Woody and John: 3.0
It’s the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie’s birth, and the folk legend’s message still rings true at this year’s Steinbeck Festival.
Thursday, May 3, 2012
When the Grammy Museum honored Woody Guthrie’s centennial in Los Angeles last month, award-winning folk musician Johnny Irion was there, fighting on behalf of a group of middle-school bellringers. All because his Uncle Thom was upset about a really expensive rock.
“Uncle Thom said, ‘All I know is I had the flu, and I wake up and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s bought a rock for $10 million,’” Irion says. The 340-ton boulder, part of an installation opening this summer called “Levitated Mass,” even has a Facebook page called “The Stupid LACMA Boulder.”
“After that conversation with Thom, I wrote the song ‘The Riverside Rockers,’ and then we made a video for it that day. It all took four hours. I wrote a song about the rock [and thought] maybe we can make it a benefit.”
Irion released the song online and asked people to donate a dollar to download it, successfully raising $30,000 to send the Mark Twain Middle School Bellringers from Los Angeles to perform at the 2012 London Summer Olympics.
Total time between Uncle Thom’s complaint, spurred by material excess, to reaching their goal to benefit an underdog: Ten days.
Of course Irion pulled off a DIY benefit. That’s what you do when your Uncle Thom is John Steinbeck’s son and your wife and musical partner is Sarah Lee Guthrie. She’s the granddaughter of folk master Woody Guthrie, whose 100th birthday is being honored at this year’s Steinbeck Festival. Irion and Guthrie will perform at the festival on Saturday night with Grammy-winning upright bass player Rob Wasserman.
Headed by Grammy Museum Executive Director Robert Santelli and Nora Guthrie (Woody’s daughter, Sarah Lee’s aunt, and the director of the New York-based Woody Guthrie Archives), “Woody 100” events mark the centennial with educational programs and tribute concerts around the country, including the “Guthrification” of this year’s Steinbeck Festival.
It’s new territory for the 32-year-old, Salinas-based event that’s never placed this much emphasis on any of John Steinbeck’s contemporaries. In addition to Sarah Lee and Johnny’s concert, about half of the event’s 21 lectures and panels will focus on Guthrie. The Grammy Museum’s hosting a traveling exhibit of the musician’s artifacts.
“Woody Guthrie wrote extensively about migrants, Okies, and people from the Southwest and Midwest coming to California. And of course John Steinbeck did the same,” Santelli says. “There’s a common denominator in interest in the working man and the disenfranchised of the 1930s. So I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could partner with the Steinbeck Center and demonstrate to people the close connection between Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck?’”
The pairing seems natural to Sarah Lee Guthrie.
“There’s a lot of people who wonder if they were friends. There were some letters back and forth between them that were mutual admiration. They teased each other quite a bit. There was one particular letter where John said, ‘You wrote that song [‘Tom Joad’] and could have saved me a whole novel!’ I love that.”
Gavin Cologne-Brookes, professor of American Literature at Bath Spa University in Great Britain, will present “The Ghost of Tom Joad: Steinbeck, Guthrie and Springsteen” on Saturday. Guthrie based his song on Nunnally Johnson’s screenplay of The Grapes of Wrath.
“Each interpreter re-emphasizes the story,” Cologne-Brooks says. “Guthrie’s voice is spikier, edgier, angrier. The ongoing translations of the story and the speech validate Tom Joad’s sentiments. He, or Steinbeck, is proved right since he is ‘there’ in the words of actors and songwriters who come after him.”
Writer/poet Tim Z. Hernandez continues this merging of literature with Guthrie’s music. On Friday he’ll perform “All They Will Call You: 32 Deportees and 1 Song of Despair” with Fresno musician Lance Canales. The child of San Joaquin Valley migrant farm workers, Hernandez took special interest in Guthrie’s song “Deportee,” depicting a 1948 Los Gatos Canyon plane crash that killed 34 farm workers who were being deported to Mexico. Guthrie wrote the song to protest news reports that didn’t say the names of the victims, referring to them only as deportees.
“I’m from the town that the accident happened in,” Hernandez says. “I’ll be attempting to give voices and names to the passengers of the airplane.
