DC at Night

DC at Night

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Wonderful Spirit of Woody

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking on that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.
                                    -- Woody Guthrie

The incredibly powerful songs and indomitable spirit of Woody Guthrie filled the Kennedy Center this weekend as an all-star collection of musicians ranging from folk legend Ramblin' Jack Elliot, who babysat Guthrie's children, to Tom Morello, who in his current role as the musical voice of the Occupy movement perfectly embodies Guthrie's revolutionary principles, performed  3 hours of Woody songs at the special This Land Is Your Land - a Woody Guthrie Centennial Celebration Concert.

Obviously, the sold-out crowd was treated to many of Guthrie's best-known songs including "Pretty Boy Floyd," "Deportee" "1913, Massacre," "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You," "Do Re Mi," and "I Don't Have a Home (In This World Anymore)."

Guthrie, a socially committed progressive populist, has been one of the greatest influences on America's most highly regarded rock singer/songwriters. For example, even a cursory listening to Guthrie's impressive catalog demonstrates that Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen are his direct descendants.  As expected, several of the performers introduced their songs by talking about Guthrie's impact on them. British folksinger Donovan said he made certain he included Guthrie's childhood ditty "Riding in My Car (The Car Song") on his 1965 album, which he reprised for the crowd complete with several enthusiastic choruses of audience participation. John Mellencamp introduced his 2 selections as the first 2 songs he ever learned on the guitar. "Whenever they passed the guitar around, this is what I played," he said.

In his works, Guthrie frequently wrote and sang about conditions he found that didn't reflect the America he believed in. So it wasn't surprising that contemporary social commentary made several appearances at the concert. Ani DiFranco dedicated "The Jolly Banker" to "Mitt Romney, wherever you are tonight." In their version of  the bluesy "Vigilante Man" Ry Cooder and Dan Gellert included a newly written verse lamenting the senseless death of black teenager Trevor Martin at the hands of modern-day "vigilante man" George Zimmerman.

While most of the songs performed were written by Guthrie, there were some exceptions. In recent years, unpublished lyrics of Guthrie's have been discovered and, at the urging of the his family, new Guthrie songs have been created. Lucinda Williams completed a song called "House of Earth," which she debuted at the special concert. "That might be the first pro-prostitute song ever performed at the Kennedy Center," joked Guthrie's daughter, Nora.  Jackson Browne also performed an original song he had composed based on a lengthy love letter written by Guthrie. "And that just might be the longest love song ever sung at the Kennedy Center," Nora explained after Browne's rendition.

Most of the artists performed solo or with a single accompanist. However Guthrie's bluegrass roots and love of collective playing were fully explored by the Del McCoury Band and Old Crow Medicine Show. And DC's own Sweet Honey in the Rock testified that Guthrie's songs can easily fit a gospel format.

All the performers were warmly welcomed, but 2 of the most fervent receptions went to folk diva Judy Collins, who proved that at age 72 her voice is still one of the most beautiful in modern music, and Roseanne Cash, who channeled both her famous father and Guthrie in her rendition of the classic "Pretty Boy Floyd" which postulates that a man can rob with a fountain pen just as well as with a gun.

Of course, there could be no other show closer for a Guthrie concert than his great American anthem "This Land Is Your Land." All the performers crowded the huge Kennedy Center concert hall stage, swapping verses and exchanging musical licks. Fittingly, the rarely performed last verse of the song was given to Morello, who with his Rage Against the Machine and Occupy background, did Guthrie proud as he urged the mostly well-dressed crowd to sing, shout, and protest against injustice wherever it is found.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
The concert lineup was truly impressive, seemingly missing only Dylan and Springsteen, both of whom are  currently touring. Here is that lineup:

  • Jackson Browne
  • Roseanne Cash with John Leventhal
  • Judy Collins
  • Ry Cooder and Dan Gellert
  • Ani DiFranco
  • Donovan
  • Ramblin' Jack Elliot
  • Jimmy LeFave
  • Del McCoury Band with Tim O'Brien
  • John Mellencamp 
  • Tom Morello
  • Old Crow Medicine Show
  • Joel Rafael
  • Sweet Honey in the Rock
  • Tony Trischka
  • Rob Wasserman
  • Lucinda Williams
In addition, surprise guest Jeff Daniels, the star of the HBO series Newsroom. appeared to read several excerpts of Guthrie's prose writings in between musical changes. 

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