July 16, 2012
I went to Greenfield in search of Woody Guthrie. The folk-music icon would have been 100 years old on July 14, and his descendents celebrated the occasion by convening at the Green River Festival this past Saturday.
What I was hoping for–and ultimately got–was a glimpse into all that went into transforming an Okie folkie into an American music icon.
Woody’s spirit was present all day. Music as diverse as the New Orleans funk of Rebirth Brass Band, Mexican-American mash-ups of Los Lobos, and gritty soul from Charles Bradley illustrated how music carved from genuine emotion is more durable than music simply gunning for entertainment value.
The Guthrie Family Reunion, with Woody’s son, Arlo Guthrie, leading the pack, headlined the festival. Arlo and his kids Abe, Sarah Lee, Annie and Cathy, plus a gaggle of his grandchildren crowded the stage (as Arlo’s wife Jackie darted about with camera in hand).
The Guthries untangled the complex legacy of their patriarch through an engrossing 90-minute performance that was more warm than scholarly. It didn’t matter that a kids-driven tune about classroom show-and-tell went off the rails when a 4-year-old lost her place or when Arlo flubbed the opening to “All Over the World,” one of his songs resurrected for the Occupy Movement. Those were honest mistakes, not misfires in some sort of finely calibrated showbiz juggernaut. And whether it was the youngest or the oldest person on stage struggling to get back in the groove, a swarm of family came in to lift up the one in need. Woody was in such moments because they were as heartfelt as the sentiments expressed in “I Hear You Sing Again,” a Woody lyric eventually set to music by Janis Ian and sung by Arlo at the festival.
Elsewhere, the Guthrie family showed how Woody’s songs of unrest are as resonant today as when first aired in the 1930s and 40s. “Deportee” gave voice and dignity to undocumented immigrants. “Pretty Boy Floyd” challenged you to consider who the bigger crook is–the banker with a pen or the robber with a gun. Annie Guthrie sang “Ramblin’ Round,” a song from the 1930s about the plight of the unemployed in a bad economy that didn’t sound out of place today.
Woody had a playful side too, that came up in “”Hoodoo Voodoo,” a rollicking lyric lit up by Krishna Guthrie, Woody’s electric-guitar-slinging great-grandson. And Arlo used “My Daddy Flies That Ship in the Sky” to show how his father could couch important messages about peace and unity in the simple language of children’s songs.
The Guthries stretched Woody’s most famous anthem, “This Land is Your Land,” beyond continental borders, with Arlo talking about all of the places around the globe where he has found the song adopted by people looking for the best in wherever they live.
For the finale, Arlo boiled down Woody to his most basic, singing a simple yet powerful lyric that Woody himself never got to record but his son made sure got out into the world: “My peace, my peace is all I’ve got that I can give to you.”
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Scott McLennan is a music correspondent for the Boston Globe and former entertainment columnist for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. His work as taken him from the Newport Folk Festival to the New England Metal and Hardcore Festival and many musical points in between. Scott also writes about skiing for Hawthorn Publications.
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