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
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.
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
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.
Old Crow Medicine Show
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
James Talley, Dave Pomeroy
Beth Nielsen Chapman, James Talley, Dave Pomeroy, Janis Ian, Sarah Lee Guthrie
Story That's Never Been Told"
"In My Heart I Hear You Sing Again"
James Talley, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Dave Pomeroy, Janis Ian
"Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportees)"
"In Oklahoma"/"Oklahoma Hills"
Slaid Cleaves, Eliza Gilkyson
Morning I'm Born Again"
Ellis Paul, Eliza Gilkyson
Fink, Marcy Marxer
"Birds and Ships"
"Go Back and Try"
Tim O'Brien, Peter Rowan
"Ain't Nobody Can Sing Like Me"
"Mean Things Happening in the World"
Rob Wasserman, DJ Logic
Terkel's recorded readings from Woody Guthrie's prose, accompanied by electric bass and turntable
Guy Clark, Marty Stuart
"Pretty Boy Floyd"
Nanci Griffith, the Kennedys
"Do Re Mi"
Marty Stuart & the Fabulous Superlatives
Ramblin' Jack Elliott
"Pastures of Plenty"
Arlo Guthrie, Sarah Lee Guthrie, Johnny Irion
"Dead or Alive"
"This Land Is Your Land"