IN TUNE (W/VIDEOS): Deep reverence and respect were among the gifts brought to City Winery for the finale of a three-day 100th birthday tribute to Woody Guthrie, “curated” by the distinguished venue’s resident folk singer and musical sage, Steve Earle. These included a loving gesture by Guthrie’s daughter, Nora.
As the evening’s musicians – including Billy Bragg, Amy Helm and Joe Purdy — assembled with Earle for the obligatory “This Land is Your Land” show stopper, the 62-year-old Guthrie took a microphone.
“For the first time ever, in the history of New York, I would like to invite the Woody Guthrie archivists onstage to sing with us,” she said.
These included people who’ve been working on restoring the legendary singer’s music more than 16 years.
“They know ALL the words to Woody Guthrie’s songs,” Nora said.
They also were responsible for producing “Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection,” a 150-page large-format book with three CDs containing 57 tracks, released earlier this week.
The collection includes 21 previously unreleased performances and six never before released original songs, including Woody’s first known—and recently discovered—recordings from 1937.
As Earle and Bragg made clear: For some, these times beg for a Woody Guthrie, a man whose canon includes many children’s songs, ballads and traditional tunes – but whose legend sprung from protest songs that are as much a part of American history as any lyrics ever written.
The tradition isn’t being carried only by older folk, either. Purdy and Helm, respectively, evoked depth and feeling in their pieces.
Purdy’s take on “Worried Man Blues” was more than letter perfect. It was heartbreaking – as Guthrie intended.
“We all do things differently,” the bearded singer-songwriter reminded the audience. “But we’re still Americans.”
Indeed, both Helm and Bragg did their own distinctive versions of a song you may hear more of in the coming weeks and months, “I Ain’t Got No Home in This World Anymore.”
CLICK (includes an added Guthrie bonus):
At one point, Purdy said Helm, the Ollabelle songstress, “could shame a nightingale.” He wasn’t kidding. Confident, commanding, yet gentle when necessary, Levon’s daughter was inspiring, engaging, genuine.
Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Guthrie was born 100 years ago today (July 14). Before he died in 1967, at only 55, of complications from Huntington’s disease, he had produced songs that were archived in the Library of Congress.
Guthrie was great friends with Pete Seeger, and his work has been held up as essential and influential by some of the world’s most popular rock and rollers, including Earle, Bragg, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Joe Strummer.
As Bragg and Earle pointed out during Friday night’s performance, Guthrie would have railed at today’s treatment of workers, both here and abroad, as well as at the battles in America over immigrants and national health care.
In a clearly divided nation hurtling toward a presidential election in less than four months, extreme positions have been staked out, leaving a nation that once fought poverty fighting the working poor, that once offered a hand up accusing many of seeking handouts, and that created the American Dream itself conceding, finally, that you’ve better odds of winning the lottery or a spot on a reality show.
Earle and Bragg drove home these issues and more, same as they do at their individual gigs.
Perhaps the most eloquent speech came as Earle introduced “Christmastime in Washington,” a song that calls for Guthrie to “rise again somehow” and get us all to sing as one – and, just maybe, ease the collective pain. As poignant as it is, the tune matters only when we’re headed for a nationwide electoral showdown — and Earle made his feelings crystal clear:
He and Bragg each produced striking versions of Guthrie songs, as did Purdy and Held – and threw in some of their own tunes, with Earle reprising “Tennessee Blues,” the song he wrote about leaving Nashville and coming north to New York with his then-bride-to-be, Allison Moorer.
It eventually was left to Bragg, during the finale, to sing one of the two verses pulled from later renditions of Guthrie’s most popular song:
As I went walking, I saw a sign there,
And on the sign there, it said “No trespassing.”
But on the other side, it didn’t say nothing!
That side was made for you and me.
No matter your political stripe, your deeply held beliefs, pro or con, there’s no denying many today are frightened, confused, unsteady, unsure. It’s a critical time in the history of our republic – and that’s speaking only economically. As Earle reminded: The next president gets to choose TWO new Supreme Court justices. Roe v. Wade, among other matters of grave importance to Americans, could come into play.
“I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood,” Woody Guthrie once said. “I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built.
“I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work.”
That was the spirit tonight down on Varick Street. And when it got to the end, and folks gathered onstage — that band was made for you and me.