TULSA, Okla. — As much as anything he tried to do with his music and in his life, Woody Guthrie consistently stressed the “unity” in “community,” an attitude that was fully embraced by some three dozen participants in Saturday’s kickoff event in a yearlong national and international salute to the legacy of America’s greatest folk troubadour, who would have turned 100 on July 14.
Guthrie’s son, Arlo, was musical ringmaster of the star-studded 31/2-hour demonstration of the broad sweep of his father’s influence, a reach spanning the meat-and-potatoes heartland rock of John Mellencamp to the anarchic electronic experimentalism of Guthrie’s fellow Oklahomans the Flaming Lips, the smarts of country music scion Rosanne Cash to the heart-on-sleeve emotionalism of Southern California singer-songwriter Jackson Browne, the erstwhile teen pop of Hanson to the expansive folk-jazz-classical hybrid of 81-year-old musician and composer David Amram.
The players also included bluegrass stalwart Del McCoury and boundary-bending instrumentalist and singer Tim O’Brien, the tradition-minded Old Crow Medicine Show band and roots-music champion Jimmy LaFave, all of whom gathered at downtown Tulsa’s Brady Theater, a packed-to-the-rafters 2,800-capacity theater that opened when Guthrie Sr. was 2.
To embody the inclusive spirit that Guthrie touted, performers organically segued from one to the next, often joining one another in an ego-free show of brother- and sisterhood: Arlo, now 64, joined by the fresh-scrubbed Hanson brothers for “Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad”; LaFave inviting Cash and her guitarist husband, John Leventhal, to help out for the heart-wrenching “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee)”; the Old Crow Medicine Show adding O’Brien to the mix on its amped-up, full-throttle run through “Union Maid.”
At one point, Browne even pitched in as a roadie when Cash noticed as she was about to start her mini-set that she had no guitar strap. Out from the wings to the rescue came Browne, a loaner strap in hand, just ahead of the stagehand who arrived with her own missing piece of gear.
Browne will be among another all-star lineup when the Woody Guthrie celebration reaches Los Angeles next month. He will be on the bill with David Crosby, Graham Nash, Kris Kristofferson, Richie Furay, John Doe, Tom Morello and others April 14 at Club Nokia, capping a daylong conference scheduled at University of Southern California that will focus on Guthrie’s years in California.
All hands came on deck Saturday at the end for a rousing hootenanny rendition of Guthrie’s most celebrated song, “This Land Is Your Land,” including verses often omitted in the version commonly taught to grade-school students, verses about class inequities that Guthrie believed were threatening to undermine notions of equality and justice for all.
Two nights earlier, during a stop at the venerable Blue Door folk club in Oklahoma City on his way to Tulsa, Arlo Guthrie recalled being in grade school one day when everyone around him began singing “This Land Is Your Land.” At that moment, he realized, “I was the only one who didn’t know the words. I didn’t know that song was famous anywhere outside of our house. So I went home that day and my dad taught me the chords. Then he taught me the words. And I learned some verses that weren’t in the schoolbook version. I went back to school the next day — and I was armed.”
He also voiced no small degree of pride in joining Pete Seeger after they played a show in New York City last fall as he and Seeger led the musicians and the crowd down to Wall Street to serenade Occupy Wall Street demonstrators.
Saturday’s program was the first salvo in a bevy of not just concerts but conferences, exhibitions, educational programs for students and seniors organized chiefly by Arlo’s sister Nora in collaboration with officials at L.A.’s Grammy Museum.
Among the non-performing guests was Woody’s 90-year-old sister, Mary Jo, who was presented with a plaque from the museum’s executive director, Robert Santelli, a commemoration of her brother’s music slated to be installed in Guthrie’s hometown of Okemah, about 70 miles south of Tulsa.
Santelli, author of the new book “This Land Is Your Land: Woody Guthrie and the Journey of an American Folk Song,” moderated an “artist roundtable” session earlier in the day that was part of a daylong academic symposium on Guthrie’s music, this one themed “Different Shades of Red: Woody Guthrie and the Oklahoma Experience at 100.”
Various sessions explored the complicated relationship between Guthrie and his native state, which in the decades since his death in 1967 at age 55 from Huntington’s disease has avoided formally acknowledging his cultural influence because of his liberal politics.
Although Guthrie is by most measures the most celebrated musician ever to come out of the Sooner State, in recent years it has resisted public commemorations. In the 2008 presidential election, Oklahoma was the only state in the U.S. in which every county voted for the Republican ticket.
As different speakers noted during the symposium that preceded the evening concert, even though Guthrie was championed by American socialists and communists in the 1930s and ‘40s, he never joined their parties.
“He was a ‘commonist,’” said national radio commentator, author and former Texas politician Jim Hightower.
Western music specialist and Guthrie scholar Guy Logsdon said Guthrie’s politics essentially came down to one issue: “More than anything, he hated greed,” Logsdon said during Saturday’s symposium. “He believed that greed was the worst thing ever — worse than communism, worse than fascism.”
“Most of his critics are political,” Arlo Guthrie said later, during a quick stop for a sandwich near Erick, Okla., touted on a roadside billboard as the home of another Oklahoma musical wag, Roger Miller.
“He doesn’t have literary critics — nobody says the man couldn’t write. Nobody says the songs are no good.
“My dad told me to thank people for who they are,” he said. “There’s a balance in the world, and if somebody’s being stupid, don’t criticize ‘em for it — if they stop being who they are, you might have to take their place.”
Still, fans’ efforts to celebrate him in his native Okemah gathered enough steam to launch an annual Woody Guthrie music festival only 15 years ago.
But elsewhere around the nation and the world, he is being celebrated in multiple ways for his centennial year.
A three-CD boxed set released last month, “Woody at 100,” collects previously unreleased recordings discovered by the Smithsonian Folkways label, where Guthrie did much of his recording.
Dozens of other Guthrie celebrations are on the books this year, many independently organized. The cornerstone events put together by the Guthrie family and the Grammy Museum include a panel Thursday at the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas.
In Salinas, where Guthrie spent time while living among migrant workers in California’s Central Valley in the 1940s, the annual Steinbeck Festival on May 3-5 will host a salute to Guthrie.
And that’s just in the U.S. There also will be extensive salutes to his music through the year in Canada, Germany and Austria.
As Hightower pointed out during his talk, “Musicians continue to keep Woody’s music alive because Woody’s music keeps them alive.”