That Woody Guthrie, he’s some big-time feller, even at a hundred.
Women loved him, and he stood up and spoke up and rambled across the country in the Dust Bowl and Depression days. He had the love of friends, whole generations of musicians, the good folks of this country, which has never abated, even though he passed away in 1967 at the age of 55 of Parkinson’s disease.
He sang about vigilantes and deportees, and people who got hit over the heads by riot police and scabs, and he sang the most innocent, playful songs written for his kids, and he rode the rails where the sun hit him all the time, and he sang about unions and he railed against fascists, homegrown or monstered overseas. He wrote the songs, and they spread into other hands and singers and musicians. This year, just about everybody who ever heard of him sang his songs, in his homegrown Oklahoma, in a place called Skid Row in Los Angeles, in New York and small towns, celebrating this year which was his 100th year, had he lived that long.
He’s alive as you or I. I can vouch for that because that was a mighty lively little hootenanny they threw Oct. 14 at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall called “This Land Is Your Land—The Woody Guthrie Centennial Celebration” for which a couple of thousand people showed up and in the end wound up jumping up and down on demand and singing their feelings. They looked pretty much like each other. I suppose you could call them baby boomers for want of a better cliché. They dressed down, lots of blue jeans, lots of less—less hair, less glitter, less polish, less ties, less tony jewelry, less socks, but lots of memories, it seemed.
There was lots of music and musicians—and most of them were of a certain age, too, and some of them had heard Woody sing, or collected his songs. One had lived with him for a time, and another was his daughter. (His son Arlo Guthrie did not attend because that morning his wife Jackie died of cancer.)
They all had something in common: they played his music, it seems, a ton of times during their time of singing others’ songs; his songs were the first music some of them heard or, in John Mellencamp’s case, the first two songs he played on a guitar.
So, they all came together, marched on stage between tunings. They sang their songs and sang his words. They were as different as they could be, but they shared some things: banjos, guitars, drums, ukuleles, strings and fiddles along with a dusty glamor. They marched on by and by, singing and strumming, fiddling and whistling, and picking and wailing and clapping and tapping their cowboy boots, and often, fiddling around as in “less guitar, less vocals,” or the other way around for the techies backstage, who would come out like ninjas between musicians.
And it was grand. At turns, the proceedings resembled a tent meeting, an oft-described hootenanny, those folky get-togethers of the 1950s and 1960s and big-time concerts led by the likes of Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, but those two weren’t here. Sometimes, it sounded like a union rally, which must have seemed heartening for the much beleaguered laborites of these times, the working stiffs, government and private. Every time “unions” were referenced in a Woody song, and that happened often, there were cheers from the audience, because unions rattled in Woody’s songs as much as ramblers and gamblers and trains and fascists and migrants and laborers. Politics, those of the Dust Bowl and Depression, the war(s) and big government and big business and such, simmered in the songs like hot pepper and a bitter taste, like the melancholy that made the love songs delirious.
Out they came, and there was the Old Crow Medicine Show, singing Woody’s greeting song “How Do You Do,” inviting, pickled with banjo and accordions and it went from there. Actor Jeff Daniels popped out periodically to read from Guthrie’s writings, songs and letters.
Folks like Jimmy LaVave and Joel Rafel, both acknowledged Guthrie experts and followers and singers, sang things like “Reckless Hobo” and “Hard Traveling,” the music of the folks Guthrie had eulogized, celebrated and bled for, being one of them to his holy shoes full of holes. More and more instruments came, the guys with the harmonica hooked to the guitar, the accordions and their endless rolling sounds and the wonder of the c-note, the ukulele.
D.C.’s Sweet Honey in the Rock appeared in Dashiki chic, singing “I’ve Got to Know,” and Donovan, the sunshine-through-my-window man, rock star, poet and artist by way of Scotland in the 1960s sang a children’s song that Guthrie had written and said that Ramblin’ Jack Elliott had introduced him to Guthrie’s music. People just sort of admired the hell out of each other, outdoing their love for Woody by way of music.
Judy Collins, one of the folk queens of the 1960s along with Baez and Joni Mitchell, came out like a startling, still beautiful witchy woman, dressed in shiny black jacket, black boots and slacks and hair as white as a page of paper, but wilder. Yet other sang Woody’s ode to Pretty Boy Floyd, where he was a kind of Robin Hood, and the main crooks were the bankers, as in “some people rob you with a gun, some people rob you with a fountain pen.” Ani DeFranco, folkie supreme, sang “Deportee,” which sounds as modern as gunfire on the Arizona border, saying, “This here is a shoutout to Mitt. This song’s for you, Mitt.”
Out came Coot Ryder, who long ago provided the evocative banjo-guitar ripping and running soundtrack to “The Long Riders,” the best of all Jesse James movies, and he sang the powerful “Vigilante” and played powerfully, too. There was the remarkable Lucinda Williams, one of the most wayward, in-your-honest-face female singers today. She sang an uncompleted song about “a woman who folks here at the Kennedy Center might not want to hear about a prostitute who wants to teach a man some things his wife never done,” and she sang it with verve and in a style and eye-and-ear popping fashion all hers.
John Mellencamp—our modern troubadour of the men who work in mills and farms and such—sang, and so did Jackson Browne, who sang for about 15 minutes or so with back ups a delirious love songs that came out of a letter Woody had written to his first wife, about falling in love and first meetings and impressions. It went on and on like the kind of dance you never want to finish.
Finally, Ramblin’ Jack himself came out—thin, all of 81, with a voice as wrenching as ever, cowboy hat, boots, bandana and red shirt. He sat down and said, “I heard of this guy named Ramblin’ Jack, and I think he died.” Not yet: Elliott sang a powerful rendition of “1913 Massacre,” marking him as the grand old man of musical story-telling.
We and they, all together—you could have too—sang together “Bound for Glory” and, of course, “This Land Is Your Land,” led by the powerful-voiced Bob Morello of Rage Against the Machine. He got people to jump up and down like kids who cared about it all.
Later in the dark of the night, you dreamed you heard the sound of a train whistle, the wheels chugging like a woman beating sheets on a wash line.