Emily Dombrovskaya ’19, Oklahoma Internship with the Woody Guthrie Center

Me on the porch of the Woody Guthrie Center’s Virtual Reality Dust Bowl installation

Emily Dombrovskaya ’19 reflects on their CPGC & HCAH co-sponsored internship at the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma has given me a substantial amount of freedom as an intern. I am in the process of curating my first ever exhibition, which contains both physical and digital components. In preparation for a dual-sited exhibit about the life and work of American composer Leonard Bernstein, the Guthrie Center, and the Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art have given me an opportunity to explore the connection between Woody Guthrie, one of America’s greatest folk musicians and believers in social justice, and Jewish life. Some of the highlights of this deeply entangled New York story include:

  • The Martha Graham Dance Company
  • The Founding of Folkway Records (the precursor of Smithsonian Folkways)
  • Two albums of songs written by Guthrie and set to music by the Klezmatics
  • Daily life in Coney Island, Brooklyn
  • And collaboration with Aliza Greenblatt, a prominent Yiddish poet turned family member

Woody Guthrie’s May Bell Banjo which he played in the 1930s on his KFVD radio show.

My project includes researching in the archive, writing exhibition materials, communicating with archivists and curators at two institutions, and figuring out what digital media will complete this exhibit. Creative control is both frightening and highly appealing! Intellectually I know that museum studies classes and previous internships have prepared me for this process and I have guidance from knowledgeable mentors, but the novelty of the undertaking strikes me at every milestone. However, I have also had wonderful interactions as a result. Just this Monday I met the violinist of the Klezmatics, and was able to have an involved conversation about the music she and her band had written to Guthrie’s lyrics, and I was able to show this remarkable musician something new from my own research. Every week I meet with the Woody Guthrie Center archivist, who is my direct supervisor, to discuss how the project is coming along and what changes I may consider, and together we meet with the center’s Director. It has been a really wonderful balance of work with others for me.

Me in front of the WGC mural.

Reading through Woody Guthrie’s correspondence is emotional, to say the least. When you are taught that an individual is a hero rather than a musician, friend and family member, you don’t expect to see them goofing off, acknowledging their weaknesses or professing deep affection for others. Guthrie is absolutely candid, occasionally unhinged and incredibly prolific. Outside of taking notes for my project, I have recorded pages of quotes from Woody Guthrie which speak to my understanding of justice, a belief in collective action, or just the way I would want to write to friends. I feel that Woody Guthrie’s way of thinking about the world is as relevant today as it was in the 1930s and 40s, which makes my internship all the more exciting.

Written by Emily Dombrovskaya ’19

Edited by MacK Somers ’20