On Sunday night at the Kennedy Center, a group of legendary folk and rock artists will convene to pay tribute to the man who laid the foundation for them: Woody Guthrie. But for Nora Guthrie, the folk master’s daughter, the concert will be more a meeting of old friends.
“We don’t really have stars in folk music,” says Guthrie, 62, director of the Woody Guthrie Archives, which is organizing the Centennial Celebration Concert in conjunction with the Grammy Museum and the Kennedy Center. “For me it’s much more personal than that. These are all people who know the material, they know the spirit, they know the cause and they’re all doing it on their own. They are the sons and daughters of Woody in their own right.”
The concert – which includes performances by Ry Cooder, Tom Morello, Lucinda Williams and Old Crow Medicine Show, among others – marks the culmination of a year of concerts celebrating Guthrie’s life and musical legacy. The performances have roughly traced Guthrie’s footsteps from his beginnings in Oklahoma to Texas, California, Canada and New York.
Woody Guthrie’s influence on today’s folk singers is at once well documented and immeasurable.
Nora Guthrie recalls that when her father was sick with Huntington’s disease, Pete Seeger or a young Bob Dylan would come over to play his songs. Seeger’s banjo, she says, was the first she ever heard.
Guthrie, who was only 17 when her father died, cared for him during his illness. Now, she works to preserve his legacy, maintaining ties to his proteges and sharing the bounty of his work through the Woody Guthrie Archives.
“It meant a lot to him to know people were singing his songs,” his daughter says. “Everyone on this show, I have a story about. It’s real. Whatever it is, it’s going to be real.”
Here, five of the artists who will perform on Sunday share their thoughts about the legendary musician.
Daughter of country music icon Johnny Cash, Rosanne Cash is a Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter and an author of three books.
“There’s no denying his influence, and he’s part of the American consciousness, really. He’s bigger than himself and bigger than the songs at this point, 1 / 8with his influence 3 / 8 spread through our cultural sense of ourselves. So it’s important to honor that and remember who we are, and Woody is part of who we are.
“I remember my dad talking about Woody, playing Woody, so I would have heard ‘I Ain’t Got No Home’ and ‘Pretty Boy Floyd’ and of course ‘This Land Is Your Land.’ He was a powerful influence on my dad, the rawness of it, the American face of it, how stark it was. He’s like Steinbeck. He’s quintessentially American, and he draws these portraits and creates these narratives that are like small pieces of cinema or a Walker Evans photograph, which is a pretty amazing thing, and then he backs it all up with his social consciousness. . . .
“It’s hard to create a stand and a social consciousness in music without sounding like you’re proselytizing, and Woody did that so well. Just the beauty of the working man, and the unfairness in society. Without screeching, without proselytizing, just drawing these portraits.
“Here’s a reminder of who we are, here’s a reminder of the power of art and beauty in music, and here’s a reminder of a guy who stood up for the working man and woman, and the poor and the disenfranchised.”
Folk singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco founded the independent record label Righteous Babe Records in 1990 to maintain artistic control over her music. She received the Woody Guthrie Award in 2009 for being a voice of social change.
“I kind of came up through folk music, and Woody’s part of the foundation. So I was probably knowing and singing Woody songs before I knew that I was. You know, his influence on me I’m sure is foundational in that way, in that he sort of had a hand in inventing the genre and the job of folk singer: to write political music, to be a song crafter whose work is connected with your community, with your society, with making a change in the world.
“I began to study him and his work maybe later in life, long after I started writing my own songs, but the vicarious influence is huge. Because sort of the game of folk music is something that he helped devise, and that’s what I learned as a young person and that’s sort of the spirit that I like to work within.
“I was immediately as a young person attracted to this community, this subculture of anti-establishment, anti-corporate, rabble-rousing political writers and activists/musicians. So that’s the model that I’ve followed, and you can trace that pretty directly back to him and his contemporaries.”
