Woody Guthrie Tribute: All Smiles, but No Bite

It was an evening more mellow than militant.

One would think that a concert devoted to the legacy of political pot-stirrer Woody Guthrie might have sparked at least a mention of America’s impending invasion of Iraq, the plight of labor unions or the unequal treatment of immigrants. But no pointing fingers scratched the sunny surface of Thursday’s (Feb. 5) benefit hootenanny at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. Go tell it on the mountain: Woody Guthrie is safe for everyone.

Produced to raise money for the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives in New York, the show drew a near full house. Many in the audience were in town to attend the Folk Alliance’s 15th annual international conference being held next door at the Nashville Convention Center Thursday (Feb. 6) through Sunday.

A mix-up at the Ryman’s box office kept many ticket-buyers standing in line past the time the show was scheduled to start. It was the only occurrence of the evening that threatened to incite widespread outrage.

Arlo Guthrie, Woody’s equally famous son, headlined a parade of stars and notable musicians that included Arlo’s daughter Sarah, Janis Ian, Alison Brown, Guy Clark , Beth Nielsen Chapman , James Talley, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott , Nanci Griffith , Marty Stuart & the Fabulous Superlatives, Peter Rowan , Tim O’Brien , Cathy Fink, Marcy Marxer, Blackfire, Johnny Irion, Corey Harris, Jimmy LaFave , Slaid Cleaves, Ellis Paul, Eliza Gilkyson, Rob Wasserman, DJ Logic, Wenzel and last-minute addition, the Old Crow Medicine Show.

Woody’s daughter Nora, who serves on the Guthrie Foundation’s board, did a splendid job of keeping the audience amused with stories about her father and the musicians who came to honor him. In spite of the great number of performers on the bill, the nearly four-hour show never dragged, principally because there was more singing than aimless chattering.

It’s no secret that Guthrie is pretty small potatoes musically when shorn of his feisty left-wing political commentary. His melodies are derivative — taken from familiar hymns and ballads — and his lyrics can be a bit ragged and derivative too. Yet none of the performers lifted his utterances out of the Depression and World War II gauze in which they’ve been antiseptically wrapped to point out where they still apply today.

With no apparent irony, the Old Crow Medicine Show sang the rousing organizing cry, “Union Maid,” on a stage that’s seldom — if ever — trod by union stagehands. Stuart offered the stark indictment of lynching, “Hangknot,” without noting that it speaks just as well to the matter of capital punishment. Instead, Stuart reworked the final refrain into an assertion that Guthrie should be admitted to the Country Music Hall of Fame. While this is surely a worthy goal, it’s something less than the kind of quality-of-life issue with which Guthrie concerned himself. The closest any act came to making an overt political connection was when the trio Blackfire sang “Mean Things Happening in the World” and emphasized the lines about war, all but gesturing for the audience to respond. The audience did not.

A subtext of the evening was how adaptable Guthrie’s words and music are to other musical formats. Blackfire gave them a rock treatment. Bassist Wasserman and turntable artist DJ Logic, working with Studs Terkel’s recorded snippets of Guthrie’s prose, created intricate rhythmic patterns that implied truths rather than stating them. German composer and pianist Wenzel looked into Guthrie’s writings and discovered a driving, infectious techno-pop ride he called “Ticky Tock.”

Among the show’s emotional highpoints were Ian’s “In My Heart I Hear You Sing Again,” a lovely reminiscence of her mother. Ian explained that she “co-wrote” the song with Guthrie after having been given a sheaf of his unmelodied lyrics to work with. Just as moving was “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportees),” a story of the death of illegal farm workers being deported to Mexico, performed by Talley, Chapman, Ian and Dave Pomeroy. Clark did get mild cheers from the audience with “Pretty Boy Floyd” when he sang the often-quoted lines, “As I’ve traveled ’round this country/I’ve seen lots of funny men/some will rob you with a six gun/some with a fountain pen.”

There were lots of amusing lines and wry anecdotes sprinkled through the songs. Noting that she had found one song by her father that had 124 verses and another with 83, Nora Guthrie proclaimed, “I want to do a five-CD set with three songs.” Introducing Elliott, Stuart recalled going to see him at the Cellar Door in Washington, D. C. “It was the most startling performance I ever saw. He slept on stage for 45 minutes.”

Harold Leventhal, who managed Guthrie during his later days, told the Ryman crowd, “A little more than 50 years ago, I tried to book Woody into this hall, and he was turned down. We finally made it.” Arlo Guthrie added, “I was here 33 years ago on The Johnny Cash Show.” Alluding to the notion that his father was something of a ne’er-do-well, he noted, “Contrary to popular opinion, my dad did try to make a living one time. He wrote some cowboy songs. The fact that none of them succeeded saved his reputation.”

Now if they could only save his relevance.

Set List

Old Crow Medicine Show
“Shortnin’ Bread”
“Hangman’s Reel”
“Union Maid”
“C. C. Rider”

Alison Brown, John Doyle
“This Land Is Your Land” (instrumental)

The MET Singers
“This Land Is Your Land” (vocal)

Old Crow Medicine Show, Marty Stuart
“Howdy Do”

James Talley, Dave Pomeroy
“Oklahoma Hills”

Beth Nielsen Chapman, James Talley, Dave Pomeroy, Janis Ian, Sarah Lee Guthrie
“A Story That’s Never Been Told”

Janis Ian
“In My Heart I Hear You Sing Again”

James Talley, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Dave Pomeroy, Janis Ian
“Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportees)”

Jimmy LaFave
“In Oklahoma”/”Oklahoma Hills”

Slaid Cleaves, Eliza Gilkyson
“This Morning I’m Born Again”

Ellis Paul, Eliza Gilkyson
“God’s Promise”

Cathy Fink, Marcy Marxer
“Birds and Ships”

Corey Harris
“Go Back and Try”

Tim O’Brien, Peter Rowan
“Ain’t Nobody Can Sing Like Me”
“Hard Travelin'”

“Mean Things Happening in the World”

Rob Wasserman, DJ Logic
Studs Terkel’s recorded readings from Woody Guthrie’s prose, accompanied by electric bass and turntable

“Ticky Tock”

Guy Clark, Marty Stuart
“Pretty Boy Floyd”

Guy Clark, Nanci Griffith, the Kennedys
“Do Re Mi”

Marty Stuart & the Fabulous Superlatives
“Jesus Christ”

Ramblin’ Jack Elliott
“Pastures of Plenty”
“The Talkin’ Sailor”

Arlo Guthrie, Sarah Lee Guthrie, Johnny Irion
“Dead or Alive”
“No Church Tonight”
“Gypsy Davy”

Entire Cast
“This Land Is Your Land”

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.