A gala in tribute to Woody & folk
"Most kids spend their childhoods playing baseball with their dad. Then when the kids become adults, they eventually wind up taking care of their parents in their senior years, maybe sending them off to nursing homes," mused Nora Guthrie.
"Most kids spend their childhoods playing baseball with their dad. Then when the kids become adults, they eventually wind up taking care of their parents in their senior years, maybe sending them off to nursing homes," mused
But with Guthrie, daughter of the highly influential and much beloved folk singer and composer Woody Guthrie, "it's been the reverse. In my childhood, I saw my father take ill [of the degenerative Huntington's disease] and be hospitalized."
Twelve years later, on Oct. 3, 1967, Woody Guthrie was dead.
"It was hard, just hard time. But now my dad and I are just goofing off together," said Guthrie in a recent chat. "I feel his presence, very much, in everything I do. Lightning strikes when he doesn't like what I do. Feathers drop in front of me when he does. Our relationship is so alive and fun. We're just playing together on these creative projects."
Guthrie is speaking as the executive director of the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives, a nonprofit organization dedicated to keeping her father's work and legacy alive. A prime example is the historic event "In Woody's Words," which Guthrie has shepherded to World Cafe Live as a celebration and fund-raiser for the Philadelphia Folksong Society's 50th anniversary.
At the gala midday luncheon and concert, a bunch of new songs pairing previously unheard Woody Guthrie lyrics with fresh tunes crafted by the performers will be introduced by John Gorka, Jonatha Brooke, Tom Paxton, Cathy Fink and Marcy Marker and Woody's granddaughter, Sara Lee Guthrie, with her singing partner and spouse, Johnny Irion.
The lyrics come from a treasure trove of more than 2,000 which Guthrie first discovered 15 years ago while bringing order to Woody Guthrie's papers, then stashed in the Manhattan office of the folk singer/composer's former manager, Howard Leventhal.
"After my mom [former Martha Graham dancer Marjorie Guthrie] passed, Harold said, 'You really should look at this stuff and put it in order.' I had no idea what an archivist did, so I called the Smithsonian [Institution] and they sent a guy over - Jorge Mateus - who's still working with me today.
"I became his apprentice. And then when I came across all these song lyrics that nobody knew about - not my brother Arlo, not even Pete Seeger - I really freaked out. This was stuff that he'd written in the later, Coney Island years. Nobody had any idea he'd written songs about Ingrid Bergman, about Sputnik, the Cold War, all these different things."
Now Guthrie's working to make her dad, the 20th-century's godfather of protest folk and Americana music, relevant in a 21st-century musical context.
Her first big score came about at a 1992 Summerstage concert in New York where Woody Guthrie's music was being celebrated.
"Billy Bragg and Wilco were on the bill together. I was there talking to Billy about writing and performing new tunes to some of Woody's unpublished lyrics. I'd originally planned to do it with R.E.M., but then they had to back out when one of the guys took ill. So I'm talking to Billy and he hears Wilco on stage and says, 'You know, they'd be great to do this with. Go ask them, Nora.'
"So the next thing I know, I'm talking to them. Everybody's manager and label representative were there, and they all thought it was a great idea. Natalie Merchant was also backstage. Billy said, 'Go ask her, too' and she said yes."
The project, the much-acclaimed Billy Bragg and Wilco album "Mermaid Avenue," "came together in half an hour."
But it didn't hit the streets until 1998.
"These musicians have their careers plotted out three, four albums and tours in advance, so we had to wait for them to have an opening," Nora Guthrie recalled. "Some people, old-line folk purists, were dead set against it. And Billy and Wilco had moments of self-doubt. They were shaking in their boots, fearing if it failed, it could be the end of their careers."
Volume 2 of "Mermaid Avenue" followed, then Guthrie put together a couple of CDs with the Klezmatics, masters of the Eastern European-rooted folk/jazz music called klezmer. The 2006 Grammy for best contemporary world music album was awarded to their "Wonderwheel" set, built on some of Woody Guthrie's more urbane lyrics.
Soon thereafter came the super-surprising "Happy Joyous Hanukkah," featuring Woody-penned lyrics about Judaism and the Holiday of Lights, the inspiration picked up by osmosis from his Jewish wife and in-laws.
Nora Guthrie also has placed Woody lyrics with the likes of the Boston-based Celtic punk band Drop Kick Murphies. Their collaboration on "I'm Shipping Up to Boston" was used as the theme of the Martin Scorsese film "The Departed" and then last October as the World Series celebratory anthem by Boston Red Sox pitcher Jonathan Papelbon.
Composer David Amram recently debuted a classical suite threaded around the tune of Guthrie's immortal "This Land Is Your Land."
And when I phoned her up the other day, Guthrie was playing a new album by the German artist Wencel, reworking Woody's lyrics auf Deutsch.
"His music goes everywhere," noted Guthrie. "When Chinese schoolkids take a class in American music, 'This Land' is the first song they learn to sing."
Guthrie had yet another reason to be in a celebratory mood. On Monday, a recently unearthed, super-rare concert recording of Woody's from 1949, "The Live Wire," was announced as a Grammy contender for "Best Historical Album."
Philadelphia's veteran folk DJ Gene Shay got the ball going for this weekend's musical debuts.
"He called me to say that as part of the celebration of the Philadelphia Folksong Society's 50th anniversary, it would be nice to honor the extended Guthrie family because we're all part of the folk business. I said, 'That's really nice, but everyone I know started out playing at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, so the honor really falls on us to honor the society which puts on the event.' "
Guthrie also will introduce a musical film about the Guthrie legacy created for a major touring exhibit sponsored by the Smithsonian. *
World Cafe Live, 3025 Walnut St., 11:30 a.m. Sunday. Tickets for the four-hour event are $150 and include a three-course luncheon and silent auction. Add $50 to attend the VIP reception. Reservations, Philadelphia Folksong Society, 215-247-1300, firstname.lastname@example.org.