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Performers pay tribute to Woody Guthrie at the Walt Whitman Theater.
Performers pay tribute to Woody Guthrie at the Walt Whitman Theater.
Woody Guthrie Centennial Celebration

There were plenty of 50-somethings and 60-somethings in the audience, but also a fair smattering of younger people, as children of the ‘60s and those who perhaps wished to have been children of the ‘60s descended on Brooklyn College’s Whitman Auditorium on Saturday, September 22, for “This Land is Your Land,” the Woody Guthrie Centennial Concert.

Orchestrated by the Grammy Museum and Guthrie’s daughter Nora, the concert featured folk legend Pete Seeger as the headliner, with performances by a slew of other folk musicians including bell-voiced minstrel Judy Collins and Steve Earle, whose witty, ironic song “Christmas in Washington” – which includes a plea for the return of Woody Guthrie, as the people’s champion – was the only non-Guthrie number performed.

The Guthrie songbook provided a rich and deep archive for the present-day performers who reinterpreted both well and little-known songs penned by the man who was a pivotal figure in the rise of folk music on the American scene, from something the rose through the darkness around a campfire or was sung in a living room to a performance sensation that yet has steadfastly declined to leave its modest roots behind.

Some of the songs were very familiar – most strikingly, the grand finale of “This Land is Your Land” that brought just about all the performers on stage, as well as “I’m Stickin’ with the Union,” and “This Train is Bound for Glory.”

These and other songs — including some that brought to life Guthrie’s early connection to the Dust Bowl as well as the hauntingly beautiful “My New York City,” performed by Mike + Ruthy — were visceral reminders of Guthrie’s commitment both to humanity and to the country he loved, “from the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters.”

“He was an honest, straight man,” recalled radio host Oscar Brand, one of the nonagenarians who took the stage to remember Guthrie. “He always did the right thing and I bless him for it.”

Then, surprisingly, there was Guthrie’s Jewish music, performed by the Klezmatics. Born in Oklahoma, Guthrie lived and died in Brooklyn, with a Jewish mother-in-law (Nora’s fondly remembered “Nana”) who lived in Seagate.

From that portion of Guthrie’s life came a paean to Mermaid Avenue and the achingly haunting “Gonna Get Through This World,” both interpreted by the Klezmatics, as well as “Go Down to the Water,” a love song to his wife, Nora’s mother, that imagined her writing messages to him in the Coney Island sand while he served with the military overseas.

That touching song was performed by Britisher Billy Bragg, whose irreverent though clearly loving commentary added a note of saltiness to the evening in which hearty laughter took its place alongside the music of the quintessential common man, who in his vision of America was so extraordinary.

“We’re so happy to welcome Woody back to Brooklyn,” proclaimed Nora Guthrie, calling the borough, “the place he lived longest in his whole life.”

For this adoptive Brooklynite, that was one of many things about the evening that seemed just right.

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