If Woody Guthrie was alive today, he would be 100 years old. And if Woody Guthrie was alive today, he would be working himself to death.
In America, this is the era of Occupy, the age of income inequality and a season of renewed racial tension. Guthrie, a protest singer who seemed to write on command, would have had his pick of causes and inspirations.
Born 100 years ago in Okemah, Okla., Guthrie’s greatest knack (other than his nifty appropriation of pre-existing melodies) was his ability to celebrate America while simultaneously questioning it. Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land, for example, is mostly known by its bowdlerized singalong version, a familiar feature in summer camps from the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters. The song, which was Guthrie’s response to Irving Berlin’s self-righteous God Bless America; is chummy, patriotic and accessible.
However, those who have heard Neil Young’s latest record, Americana, get a glimpse of the full meaning of This Land is Your Land.
Young’s version contains two Guthrie-written passages not usually warbled by freckled children. One verse makes it clear that no-trespassing signs are to be ignored, suggesting a more communal notion of property ownership. The other repatriated verse involves people in the shadows of steeples and hungry citizens standing in relief lines. “Is this land made for you and me?” Guthrie asks through Young.
“He seems to be turning up in a lot of different places,” says Nora Guthrie, daughter of the protest-singing rambler. “The concerns right now seem to be environment, corruption, immigration and race hate, and those were my father’s top subjects.”
On Thursday, the folksinger turns up at the University of Alberta in Edmonton for Woody at 100: The Guthrie Legacy, a two-day conference.
“He would be supercharged by the world right now,” says Nora Guthrie, who is the president of Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc. and overseer of Guthrie’s archives. “He doesn’t mind being called into action again.”
Guthrie was a far-left populist, but, according to his daughter, he was, most of all, a commentator and an instigator. His message that the nation was great but capable of doing better was provocative. “His songs inspire conversation,” she explains, pointing out that he wrote songs for the U.S. Army and government, as well as for protesters. Says Rob Bowman, a professor of ethnomusicology at York University: “He was the first musician to regularly address social issues in a plain and simple language that everyone, regardless of their education, could grasp. It was a sophisticated message, simply presented.”
In 1939, Guthrie wrote Pretty Boy Floyd, a story-song dedicated to a bank-robbing outlaw who practised a crude (if murderous) sort wealth redistribution.
“A lot of things he discussed in the 1930s, post-Depression, are sadly true today,” says Jonathan Kertzer, director of folkwaysAlive!, a partnership of the University of Alberta and Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. “These issues continue to be fought over, which is why Woody Guthrie is so resonant today.”
The Washington-based Smithsonian Folkways label was founded in 1987 after the family of Moses Asch, founder of Folkways Records, donated the label to the Smithsonian Institution. Asch’s connection with the University of Alberta came through his son Michael, once a professor at the school. Moses Asch, appreciating Edmonton’s lively folk scene of the 1970s and ’80s, donated 2,168 albums (the entire Folkways catalogue) to the university.
The conference in Edmonton, dedicated to Guthrie’s worldwide appeal and which includes an appearance by Bowman to discuss the Canadian version of This Land is Your Land (by the Travellers, in 1955), is being held in conjunction with the Edmonton Folk Festival. Guthrie’s folksinging son Arlo appears in performance on Friday and for a workshop on Saturday
A full list of Guthrie occasions, from California to the New York island and beyond, can be found at www.woody100.com.
Guthrie also had a musical legacy, of course, inspiring socially conscious singer-songwriters from Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamps. At Newport Folk this year, the alt-rock band Wilco opened its set with Christ for President, a song found on Mermaid Avenue, a 1998 album with previously unused, and New Testament-inspired Guthrie lyrics set to music by Billy Bragg and Wilco chief Jeff Tweedy. “With the Carpenter on the seat, way up in the capital town,” the rally song goes, “the U.S.A. would be on the way, prosperity bound.”
Guthrie’s style of Christianity was charitable and non-judgmental, according to his daughter. “We didn’t have a lot of money, and I remember my mother buying him a winter coat once," she says. “The next day he was without the coat. He said he’d given to someone who looked colder than he was.”