Sometimes tributes can be pretty weak. And then there are celebrations like Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday, which was made up of more events than an Indian wedding and more media coverage than a celebrity breakup.
On Friday, I caught the last show of Steve Earle’s three night WoodyFest series at City Winery. Earle was joined by Billy Bragg, the UK’s modern day Woody, Amy Helm, daughter of Levon and member of Ollabelle, and Joe Purdy, the Arkansas singer songwriter who skyrocketed to fame when his song “Wash Away” was featured on the 2004 season of Lost. There were several numbers with everyone playing together, including a moving closing round “This Land is Your Land,” but we also got to hear quite a bit from each of the musicians on their own. This was my first time hearing Joe and he knocked my boat shoes off (no socks). The sold out crowd packed in the Winery, which Earle noted as an unlikely Woody tribute venue, but still a very fitting setting in the city.
As if the night wasn’t special enough, I got the chance to chat with Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter and director of the Woody Guthrie Archives. Just last week, Nora released My Name Is New York: Ramblin’ Around Woody Guthrie’s Town, a book about Woody’s trail all over the city that he left many times, but still called home. It’s an incredible collection of songs and backstories for each place in the city that Woody lived.
On Saturday night, the celebration continued near Woody’s home and final resting place on Mermaid Ave in Coney Island, where there was a concert by Billy Bragg and a showing of Man In The Sand, the music documentary that features Billy and Wilco recording the Mermaid Avenue Sessions (full collection on Amazon MP3). And tonight, Guthrie Family Reunion, led by Woody’s son Arlo, performed at Central Park’s Summer Stage (NOTE: The band will also perform on the first day of the Newport Folk Festival later this month).
Woody’s influence on music and musicians is infinite, but in celebrating him this weekend, I was more struck by the humility of Woody the person. His life was ridden with struggle, sickness, heartbreak and countless family tragedies from the very start. Woody traveled the country with simple, migrant workers. He once had a radio gig with great pay that got him an apartment on Central Park West, but he ditched that gig when he wasn’t able to use it as a channel for his message. He died a slow death. And then left us this song…
Another Man’s Done Gone
Sometimes I think I’m gonna lose my mind
But it don’t look like I ever do
I loved so many people everywhere I went
Some too much, others not enough
I don’t know, I may go down or up or anywhere
But I feel like this scribbling might stay
Maybe if I hadn’t of seen so much hard feelings
I might not could have felt other people’s
So when you think of me, if and when you do,
Just say, well, another man’s done gone
Well, another man’s done gone
Nora’s new book tells the story of the day the family spread his ashes at Coney Island. They couldn’t get the ashes out of the can, so they just through the entire can in the water (but even that took a few tries because it kept washing to shore). Afterwards, his wife, Marjorie, suggested the family go get hot dogs at Nathan’s.
Woody kept it simple. Humble start. Humble end. Humble goodbye. I’m not sure how the man that wrote that song would feel about all we’ve done to celebrate his life this week, but it’s been pretty amazing and inspiring to be a part of it.