We’ve been celebrating the life and legacy of Woody Guthrie for decades now, and rightly so. For generations, the words and music of Guthrie have both inspired artists who followed in his wake and remained vital on their own merits. Such appreciations kicked into high gear in 2012 for Guthrie’s 100th birthday bash, including international concerts in his memory, new books, documentaries, and tribute albums from friends like Pete Seeger. In whatever context his songs are now set in, it remains clear the Woody Guthrie canon isn’t merely historically important, chronicling the period of the Dust Bowl and migrant workers. His life and work are at the heart of what defines American music to the present day.
Evidence for this was on display last October when the Grammy Museum, in association with Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc. and Woody Guthrie Foundation & Archives, presented the biggest concert of them all at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Then, earlier this month, PBS aired an edited version of the concert, which will be officially released as Woody Guthrie at 100! Live at the Kennedy Center, a DVD+CD collector’s set tomorrow, June 18. It has 8 songs not aired on the television broadcast. Produced and directed by four-time Emmy Award-winner Jim Brown, the project is one of those events that lived up to the exclamation point in the title.
The rich menu of performers in Woody Guthrie at 100… touches on the multifaceted music of Guthrie with a strong emphasis on his social commentary. For example, from the get-go, Old Crow Medicine Show proclaims the evening will be a “hootenanny” with the upbeat “Howdi Do” before offering the first of many political anthems of the night, “Union Maid.” Certainly, Donovan’s version of “Riding In My Car” is the most innocent of Guthrie’s songs for children, and “I’ve Got To Know” by Sweet Honey In The Rock has the most obvious Gospel flavor.
Many artists chose Guthrie’s character sketches, such as “Ramblin’ Reckless Hobo” (performed by Joel Rafael), and “Pretty Boy Floyd” (by Rosanne Cash with John Leventhal). For the latter, Cash channeled both Woody and her own father’s guitar arrangements in a story reminding us that outlaws won’t drive a family out of their homes. There were forces back in Woody’s day who would do such a thing, and recent headlines would sound a bit familiar to him. To underline this point, Cash also presents a haunting version of “I Ain’t Got No Home.” This evocative mood continues in “Deportee” by Ani DiFranco with Ry Cooder and Dan Gellert. Like “Pretty Boy Floyd,” the words of “Deportee” seem as relevant now as they did then, especially in this story of Mexican farm workers dying in a plane crash with no names listed in the newspapers.
Other highlights—and nearly every performance deserves that label—include Judy Collins’ typically beautiful rendition of “Pastures Of Plenty” and 81-year-old Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s “1913 Massacre.” Yes, Elliott’s voice is showing his age, but it also carries conviction, retelling Woody’s tale of strikers being heartlessly burned to death at Christmas. Other well-executed numbers include “Hard Travelin’” (Jimmy LaFave), “Do Re Mi” (John Mellencamp), and “So Long, It’s Been Good To Know Yuh” by the Del McCoury Band with Tim O’Brien. That ensemble also performs Guthrie’s only known instrumental, “Woody’s Rag.”
On this set, we also get samples of the ongoing project of the Guthrie family having contemporary performers adding music to Woody’s lyrics left behind in unpublished notebooks. These include “House Of Earth” by Lucinda Williams, “You Know The Night” by Jackson Browne, and the hardest-driving song of the evening, “Ease My Revolutionary Mind” by Tom Morello. Morello’s contribution updates Woody’s thoughts on the type of woman he wants, one who doesn’t watch Fox News but is interested in Occupy Wall Street. As Guthrie left us in 1967, clearly such topical references weren’t written in Guthrie’s own handwriting, but I rather suspect are fully in line with his spirit. Naturally, the concert concludes with a sing-along with all hands on deck to belt out both “This Train Is Bound For Glory” and the obligatory “This Land Is Your Land.”
All these songs are on the accompanying CD, which only excludes three spoken word bits. Two are by Jeff Daniels reading from Guthrie’s autobiography and a short “let’s light the birthday cake” greeting from Nora Guthrie, the family’s primary caretaker of the archives and licensed Guthrie projects. She also wrote the liner notes for the 12-paged booklet which includes rare photographs. While this is a nice bonus for this edition, the same can’t be said of the DVD “Bonus Features.” There are a handful of very short spoken tributes and a number of very short, truncated selections from Guthrie himself. The photos are nice, but surely the clips could have been pulled together into one continuous video. Why offer the abridged Woody songs and not the full tracks? I’m sorry to say the packaging rather implies a host of extras that, unlike the concert itself, seem more than they are.
The best thing about Woody Guthrie at 100! Live at the Kennedy Center is that it should have wide appeal. If you’re a devotee of his songs, and the noted entertainers who cut their teeth (Collins, Donovan, Mellencamp, Browne) on his catalogue, then this set is for you. If you’re into the contemporary and lesser-known artists who joined the program last October, this collection is for you. True, if you’re among those who tout voices like Sarah Palin’s as being among today’s folk heroes, you’re likely to feel considerable unease during the program.
Perhaps one can quibble over the fact folks like Dylan, Springsteen, Billy Bragg or Arlo weren’t on hand. But trotting out all the big name stars wasn’t the point, and it’s not difficult to track down their interpretations of Guthrie’s canon elsewhere. For the Kennedy Center concert, the artistic choices seemed honest and appropriate to showcase the flavor and depth of Guthrie’s most famous material.
Altogether, the artists aren’t merely memorializing music from a bygone era that they hope America won’t forget. They’re proving simple, straight-forward songs and stories championing the working man and those not running on the treadmill of greed have spirit, soul, courage, and resilience no one has captured better than Woodrow Wilson Guthrie.