The stage could hardly accommodate them all: Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Josh White Jr., Studs Terkel, Bernice Reagon of Sweet Honey in the Rock, Ronnie Gilbert of the Weavers and others gathered on the Mall last night for the American Folklife Festival tribute to Woody Guthrie.
They didn't come to sing Guthrie's praises so much as to sing his songs and to read the prose that gushed from his pen before Huntington's chorea stilled it in the '50s. Sometimes everyone, including a couple of thousand people seated on the lawn, joined voices, their diffuse harmonies rising into the cool night air.
Seeger recalled Guthrie's penchant for topical talking blues and then, like a good student, tagged his song "Why, Oh Why, Oh Why?" with a crowd-pleasing quip about Alexander Haig's sudden resignation: "Why did that man resign today?"
Arlo Guthrie remembered his father's sense of irony with dust-bowl ballads and union songs, and his folksy charm with the song "The Ladies Auxiliary." White's version of "Hobo's Lullaby" was true to Guthrie's vision of the road, while Gilbert brought some people to their feet with a rousing "Union Maid."
Reagon's voice, however, was unmatched in its beauty. Among other things, she transformed "Deportee" into a poignant, haunting spiritual, one which easily eclipsed even Guthrie's anthem, "This Land Is Your Land," as the evening's highlight.