“Hi Nora. This is one of the best verses ever.”
Jeff Tweedy was four songs and a couple of verses into his set at Town Hall in New York when he audibled during “Christ For President.” The shout out was to Nora Guthrie, the daughter of Woody Guthrie and the curator of his archives. On this night it was the 80th anniversary to the day Guthrie wrote “This Land Is Your Land.”
Nearly twenty-five years ago, Nora Guthrie approached Billy Bragg and Tweedy’s band Wilco with a treasure trove of unfinished lyrics her father had left behind. The elder Guthrie died in 1967 from Huntington’s disease when she was just seventeen.
Guthrie might have felt her life flashing by looking up to see her and her siblings making sand castles on the beach at Coney Island, the picture that is framed on the cover of The Complete Mermaid Sessions.
On this benefit night for the Woody Guthrie Center, she was sitting center orchestra. She had already gotten up out of her seat to give Mike and Ruthie of the Mammals a rousing thumb’s up as they harmonized to “New York Lullaby,” the love letter he wrote about his adopted city “New York Lullaby.” Now she was getting up again when Tweedy came charging in with a call to arms in a pivotal election year.
The night was replete with the progressive spirit of the Oklahoma born man whose guitar was inscribed with the words “this machine kills fascists” and who espoused “I want my machine to ‘kill’ racism.” The Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa provides students with hands-on learning experiences to inspire creativity and free expression, including artist-in-residence programs and youth music workshops.
This being New York, the night felt like a cultural melting pot. Gangstagrass fused bluegrass and riveting hip-hop like it was spontaneous performance art. Guthrie would have no doubt championed it and his legacy is still needed. The point wasn’t lost when Executive Director Deena McCloud reminded everyone that Oklahoma is still a red state.
Tweedy, who had followed Joan Osborne and John Fulbright, surveyed the Town Hall when he came out and seemed to be having a flashback. Shortly after 9/11, Wilco played the room of the famed New York landmark. An unnamed band member walked outside when he was approached when someone put an arm around him and said, “I want your wallet.” He then said, “If we don’t keep doing what we do, the terrorists will win.”
History was all around inside and outside. Across the street in a glass skyscraper, there was once a rooming house where a young. Woody Guthrie, barely a week in New York City, hand wrote the words that became “This Land Is Your Land.”
Nora Guthrie recounted the history by reading a pre-recorded passage from her book My Name Is New York: Ramblin’ Around Woody Guthrie’s New York Town, a walking guide highlighting the landmarks where he wrote, visited and resided.
“It was hard to imagine that this urban landscape filled with modern skyscrapers was once popularized by cigar and dry goods shops, cheap transient hotels, and overflowing street cars,” she writes. The Hanover Boarding House where he lived was upstairs from a pawn shop.
Her father was 27 years old when he sat down to write the song originally called “God Blessed America.” He’d only been in the city a week having arrived in a blizzard after having hitchhiked across the country. Guthrie would end up writing 600 songs in New York. His odyssey was fueled by seeing the disenfranchised people of California and witnessing a dust storm in Texas before arriving in New York a month later.
As Guthrie writes in the book, the inspiration for the song was his reaction to the fervor around Kate Smith’s recording of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.”
“Woody penned This Land as a personal response,” Guthrie notes in the book, something Bruce Springsteen had often said before playing the song on his “Born In The USA” tour. “His eyewitness account of both the beauties of the land and hard times of the people he met on his journey and questioned the idea that America was ‘blessed.’ To Woody it seemed like much of it was suffering. He believed it was up to the people themselves to work toward making ‘blessings’ like freedom, justice and equality a reality.”
Five nights after Tweedy led a ragtag sing-along of “This Land Is Your Land” with the entire cast, Arlo Guthrie, Woody’s son, began a two night stint at the famed Birchmere Music Hall. Guthrie, now 73, is old enough to have played at the two prior Birchmere locations. A poster of his still comical talking blues Alice’s Restaurant from a previous anniversary hangs on the wall.
“I’m Arlo’s daughter,” Cathy Guthrie said as she came onstage with her ukelele. She and Amy Nelson, the daughter of Willie Nelson, are so deadpan with their understated humor that it might first fly over your head. The duo, who draw fun with pop culture, deliver exquisite harmonies with a straight face like their male counterparts the Milk Carton Kids.
Cathy Guthrie related that growing you didn’t see your family unless you toured. In addition to bringing his daughter to open, Arlo Guthrie came to work bringing his son Abe who plays keyboards. The elder Guthrie came out with “The Times They Are a Changin’.”
“There’s a battle outside and it’s ragin’,” Guthrie sang Bob Dylan’s words that still felt charged for a different but contentious time.
The teleprompter rolled, a concession to age and the times but Guthrie did not seem to need it. The words just flowed as if Guthrie was on auto-pilot, the songs ingrained from repetition and permanently committed to memory. “Alice’s Restaurant” clocked in just about half of its original eighteen minutes, a tight and efficient version but still hilarious and poignant with its implications to a 21st century government that is omnipresent and lurking.
And now, eighty years and almost a week to the day his father wrote “This Land Is Your Land,” Guthrie was recalling a childhood memory. One day at school all of his classmates were singing the words to a song he recognized from something being sung at home. He never paid attention to the words and felt like he was the only one who didn’t know them. That day his father strapped a guitar on him and taught him the song’s chords.
These days Guthrie admits he doesn’t sing all of the verses. “There’s a lot of them,” he says.
Guthrie carries on his father’s legacy through The Guthrie Center in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. It is on the grounds of the Trinity Church originally owned by Alice Brock, the Alice of “The Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.” Guthrie had called her earlier in the day to her Cape Cod home to wish her a happy birthday. Guthrie bought the interfaith church in the early nineties and as described on its website: “It fulfills Arlo’s aim to meet the ongoing needs of the community and support cultural preservation and educational achievement.” A friend describes volunteering and ushering for its weekday concerts. Attendees are encouraged to bring food and there’s bake sales to help the center commit more funds to programs for job training and to help the homeless.
When Guthrie finished the “This Land Is Your Land,” he left the stage but soon came back. He declared the show was over but there was solace in My Peace, a short poem written by his father. Just like Haley Heynderickx had done at Town Hall, Guthrie brought a sense of centeredness with the repetition of its minimal words and lines.
Today Guthrie has the slight gruffness of an old man, still sardonic and self-effacing and lamenting how his old songs have so many words.
“I didn’t think I’d have to be doing this for fifty years,” he lamented after playing “Motorcycle Song.”
Fifty years. He thought about the number for a few seconds.
“I wonder what Folk Uke will be doing fifty years from now.”