Concert Review: This Land is Your Land — Woody Guthrie at 100

Juli Thanki | October 16th, 2012

Folk Musician Woody GuthrieThe Kennedy Center is a rather opulent venue for a folk music concert, even if the concert is celebrating one of the 20th century’s most important singer-songwriters. But the two dozen musicians that took the stage Sunday night filled the large concert hall with a joyful noise that surely rattled the chandeliers. Woody Guthrie’s “100th birthday party,” as Old Crow Medicine Show frontman Ketch Secor described it, has been going on for the past ten months, with shows and celebrations from California to Coney Island (because “someone had to pull this country together,” said Nora Guthrie); soon, the party will move overseas, with events scheduled in Austria and Germany.

The Washington DC show brought together acts from across the American music spectrum, from a cappella gospel group Sweet Honey in the Rock to former Rage Against the Machine/Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello for a three hour show that included songs, stories, and readings from Woody’s writing.

Despite several hiccups with the sound—changing setups every ten minutes to accommodate each different act couldn’t have been easy for the crew—it was a fantastic show, though there was a solemn undercurrent running throughout the evening, as Arlo Guthrie’s wife, Jackie, passed away that morning; at one point during the show, Judy Collins noted that all of the musicians were performing with Jackie and Arlo (who was scheduled to appear) in mind. As a whole, the night showcased Guthrie’s versatility as a songwriter, going from goofy kids’ songs like “Riding in My Car” (performed by Donovan) to his Dust Bowl ballads to labor songs like “1913 Massacre,” covered by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.

There were too many outstanding moments to list them all individually, so hopefully the number of cameras onstage meant that the concert was being filmed for a future DVD release, but a few songs stick out. Old Crow Medicine Show kicked off the evening with infectious versions of “Howdjadoo” and “Union Maid.” Tim O’Brien was the workhorse of the evening, playing mandolin for Jimmy LaFave’s take on “Hard Travelin’” and Ani DiFranco’s unremarkable performance of “Jolly Banker,” and, in one of the best moments of the evening, joining the Del McCoury Band for “Dusty Old Dust (So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You).” The McCourys also teamed up with banjo player Tony Trischka for a stellar rendition of “Woody’s Rag,” Guthrie’s only known instrumental. Lucinda Williams unveiled “House of Earth,” unpublished lyrics that she set to music (it’s also the title of a Guthrie novel that will be published next year); Jackson Browne also put Woody’s words to music with “You Know the Night,” a song whose lyrics were taken from a letter Guthrie wrote to his wife, Marjorie (the unedited version Browne played was at least ten minutes long, but you can hear a shorter version here).

At the end of the evening, all the artists crowded onstage for a spirited two-song encore that had the crowd out of their plush seats. First was “Bound for Glory,” then, of course, “This Land is Your Land,” during which Tom Morello encouraged the crowd to pogo along with him: “Everybody jump the f*** up.” Watching scruffy college kids and well-heeled septuagenarians bop along and sing Guthrie’s signature song, it’s not hard to imagine that Woody was looking down on the spectacle and smiling.

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  1. [...] be released June 11 on Legacy Recordings. (via press releases) Read our review of the concert here. Juli Thanki is the editor of Engine 145 and a freelance writer whose work has appeared in [...]
  1. Rick
    October 16, 2012 at 5:03 pm

    It never ceases to amaze me how leftists excel at creating cults of personality around their favorite activist icons. This type of music truly inspires those who lean left politically but gives conservatives like me the heebeejeebies!

    Given a choice, rather than attending this Woody Worship Service I think I would prefer a concert honoring Jack Guthrie’s music, or maybe a Romney rally…

  2. TX Music Jim
    October 16, 2012 at 6:58 pm

    Woddy was a heckuv a songwriter. so is Steve Earle and a bunch of artists who are far to the left of me politicaly. I apreciate the art for the arts sake. Yeah I know at a deal like this it’s going to have some political overtones that are going to not be my thing but to get to be a part of the music, it would be worth it. For me at least.

  3. Barry Mazor
    October 16, 2012 at 7:05 pm

    It never ceases to amaze me how the diligent can flush out the politics of a guy like Woody Guthrie. A man of the left? Who knew.. And when it’s the Maddox Brothers and Rose singing his song–who knows?

  4. Jon
    October 16, 2012 at 8:24 pm

    I don’t know one more thing of any value after reading Rick’s post than I did before.

  5. Arlene
    October 16, 2012 at 9:44 pm

    Rick- The first time I ever heard “This Land is Your Land” was in 1962 when it was being taught to my first grade class by my elementary school music teacher, Mr. Davies, who had to play the piano with one hand because he’d lost the use of his left arm as a result of being wounded at Guadalcanal during World War II. Like my father, who received a battlefield commission during the Battle of the Bulge, Mr. Davies never talked about his war experiences. How odd you must find it that both of these patriots enjoyed the music of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.

    I still think one of my favorite concert experiences was attending Merlefest in 2006 and hearing the “Ribbon of Highway, Endless Skyway” tribute to Woody Guthrie with, among others, Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, Guy Clark and Verlon Thompson, Shawn Camp, David Bromberg, Jimmy LaFave, Eliza Gilkyson, Slaid Cleaves, and Woody’s granddaughter, Sarah Lee Guthrie with her husband, Johnny Irion. Near the end, Pete Seeger came out to sing a medley of Woody Guthrie’s children’s songs and he was holding in his arms an infant– Woody Guthrie’s great granddaughter, the grandchild of Arlo, and daughter of Sarah Lee. Songs being passed from generation to generation– isn’t that a goal of most great songwriters?

  6. luckyoldsun
    October 16, 2012 at 11:33 pm

    Well, they’re honoring Woody Guthrie in Okemah, Oklahomoa now. They finally figured, Why not join in on the fun–or get a piece of the action, I guess!

  7. Paul W Dennis
    October 16, 2012 at 11:53 pm

    “This Land Is Your Land” was a big favorite during the Hootenanny era. While not every folk act recorded the song (many did) virtually every folk act knew the song and performed it live. I must have seen everyone from the New Christie Minstrals to Johnny Cash perform the song at one time or another.

  8. bll
    October 17, 2012 at 11:29 am

    Sadly Arlo lost his wife of 45 years the morning of the event. I personally loved the Weavers version of ‘This Land’ and it was one of the first records I bought for myself.

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