie, Fenimore, by his own admission, isn’t an accomplished guitarist. He will have a guitar on stage, but he will only strum a recite a few of Guthrie’s lyrics, he said.Aside from the music, Fenimore said he wants people who would never pick up a biography about Guthrie to learn that the words of the working class hero are still relevant today.”Chautauqua at its best makes history relevant in the present day …” Fenimore said. “That’s the part about chautauqua I really like – brining history to life, but being a hopeless ham, I like the performance aspect of chautauqua, too.”
CHECK IT OUTChautauqua performance with Woody Guthrie, with music from Reno bluegrass group Shiloh• July 29, gates open at 6 p.m.• Donner Lake Pavilion• Tickets ($5 for adults; $3 for children) available at Bookshelf at Hooligan Rocks and the Truckee Library