What would Guthrie say about America in 2007?

Just folks
By BRIAN C JONES  |  August 15, 2007
This year’s edition of the Newport Folk Festival was almost perfect. For one thing, it had the best T-shirt, just a simple line across the front: “What would Woody do?”
It’s a great variation on the question about global warming that environmentalists have been asking right-wing evangelicals as they try to covert them into tree-huggers: “What would Jesus do?”
My wife made a beeline for the T-shirt, and I thought she asked the salesperson a clever question: Which Woody did the shirt refer to, Allen or Guthrie?
In a business sense, it was a gift to the T-shirt industry, suggesting a new market: film festivals. Every movie buff appreciates the pioneering role played by actor and director Allen, just as folkies understand their debt to Guthrie.
In an astonishing career, Guthrie practically invented modern American folk music, as he put the nation’s yearnings and strivings into enduring lyrics. To name the most famous of Woody’s gifts to America, “This land is your land.” You know the one: “From California to the New York Island; from the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters . . .”
It’s the embodiment of how Americans feel about their country — its promise, vastness, diversity. And it gives our country back to us. It’s “our” land. Not the president’s. Not the FBI’s. Not big business’s.
The best folk music always does double-duty: sing and have fun. But remember, in a democracy, owners have responsibilities. Woody’s Land includes hunger and injustice. In the 1960s, folk music was the soundtrack and inspiration to some of the nation’s greatest undertakings: civil rights, the halt of the Vietnam War, the emergence of women’s liberation, and the environmental movement.
The Newport Folk Festival gave folk greats like Woody’s son Arlo, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell, and scores of other singer/song writers a national stage. “Have a nice time, doo-dah, doo-dah. But stop the war, end Jim Crow, save the earth, doo-dah, doo-dah.”
This year, Newport’s music soared, right along with the wheeling seagulls in the spotless August sky. Sailboats swooped along Narragansett Bay. Legends like Ralph Stanley and Emmylou Harris showed up. And you’d have thought the piercing vocals and magical fiddle of Alison Krauss could have been heard all the way up the bay to Providence.
But on this wondrous, magical Sunday, at least while I was there, no one mentioned how there is a war in Iraq. No songs about dead Americans, wounded Americans, nothing about Iraqis blown to bits by suicide bombers, or millions of Iraqis fleeing their country so that we can save it.
Not a word about the continuing disgrace of New Orleans. Nothing about spying, torture, secret prisons, kidnappings, out-of-control deficits and the rest of George Bush’s legacy to our land.
I can’t remember a year in which the music of Newport was better. By the end of the afternoon, America sure was still beautiful. But things needed saying and they weren’t — not that I heard — and it made your heart ache.
What would Woody do?
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  Topics: This Just In , Entertainment, Music, George W. Bush,  More more >
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