Thursday, February 6, 2003

Nashville salutes spirit of Guthrie

Songwriter's talent influenced artists of next generation

By John Gerome
The Associated Press

Folk singer Woody Guthrie, pictured here in 1947.

What becomes a folk legend most?

In the case of Woody Guthrie, who composed "This Land Is Your Land" and other pieces of Americana music, it's a monthlong tribute, including art exhibits, films, musical performances and a seminar at the Country Music Hall of Fame.

The highlight of the tribute was a concert Wednesday night at the Ryman Auditorium called "Nashville Sings Woody." The lineup included Guthrie's son, Arlo, Marty Stuart, Nanci Griffith, Guy Clark, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and Janis Ian.

Guthrie began by singing country music. But his music evolved, largely because of the hardships he witnessed and experienced, says Jay Orr of the Country Music Hall of Fame.

During the Great Depression, Guthrie had trouble finding work. He hitchhiked, rode freight trains and walked to California with thousands of refugees from America's heartland.

"He began to understand that his music had another kind of power," Orr says. "More Okies were coming to Southern California from the Dust Bowl. He saw the hard times they were encountering and he came to understand that his music had a power to affect and encourage them."

Guthrie drifted to New York where his social activism grew and his songs became more political. He helped workers form unions and wrote for the Communist paper the Daily Worker. He played a guitar with the slogan "This machine kills fascists" pasted on it.

He again headed west, where he composed songs for a documentary about the building of the Grand Coulee Dam, a collection that yielded one of his better-known songs, "Roll on Columbia."

Guthrie served in both the Merchant Marine and the Army in World War II. After the war he returned to New York and wrote a collection of children's songs.

By the 1960s he was suffering from Huntington's chorea, a genetic neurological disorder that had afflicted his mother. He died Oct. 3, 1967.

One of his last visitors was Bob Dylan, part of a new wave of folk musicians who, with Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton and others, embraced Guthrie's music.

"Woody influenced Dylan and Dylan influenced virtually every genre of American music that came after him," Orr says. "Woody showed that a song could make a difference."

Orr cites Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle and Griffith as country artists who have either recorded Guthrie's songs or have been inspired by him.

"His lifestyle created a whole folklore about what it is to be a folk musician," Griffith says. "Woody Guthrie taught us all that there are no confines, that you are free."

Guthrie's daughter, Nora, director of the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives in New York, will speak at some of the events.

Over the years, she has approached contemporary performers with some of her father's unrecorded lyrics. Billy Bragg, Wilco, Natalie Merchant, Joey Ramone and Joe Strummer are among those who have recorded his songs.

Nora Guthrie, who was 17 when her father died, says she works hard to match artists to the lyrics.

"I respect their way of thinking and doing the material," she says. "I never say, `Woody wouldn't do it that way.' Woody would have hated me for doing that."

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