Woody At 100: A Roundup of Sorts

Woody photographed on March 8, 1943

“He would have been 100 years old, who can believe it? When I hear that, I think of me, I’m the guy’s kid, must be get-ting old myself.”

– Woody Guthrie

This Saturday, July 14, Woody Guthrie would have been 100. It’s been 45 years since he passed away, more than 60 years since he made his last recording, and yet, Woody is still relevant. His songs about this great land we share, its “freedom highway,” its inequalities, its downtrodden, and its defenders, live on.

Among Woody’s many interests was Eastern philosophy. In 1935, he discovered The Prophet by Kahil Gibran. Joe Klein, in his superb biography, Woody Guthrie: A Life, says the book was “a revelation. He was amazed to find in it a philosophy that mirrored his own exactly.”

Woody’s son, Arlo once told the NY Times, that his father “read many religious books and made copious notes in the margins. He read the Bhagavad-Gita as a young man and later in life ‘could argue back and forth about the Torah and the Talmud’.”

I read somewhere that during the mid-1940s, when he and his family were living at Coney Island, Woody became fascinated with Buddhism, even to the point of declaring his intention to become a Buddhist. He probably made many declarations like that. Woody was like a sponge, soaking up everything of interest that came his way.

And I also read that one time when he going into the hospital, when he got to the part of the admittance form that asked for his religion, Woody wrote, “All.”

In this centennial year, there have been celebrations galore, and they will continue. You can check out some upcoming events by visiting woody100.com.

In addition to concerts, festivals, and conferences, there have also been recordings. Tuesday Smithsonian Folkways Recordings released “Little Seed: Songs for Children by Woody Guthrie” sung by Elizabeth Mitchell. Smithsonian Folkways, a nonprofit record label of the Smithsonian Institution, the national museum of the United States, is a sponsor of the Woody Guthrie Centennial. Mitchell is a founding member of veteran indie rock band Ida and one of Smithsonian Folkways’ artists. Stream Mitchell’s version of “This Land Is Your Land” and “Bling Blang”: http://goo.gl/XMxoK.

And there’s “Woody at 100,” a new career-spanning three-CD box set, also released this week by Smithsonian Folkways. Among the 57 tracks are four new ones, recorded in Los Angeles prior to Woody’s legendary sessions at the Library of Congress in 1940.

A new book is My Name Is New York: Ramblin’ Around Woody Guthrie’s Town. Although Woody is forever associated with Oklahoma and the Dust Bowl, he spent most of his active adult life shuttling back and forth between L.A. and New York, and in fact, New York was his home base for the last 27 years of his life. According to the publisher, this book is filled with historical photographs, previously unpublished lyrics and biographical insights, and a walking guide; all compiled by Woody’s daughter Nora and the Woody Guthrie Archives.

Woody wrote a few books of his own. Two of them, Bound for Glory and Seeds of Man, are “quasi-fictional memoirs.” He also wrote an unpublished novel, a “Dust Bowl novel” titled House of Earth. Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley and actor Johnny Depp have an essay about it at the NY Times.

Woody Guthrie wrote over 1,000 songs, many more letters, hundreds of drawings, and a newspaper column. Unfortunately, he made very few film appearances. Here is one of two surviving film clips. I’ll have more Woody on Saturday.

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