I can’t help but think that if Woody Guthrie had only written one song, “This Land Is Your Land,” he still would have been remembered as a brilliant musician. His career extends far beyond just that one composition, as he has achieved the status of one of America’s poet laureates of the 20th century.
Woody Guthrie would have turned 100 in 2012, so last October 14, artists such as Judy Collins, Rosanne Cash, Jackson Browne, Donovan, John Mellencamp, Lucinda Williams, Tom Morello, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott gathered at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. to celebrate his life and music. Now, a CD/DVD has been released to commemorate this centennial concert. PBS presented some of the concert as a part of a tribute to Guthrie, but the Woody Guthrie At 100! Live At The Kennedy Center package contains eight performances not shown on the television special, and adds some archival bonus footage.
It is always interesting to hear today’s musicians interpret Guthrie’s words and music. His songs have a timeless quality that allow an artist leeway in interpreting the stories. Judy Collins (“Pastures of Plenty”), Donovan (“Riding in My Car (Car Song)”), John Mellencamp (“Do Re Me”), Sweet Honey In The Rock (“I’ve Got to Know”), and Rosanne Cash (“I Ain’t Got No Time” and “Pretty Boy Floyd”) all provide modernized versions of his music while paying tribute to the originals. Various backing instruments and musicians, plus vocal harmonies and even some a cappella vocals update his folk classics.
During the last 20 years Nora Guthrie has invited some musicians to compose music to Woody Guthrie’s unpublished lyrics. Lucinda Williams (“House of Earth”) and Joel Rafael (“Ramblin’ Reckless Hobo”) were present to perform their newly created songs on which they now share writing credit with Guthrie. Rafael channels Bob Dylan in approach, while Williams brings country passion to her performance.
The CD and DVD contain basically the same song list, although the DVD contains two spoken word performances by actor Jeff Daniels. The DVD has very good clarity and sound and manages to present the flow of the concert well.
The bonus material is short but sweet. Especially so is Woody singing “Green Back Dollar,” “John Henry,” and “Ranger’s Command.” It allows one to travel back in time to an America that is long gone but which provided the heart and soul for his music. The only issue ts the shortness of the clips. Still, they are a fine example of Guthrie’s style.
The final two tracks were ensemble performances of “This Train Is Bound for Glory” and “This Land Is Your Land.” They remain two of the more memorable songs in U.S. history and are prime examples of Guthrie’s ability to paint pictures with his lyrics. With Woody Guthrie; it always comes back to the words.
Woody Guthrie died October 3, 1967, at the age of 55, from Huntington’s disease. Woody Guthrie At 100! Live At The Kennedy Center is a nice celebration as it connects his music and life to the present and looks ahead to the future.