Although he died 40 years ago, Woody Guthrie continues to have a hand in writing new songs, and several will see their world premieres at "In Woody's Words," a benefit for the Philadelphia Folksong Society that will honor the Guthrie family and the Woody Guthrie Archive Sunday at World Cafe Live.
The author of "This Land Is Your Land," "Pretty Boy Floyd," "Pastures of Plenty," and numerous other classic folk songs did most of his recording in the 1940s, but he wrote songs throughout his life (he died in 1967 after a long battle with Huntington's disease). Lyrics to more than 2,500 Guthrie compositions reside in the Woody Guthrie Archive in New York City.
Overseen by Nora Guthrie, Woody's daughter, the archive has become a resource for historians and musicians. For this event, Jonatha Brooke, John Gorka, Sarah Lee Guthrie (Woody's granddaughter) with her husband Johnny Irion, and the duo Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer will debut songs made up of Guthrie lyrics set to new tunes. Tom Paxton will be on hand to perform some classic Guthrie songs. (Chris Smither was originally scheduled to perform but canceled due to a family illness.)
The midday show and luncheon will also include a recorded performance from Arlo Guthrie, Woody's son (and Sarah Lee's father), a short film about the archive, and a silent auction. It commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Folksong Society, the organization that puts on the Philly Folk Festival, and will be hosted by Gene Shay, who has been a fixture on the radio doing folk shows since the late 1960s (he's currently on WXPN).
Shay has chosen to honor the entire Guthrie family because, he says, "They're really moving Woody's songs out into the world and keeping them alive." Guthrie championed the disenfranchised and the working poor both in song and in his 1943 autobiography Bound for Glory. Born in Okemah, Okla., in 1910, Woody traveled through the Dust Bowl during the Depression and gradually developed his knack for writing and performing songs both topical and personal. His best known recordings are the ones he did for Mo Asch at Folkways Records in the '30s and '40s and Dust Bowl Ballads, which he recorded in 1940. Those songs, such as "Philadelphia Lawyer," "Vigilante Man" and "Tom Joad," are the classic Guthrie tunes.
But he wrote constantly, as many as five songs a day throughout his life, according to Nora Guthrie, even toward the end when he was hospitalized. The archives reveal many Woody Guthries other than the iconic folksinger and father of the '60s folk movement: he wrote songs about everything, from movie stars and satellites to baseball and cats.
Guthrie's work spans "from the Dust Bowl depression up until the Cold War," Nora Guthrie says. "One of my jobs is to take that information and give it back out into the culture," she says. To date, she has shepherded five albums of songs created from lyrics in the archive: the two acclaimed Mermaid Avenue CDs from Billy Bragg and Wilco, two from the Klezmatics (including one of Hanukkah songs), and one from German composer Hans Wenzel.
Performers, such as Jonatha Brooke, can visit the archive and poke around among the folders of lyrics, which are arranged alphabetically by song title.
"I went to the archives, and didn't want to ever leave," says Brooke. "I think what was so amazingly emotional was seeing the arc of things, the arc of the work songs and the union songs, and there are so many love songs! It's kind of heartbreaking, these linear, verse-verse-verse songs about these tragic stories."
Brooke has worked up at least three songs for Sunday's event, one love song, one political one, and one "really rockin' bawdy song" called "All You've Got to Do Is Touch Me."
Sarah Lee Guthrie and Tom Paxton have deep personal connections to Woody. Woody Guthrie's history is "everybody's history. I feel there's so many people out there who know more about Woody than I do," Sarah Lee says of her grandfather. "My dad was not very outgoing and outspoken about that history."
Paxton grew up in Oklahoma, not far from Woody's birthplace, and shortly after Guthrie's death he performed at a memorial service at Carnegie Hall. Also on the bill were Bob Dylan with the Band and Joan Baez.
Woody Guthrie's politics are still relevant, according to Paxton.
"You can listen to 'Pretty Boy Floyd,' and not a lot has changed in the way the great financial institutions [exploit] ordinary people. It still goes on. And that's what 'Pretty Boy Floyd' was about: 'Some men rob you with a six-gun, some with a fountain pen.' Well, duh. Now they use computers, that's the only difference."
Woody Guthrie himself would no doubt be thrilled by the prospect of his songs being reborn in new contexts and with new writers, as they will be on Sunday. When he performed on the radio in the 1930s, he mailed pamphlets of lyrics to interested listeners with the following addendum:
"This song is Copyrighted in the U.S., under Seal of Copyright # 154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don't give a dem. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that's all we wanted to do."