McGinnis: Nora Guthrie reflects on concerts celebrating her father’s legacyWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
The concert that took place at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on Oct. 14, was the culmination of months of similar events and years of preparation. Actually, one could argue it was the culmination of a century of time in pop culture, and a symbol of the everlasting legacy of the man it celebrated: iconic folk singer Woody Guthrie.
One of America’s greatest songwriters and a man whose work helped sire an entire generation of artists — everyone from Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen — Guthrie’s musical legacy cannot be denied, and his influence lives on, nearly a half century after his sudden death in 1967.
The “Woody Guthrie at 100!” concert at the Kennedy Center was the last of a series of events held across the country in celebration of Guthrie’s birth in 1912. The finale featured performances by more than a dozen acts in celebration of his legacy, including John Mellencamp, Jackson Browne, Ani DiFranco, Donovan and many more.
The celebration was also a labor of love for Nora Guthrie, who is not only Woody’s daughter, but also the president and director of the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives — not to mention the president of Woody Guthrie Publications, as well.
“It’s kind of the business side, but it’s also kind of the historic side,” Guthrie said of her duties in an interview with Toledo Free Press Star. “Basically, everything that I oversee has to do with Woody’s creative legacy and music and etc. — the whole life, and every aspect of it.”
It was through Nora’s guidance and vision that the centennial series of concerts came into being. “I produced all the concerts, I co-produced all the concerts that took place across the country,” she said.
“It was really the culmination. Because Woody’s journey is a rambling one, but it’s one that rambled all across the United States. And what we wanted to do throughout the centennial was to kind of retrace his steps.”
Though Nora was only 17 when her father died of Huntington’s disease, she has taken up the mantle to preserve and celebrate his musical legacy through numerous releases of his material — including a CD/DVD release of the Kennedy Center concert that will hit stores June 11.
“I almost talk about Woody, in a way, as a metaphor in some sense — there’s the personal story, the reality, but then there’s also this metaphorical side of Woody that he’s very representative of so many people. Basically half this country was built of people roaming and traveling and finding a place to pitch their tent and build their home throughout the last couple of centuries,” she said. “He’s a very typical story in some sense.”
It was in the spirit of that metaphor that the series of concerts celebrating his centennial was planned, Guthrie noted. “We did concerts in every place that he landed — from Oklahoma, then we went to Texas, then we went to Los Angeles, California, then we went to Salinas, [Calif.], the Steinbeck area where migrant workers are still pretty busy there, then over to New York.”
That the Washington, D.C., event proved to be the grand finale of the series was a happy accident, Guthrie said.
“This was not planned — that was just the only date available when the Kennedy Center wanted to get involved. So by coincidence, it was the
last place where Woody showed up. That was very appropriate, because so much of it does come down to your personal experience, and then there’s the collective experience, which is represented by the government.”
That feeling of all-inclusiveness was crucial to the enterprise, Nora said. “The reason that we had these particular artists at the Kennedy Center show was that throughout all the centennial concerts, we had completely different lineups for every single show. Because I also wanted to represent the music of the whole country. It wasn’t just five people traveling around doing Woody Guthrie songs. I wanted the people in the West to have their voices sung; I wanted the people in the Midwest to have their voices, etc. So every single show was a new cast of characters.
“That’s what we kind of wanted to re-create in Washington — this sense that there would be somebody from every part of the country singing together in one stage. And then, when you sing ‘This Land is Your Land,’ it has a very special meaning, because it’s not just the people in one geographic area singing together, but it’s people from the West Coast, East Coast, Northwest, Midwest, you know?”
She added that seeing her father’s music — and legacy — take its place onstage at a venue as prestigious as the Kennedy Center carried its own special meaning.
“The Kennedy Center is kind of a classical center. And you never think of the people being able to quote-unquote ‘occupy’ the Kennedy Center. So there was that sense of, ‘This is our night,’ you know? We the people.”