July 31, 2012
"Woody is just Woody. Thousands of people do not know he has any other name. He is just a voice and a guitar. He sings the songs of a people and I suspect that he is, in a way, that people. Harsh voiced and nasal, his guitar hanging like a tire iron on a rusty rim, there is nothing sweet about Woody, and there is nothing sweet about the songs he sings. But there is something more important for those who will listen. There is the will of a people to endure and fight against oppression."
Arriving like a perfect storm into the life of an already somewhat leftish teenage GI stationed in Georgia during the timeframe that witnessed some of the most oppressive violence of the American Civil Rights Movement, the songs and prose of Woodrow Wilson Guthrie provided a lens into an America to which I had, for whatever reason, turned a blind eye.
Looking back, "Woody," as he had come to be called from an early age, also had a way of nurturing my philosophical sensibility that would be furthered by the writings of such simpatico cultural and political observers as Jack Kerouac, Eric Hoffer, Upton Sinclair, Kurt Vonnegut, Hunter Thompson, and Edward Abbey, not to mention the two musicians who had channeled my muse most extensively, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Bob Dylan.
Countless others would be similarly affected over the years by Guthrie’s words, of course, to the extent that 2012, the centennial year of his birth, is playing host to a wide variety of symposiums, concerts, festivals, panel discussions, university conferences, special tributes, museum and gallery exhibitions, workshops, educational programs, hobo gatherings, and impromptu sing-along jam sessions both here and across the pond.
With the Grammy Museum and the Guthrie family as organizers, Robert Santelli, the museum’s executive director, has been spending much of the year coordinating and moderating many of the testimonial gatherings. Santelli, who visited Park City during April of 2010 in his role as curator of the traveling Smithsonian exhibition, New Harmonies: Celebrating American Roots Music, brings both a fan’s and an educator’s sensibility to the table.
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In March at the South-By-Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, Santelli led a panel discussion focused upon Guthrie’s legacy and music featuring historian Douglas Brinkley, longtime music writer Dave Marsh, and musicians Jimmy LaFave and Joel Rafael. Woody’s daughter Nora and his son Arlo, a longtime singer-songwriter of note, were also on hand to add first-person anecdotes to the discussion.
Musician and author Steve Earle, who only last weekend performed a riveting set at Red Butte Garden on a bill with the equally-brilliant Los Lobos, has always maintained that "Woody Guthrie invented my job." A couple of weeks earlier Earle had hosted a "Woody Fest" trio of New York concerts featuring Billy Bragg, Tim Robbins, the Wood Brothers, the late Levon Helm’s daughter Amy, Joe Purdy, and other performers with a relationship to Woody’s social ethic.
It’s all about his iconic songs, of course, with their anthemic quality equaled only by their working-class simplicity. A champion of the dispossessed, he never sugarcoated the brutal realities inherent in the relationship between the organized labor and business factions of his day.
In "1913 Massacre," he asks the listener to "Take a trip with me in 1913/To Calumet, Michigan, in the copper country/I will take you to a place called Italian Hall/Where the miners are having their big Christmas ball." By the concluding verse, copper company thugs had barred the door and shouted "fire" in the hall.
Most of the 73 victims of the ensuing stampede were children. No moon-June-spoon feel-good Tin Pan Alley songwriting for this guy.
Even his lighter fare, such as "Talking Fishing Blues" and "Do, Re, Mi," though whimsical on one level, highlighted the systemic inequality experienced by the downtrodden. "Pastures of Plenty" asked the 1% to at least notice the contributions of migrant workers who "set on your table your sparkling wine."
But, more than any other, it would be the song Woody wrote in response to Irving Berlin’s "America the Beautiful" that would have the most lasting impact. Although censors would edit out complete verses before allowing it in the classrooms of the day, "This Land is Your Land," as written by Woody, was nothing short of a call-to-arms for the have-nots to repossess their birthright. What a novel, and radical, idea!
Happy 100, Woody! They sure broke the mold when they made you!
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social scenes for more than 40 years.