The Woody Guthrie Tribute Concert at the Kennedy Center: Some Good Music, and some Dreadful Politics
How sad that on the night of the final event of the year-long celebration of Woody Guthrie’s life and music, his son Arlo’s wife passed away two days after their 45th wedding anniversary, and the morning after the concert Arlo wrote the following about her passing:
The sun rose on my world this morning. Jackie stayed with us throughout the night, lingering in our hearts just out of sight but clearly present. She woke me before sunrise in a dream saying that the hour had come when she would need to leave us and be gone before the sun arose. As her words awakened me I walked outside and stood looking over the river talking with her in the predawn twilight we both loved so much. It was our time and for years she brought me coffee as I took photographs of morning on the river.
There are loves, and there are LOVES. Ours was and will continue to be what it has always been - A very great love. We didn't always like each other. From time to time there were moments when we'd have our bags packed by the door. But, there was this great love that we shared from the moment we met - a recognition - It's YOU! And we would always return to it year after year, decade after decade and I believe life after lifetime.
The audience at the concert- held at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., all wondered about Arlo’s absence, since he was in the program. One artist said “we’re all singing Woody’s songs for Jackie today,” but she didn’t elaborate. Arlo writes that we all live for the moment we are in, and hence “we have no thought of past or future.” He will continue to tour and make up the gigs he missed. That is what he does, communicating through art and song, like his father and many of his own children.
My wife and I went to the concert last night, along with some friends. It was an all star cast, and there were many memorable moments. The young folks who make up the popular Old Crow Medicine Show brought vigor and a rousing old timey feeling to some of Woody’s best songs. Rosanne Cash and her husband and guitar accompanist John Leventhal sang beautifully. Jimmy LaFave, who sounds like a younger Bob Dylan, was superb, and the bluegrass group featuring Del McCoury and his family, playing with banjo master Tony Trischka, did “So Long It’s Been Good to Know You” bluegrass style, and Trischka and the band scored with a banjo rendition of “Woody’s Rag,” the only instrumental composition Guthrie ever wrote.
Woody’s great protégé, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who played and lived with Woody for three years in the 1950s, and introduced his music to thousands in this country and Britain, sang a poignant “1913 Massacre,” Guthrie’s rendition of the killing of coal miner’s children and wives in the Ludlow Colorado strike of that year by company thugs. Only Jack Elliott can capture Guthrie’s voice and the power of his lyrics, and it is a shame that he was only allotted one song on his own. He did, however, lead the entire group of performers in a rousing “This Train is Bound for Glory,” Woody’s theme song. Listening to his voice, it was as if Woody was still among us.
I started with the good part. Unfortunately, the entire event was marred by the hard Left narrative particularly voiced in the most offensive manner by two artists, Tom Morello and Ry Cooder. At least Cooder is a real musician, but that does not excuse his behavior and his leftist rants delivered both in asides and in the rewriting of Guthrie’s lyrics. Cooder sang a little known Guthrie song written towards the end of WW II about how the fascists would all lose. Cooder commented, to great applause from the leftist audience, that we won that fight, but the fascists were still here, and he knew they would be defeated on election day. Singing Guthrie’s “Vigilante Man,” about hired thugs of the coal companies in the early 20th Century, Cooder changed a lyric to make it about the Trayvon Martin case. He could have grown up to be President, he said, “but he was killed by a vigilante man.” Then he sang a new verse about how those in the audience should not tell anyone that they attended the concert, or they too might be killed!
Does Ry Cooder really believe that paying an average of $100 for a Kennedy Center concert could lead anyone to be harmed, not to say murdered? Doesn’t he know that by now, Woody Guthrie is a celebrated national hero, honored and revered by many, and no kind of danger to anyone who sings his songs?
As for Tom Morello, I would like to think that Arlo - a registered Republican and a libertarian - would blanch at having to listen to his songs and his hectoring lectures to the audience. Instead of singing one of Guthrie’s tunes, he sang his own dreadful new song about how he wants a revolutionary woman, “a Weather Underground woman,” not any bourgeois liberal. A man devoted to the dwindling and extremist Occupy Wall Street movement, Morello revealed himself to be a total idiot. Morello sang some lyrics about “how if you’re a Republican, Democrat or KKK, I’m not your man.” Do all those who cheered him - many of them most likely Democrats themselves- really believe because they vote and work in our democratic system-that they are the same as members of the Klan? Or are they just self-hating, middle-class, well-off liberals who like to think they too support the revolution because they can cheer the likes of Morello whose rants assuage their guilty consciences?
When it came to the expected finale of the performers and audience singing “This Land is Your Land,” Morello interrupted the singing, walking in front of all the others and began a lecture, hectoring the audience to build a revolutionary populist movement. He of course used his now well-worn shtick he used at the anti-Scott Walker rally the night before the Wisconsin Governor’s victory. Repeating the same words -- as if they were spontaneous and new and not what he has done at every OWS event -- he ranted that you “motherf…ers have to get out there and become serious, and defeat the fascists.” He then said he has to be excused for the vulgarity, but the populist revolution can’t afford to be PG-13, because the goal is that serious. Doesn’t he know that epat le bourgeoise lost its shock value decades ago?At this point, as Morello said we should all sing the much heralded so-called censored version of This Land, which in fact were cut out by Guthrie himself and not by anyone else -- my wife and our friends stood up and left in a huff, making clear to those around us that we were leaving in protest of Morello’s antics.
Poor Ramblin’ Jack, who once wrote that because he hung out and learned from Woody, most people thought that he had Woody’s politics. Actually, Elliott wrote, Woody would spout and he let it go in one ear and out the other. Jack looked sad and dispirited to be standing on stage having to listen to Tom Morello ruin a tribute to Woody Guthrie. Yes, Guthrie was a Communist. But the times were different, and he showed a love for his country that the likes of this new New Left simply does not have. And Guthrie wrote some good songs, unlike Morello.
It’s just as good Arlo wasn’t there. The reason for his absence is sad, and he was sorely missed. But he was fortunate to be able to avoid the last major tribute of the year-long series. As for the rest of us, PBS was there filming it for their next annual fund-raising telethon. You can DVR it, listen to the best performers, and cut out the rest. If PBS doesn’t eliminate the screeds, I think they will find those donating will be insulted and not respond to their pleas for funds. Or perhaps PBS by now is used to appealing only to the hard, sectarian Left, thinking that that is their natural audience.