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Woody Guthrie Centennial Celebration Comes To USC

Cara Palmer |
April 9, 2012 | 7:25 p.m. PDT

Staff Writer

(Calidonia Hibernia, Creative Commons)
(Calidonia Hibernia, Creative Commons)
Celebrations centered on the one hundredth anniversary of Woody Guthrie’s birth take place throughout this year. As a part of the festivities celebrating Guthrie’s life and music, “Woody 100” comes to the University of Southern California (USC) this weekend, with events including a conference and a concert.

Born on July 14, 1912, Woody Guthrie, America’s iconic folk singer, created songs advocating social change that have both inspired countless musical activists and accompanied social movements. While traveling throughout America, the country that he loved so dearly because of the people inhabiting it, he wrote hundreds of songs, ranging topically from labor rights to social justice to peace and freedom. “This Land is Your Land” was a Woody Guthrie creation. Known also for the label he often sported on his guitar, “This Machine Kills Fascists,” Guthrie inspired artists such as Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, and Tom Paxton, who each carried forward his legacy of using music to agitate for social change. This year, the one hundredth anniversary of his birth is honored with special purpose.

The Grammy Museum and Woody Guthrie Publications have partnered together to put on a series of events, encapsulated under the title, “Woody 100.” The events take place on a multi-city tour that charts Guthrie’s travels throughout the country. Stops include four college campuses: University of Tulsa, Penn State University, Brooklyn College, and USC. The colleges’ locations were chosen for their contribution as landmarks in Guthrie’s journey.

Invited to join the Grammy Museum and Woody Guthrie Publications on their journey to celebrate Guthrie’s legacy is Music2Life, “the leading organization harnessing the power of music for social change – through technology, artist engagement, and education – for current and new generations of musicians, fans and causes,” founded by Noel Paul Stookey (of Peter, Paul & Mary) and his daughter, Elizabeth Stookey Sunde.

The inspiration for Music2Life – a new hub for musical activism – lies in the fact that unlike in Woody Guthrie’s time, and in the time known as the 1960s, there is currently no “home base” for music for social change. Whereas artists such as Guthrie provided the United States with a center for musical activism, today such music is spread throughout so many genres and among so many artists, that it lacks a coherent base. The legacy of musical activism is there, and it is palpable, but there is a need to strategically carry that legacy forward, and that is what Music2Life attempts to do.

The idea behind the organization is simple: music is a tool for social change. It unites individuals of vastly different backgrounds and causes, propelling them forward through unity to push for social change. Music2Life takes the strong historical legacy of songs fostering social justice movements, and ensures that this kind of music “is honored and made relevant for future generations.”

As a partner in the Woody 100 celebration, Music2Life is bringing its unique perspective to the remembrance of Guthrie’s music. In an interview, Liz Sunde explained that along with remembering Woody Guthrie, and along with bringing to light just how pervasive an impact he has had in this country, this year, it is important that his legacy is presented not just as a significant thing of the past, but also as something that can be an inspiration for the future. “What’s really important this year is asking what we can do to honor his legacy – we must ask ourselves, ‘What would he want us to do with his legacy?’ and translate that legacy into something we can use now,” Sunde said.

Woody Guthrie lived the words of his songs – he was their embodiment. His songs professed a unity unhindered by class distinctions, racial or gender differences, or by any other political or societal distinctions. He sung, in the iconic “This Land is Your Land”:

In the shadow of the steeple

I saw my people,

By the relief office I seen my people;

As they stood there hungry,

I stood there asking

Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me,

As I go walking that freedom highway;

Nobody living can ever make me turn back

This land was made for you and me.

His songs expressed the existence of a community centered on the American people, a community that must be facilitated in the present world, by reinvigorating the powerful messages of social justice conveyed by his music.

“The key lessons Guthrie asks us to carry with us are: standing up for issues we believe in, using music to communicate across any boundaries that divide us, and being servants of the people,” Sunde remarked. “What the present and future generations can do with his music is to, first, appreciate the fact that Guthrie communicated with a variety of people from a variety of walks of life in a variety of musical ways,” and then use that knowledge to facilitate that kind of musical communication once again, to facilitate social change.

Music2Life will be showcasing its work on Trousdale, near Tommy Trojan, on April 13 from 9am to 4pm, where visitors can learn about the work of this organization and also enter for a chance to win prizes from iTunes cards to fender guitars. The events at USC also include a conference on April 13, at which scholars, musicians, and writers will facilitate discussions of Woody Guthrie’s “itinerant wanderings through California and the far West, the Dust Bowl culture he drew upon in his songs of commentary and protest, and the backdrop of Los Angeles at the dawn of the Second World War,” and will feature musical performances. There will also be a concert on April 14, with musicians such as Jackson Browne, Crosby & Nash, Tom Morello, and Sarah Lee Guthrie, who will perform Guthrie’s songs. Aptly titled, “This Land is Your Land,” the concert will be the culminating event at the Los Angeles-based celebration of Woody 100.


Reach Staff Writer Cara Palmer here or follow her on Twitter.



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