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Woody Guthrie, in an age of 'Occupy'

On his centennial, tributes pour in for a man who made complex social issues deceptively simple through song and championed the downtrodden.

By / Staff writer / February 14, 2012

A page from Guthrie’s notebook from 1947, when he lived in New York City.

Bradly Brown/Woody Guthrie Archives

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Woody Guthrie did not know it, but his 100th birthday lands on a presidential election year, amid intensifying partisan bickering in Washington, a succession of state legislation to weaken labor unions, and growing discontent about the inequity of Wall Street wealth compared with Main Street distress.

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In other words, Woody would be in his prime.

The songwriter, visual artist, and radical thinker died in 1967 and never saw the impact he made, not just on American song, but on generations of activists and artists who used his words and images as touchstones for making complex social and political issues relatable through deceptively simple images and poetry.

Jay Farrar, the songwriter and leader of Son Volt, considers Guthrie "the first pop artist," preceding rock groups like the Clash by several decades with his interest in provocative imagery and lyrics such as "this machine kills fascists," which Guthrie once plastered across his acoustic guitar. (See photo.)

"Woody was the first guy to put across the idea that music can change the world," Mr. Farrar says.

Bevy of tributes planned this year

Guthrie's legacy is under the lens his centennial year through a series of university symposiums held across the United States, from Los Angeles to New York City; a tribute concert in Tulsa, Okla., featuring his son Arlo Guthrie with the Flaming Lips, John Mellencamp, and others; a conference at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles; tributes at the Kennedy Center and Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.; and Guthrie-themed festivals taking place throughout the US and Europe, from his hometown in Okemah, Okla., to Vienna.

Perhaps the biggest news is that Guthrie's entire life's work – dozens of diaries, letters, and notebooks; a record collection; more than 700 artworks; unpublished fiction and essays; an original handwritten copy of "This Land Is Your Land"; and more than 3,000 song lyrics – will soon be housed in a renovated warehouse in downtown Tulsa. The Guthrie family had long stored the collection in New York; its new location will put it on public view back in the state that shaped Guthrie's political outlook.

"The depth of [Guthrie's] creative genius will be much better understood as more and more people interact with the materials," says Ken Levit, executive director of the George Kaiser Family Foundation, which purchased the archives from the Guthrie family for $3 million. The new location, covering about 15,000 square feet, will open by early 2013.

Mr. Levit says the archives will reveal new dimensions about the archetypal folk singer who is best known for writing songs that documented the hardships caused by rural poverty and singing at labor protests in the 1930s and '40s.

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