Forty-five years after his death, Guthrie's principal lament about America is still obvious and irrefutable: The nation is divided into haves and have-nots—and the have-nots are always the ones in pain. Born of the Great Depression, hardened by war, Kerouac before there was Kerouac, Guthrie's music was sung by war protestors in the 1960s and by "Occupy" protestors in 2012. "This Land is Your Land"—haunting, teasing, eternally illusive—is as relevant today as it was when Guthrie first wrote it nearly three quarters of a century ago. No wonder Springsteen called it "about the greatest song ever written about America."
That's the thing about folk music, right? When it takes hold of us, it doesn't let go. When it invokes our memories, it also pitches us a future. We look back to look forward, to look ahead. What an unexpected gift it has been then, these past few months, to begin to discover music my father sang in Canada 60 years ago. What a gift to know those songs are the very same ones my mother learned in Pennsylvania in the 1930s and 1940s. Here I am, in a whole other part of North America, in a whole other century, listening to the same music and trying to pass it along to my son.
Fathers and sons. Last month, Guthrie's son, Arlo, himself a folk legend, offered up some beautiful words about his famous father and that song of songs. In the meantime, to mark this week's big milestone, Arlo Guthrie will perform Wednesday at the Crystal Theatre, right there in Okemah, the son honoring the father on the first night of the town's annual Woodyfest celebration. When Arlo plays Woody that night, and when the crowd singes Woody that night, there will be no better music venue, and no more emotionally powerful performance, anywhere in the world.
Guthrie's performance will precede by one day the release of another unique musical tribute to Woody Guthrie. This week, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings releases Little Seed, a 13-song CD of "kid-friendly Guthrie classics" sung by Elizabeth Mitchell, the renown folk singer (and Kindie music hero). What is the Smithsonian Folkways? It is "the nonprofit record label of the Smithsonian Institution" dedicated to "supporting cultural diversity and increased understanding among peoples through the documentation, preservation, and dissemination of sound." Click here for Mitchell, singing two entirely adorable covers of Guthrie songs.
Another welcome contribution to the Guthrie shelf is a coffee table-sized book of extraordinary breadth and depth titled Woody at 100, The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection. Everything about this piece of art is brilliant, from the music on the CDs, to the reprints of Guthrie's drawings, to the liner notes, to the narrative of Guthrie's life offered up by Robert Santelli. It's all here. All the album covers and music. All the sketches and edits. Here's a photo of Guthrie singing on a New York subway train. Here's an oil on canvas painting of Abraham Lincoln he painted. Here's how the Smithsonian pitches the book—what a complete undersell:
Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection is a 150-page large-format book with 3 CDs containing 57 tracks, including Woody's most important recordings such as the complete version of "This Land Is Your Land," "Pretty Boy Floyd," "I Ain't Got No Home in This World Anymore," and "Riding in My Car." The set also contains 21 previously unreleased performances and six never-before-heard original songs, including Woody's first known—and recently discovered—recordings from 1937.