Beyond 'This Land Is Your Land'
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., August 7, 2003) – Like most people, Jimmy Lafave grew up knowing Woody Guthrie as the guy who wrote “This Land Is Your Land,” and that’s about it.
But then when he got older, Lafave got into Bob Dylan, and through Dylan he learned more about Guthrie, perhaps Dylan’s greatest influence. And for Lafave, what he learned about his fellow Oklahoman was startling.
“He was so much more than the guy who wrote ‘This Land Is Your Land,’” said Lafave – who brings “Ribbon of Highway/Endless Skyway,” his Woody Guthrie tribute tour featuring Eliza Gilkyson, Slaid Cleaves, Ellis Paul, Johnny Irion and Sarah Lee Guthrie, among others, to the Guthrie Center in Great Barrington on Wednesday, August 13, at 8 -- in a recent phone interview.
“He wasn’t just a songwriter,” said Lafave, a roots-rocking musician in his own right who has made something of a study of Guthrie the past few years. “He actually was the first multi-media artist. He was quite a genius. His song ‘Philadelphia Lawyer’ was the first million-selling country song, and he’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”
“He had a lot to say and a lot that applies to today,” said Lafave, who lives in Austin and who has spearheaded efforts in Guthrie’s Okemah, Okla., hometown to recognize its native son. “He should be taught in school. He talked about everyone being treated equally way before the Sixties and the civil rights movement. He was so far ahead of his time. He wrote to Albert Einstein about physics. In a piece about love he talks about human touch having healing power, almost getting into new-age philosophy. That’s just one or two of the things -- he was so deep, so much more than a guy who just wrote songs.
“He was a lot more -- a humanitarian, a philosopher, an artist, a painter. He served in the Merchant Marine, he served his country. He was also a very spiritual person. People are finally beginning to understand what a genius he was.”
Lafave put together “Ribbon of Highway” – which performs at the famed Newport Folk Festival this Friday night -- to make all this clear. The program draws upon the extensive Guthrie archive compiled by his daughter, Nora, in New York, including thousands of prose writings as well as unpublished lyrics and artwork.
Lafave said there have been previous efforts to weave Guthrie’s prose and songs together on stage going back to the 1960s. But Lafave’s is the first to avail itself of the resources of the Guthrie Archives and to connect the readings -- drawn from published works like “Bound for Glory” and “Woody Says” as well as unpublished works – to the songs.
In putting together the show, Lafave identified several other contemporary folksingers who have been influenced by Guthrie in one way or another and invited them to join the show. Eliza Gilkyson was a natural, having performed with Arlo Guthrie in the 1970s. Slaid Cleaves and Ellis Paul have been to the Guthrie Archives and put new music to Guthrie lyrics they found there, and Paul sports a tattoo of Guthrie on his forearm.
And then, of course, there is the latest musical addition to the Guthrie clan, Sarah Lee, who performs with her husband, Johnny Irion.
“I’ve gotten to know my grandfather all that much more,” said Sarah Lee Guthrie in a recent phone interview about her experience working on the “Ribbon of Highway” tour.
“These are songs that are probably affecting every kind of person, but the really cool thing is that it’s my grandfather. It’s not just everybody learning more about Woody Guthrie. I’m learning more about where I came from and who I am, and being encouraged to do the things that I can do through my music.”
Guthrie said that among the most surprising things she has learned about her grandfather in the show are his philosophical thoughts on matters of the human condition.
“The most powerful pieces of the show to me are his words on war, his words on love, and his words on peace,” said Guthrie.
“I guess I didn’t realize that he was so universal. I always knew he wrote songs on certain subjects and took a political statement and made it a song, and most of them were very specific. But I didn’t really realize that he looked at the big picture a lot and stepped back and says things that we’re all thinking, things we’re thinking today.
“Woody once said, ‘Let me be the man who tells you what you already know.’ And he is. We think they’re new thoughts, about loving all different kinds of gods -- the interfaith ideal. We’re finally trying to embrace these things as individuals, but he really thought of this decades ago.
“That surprised me. I was thinking I got all this stuff from my guru, all this love and stuff. Little did I know Woody was thinking the same thing back in the Thirties.”
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 8, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]
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