Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs
Everyone was talking about Woody Guthrie at this year's Newport Folk Festival. The annual fest, now in its 53rd year, played out much like a massive birthday party for Woody, who would have been 100 years old this year had he not died in 1967 of Hutchinson's disease.
>> SLIDESHOW: Newport Folk Festival 2012 by Ryan McMahon <<
From the start of the festival, the spirit of the revolutionary radical folksinger was around, as Wilco opened their Friday night kick-off set with a version of Guthrie's "Christ for President." "Let's have Christ our president," sang Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, over an original swinging country riff written by his band with Billy Bragg in 1998 to accompany the lyrics, which Guthrie never set to music himself. "The only way we could ever beat/These crooked politician men . . . . is to cast the moneychangers out of the temple/Put the carpenter in."
"Christ" was part of Mermaid Avenue, a Billy Bragg & Wilco album filled entirely with these lost Guthrie lyrics. The whole song plays with the idea of abandoning the current government system and accepting that only making Jesus president could ever conquer "crooked politician men." It talks about wastefulness and unemployment, poverty and hunger caused by lawmakers who are more concerned with waging wars than helping people.
Those words were written by Guthrie during the Depression, but they may as well have been written today. Such was the case with nearly every Guthrie song covered at Newport this year, a testament to both the universality of the legend's songwriting and the current state of the world. It all made this year's fest particularly valuable.
Many Guthrie songs performed throughout the course of the weekend were, similarly, ones being put to music for the first time: Tom Morello's version of "My Revolutionary Mind," Jackson Browne's version of a letter Woody wrote to his wife Marjorie, and the entire set by Jay Farrar and Jim James's project, New Multitudes, which performed entirely previously unheard Guthrie songs, as coordinated by Woody's daughter Nora. (She also coordinated Mermaid.)
Fittingly, one of the weekend's most noteworthy sets was by the Guthrie Family Reunion featuring Arlo Guthrie, son of Woody, playing his father's songs with the help of his siblings, children, and grandchildren. All of these dedications were supplemented with a slew of mid-level indie rock bands — mostly male, mostly white — along with emerging folksy groups with ears for preserving traditional folk and Americana aesthetics, some big names like Charles Bradley and Conor Oberst, plus bits of soul, folk-pop, alt-country. And lots of NPR rock.