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The Arts

Happy birthday, Woody!

A centennial celebration for a musical legend

The Green River Festival, now in its 26th year, will be held Saturday and Sunday, July 14 and 15, on the grounds of Greenfield Community College (I-91, Exit 26, Greenfield, Mass.). It combines a spectacular lineup of music on three stages, food, crafts, a dance tent, a wide array of kids’ activities and entertainment, and hot-air balloon rides. Another musical legend, Richard Thompson, will perform on Sunday. Complete event information: 413-773-5463, fccc@crocker.com, or www.greenriverfestival.com.

“Music is in all the sounds of nature and there never was a sound that was not music - the splash of an alligator, the rain dripping on dry leaves, the whistle of a train, a long and lonesome train whistling down, a truck horn blowing at a street corner speaker - kids squawling along the streets - the silent wail of wind and sky caressing the breasts of the desert. Life is this sound, and since creation has been a song. And there is no real trick of creating words to set to music, once you realize that the word is the music and the people are the song."

—Woody Guthrie

Forget “America the Beautiful” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In all its populist glory, the national anthem of the United States is Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” And its transgressive, deeply radical lyrics still speak to the deepest longings inside of us.

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, an American legend, a musician, songwriter, author, hard traveler, fighter against injustice (“This machine kills fascists” was written on his guitar) and a family man to many, many families, was born in Oklahoma on July 14, 1912, making this his centennial year.

By the time Guthrie died, tragically, of Huntington’s Disease in 1967, he had left behind a wealth of music and an extended family of exceptional singers, songwriters, and musicians that included people with the last names of Seeger, Dylan, Baez, Ochs, and — most of all — Guthrie. Son Arlo Guthrie, who wrote the famous ’60s’ anti-war ballad, “Alice’s Restaurant,” continued the family tradition, as did his own children.

On Saturday, July 14, on the 100th anniversary of Guthrie’s birth, the entire singing Guthrie family, generations of them, will celebrate their legendary ancestor at the Green River Festival in Greenfield, Mass. The next day, they will perform the same concert in New York City’s Central Park.

* * *

I grew up on Woody Guthrie, and I don’t mean only on his populist politics. Every now and then my mother, bless her, would put aside the original Broadway musical cast recordings and put on Guthrie’s “Songs to Grow On.” Then she, my brother and I would dance around the living room to the rhythms of “Take me riding in the car, car;/Take me riding in the car, car;/Take you riding in the car, car;/I’ll take you riding in my car./Click clack, open up the door, girls;/Click clack, open up the door, boys;/Front door, back door, clickety clack,/Take you riding in my car.”

Or his inimitable “Put Your Finger in the Air.” (Just imagine the choreography!) And many more.

So Guthrie started playing a big role in my life when I was very young.

By that time, the ramblin’, restless, travelin’ magic of Guthrie and his friends, including Cisco Houston, Pete Seeger, and later Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and others, had already injected the road song — and the brotherhood of the road — into the American consciousness. They brought romance to riding the rails. There wouldn’t have been a Jack Kerouac or an “On The Road” without them.

Under their influence, the next generation — my generation — took to the road. When I was doing my traveling in the 1970s, the songs I sang to myself the most were Houston’s “Hard Traveling’” and Dylan’s “Tomorrow is a Long Time.”

As the time passed, we realized that Guthrie was a little more than just a “folk singer.” It turned out that he was the minstrel of American justice. He was America’s conscience.

Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln might have created the ethos of freedom and democracy that haunts the American landscape, but it took Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” to give it back to we, the people.

“As I was walking that ribbon of highway/ I saw above methat endless skyway/I saw below me that golden valley/This land was made for you and me/This land is your land, This land is my land/From California to the New York Island/From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters/This land was made for you and me.”

“This Land is Your Land” also represents Guthrie’s cheerful confrontation with the American oligarchy: “As I went walking I saw a sign there/And on the sign it said “No Trespassing”/But on the other side it didn’t say nothing/That side was made for you and me.”

The song was written in 1940 as an antidote to what Guthrie considered Irving Berlin’s immigrant, ass-kissing, phony paean to America, “God Bless America.”

But the two songs are the opposite sides of the same coin.

Berlin, a Jew who was lucky enough to escape cruelty, persecution, and displacement in Europe and find a home for his creativity in America, was celebrating the exact same ideals as Guthrie during the cruelty, displacement, and persecution of Depression-era and Dust Bowl America.

The great irony of “This Land is Your Land” is that every generation has to fight to take back the country once again.

In our own age of evictions, foreclosures, and bank greed, it is hard to forget that Guthrie penned, in 1939 in “Pretty Boy Floyd,” the immortal lines, “Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered/I’ve seen lots of funny men;/Some will rob you with a six-gun/And some with a fountain pen.”

And what can be more timely, with the far right fanning the flames of fear and hatred of immigrants, than Guthrie’s song about migrant workers, “Pastures of Plenty”?

“It’s a mighty hard row that my poor hands have hoed/My poor feet have traveled a hot dusty road/Out of your Dust Bowl and Westward we rolled/And your deserts were hot and your mountains were cold[...]

“On the edge of the city you’ll see us and then/We come with the dust and we go with the wind[...]

“Every state in the Union us migrants have been/We’ll work in this fight and we’ll fight till we win

“It’s always we rambled, that river and I/All along your green valley, I will work till I die/My land I’ll defend with my life if it be/Cause my pastures of plenty must always be free.”

* * *

Those pastures of plenty are still not free, and now they’re genetically modified, as well.

This land is still not your land or my land, but the banks’ land and agribusinesses’ land and the developers’ land.

American politics has never been more corrupt. Fighting corruption has never been more disheartening.

But Guthrie rolls on, bless him, as mighty as the Columbia River he once celebrated in song. As he wrote in “Tom Joad”:

“Wherever little children are hungry and cry,/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.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #160 (Wednesday, July 11, 2012).

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