Guthrie Family Reunion : Saturday evening, Quad Stage
Last year, Arlo Guthrie played a concert in New York City, a fundraiser for George Wein — the founder of Newport Folk Festival. Pete Seeger was also on the bill. "Let's go down to Wall Street," Seeger said to Arlo — the son of Woody — that night, after the show.
Nearing the end of the Guthrie Family Reunion set at Newport Folk, Arlo recalled this story, and how inspiring the energy of Occupy Wall Street felt to him on that night. Along with other Guthries — Abe, Cathy, Annie; Sarah Lee and her husband Johnny Irion — he sang a song originally penned and recorded for an #OWS fundraiser compilation.
Guthrie was indeed Bob Dylan's biggest influence, and consequently an influence on generations of music after the 1960s — and undeniably, the majority of artists who have performed at Newport Folk. Woody wrote songs about immigration and banks and people in hard economic times — all songs that could have been written in the past five years.
>> SLIDESHOW: Newport Folk Festival 2012 by Ryan McMahon <<
"This is a song about banks stealing from farmers," Arlo told the crowd. "It could have been written fairly recently," he added. ("Now as through this world I ramble, I've seen lots of funny men," goes the song, "Pretty Boy Floyd." "Some will rob you with a six-gun, some with a fountain pen.")
The Guthrie Family Reunion ended, appropriately, with "This Land Is Your Land." It resonated strongly in the context of the Occupy Wall Street number (played right before) as one of the festival's most compelling moments.
I've given Newport Folk Festival a hard time this year: "It's so white . . . It's so male-centric . . . so much NPR dad-rock. . . .Is this even a 'folk festival' anymore?"
But ultimately, there are no festivals other than Newport that offer these brief moments of history — like watching the Guthries sing their father's fabled songs, or Tom Morello singing about Occupy.
Twice at this year's festival, I heard an updated version of "This Land Is Your Land". The new version of the classic American folk song includes a final verse seemingly directed at Occupy Wall Street's target: "the one percent." Complete with its alternate ending, it appears as the first track on a new compilation released earlier this month, Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection (Smithsonian Folkways).
The 57-track compilation (some country, a little blues, plus the political and labor songs,) dropped in July, four days before what would have been his 100th birthday, including six previously unreleased tracks plus essays, Guthrie's drawings, paintings, and handwritten lyrics. It's released by the Smithsonian Institution, comprising items donated to the institute 25 years ago by the estate of Folkways Records founder Moe Asch. Woody recorded much of his music for Folkways.
At times this sort of institutionalizing and historicizing of Guthrie feels wrong. As an anti-establishment "people's man," would Woody have approved this?
I'm reminded of something that Amanda Petrusich wrote in her book, It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways, and the Search for the Next American Music. (A book that I believe should be required reading for all young bands playing Newport for the first time.)
Talking about Mermaid Avenue and all of the other ways that Guthrie has been recontextualized and historicized over the years, Petrusich brings up Woody's funeral: "In 1967, Woody Guthrie's ashes were tossed into the Atlantic Ocean, from a jetty between Seagate and Coney Island. A bronze plaque sits in a cemetery just outside Okemah, alongside the grave of his sister, Clara, but I suspect that Guthrie is, in fact, rather pleased to be bobbing, eternally, in the bleak, scrappy waters of Coney Island, mingling with used condoms and car parts, shoelaces and beer bottles, toothpicks and coffee cups, floating proud amongst the plain old garbage of plain old people."
Woody might be turning over in his grave right now, feeling sick over the way he's been institutionalized and romanticized. But that's part of his lesson to us, and part of what makes him an important figure in the history of American music — questioning the way we put artists on pedestals. Woody Guthrie would have wanted us to criticize everything.