Woody Guthrie Celebration – Hyde Park Picture House, Leeds, July 14 2012
By Neil Edwards
From his hospital bed in Greystone Psychiatric Hospital where Huntington’s Disease would later rob him of his life, Woodrow Wilson Guthrie couldn’t possibly have had any notion of the meteorite-heavy impact his all-too brief existence would have on the world. Up-and-coming folk artists such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez would regularly visit him at his bedside with their beaten-up guitars and offer an occasional tune, little aware of their own roles as future cultural icons.
It can’t exactly have been the destiny Guthrie had foreseen for himself when he tumbled into the world in a modest shack in Oklahoma half a century before, but it was in that shack, and the tin can world around it, that Guthrie developed the blue-collar worldview that would alter music’s role in the world forever. More time has been spent paying tribute to Guthrie than was spent honouring him whilst he was alive. But so it goes with pioneers, who history often remembers merely as ‘pointers of the way’. When Guthrie did it, he gave voice to millions of disaffected souls – those whose lives were wrecked by the terrors of the Great Depression, right up to the present, where his well-thumbed words find a world similarly at odds with itself.
The tributes this year (and there are many of them) have the added punch of honouring Guthrie’s centenary, and the Hyde Park Picture House – Leeds’ huggably charming Georgian cinema – opted for his actual birthday (July 14) on which to yodel its own spirited acknowledgement. This came in the form of the Brylcreemed trio, David Broad, Michael Rossiter and Jonny Hicks. In a little over two hours – with the help of two short 35mm films – the well-suited and booted triumvirate emitted thigh-slapping joy. By his own admission, Broad, the instigator of the celebration, was not much of a compere, but none of the two-tier audience were there for his clunky preamble and even clunkier links; they just came for the music, and when it finally ambled up, it was like the sun coming out.
Broad’s guitar and Rossiter’s mandolin raced like handcars on rickety tracks that Guthrie began laying down 80 years ago, and the sound was no less infectious to hear than it was when it first banjoed its way out of America’s Great Plains. The ever-rousing ‘Crawdad Song’ cast the first spell, followed by ‘All You Fascists’, which Guthrie wrote as a reaction to the rise of fascism he’d noticed creeping over Europe.
Of the two films, To Hear Your Banjo Play was the more affecting, focussing on the evolution of folk music in America. Narrated by Pete Seegar it was a great shout of joy compared to the more varicose, The Plough That Broke The Plains, which told the story of the Great Plains.
In addition to the films, readings were provided by the local actor, Kuselo Kamau, who was on hand supposedly to weave everything together. As a performer, however, he came perilously close to derailing the whole thing, wandering off his feebly prepared Wikipedia script as if believing his ragtime hat and Dixieland personality would make up for it. But the songs more than saved it.
‘Philadelphia Lawyer’, sung lustily by Broad, told the tale of a divorce lawyer gunned down by the jealous cowboy husband of the Hollywood maid he was wooing, whilst ‘Union Maid’, written when Guthrie was with the Almanac Singers, offered a dollar’s worth of free advice to all independent-minded women: “You gals who want to be free / just take a tip from me / Get you a man who’s a union man and join the ladies’ auxiliary.”
For all the blue jean proselytising, it is for one song that Guthrie will be forever revered, not only in America, but globally. ‘This Land Is Our Land’ was written as a fiery retort to Irving Berlin’s ‘God Bless America’, which Guthrie considered not only schmaltzy but unrepresentative of the American people. Over the past seventy years, however – and allowing for a few tweaks – it has escaped its folk roots and become an anthem for all nations, never failing to swell the hearts of whoever hears it.
After the more-than rousing encore, the trio seemed a bit shocked by the roar of approval that greeted their final bows. But it was certainly well deserved; not only for the bespoke sassiness of their well-crafted musicianship, but for allowing us to remember an unassuming genius whose modest desire to lend his voice to a small handful of Dust Bowl refugees, accidentally caught the ear of the world.