Woody Guthrie at 100—at SXSW

If there was one song I didn't expect to hear during the hipster-convention that is the South by Southwest Music Festival, it was "This Land Is Your Land." And while I didn't expect to hear it, I sure as hell didn't expect to sing. Let alone sing it twice on the same day.

But then again, I'd forgotten that this year would have marked Woody Guthrie's 100th birthday. The SXSW organizers had not—and the folk legend's memory was in the air for quite a bit of the festival. The twangy Okie and migrant worker who chronicled fights for social and economic justice died in 1967, but he influenced everyone from Bob Dylan to Joe Strummer to Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen, it turned out, was keynoting the festival Thursday, and prior to his address, a Guthrie tribute was in order.
 
Eliza Gilkyson and Jimmy LeFave took the stage to sing Guthrie standards. Joining them for the second half of their set was Colombian pop star Juanes. Juanes, who rarely sings in English, spoke of his own love for the folk legend. "Woody's such a critical experience," he said, noting that the songs illustrate "how our stories—even if we are apart one from the others—are mostly the same." As the head of the Woody Guthrie Foundation, Guthrie's daughter Nora has done much to foster that understanding. She's invited everyone from Billy Bragg to East German musician Wenzel to reinterpret her father's work—and emphasize his focus on bringing social change.
 
Gilkyson and LeFave's rendition of "This Train Is Bound for Glory" held the crowd spellbound, while Gilkyson's rendition of "Pastures of Plenty" was slow and, to me, especially sad. By the time the three sang "This Land Is Your Land," they didn't even need to ask for participation. The audience was already clapping and singing along. 
 
But the tribute's beautiful and bittersweet quality stood in contrast to Guthrie's recordings. Woody Guthrie's voice always sounds strangely upbeat, despite the horribly tragic conditions most of his lyrics describe. Unlike the many interpretations of his music, Guthrie's songs don't sound so sad when he sings them. 
 
To my surprise, The Boss offered a more articulate view of the same feeling. While most of his talk offered a personal take on the major popular music movements in the second half of the 20th century, he saved his highest praise for the legend whose music seems both so much older—and so timely.  "Woody's fatalism was tempered by a practical idealism," Springsteen told the crowd. "Speaking truth to power wasn't futile, no matter what the outcome."
 
As the New Jersey Star Ledger points out, Springsteen's own music has taken on a lot of Guthrie lately:
On albums like "Devils and Dust," "The Ghost of Tom Joad," and especially the recent "Wrecking Ball," the Boss' Guthrie influence is profoundly felt. Springsteen echoes Guthrie's cadences, finishes many of his arguments, and returns, often, to his favorite themes: predatory bankers ("Death to My Hometown"), the plight of migrant workers ("The New Timer"), the cruelty of deportation and immigration policy ("Matamoros Banks"), and our shared and interconnected humanity (just about the entire "Rising" album). Springsteen has even adopted Guthrie's fascination with the desert.
It turns out that the star gives a great speech—and great tributes. He gave his own personal account of music history, beginning with his discovery of Elvis and going through Dylan, the Animals, and Motown. Much of the talk sounded a lot like his lyrics—like his description of doo-wop as "the sound of raw sex ... the sound of bras upping across the USA ... the sound of smeared lipstick and untucked shirts." He called for a guitar, which seemed to appear out of thin air, and would, at moments, begin to play riffs of the songs he was talking about. (He sang almost all of "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" before saying, to cheers, "that's every song I've ever written.") The Boss began his talk by listing just about every genre you could think of—and many you couldn't—everything from lo-fi and punk rock to Nintendo-core, Swamp Pop, Jangle Pop, and Paisley Underground.
 
Folk music returned at the end of his talk. After describing his easy affinities for so many genres, Springsteen described trying to appreciate country music and listening to Hank Williams. "I wanted an answer to Hank Williams' question, 'Why does my bucket have a hole in it?'" said the singer. It was Woody Guthrie's music that pushed back, questioning the status quo. Like so many others, Springsteen felt a quick affinity.
 
There's something surprisingly honest and self-effacing about Springsteen. "I was never going to be Woody Guthrie," he readily admitted to the crowd. "In my own way, I like the luxuries and the comforts of being a star." But he offered Guthrie's music as a rare means of connection, one of those things that "have come from the outside, and make their way in to become a part of the beating heart of the nation." He too began to sing "This Land is Your Land." 
 
It was a great tribute, but I'm not sure it was the greatest of the week. Two days before, protesters gathered to fight Texas's defunding of Planned Parenthood and women's health programs. Before the speeches, Jimmy Dale Gilmore arrived with his guitar, explaining that he hadn't known what to play—except obviously it would have to be Woody Guthrie. He broke into "Do Re Mi," with the crowd clapping and singing, protesting policies made across the street. I think even Bruce Springsteen would say a protest is the best place for the folk legend's music to be played.
 

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