Woody Guthrie show goes virtual
History professor Richard Polenberg estimates that he has taught more than 30,000 students in his forty-two years at Cornell. That figure doesn't include the 150 or so people who turned out for his performance and lecture on the music of Woody Guthrie at the Ithaca Unitarian Church in March 2007—or the countless others who can now view it online.
The two-hour event—which featured Polenberg, his son, Michael, and local musicians Annie Burns and Jan Nigro playing and talking about Guthrie's music—is available on CyberTower, a Web-based resource for continuing education that features lectures and discussions led by Cornell faculty members. (The Guthrie show is Polenberg's second CyberTower entry, the first being a talk about Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo.) During the concert, Polenberg performed eleven songs solo and accompanied Burns, his vocal coach, and Nigro, his guitar teacher, on some of the singer's other tunes. They concluded with Guthrie's best-known work, "This Land Is Your Land." "Woody Guthrie is the most famous folksinger of his generation," says Polenberg. " 'This Land Is Your Land' is so widely sung as to have virtually achieved the status of a national anthem." The Guthrie event grew out of earlier lecture-performances he has given, including one about Pete Seeger. "I'm an educator," Polenberg says. "Telling the story of Woody Guthrie's life and times—and encouraging audiences to sing along with me—is just another way of doing what I've always done."
Polenberg is on phased retirement; instead of teaching 1,000-student lecture courses like Recent American History, he offers small seminars such as The Blues and American Culture. "Music is one of those things that I've loved all my life," says Polenberg, who hosts a folk show on student-run Slope Radio. "When I was busy professionally, I didn't have the time to devote to it. Now, the one thing I have is time."
— Ian Holliday