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Celebrating a folk legend

Performances around region mark Woody Guthrie centennial



Contributing writer

Woody Guthrie, one of America’s great voices during the Great Depression and World War II, was a restless soul.

Leaving his home in Okemah, Okla., at the age of 18, he spent the next 23 years wandering the nation, moving frequently and traveling almost constantly. Uprooted by family and financial hardships, he was a staunch defender of the hard-pressed and hard working.

He produced about 3,000 song lyrics, including “This Land is Your Land,” his everyman’s response to “God Bless America.” Other Guthrie lyrics covered every topic from children’s themes to the perils of venereal disease (for soldiers during wartime). He published two novels, wrote plays, social criticism, poems, and letters, and made paintings and drawings.

Guthrie married three times and fathered eight children before Huntington’s disease, an incurable neurological condition, forced him into a 13-year twilight of hospitalization. He died at age 55 in 1967.

July 14 is the centennial of Guthrie’s birth, and in recognition of his contributions to American music and social life, several organizations across the region are planning celebrations on or near the date, from Great Barrington, Mass., to Saratoga Springs and Glens Falls, N.Y.

Berkshires bash

In Great Barrington, the Woody and Marjorie Guthrie Center was founded in 1991 by Arlo Guthrie, Woody’s son by his second wife, Marjorie Mazia. The center is in a former church once owned by Alice Brock, who gained fame through Arlo’s song, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” and the 1969 film “Alice’s Restaurant.” (Brock’s restaurant actually was in Stockbridge, but she lived in the deconsecrated church.)

On July 14, the center will host an open house celebrating Woody Guthrie’s 100th, with a free dinner and music provided by local musicians from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Singer-songwriter Tom Chapin will perform at 8 p.m. as part of the center’s Troubadour concert series. (There is a fee for Chapin’s show.)

With Woody Guthrie tributes planned all over the world that weekend, center director George Laye said he wanted to do something too. Arlo Guthrie, who sometimes performs at the center, was already booked, as were Arlo’s children, who sometimes perform with him.

“I asked myself, ‘What would Woody do?’” Laye said.

He decided to put on “a Berkshires tribute to Woody,” with free chili, cornbread, birthday cake and homegrown music.

“It’s the epitome of Woody: giving things away, helping people out, and having a good time,” Laye said. “Woody was always there to make people smile when they were down.”

The center also hosted a presentation by Woody’s daughter, Nora Guthrie, on June 24. She discussed the artistic connection between Woody and his mother-in-law, Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt. Greenblatt introduced Woody to Yiddish culture when Woody and Marjorie and their children lived in Coney Island in the late 1940s.

The Guthrie family connection to the Berkshires was established through Arlo, who came to the area as an adolescent to attend Stockbridge School, a private, co-ed academy that closed in 1976.

Although Woody Guthrie never lived in the Berkshires, he visited at least once: He gave the first concert at the Music Inn in Lenox.

“All the jazz greats played there,” Laye said.

Arlo Guthrie played the venue’s last show, many years later.

In keeping with Woody’s spirit, the Guthrie Center hosts free community dinners, services such as free yoga for people living with chronic illnesses, and fund raisers for research into Huntington’s disease.

The center is the destination of the annual “Garbage Trail Walk to Massacree Huntington’s Disease,” which reverses the chain of events in the “Alice’s Restaurant” movie.

The walk starts at the police station in Stockbridge, visits the site of Alice’s former restaurant and the old Stockbridge town dump, and ends at the church with a free dinner provided by Samel’s Deli of Pittsfield. The walk raises about $15,000 per year, Laye said.

The center also presents the summer Troubadour series of folk music concerts as well as hootenannies for local musicians of all ages. Both are part of the center’s mission of “keeping local and global traditions of folk and acoustic music alive and well,” according to the center’s Web site.

Laye said Woody Guthrie would approve.

“I know he’s happy with what we’re doing here,” Laye said.

Saratoga show

Also on July 14, Caffè Lena in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., will host local musician and music scholar Michael Eck in “Bound for Glory: 100 Years of Woody Guthrie.”

Eck will perform Woody’s music, tell stories about his life, and display some Guthrie memorabilia, including original vinyl recordings on the Folkways label.

Eck said he discovered Guthrie’s music as a boy when he found an RCA reissue of one of Woody’s original albums at his local library.

“He was musically very rudimentary,” Eck said. “He wasn’t a great singer or guitar player. But he was a great communicator.”

One of Eck’s favorite songs is “Tom Joad,” which he described as “a 17-verse distillation of John Steinbeck’s novel ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’”

Guthrie often set his lyrics to the melodies of old folk songs, Eck said. For “Tom Joad,” he borrowed the traditional tune “John Hardy.”

Guthrie’s early life “was pretty rough,” Eck said. Okemah, his birthplace, went boom, then bust, as oil was discovered and quickly ran out. His family went broke, their house burned, and his mother was hospitalized and died of what was recognized years later as Huntington’s disease.

Guthrie’s own actions were sometimes less than admirable, such as leaving his wives and children for long stretches while he was on the road.

But “Woody really wanted what was best for people,” Eck said. “He still speaks to us after all these years.”

Guthrie’s career ended when he was in his early 40s, as Huntington’s disease began to rob him of his coordination and his ability to think.

“But the stuff he left us prior to that is pretty amazing,” Eck said. “Woody’s music speaks to the community part of us. All his songs make you feel good about being human and part of a larger community.”

One of the objects Eck will have at Caffè Lena will be a chunk of “Guthrie wood,” supposedly from a house that Woody lived in when he was growing up in Okemah.

“I have no way of proving that the wood actually came from his house, but that’s part of Woody’s tall-tale mystique,” Eck said.

Eck has performed Guthrie’s music and other American roots music at Caffè Lena as a solo artist and as a member of the band Ramblin Jug Stompers and duo Lost Radio Rounders.

Arlo Guthrie “got his start at the café, and Woody’s granddaughter Sarah Lee and her daughters play here sometimes,” said Sarah Craig, the café’s director.

“Woody’s songs are songs a lot of us know and can sing along to,” Craig said. “It’s a bonding moment when we sing together. Woody’s values are values the folk music world has tried to hang on to. He was a free spirit and an advocate for poor and working people.”

Eck’s July 14 concert will benefit the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archive in New York City.

‘Woody Sez’

In Glens Falls, Adirondack Theatre Festival will present “Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie,” in a series of performances July 19-28. The musical, which has been performed across the United States and internationally, tells the story of Guthrie’s life struggles and political radicalization in the Depression, interspersed with about two dozen of his songs.

For more information about area celebrations of the Woody Guthrie centennial, visit www.guthriecenter.org, www.ATFestival.org and www.caffelena.org.

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