“What excited me was the time in which Woody Guthrie looked into that plane crash, recognized that it seemed important enough to write about. Guthrie and Steinbeck’s attention to getting down the real voice as best as possible, and writing about the gaps that go overlooked in mainstream media or art forms.”
Daniel Cavicchi, professor of American studies at the Rhode Island School of Design, will discuss the history of protest music in “American Song and Civic Action” on Friday. He sees the overlap of the art forms: “Both literature and music provide similar windows on historical experience. At some point in time, a creative person sat down and made a work that captured what they were thinking and feeling in that moment, responding to the latest headlines, noting snippets of conversation, ruminating on their personal problems and triumphs,” he says.
Literature and music may be different art forms, but both function similarly, using word and sound to build empathy.
“They create moments of shared experience and feeling that take us outside of ourselves,” he says, “and allow us to reflect, challenge, and affirm.”
Hernandez sees the need to keep telling migrant worker stories through the arts. “For the most part, a lot of it really hasn’t changed much,” he says of the work conditions he witnessed on factory farms while working for the California Council for the Humanities in the early 2000s.
San Jose State University Professor Persis Karim, presenting “Steinbeck’s Legacy in the Literature of Working People” on Friday, focuses on outsider characters in ethnic fiction. She considers Guthrie’s Okies to be as disenfranchised as foreign migrant workers in Steinbeck’s fiction, a situation that continues today. The idea that Okies would be considered outsiders in a place like California has a lot more to do with class than anything else. “The thing about Okies was, they came in large numbers, they were extremely poor, they were extremely determined, and they were extremely willing to work,” Karim says. “You think about that population, and you think about Mexicans and Central Americans today. You can think about the immigration debate as almost a mirror image of what Steinbeck captures in that novel.”
For the voice currently espousing Steinbeck and Guthrie’s sentiments, Cologne-Brookes looks to Bruce Springsteen. “Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball album is a great example of Steinbeck’s sentiment: ‘This is the beginning, from ‘I’ to ‘we.’ He has the motif of movement, migration, in ‘Land of Hope and Dreams.’ You’re invited on board the train whoever you are. You take what you can carry and leave everything else. That’s the Joads all over again.”
Irion and Sarah Lee Guthrie’s music focuses more on human relations than the human condition, bellringing benefits aside. Their 2011 album Bright Examples features the couples’ bright harmonies, acoustic instrumentation and sweetly witty lyrics.
The duo shifted even further from their famous roots in February with their cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “All Through the Night,” recorded as U.S. Elevator with San Francisco’s Rondo Brothers. Full of gentle drum machines and drip-droppy loops, the single leads directly into the duo’s next project: Last week they began recording their next album with Wilco.
This is the first time Guthrie and Irion have worked with Wilco, but it’s not Wilco’s first time working with a Guthrie. The 1998 version of Wilco worked with Billy Bragg and Nora Guthrie to create the Mermaid Avenue albums, one of the first projects spearheaded by Nora Guthrie to encourage musicians to put music to the 3,000-plus songs in her father’s archives. Three Mermaid Avenue albums have been released: in 1998, 2000 and last month.
Sarah Lee Guthrie says she became a fan of Wilco through the Mermaid Avenue project.
“I think that’s how a lot of us fell in love with Wilco,” she says. “It’s really neat how it’s come full circle.”
Nora Guthrie’s been generous with her father’s lyrics. In February, Jay Farrar, Yim Yames (better known by his real name, Jim James, the lead vocalist of My Morning Jacket), Anders Parker, and Will Johnson released New Multitudes, another collection of Guthrie’s unrecorded lyrics, given new life. It hasn’t been without some dissent.
“The fact is that these are Woody’s words, and a lot of people don’t think that anyone should have touched them. They really think that things should be preserved and we should not move forward,” Sarah Lee Guthrie says. “Then there are people like us who say, ‘Well, how else are these awesome lyrics going to get out there?’ Like [Wilco’s] ‘California Stars’ or [Dropkick Murphys’] ‘Shipping Up to Boston.’ It’s extremely cool that they’re giving the songs new life.”
