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Woody Guthrie is celebrated with a concert in Tulsa, Okla.

The late Woody Guthrie gets a rare tribute in his conservative home state as Arlo Guthrie, Jackson Browne, Rosanne Cash, more play the Brady Theater in Tulsa.

March 12, 2012|By Randy Lewis, Los Angeles Times
  • Arlo Guthrie and Taylor Hanson sing Goin Down the Road Feeling Bad with Hansons brothers.
Arlo Guthrie and Taylor Hanson sing Goin Down the Road Feeling Bad with Hansons… (Christopher Smith / Associated…)

Reporting from Tulsa, Okla. — — As much as anything he tried to do with his music and in his life, Woody Guthrie consistently stressed the "unity" in "community," an attitude that was fully embraced by some three dozen participants in Saturday's kickoff event in a yearlong national and international salute to the legacy of America's greatest folk troubadour, who would have turned 100 on July 14.

Guthrie's son, Arlo, was musical ringmaster of the star-studded 31/2-hour demonstration of the broad sweep of his father's influence, a reach spanning the meat-and-potatoes heartland rock of John Mellencamp to the anarchic electronic experimentalism of Guthrie's fellow Oklahomans the Flaming Lips, the smarts of country music scion Rosanne Cash to the heart-on-sleeve emotionalism of Southern California singer-songwriter Jackson Browne, the erstwhile teen pop of Hanson to the expansive folk-jazz-classical hybrid of 81-year-old musician and composer David Amram.

Woody Guthrie: An article in the March 12 Calendar about the kickoff event in a yearlong salute to Woody Guthrie said that a three-CD boxed set of his music, "Woody at 100," was released by the Smithsonian Folkways label last month. The set will be released later this year at a date still to be determined. —

The players also included bluegrass stalwart Del McCoury and boundary-bending instrumentalist and singer Tim O'Brien, the tradition-minded Old Crow Medicine Show band and roots-music champion Jimmy LaFave, all of whom gathered at downtown Tulsa's Brady Theater, a packed-to-the-rafters 2,800-capacity theater that opened when Guthrie Sr. was 2.

To embody the inclusive spirit that Guthrie touted, performers organically segued from one to the next, often joining one another in an ego-free show of brother- and sisterhood: Arlo, now 64, joined by the fresh-scrubbed Hanson brothers for "Goin' Down the Road Feeling Bad"; LaFave inviting Cash and her guitarist husband, John Leventhal, to help out for the heart-wrenching "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee)"; the Old Crow Medicine Show adding O'Brien to the mix on its amped-up, full-throttle run through "Union Maid."

At one point, Browne even pitched in as a roadie when Cash noticed as she was about to start her mini-set that she had no guitar strap. Out from the wings to the rescue came Browne, a loaner strap in hand, just ahead of the stagehand who arrived with her own missing piece of gear.

Browne will be among another all-star lineup when the Woody Guthrie celebration reaches Los Angeles next month. He will be on the bill with David Crosby, Graham Nash, Kris Kristofferson, Richie Furay, John Doe, Tom Morello and others April 14 at Club Nokia, capping a daylong conference scheduled at USC that will focus on Guthrie's years in California.

All hands came on deck Saturday at the end for a rousing hootenanny rendition of Guthrie's most celebrated song, "This Land Is Your Land," including verses often omitted in the version commonly taught to grade-school students, verses about class inequities that Guthrie believed were threatening to undermine notions of equality and justice for all.

Two nights earlier, during a stop at the venerable Blue Door folk club in Oklahoma City on his way to Tulsa, Arlo Guthrie recalled being in grade school one day when everyone around him began singing "This Land Is Your Land." At that moment, he realized, "I was the only one who didn't know the words. I didn't know that song was famous anywhere outside of our house. So I went home that day and my dad taught me the chords. Then he taught me the words. And I learned some verses that weren't in the schoolbook version. I went back to school the next day — and I was armed."

He also voiced no small degree of pride in joining Pete Seeger after they played a show in New York City last fall as he and Seeger led the musicians and the crowd down to Wall Street to serenade Occupy Wall Street demonstrators.

Saturday's program was the first salvo in a bevy of not just concerts but conferences, exhibitions, educational programs for students and seniors organized chiefly by Arlo's sister Nora in collaboration with officials at L.A.'s Grammy Museum.

Among the non-performing guests was Woody's 90-year-old sister, Mary Jo, who was presented with a plaque from the museum's executive director, Robert Santelli, a commemoration of her brother's music slated to be installed in Guthrie's hometown of Okemah, about 70 miles south of Tulsa.

Santelli, author of the new book "This Land Is Your Land: Woody Guthrie and the Journey of an American Folk Song," moderated an "artist roundtable" session earlier in the day that was part of a daylong academic symposium on Guthrie's music, this one themed "Different Shades of Red: Woody Guthrie and the Oklahoma Experience at 100."

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