Woody Guthrie Centennial Concert Was Remarkable Tribute
The culmination of the Los Angeles celebration of the centennial of Woody Guthrie’s birth opened with this quote by Woody Guthrie, the legendary folk singer who captured, through song, the landscape of his generation, and lived on, through his music, to captivate a century.
Jackson Browne, Graham Nash, Dawes, John Doe, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Sarah Lee Guthrie, Johnny Irion, Joe Henry, Kris Kristofferson, Tom Morello, Van Dyke Parks, Joel Rafael, Cindy Wasserman, and Rob Wasserman performed at Club Nokia in downtown Los Angeles Saturday to honor the centennial. They gathered together to sing Woody's songs, and songs of their own. Bringing together the old and the new, in more ways than one, the concert demonstrated that Woody lives on.
The concert began with Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion’s performance of “California Stars,” Woody’s love song to California, an apt choice given the location of the concert. Afterward, the duo delved right into the issue for which Woody was best known, singing “Union Maid,” and thus lyrically demonstrating Woody’s controversial, and consequentially powerful, stance on unions (“Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union, / I’m sticking to the union ’til the day I die”).
Songwriter Joe Henry commented, “Woody Guthrie lived to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Woody’s staunch defense of unions and the fight for workers’ rights earned him hell during the McCarthy era, for which music artist Van Dyke Parks believes this concert was “their just reward.” The fact that his songs have not been forgotten, and have rather become legendary, is a testament to the fact that the lyrics of those songs have withstood, and will continue to withstand, criticism by those who wish for nothing more than to silence the people. The lyrics of Woody’s songs, so direct yet simplistic in their message, hold a power with which many fear to be confronted.
Woody Guthrie and his music embodied “the spirit that inhabits social justice movements, whether they are around the country or around the world,” according to Tom Morello, of Rage Against the Machine. Morello, accompanied by the Freedom Fighter Orchestra, performed “Tom Joad” (“Wherever people ain’t free, / Wherever men are fightin’ for their rights, / That’s where I’m a-gonna be, Ma. / That’s where I'm a-gonna be”). Morello described to the audience how he and his friends like to call Woody Guthrie “the only boss worth listening to.” The group performed a song inspired by Woody, “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” a dialogue with Woody’s song:
Wherever somebody’s struggling for a place to stand
For a decent job or a helping hand
Wherever somebody is struggling to be free
Look in their eyes
And you’ll see me
And the highway is alive tonight
Nobody’s fooling nobody as to where it goes
I’m sitting down here in the campfire light
With the Ghost of Tom Joad.
Morello’s set demonstrated the power of music – and not just folk music – to unite diverse groups of people with a message that can be interpreted across genres and generations, and can be just as powerful as the original. And the fact that Woody continues to directly influence music, not just in melodic but also in lyrical content, shows that Woody is still very much a part of the struggles expressed by current musical activism.
Demonstrating just that particular impact of Woody's, Dawes, a young band, took the stage. Their lead singer explained, “As a younger band” their presence at this event “show[ed] what an impact someone like Woody Guthrie has had on music today.”
As well as a celebration of his music, life and struggle, the centennial clearly addressed the legacy he left behind when he died. Sarah Lee Guthrie explained that Woody “wanted to be remembered as the guy who told you what you already knew.” She and her husband performed “Another Man’s Done Gone” as a commemoration for Woody’s death, but in a way in which he would have wanted his passing to be commemorated: It is more important to carry forward the legacy of his life and music than to mourn a man who is so clearly alive through his influence on the music of a century.
Listening to his music as performed by both older and younger artists, and watching the involvement of the audience with that music, the continuing relevancy of his music and lyrics becomes apparent. In an interview, Noel (Paul) Stookey, of legendary folk group Peter, Paul & Mary, remarked, “We live in a flawed society that needs to learn the lessons Woody’s message offers if we are going to move this planet toward a peaceful existence.”
Woody’s words live on because his dream has not yet been realized.
“This Train is Bound for Glory,” followed by “This Land is Your Land,” ended the concert. After nearly three and a half hours of incredible, moving performances, the numerous artists involved in the concert crowded onto the stage, and, accompanied by vocals from the audience, sang uncensored renditions of the classic Woody songs. Morello took the mic once again to explain, “‘This Land is Your Land’ is America’s alternative national anthem. History is not made by…billionaires or generals. Woody Guthrie knew, we know, and you might be beginning to suspect, that it’s in your hands – history is made by us, not them.” He sang the last, usually censored, verse of the song:
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
These lyrics, in a way, epitomize Woody’s message – yes, in his music he continually calls for social justice, in the form of workers’ rights, women’s’ rights, economic equality, and so on – but, more than that, he calls for strength to keep fighting. He braved the world with a guitar and a pen, unafraid of confronting “the man,” and even when he’d “been hittin’ some hard travelin’,” he did not give up the fight. He believed in the pursuit of social justice, and his songs inspired countless others to do so as well, whether they were a part of his generation or not.
Through music, music like Woody’s, which will be lyrically timeless until its call for justice has manifested in reality, each generation can enter the fray and make its contribution to the improvement of the world. However, as Stookey explained, “Music in any situation is itself an improvement” because “it’s the closest thing to a common experience of emotion we’ve got – music can bring us together for a much longer and profound period of time than anything else.”
This unity through music, especially when the melody is accompanied by a “coherent message,” provides encouragement in the face of oppression. By celebrating the American people with his music, Woody was celebrating their resilience and ability to not only endure, but to also be ultimately victorious. His words will continue on as long as injustice and oppression continue, and present and future listeners will continue the struggle; that was the decisive message of the concert. The struggle did not begin with Woody, and it did not end with him, but his lyrics provide a necessary soundtrack to it, and that is why they need to be remembered and why he needs to be celebrated. John Steinbeck once wrote of Woody's songs,
"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. I think we call this the American spirit."
Woody illustrated the ability of someone quite ordinary to write a song about what he saw as injustice, and become a voice for the people. He articulated in words what they believed they could not. But he showed them that they could. “Music is not only made by superstars – we are all musicians in this band; everyone has a voice, and the message is more important than the music itself.” Stookey implies that knowing that we all have a voice; knowing that we, too, like Woody, have the power to incite change and influence the people of the world for generations to come, ensures that we can pursue the path to improving the world with a little more hope, a little more daring, and a little more strength.
Something Woody often said, “Take it easy, but take it,” was shouted at the audience as they walked out the door.