Guthrie sees the new recordings of her grandfather’s writings changing his legacy, especially his unearthed songs about love – the subject of much of her work with Irion, whom she married in 1999.
“A lot of people think of Woody as a political man, and yeah, maybe that was his most popular stuff at the time. Over time we’ve blown him up into this iconic figure. Sometimes it’s hard to see him as human,” she says. “These love stories, love songs, love letters bring it back to, ‘Oh right. He’s one of us.’ It gives us more of an idea that he’s human. And that’s what he’s all about.”
In 2009 Guthrie recorded the children’s album Go Waggaloo, including three of her grandfather’s compositions. She never met Woody; he died of Huntington’s Disease in 1967, 11 years before Sarah Lee’s birth to Jackie and Arlo Guthrie, Woody’s son.
“Those were pivotal moments in my life, just being able to feel like I was sitting with my grandfather. At first I thought I had nothing to do with it. It’s my grandfather and he’s everybody’s man, and I’m just this little ol’ girl. But as I’ve grown into it I’ve discovered that I feel like he’s really listening. I feel like we walk together.”
What it gives her, she says, is guts.
“I needed that. I could shy away from this. People say, ‘Oh my gosh, you can’t possibly be able to do this.’ Well, I feel like he’s walking next to me. That’s how I do it,” she says. “Working with his lyrics has only made me a stronger musician, a stronger person and given me a little bit more to work with.”
For the Grammy Museum’s Santelli, who went from a child who loved singing “This Land is Your Land” to an adult who’s one of the foremost keepers of Woody Guthrie’s legacy, this is music to his ears. He presents “Woody 101” at the festival on Friday. The centennial events are a way to celebrate Guthrie’s legacy – it remains important even today because, he says, “it’s where American music gets its conscience.
“Guthrie proved that music is a vehicle for social change. It acts as a mouthpiece for people who don’t have a significant voice in our democracy. It certainly brings new insight into age-old problems in this society, like immigration, like poverty and the difference between the haves and have-nots,” he says. “His songs may have been written 70 years ago, but the themes and the meanings behind those songs are as relevant today as they ever were. Hopefully we’ll be able to reach new generations of young people with his music.”
And if they succeed, maybe the legacy – and the message that it carries – will last 100 years into the future.
This Blog Kills Fascists
To celebrate the ‘Woody 100,’ one blogger makes it simple to read, write and share.
On New Years Eve, music blogger Scott Allen of St. Louis, Missouri, posted about Woody Guthrie’s upcoming 100th birthday, along with a meme of Guthrie’s hand-written 1942 New Years “Rulin’s” (www.3minuterecord.wordpress.com). My wheels turned – I needed to find a new way to look at Guthrie in his 100th year.
Educational symposiums and tribute concerts are covered, so what’s something everyone can do?
Read a book. Specifically, Guthrie’s 1943 fictionalized autobiography Bound for Glory.
Within three days, www.boundforglory100.com was up. The goal: Get people to consider Woody Guthrie’s written words beyond the music and the legend. The only rules: Sometime in 2012, read Bound for Glory, write about it and submit it to the website to be shared.
Readers signed up fast. Some were well-schooled in Guthrie and others had never heard his name. And some, like photographer Corey Woodruff, used the project as a jumping-off point to other Guthrie-inspired projects.
“Originally I was just going to recreate classic Guthrie portraits using contemporary folk musicians, but I decided that creating a photo for each of the Rulin’s would be, oh, bigger,” Woodruff says. “Of course, at the center of the project is Woody Guthrie, a figure I had only rudimentary knowledge about. I figured that diving into the project would also sate my curiosity about the man.”
Woodruff is halfway finished with the project, which he plans to unveil on July 13, the night before Guthrie and Woodruff’s shared birthday.
In the meantime, people are reading. And hopefully writing. I’m hitting the road, Guthrie style, making stops in his tiny Oklahoma birthplace, participating in “Woody 100” events, and trekking from my home in Southern Illinois to Salinas for the Steinbeck Festival, reading and writing the whole way.