The Grammy-winning heartland rocker received the Woody Guthrie Award in 2003 for his history of social and political activism.
“My parents back in the ‘50s had a couple Woody Guthrie records. They were young parents, so they were kids having kids.
“You know, the music was always important, but what I really enjoyed about Guthrie as well as the music was the way he conducted his life. He wasn’t afraid to stand up to people, he wasn’t afraid to be unpopular, he wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, he wasn’t afraid to go against the grain.
“To put it mildly, Woody suffered the full catastrophe of life. He was I guess what the common person would call a free spirit. But I would call it inspiration. The more I learned about him, the more I thought: These are the footsteps that I want to travel under. I don’t want to be part of anything. I’m with me. . . .
“I just think that it’s funny – and I think it’s very American – that we would be honoring Guthrie here, particularly since in his lifetime he operated so far outside of the law and society. But time has rewritten his legacy, and thank God it did.”
In 2011, bass player Rob Wasserman approached singer-songwriter Jackson Browne about composing a song based on a notebook entry Guthrie had written about his second wife. The result was “You Know the Night,” which Browne will likely perform at the centennial concert.
“Woody was the first really to take it upon himself to speak out about injustices and portray the working life. He’s really the first to have that kind of music sort of enter into American popular music.
“He also was so bohemian, I don’t think people necessarily understand how the sort of Merchant Marine/world traveling/Okie intersects with the bebop/stream-of-consciousness/Kerouac kind of world. There is a nexus there of the bohemian with folk, with working people. He could portray the lives of simple, working people in really elegant and emotional terms.
“All the while, he was extremely literate. Woody was an artist and a journalist, and we’re still writing songs from the piles and trunks of journal entries and letters that his family has preserved. Like so many folk songs, 1 / 8Guthrie’s songs are 3 / 8 rooted in the reality of people’s lives. They’re not picturesque, they’re not just period pieces. They’re about real life.
“I think it has to do with living in a very turbulent time when there was a lot of upheaval. He kind of grew up in the Depression . . . so he knew how to create a lot from a little. But there’s that undercurrent of truth-telling in all of Woody’s work. . . .
“Songs are a little bit like bumper stickers. They’re messages that are sent out. And some people’s messages resonate for generations. And in Woody’s case, ‘This Land Is Your Land’ was a very incendiary thing to say at the time it was written. It was about people who had been dispossessed. It was about reminding people that what this country was founded on was inclusion, and opportunity for all. And the opportunity to own land or to own a house of your own, or the opportunity to build a life for your children that might be improved over the life you yourself have led. You know, come to think of it, it’s not just an American idea, it’s a very universal, human idea.”
California-based folk musician Joel Rafael performed at the inaugural Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in 1998 and has played at the festival every year since. He toured with the Guthrie tribute show “Ribbon of Highway, Endless Skyway” and has released two albums of Guthrie’s songs.
“At a certain point, when I was still a young songwriter in my early 20s, I started to really look for Woody Guthrie. I realized that he’d been a huge influence. . . . And then, a couple years after the Woody Guthrie Festival was established, I made the decision to record a couple albums of his songs.
“Woody, he just wrote and wrote and wrote. He wrote instructions on how to be a songwriter. He’s got essays on, you know, coffee, and what’s good about it and what’s bad about it. All the promises it makes and never keeps. He literally wrote on every subject. So there’s a conversational quality to his writing that really appealed to me.
“I have internalized him in a certain way. He’s just kind of integrated into what I do in my work, and it’s not purposeful anymore, it’s just something that kind of happens.
“There’s a lot of people that find their influence in what Woody did and they try to copy him or dress like him. But – and I’ve heard Arlo 1 / 8Guthrie 3 / 8 say this – nobody is like Woody. And all the people that sing his songs and help perpetuate his legacy, none of them are like Woody. He was one of a kind, a Renaissance man. He defies all the definition that has been put on him.”