American Troubadour

Woody Guthrie, one of our nation’s greatest songwriters, gets a Kennedy Center tribute

October 11, 2012

Woody Guthrie famously adorned his guitar with a sticker reading “This Machine Kills Fascists.”

By 1940, Woody Guthrie was sick of hearing Kate Smith sing Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” which he thought ignored the incredible divide between the nation’s rich and the poor. While hitchhiking from Washington state to New York City, Guthrie wrote a song in response, “God Blessed America for Me,” to reclaim the redwood forests, the Cumberland Valley and the ribbons of highway in between for the common man.

Eventually, he renamed it “This Land Is Your Land” to reflect his belief that America belonged to everyone. Seven decades later, the song remains an alternative national anthem and by far the most popular composition from one of the greatest American songsmiths of the 20th century.

A bunch of Guthrie’s songs will find new life when an impressive roster of musicians takes the stage at the Kennedy Center for “This Land Is Your Land,” a concert celebrating Guthrie’s centennial. Here are a few numbers to listen for:

‘Grand Coulee Dam’

Talk about your successful marketing campaigns. In the early 1940s, Bonneville Power Administration hired Guthrie to write songs about projects along the Columbia River in Washington state. The best of them recounts the construction of the title structure during the 1930s — how man tamed the river and built the so-called eighth wonder of the world.

‘Pretty Boy Floyd’

Notorious bank robber Charles Arthur Floyd was gunned down by police in 1934. Guthrie views him as a man forced into crime by hard times, a modern-day Robin Hood who gave his ill-gotten gains to poor farmers in the Dust Bowl. Floyd lived a “life of shame,” Guthrie sings, but “you won’t never see an outlaw drive a family from their home.”

‘Hard Travelin’ ’

A consummate rambler, Guthrie hitchhiked or rode the rails all over the United States, recording his experiences in song. Here, he sings from the perspective of an itinerant laborer who works on the farm, in the steel mill and, finally, on the chain gang, while his spry guitar evokes the clack of the railcar, moving stoically from one job to the next.

‘Philadelphia Lawyer’

The title character romances a young Hollywood sweetheart — and incurs the wrath of her gunslinger husband. Guthrie recorded the tune with folkie compatriot Cisco Houston, and their loose harmonies lend a spooky gravity to what could be a stock story of jealousy and deceit.

‘Hoodoo Voodoo’

Guthrie penned this inspired bit of nonsense verse (“hoodoo voodoo/Chooka chooky choochoo”) for his children, but he never recorded it. Thirty years after his death, Wilco and Billy Bragg did a raucous version of the tune for their 1998 album “Mermaid Avenue,” a collection of Guthrie lyrics set to new music. Stephen M. Deusner (for express)

Lineup

Artists slated to perform at the centennial concert include son Arlo Guthrie, Jackson Browne, Ani DiFranco, John Mellencamp, Tom Morello and Lucinda Williams.

Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW; Sun., 7:30 p.m., $45-$175; 202-467-4600. (Foggy Bottom)
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