Retelling Guthrie: The burden and beauty of a musical legacy

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Arlo Guthrie brings his family’s folk music treasury to the Paramount stage in a tribute to his father. “When a song becomes part of who we are it becomes a folk song,” he said. Arlo Guthrie brings his family’s folk music treasury to the Paramount stage in a tribute to his father. “When a song becomes part of who we are it becomes a folk song,” he said.

The centennial celebration of Woody Guthrie’s birth is more than the remembrance of a great man’s life. It is a testament that his music endures, that the art has outlasted the artist.

A wide range of musicians have paid homage to Woody Guthrie over the years, indicating the breadth of his legacy and the extent of his impact. On February 9 at The Paramount Theater, a uniquely personal tribute will take place. “I’ve inherited a handful,” Arlo Guthrie said in an e-mail exchange before the upcoming concert celebration. “I’ve had the pleasure and the time to distill his work so that it remains true to itself yet approachable to people who are living in a different time—a very different world.”

Woody Guthrie’s influence and memory live on in various ways. For Bruce Springsteen, he represents the practical idealism of America’s working class. For Bob Dylan, he is a troubadour-turned-prophet and the founding father of the folk movement. He is the first defiant punk rocker in the eyes of Joe Strummer; for Jeff Tweedy he’s a prolific and conflicted songsmith. And perhaps most significantly, school children across the country who don’t know his name or recognize his face sing the familiar chorus to “This Land is Your Land.”

But of all the ways of remembering Woody Guthrie, there is something uniquely beautiful and fitting about a son paying tribute to his father. It is an opportunity to clear the air of all the colossal abstractions (however heartfelt) that have accumulated over the years and celebrate the man, the music, and the power of his legacy. “My father’s work was meant to bust through these social constructions and I think it still does that very well,” Arlo said. “In other words, it’s proving itself not to be limited to any particular era. Who knew it’d hold up so well?”

What is it about these songs, that they’ve endured through decades and still speak to us today? Perhaps this quality is best understood through Arlo’s tribute, which will give us a key insight into Woody Guthrie’s music and what is essential about folk music in general. It is something inherited, a testament, handed down from a previous generation. And yet it remains vital—of our present moment and hopes for the future.

I was introduced to Woody Guthrie’s music at a young age by my own father, not through recordings, but in the living room on his guitar. Songs like “Hobo’s Lullaby,” “Pastures of Plenty,” “Deportee,” “The Sinking of the Reuben James,” and Arlo’s own original, “My Darkest Hour,” were all part of my earliest musical memories—before I had my own radio or owned a single record. I could tell, even at a young age, how much the songs meant to him.

I learned why songs weren’t just pleasurable, why they were important. They were stories of people struggling with things bigger than themselves. If the world wasn’t fair you could at least try to make it beautiful, or try to sing the truth to power as clearly and simply and beautifully as you could.  Certainly they were Woody’s songs, but they were my dad’s too, and it was all part of what he wanted to pass down to me. He wanted to pass on music as a way of organizing experience, making sense of a confusing world, and making it something we could share in common.

More than being explicitly populist, or politically driven, this, to me, is part of what is so essential and unique about folk music; why it needs to be celebrated and remembered. As Arlo Guthrie said, “When a song becomes part of who we are it becomes a folk song.”

But who is making this music today? Who is making music to be passed on and inherited by the next generation?  Certainly we have seen a resurgence of what goes by the name of “folk music” in the last decade, but I feel like something essential is missing. It is as though we’ve lost the faith that the songs could outlive us or become part of who we are, what we stand for, and what we think is worth passing on. This is the faith that makes Woody Guthrie’s music as enduring now as it was 70 years ago. More than a particular style or message, it was music that, as Woody put it, sets out to “prove to you that this is your world.” It’s more than just songwriting. It’s an act of hope.

“My father and I have written regular songs, personal songs, group ballads, historical novelties, kids songs, love songs, inspiring as well as depressing songs, and every once in a while some of these songs go on up ahead, beyond us, and become folk songs,” said Arlo (with the good faith, wisdom, and humor we’ve come to expect from his shows throughout the years). “I sing a few of them at every show.” –James Wilson

  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=glrQXIl_YNs Phaerisee

    Oh, bury me beneath the willow
    Under the weeping willow tree
    So she will know where I am sleeping
    And perhaps she’ll weep for me

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