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

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

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.

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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Guthrie's entire life's work – dozens of diaries, letters, and notebooks; a record collection; more than 700 artworks; unpublished fiction and essays; an original handwritten copy of "This Land Is Your Land"; and more than 3,000 song lyrics – will soon be housed in a renovated warehouse in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.

"Sometimes when I look at the paintings," Levit says, "they have the look of a modern-day graffiti artist in New York City. They're very provocative. I think they'll really surprise people."

Returning Guthrie to Oklahoma is itself a feat that some consider overdue. Although the state once boasted the highest Socialist Party membership in the early 20th century and its role in US labor history is strong (the state motto is "Labor conquers all things"), it is now one of the most politically conservative in the nation. The state's political transformation meant Guthrie's history with the state was largely shunned. The Oklahoma Hall of Fame didn't think to include him until 2006, and no plaque bearing his name hangs on display in Tulsa.

"There had always been a faction in Oklahoma that had wanted to disown him," says Will Kaufman, author of "Woody Guth­rie, American Radical." "If you are an arch defender of capitalism, you're not going to like Woody."

Guthrie derived his songs from the downtrodden lives of those he encountered on road journeys during the nation's roughest periods, particularly the Great Depression. Songs like "Union Maid," "Pastures of Plenty," and "Tom Joad" reflected a political conscience that was more culturally revolutionary than bound to any specific dogma.

"His politics really were mostly the politics of labor even more than antiwar," Mr. Kaufman says. During World War II, Guthrie railed against the enemy in songs like "All You Fascists Bound to Lose" and sang for the troops while serving in the US Army and merchant marine.

Guthrie's message resonates again

There is irony in the fact that Guthrie's music is suddenly relevant due, in part, to the protests of the "Occupy" movement and the antigovernment outcry of the tea party. Both threads circle back to Guthrie themes of corruptive, concentrated power by the powerful minority that is economically and socially oppressive to a marginalized majority.

"Political conditions have changed in such a way that, at least in some measure, Guthrie's message is finding a resonance that it did not in the recent past," says Brian Hosmer, a history professor at the University of Tulsa who is coordinating a March 10 symposium on the relationship between Guthrie and Oklahoma.

Guthrie's lesser-known or unpublished writings also reflect his many playful, romantic, cosmic, and downright goofy sides, which have come to light in musical projects spearheaded by his daughter Nora Guthrie who continues to shape her father's legacy by inviting contemporary songwriters to set his lyrics to new music.

One such collection is "New Multitudes", which features Farrar of Son Volt alongside Jim James of My Morning Jacket, among others. Farrar says it took many sessions to parse through Guthrie's journals until specific lines jumped out, almost begging to find a home.

Says Farrar: "There would be mundane, routine stuff like '9 a.m. brush teeth,' '9:30 make coffee,' and after that, something completely profound like 'music is the language of the mind that travels.' "

"I found it to be inspirational," he says. "It became evident he is [a] much more multidimensional writer who was not afraid to tackle any topic."

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