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Woody Guthrie's Songs Still Killing Fascists Through His Many Disciples on His 100th Birthday

See also:
Our interview with Arlo Guthrie
Review of Arlo Guthrie at Parker Playhouse.

Woody Guthrie had his own version of a copyright warning. It read: "This song is copyrighted in 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 ours, 'cause we don't give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that's all we wanted to do."

Though expressed in the chatty colloquial style that helped define his populist appeal, Woody's invitation is still well worth remembering. Nearly 45 years after his death, he remains an indelible icon, with hordes of musicians and admirers carrying on his remarkable legacy.

Born July 14, 1912, this past weekend was the 100th anniversary of his birth. Yet it's not surprising how celebrated he is. Consider the number of lingering classics that flowed from his pen -- powerful protest songs like "This Land Is Your Land," "Pastures of Plenty," "Grand Coulee Dam," "Desportees (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)," and others that defined the template for a future folk-music movement.

It's also a mark of these unsettled, politically divisive times that Guthrie's music still serves as a signpost when it comes to compassion, tolerance, and the ongoing fight against injustice and oppression. (His guitar bore the slogan "this machine kills facists.") The Occupy Movement in particular can give Guthrie hurrahs for inspiration, and the recent release of Occupy This Album, a four-disc set featuring contributions from a wide variety of latter-day Guthrie disciples, can, in fact, claim to be a byproduct of Guthrie's legacy.

A son of the American heartland, Guthrie was troubled and challenged early on, and his youth was scarred by unstable parents, a fire that destroyed his family home, and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Still, his fascination with music made him a darling of the budding leftist and socialist political movements, as well as New York's thriving folk community.

Guthrie championed the cause of the poor and underprivileged and railed about the dark cloud of fascism that gripped Europe throughout the '30s and World War II. Yet he was also a regular on the radio and was even recruited by the U.S. government to write a series of songs about various federal projects that were undertaken in the wake of the New Deal. He eventually returned to New York and became one of the harbingers of the city's socially aware folk-music scene. He also wrote poetry and eventually signed with Folkways Records, which went on to release his most memorable songs.

Despite it all, Guthrie mostly prided himself on his Everyman image, and he never lost his connection to the people and places that defined America's working-class regimen. Sadly, though, he began suffering from a little-known hereditary ailment now known as Parkinson's disease. From the late '50s through to his death on October 3, 1967, he was sent to a succession of hospitals and sanatoriums, culminating with Brooklyn's Creedmoor Psychiatric Center, where he succumbed in relative seclusion, surrounded only by his immediate family.

Woody left a powerful legacy. The modern folk revival, which was in its infancy during Guthrie's later years, was in full flourish by the mid-'60s. Spawned in New York's Greenwich Village, it became intrinsically linked to the budding civil-rights movement. Scores of artists -- from Donovan and Bruce Springsteen to the Dropkick Murphys and the Klesmatics -- have covered Guthrie's songs, and tributes became regular occurrences throughout the decades. The first of these, "A Tribute to Woody Guthrie," was staged in January 1968, three months after Guthrie's death, and featured Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, Judy Collins, Richie Havens, and the Band, among others.

With the blessing of the Guthrie family, Wilco and Billy Bragg turned a treasure-trove of Woody's unpublished lyrics into song on Mermaid Avenue, named after the New York street where Woody once resided. Last year, The New Multitudes, an indie supergroup of sorts that includes Jay Farrar, Will Johnson, Anders Parker, and Yim Yames, undertook the same mission with a batch of lyrics given them by Woody's daughter Nora.

Still, the greatest reminder of Guthrie's indelible imprint on modern music lies in the number of artists who have looked to him for inspiration and carry on in his same spirit.

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Lee Zimmerman

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