Review: “Woody Guthrie at 100! Live at the Kennedy Center”
The new CD/DVD set is entitled Woody Guthrie at 100! Live at the Kennedy Center, but in fact, Woody never made it past 55. This document of an altogether lively concert program from a wide assortment of admirers proves, however, that his music has not only lasted ‘til 100, but will likely survive us all. This is a celebration, yes, but a celebration with a conscience. A strong thread of morality and social awareness ran through all of Guthrie’s songs, as he believed music could make a difference in America. That same belief is shared by the performers who took the stage of Washington, DC’s Kennedy Center on October 14, 2012, including Jackson Browne, Rosanne Cash, Donovan, Judy Collins, Tom Morello, John Mellencamp and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. That evening, they showcased the spectrum of Guthrie’s work from protest songs to children’s sing-alongs.
As produced by Woody’s daughter Nora Guthrie, Bob Santelli and Garth Ross, the concert is well-sequenced, beginning with the joyous barrage of nonsense lyrics in Old Crow Medicine Show’s bluegrass-style “Howdi Do.” The string band continues the jamboree with Guthrie’s rapid-fire story of a “Union Maid” who’s “stickin’ to the union ‘til the day I die,” and indeed, Guthrie’s commitment to the ideals of unionization recur throughout the program.
A major highlight is the mini-suite of songs thematically connected by imagery of the open road and the hobo, with contemporary folksinger Joel Rafael’s harmonica-accompanied “Ramblin’ Reckless Hobo” (for which he set Guthrie’s lyrics to his own music), Jimmy LaFave’s “Hard Travelin’,” Donovan’s “Riding in My Car” and Rosanne Cash’s “I Ain’t Got No Home.” Listening to Rafael, it’s hard not to hear a Bob Dylan influence, or more precisely, how Guthrie influenced Dylan and in turn, Rafael. Texas singer LaFave’s “Hard Travelin’” contrasts a jaunty melody with the story of a hard-working itinerant who brushes up against the law; “I Ain’t Got No Home” introduces a similar character with an even sadder tale. While “Hard Travelin’” utilizes awkward grammar (“I’ve been layin’ in a hard-rock jail, I thought you knowed”) and jolts of dry humor in its lyric (“Damned old judge, he said to me, ‘It’s 90 days for vagrancy”), “I Ain’t Got No Home” is all too touching and troubling. Cash, accompanied only by her own guitar and that of guitarist-vocalist-husband John Leventhal, gets to the root of the song in her low-key, empathetic vocal. She doesn’t overplay the despair but rather renders the character she embodies with a quiet resolve and dignity.
Donovan leads a sing-along on Guthrie’s children’s song “Riding in My Car,” which fits snugly among the other, more “adult” songs. It’s no mystery why: Guthrie wrote for adults in the same simple and lyrically unadorned style he wrote for children. Grown-ups will likewise want to sing along to the mandolin- and fiddle-adorned refrain of The Del McCoury Band and Tim O’Brien’s “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh.”
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Judy Collins’ piano-accompanied “Pastures of Plenty” casts Collins as a migrant worker: “It’s a mighty hard row that my poor hands have hoed/My poor feet have traveled a hot, dusty road…” Collins’ clarion soprano has taken on a burnished if still impossibly lovely tone, taking in years of experience most suited to this dramatic song. Indeed, the treatment of migrant workers was infuriating to Guthrie, and his “Deportee” is performed lovingly by Ani DiFranco. The song, also recorded by artists including Bruce Springsteen, Dolly Parton, The Byrds and Bob Dylan, is built around an account of a 1948 plane crash in Los Gatos Canyon, California, in which 32 people died. 28 of those were migrant workers being deported to Mexico, and Guthrie was struck by the fact that newspapers never reported on the deceased migrants by their names, simply as “deportees.” Only the flight crew and security guard would be identified by name. In one of his last great songs, Guthrie gave the deceased of the Los Gatos crash the respect that the media hadn’t. A real person – a bank robber – is also the subject of “Pretty Boy Floyd,” sung with conviction by Rosanne Cash. In the song, Guthrie was writing not just about Floyd but about the much bigger picture: “You won’t never see an outlaw drive a family from their home,” Guthrie concludes in his excoriation of a society that allowed the workingman to exist in poverty. Another topical song based on a real incident, “1913 Massacre,” is delivered with authenticity by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. “See what your greed for money has done,” Guthrie’s narrator soberly concludes on the deaths of striking copper miners in Michigan. Bob Dylan and Woody’s son Arlo Guthrie are among those who have also performed “1913 Massacre,” and Dylan even appropriated its melody for his “Song to Woody.” Guthrie’s songs ensured that these tragedies wouldn’t be relegated to the dusty pages of history, but discussed and remembered, decades later.
Each performer is well-matched with a Guthrie song, including Sweet Honey in the Rock. The group performs an a cappella gospel rendition of “I’ve Got to Know,” in which Guthrie addressed many of the themes closest to his heart in one heady song: inequality, the crimes of war, the plight of the union worker and his family. John Mellencamp brings his plain-spoken brand of roots rock to a spirited “Do Re Mi.”
As with Joel Rafael, many artists on Woody Guthrie at 100 performed songs they had “co-written” with Woody; over the years, the Guthrie estate has passed on reams of lyrics never set to music for contemporary songwriters to utilize. “House of Earth” was an appropriate lyric to give to Lucinda Williams, whose raw voice sounds as if it came from the depths of the earth itself. Writing of a house of rather ill repute, Guthrie supplied a rather provocative lyric laden with double entendres: “Lots of different ways here you can come/If you do come I will be glad to see/If you don’t come I’m glad you don’t need me.” One of Guthrie’s heirs apparent, Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, supplied a melody to an earthy Guthrie lyric for the electric “Ease My Revolutionary Mind.” Guthrie is a kindred spirit to Morello, having raged against the machine long before the younger artist was born.
Another singer-songwriter to write a melody to a Guthrie lyric is Jackson Browne, who has never shied away from expressing his own political beliefs. He and bassist Rob Wasserman co-composed “You Know the Night” to a rare romantic lyric from Guthrie recounting the evening he met his wife. To Browne and Wasserman’s loping country-by-way-of-Laurel-Canyon melody and arrangement, Browne sings of a woman with “hopes and plans for the good of the people”: “You know, the night I met you, my eyes had been looking for you all over everywhere. Did you look at me and think, ‘here’s this guy that hopes like I hope and sees the same kind of dreams I see?’” In Browne and Wasserman’s hands, the song could be a lost hit of the 1970s.
The CD and DVD present the same sequence of songs, although the DVD adds two spoken-word recitations from Jeff Daniels and a longer thank-you speech from Nora Guthrie. You’ll also find bonus content on the DVD, including rare footage of Woody Guthrie in performance, another Jeff Daniels reading, and other brief historical goodies. This CD/DVD set makes a fine companion to Smithsonian Folkways’ impressive 3-CD/hardcover book box set from last year, Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial. Whether you’re watching the DVD or listening to the CD, by the time everybody on the program joins in for “This Train is Bound for Glory” and the inevitable “This Land is Your Land,” one thing is clear: Woody Guthrie’s music and lyrics will endure from California to the New York islands, from the red wood forest to the gulf stream waters. His music was made for you and me.
You can order Woody Guthrie at 100! Live at the Kennedy Center here, or by clicking on the album image above!