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Getting to Know Woody Guthrie

Keene State dance major Anna Canoni '00 immerses herself in her family's musical heritage, applying skills from business and dance to help keep an icon of American history alive.

by David McKay Wilson – photos by David McGlynn

Anna Canoni '00 is director of events and programs for the archives devoted to the work of her grandfather, Woody Guthrie, in Mount Kisco, New York.

Anna Canoni '00 never met her grandfather, Woody Guthrie, the legendary folk singer who died 11 years before she was born. But more than four decades after his death, Canoni gets to know him better each day as she keeps Guthrie's songs alive in the 21st century.

As director of events and programs for Woody Guthrie Publications, it's all Woody, all the time. One day she's planning a benefit concert featuring Pete Seeger, the next day she's working on a book about Guthrie's 27 years in New York, or meeting with a filmmaker who wants to do a documentary about those years.

"I'm constantly learning about his truths," says Canoni, 32, in her office, where Guthrie's framed handwritten lyrics and drawings hang from the wall. "I'm living a very real relationship with my grandfather."

Canoni, whose mother, Nora, is among Guthrie's eight children, grew up in a home filled with her grandfather's music. As a child, she'd drift off to sleep as her parents sang Hobo's Lullaby or Deportee.

Canoni, whose mother, Nora, is among Guthrie's eight children, grew up in a home filled with her grandfather's music. As a child, she'd drift off to sleep as her parents sang Hobo's Lullaby or Deportee.

Her family would venture up the Hudson Valley for get-togethers with the family of folksinger Pete Seeger, who helped popularize Guthrie's songs in the 1960s.

Each November, Canoni would gather backstage with her cousins at Carnegie Hall as her uncle, Arlo, played his annual concert.

"Music was the backdrop of our lives," says Canoni, who lives in Ossining, New York, with her husband, Scott, and daughters, Kaylee and Alexis.

The Guthrie men sang; the Guthrie women dance. Canoni's grandmother, Marjorie, trained with modern-dance pioneer Martha Graham. Her mother, Nora, led her own modern dance company in Manhattan. Canoni, who performed modern dance at Steffi Nossen School of Dance in White Plains, New York, during high school, majored in dance and theatre at Keene State. She choreographed many of her own pieces, with one performed at the American College Dance Festival.

Upon graduation, she turned to the business world, unwilling, she says, to become a starving artist. For three years, she was executive assistant to the senior vice president of advertising sales at TV Guide.

"I first needed to find my own legs," she says. "But then I was ready and had some knowledge to bring to the table."

So she joined the family business, where her mother heads up an enterprise that includes Woody Guthrie Publications, the Woody Guthrie Archives, and the nonprofit Woody Guthrie Foundation. Canoni serves as the foundation's secretary and treasurer. More information.

Today, Canoni says she's like "a sponge" in the office with her mother, who has made connections with contemporary artists such as Billy Bragg and the Klezmatics. Projects now underway include CDs of Guthrie songs performed by Lou Reed, Ani DiFranco, and Michael Franti, and another CD with rocker Jay Farrar, formerly of Wilco.

Tom Morello, of Rage Against the Machine, recently performed a punk version of Guthrie's classic, Deportee, at a protest against Arizona's controversial immigration law. Guthrie's songs about caring for the poor and the plight of the downtrodden still resonate.

Toshi Seeger, Pete Seeger's wife, says Canoni's work will help ensure that Guthrie's music lives on. "It's wonderful Anna is carrying on the tradition," Seeger says. "Pete is 91 and I'm 88. We need some propping up."

Canoni is one of four employees at the office suite in downtown Mount Kisco, New York. On a recent visit, two researchers poured over Guthrie documents while the archivist answered questions from a historian about a summer camp in New Hampshire that Guthrie directed in 1948. The archives include the lyrics of 2,998 songs, 754 pieces of artwork, and 10 boxes of correspondence, manuscripts, taped interviews, photographs, and recordings, including one made at a concert in 1949 with a process that embedded sound on a spool of thin steel wire.

Audio technicians were able to retrieve the music, which was subsequently digitized and released in the CD Live Wire: Woody Guthrie in Performance. It won the 2008 Grammy for best historical album.

While at Keene State, Canoni found her movement voice through contact improvisation, the dance form based on the communication between two or more dancers who are in physical contact as they explore the forces of gravity, momentum, and inertia. In contact improv, dancers always keep a point of physical contact between themselves.

While Canoni is no longer dancing, those concepts have taken on new meaning.

"It's still all choreography as I make all these connections and bring the projects to fruition," she says. "And through it all, I'm keeping my connection to Woody. It's like I'm doing contact improvisation with him every day."