What Would Woody Say?
What Would Woody Say? An Echo Park Tribute To Woody Guthrie
By Lydia Breen
The Los Angeles neighborhood of Echo Park paid tribute on July 14 to a Woody Guthrie, a former neighbor, on the 100th anniversary of his birth. The free community event included a picnic, an afternoon concert and a day of art activities asking children and adults to imagine the “Better World’s A-Coming” from the title of one of Woody’s songs. Woody traversed California by highway and rail during the Great Depression, writing songs about the lives of poor and working people he met along the way.
The years he spent in Los Angeles (1937–1941) were critical to his political development. Through his Echo Park neighbor, Ed Robbin, Woody met John Steinbeck, Theodore Dreiser, the Shakespearean actor Will Geer and other intellectuals, artists and activists. From his Echo Park house on Preston Street, Woody wrote his earliest children’s songs and began work on his semi-autobiographical novel Bound For Glory. He also made numerous trips to the agricultural fields in the Central and Imperial Valleys, performing for migrant workers – people of Irish, Scottish, Mexican, Filipino, African and other stock – who were living and working in atrocious conditions on California’s large “factory farms.” His contacts with farm workers informed a number of his songs, including “Deportee,” “Vigilante Man,” “Pastures of Plenty,” “So Long It’s Been Good To Know You,” and “I Ain’t Got No Home.”
Hip hop artist Olmeca and D.J. Phatrick, along with Rockupier Michelle Shocked were featured artists at the afternoon concert that was held at El Centro del Pueblo community services center in downtown Echo Park. The theme, “A Better World’s A-Coming” – centered on the image of the No Trespassing sign in Woody’s song, “This Land Is Your Land.” Visitors at the event were encouraged to make their own signs and image a better world “made for you and me.”
Woody was more than a master storyteller; he was also a commentator who didn’t hesitate to point a finger at people he branded as troublemakers: corrupt politicians and police, vigilantes, greedy bankers and the growers who drove down migrant workers’ wages. But he didn’t stop there: Woody also wanted his music to give poor and working people a sense of pride and hope:
“ I hate a song that makes you feel low down, that makes you feel you are no good. I am out to sing the songs that will make you feel that this is your world, no matter how it rolls you over.” – Woody Guthrie
Woody-inspired musician Linda Ravenswood and her band band, The RavenswoodJones, played traditional Appalachian tunes that seem to resonate for people going through hard times today. Growing up on Woody’s songs, Linda performed around the United States and Europe with her husband, Garrison White, a songwriter and interpreter of traditional folk songs. White was killed in 2004. Since that time she has been performing with other bands, writing prize-winning poetry and working on a Ph.D. in community organizing and psychology. She is also an active member of Occupy Santa Barbara. Ravenswood sees a strong connection between traditional folk songs and contemporary problems:
“I think people have been thirsting for this music. The ruggedness of the songs connects with working people today who are struggling to make ends meet,” she said. “One of the ways I can contribute is to use music to share what our grandmothers and grandfathers went through. Music saves us. The bread and the fruit that we eat become sweeter when we sing about it. Singing is a deep, ancient ritual. We need to have our own voice and our own artistic revolution.” -Linda Ravenswood
Internalizing the Music In California’s migrant camps, where back-breaking labor and deplorable living conditions robbed people of their dignity, Woody’s performances brought much-needed relief. His songs came with a political message, but they were also designed to have a therapeutic effect on a crowd – to get people up and moving.
Jazz composer Kevin Robinson is also interested in the healing power of music. Performing with his ensemble Conference of the Birds, the group played an
experimental piece composed by Robinson that was a meditation on Woody’s song “Hangknot / Slipknot”– about the lynching in 1911 of Laura Nelson and her son Lawrence on a bridge near Woody’s home town in Oklahoma. In a nod to the Nelson family – and to Woody’s second wife Marjorie who danced for The Martha Graham Company – choreographer and dancer Lindsey Lollie improvised to Robinson’s composition.
Olmeca with DJ Phatick gave a performance that got the crowd up and moving. Olmeca instills his lyrics with a sense of cultural pride, dignity and humanity. A crowd favorite: “Browning of America” flips the phrase from an insult to a proud statement of fact. Phatick looped a sampling of “Ain’t Got No Home” into Olmeca’s mix by slowing down Woody’s voice to a head-nodding 108 beats – described by Phatrick as “a party Hip hop tempo – a head-nodding tempo – that’s not too fast to rhyme over.”
As Executive Director of SessionsLa, Phatrick goes by his given name, Patrick Huang, where he directs a music program for young people that incorporates writing, MC-ing and producing. Learning the required techniques takes time and skill, but he says his most important role as educator is to unleash the creative potential inside his students. He sees his mission as using music to foster critical thinking and bring people together. “What I love most is the uplifting quality of hip hop, how it can take you over the frustrations of everyday life,” he says.
At SessionsLA, Huang samples formidable artists like Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Tupac and Olmeca into the demos he makes with his students. Impressed by Woody Guthrie’s activism, Patrick says he plans to do more with the troubadour’s lyrics: “His message can be found in his protest music. He understood the power of music to galvanize, unify and uplift people. We use that same concept when we teach our youth about the power of music- we say it can affect people for better or worse.”
Physicality also came into play with Leroy Moor, Jr.’s performance of “Woody Guthrie Meets John Doe,” a poem he wrote that was inspired by an event in 1957 when Woody was arrested for vagrancy and institutionalized at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in New Jersey. Woody stayed at Greystone for five years as his body and mind gave way to the ravages of Huntington’s disease. Moore is the founder of Krip Hop Nation, an organization that works with disabled musicians, artists and activists to promote disability rights, including cases of police brutality against people – especially poor people – with disabilities. At the Woody tribute, Moore performed against a backdrop of Phil Buehler’s stunning photographs from the up-coming book, Woody Guthrie’s Wardy Forty: Greystone Park Hospital Revisited, an endeavor with Nora Guthrie and the Guthrie Archives that has been ten years in the making. (See this link for more on Leroy and Phil’s collaboration.)
To Dance the Dance Of New and Exciting Things
“There’s a wild-ass quality to this country that he personified. I go around the country. The greatest fear is that we’re losing that — we’re losing our creativity, our individualism. Woody was an individual, and a militantly individual individual.” Woody’s biographer, Joe Klein
The tribute in Echo Park ended with an entrance by the hugely talented and zany Superbroke Brass and Tin and Strings Electric Marching Band Ensemble whose self-described mission is:…to endeavor to live in the moment every moment of his or her life, and that each and every being is availed ample space and opportunity to dance the dance of new and excitingthings with the Creative Spirit, whom we adore…We believe in the power of laughter, spontaneity, and any gesture of love as a means of equalizing the Anti-Groove’s nefarious influence in this world… (from the Superbroke Manifesto).
At 6 o’clock, Superbroke led the crowd out of the Echo bar for a fundraiser for Skid Row art and activism. The lineup: Michelle99 with multiple Grammy-award winner Pete Anderson and his band, Jake Faulkner and the Americans, and Olmeca with D.J. Phatrick.
”[Woody] was very welcoming. There was this generosity of spirit and openness to experiencing the world and the people of the world, an almost childlike embrace of whatever happens.” Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, from a recent NPR interview,
A Beautiful Tapestry How would Woody have felt about the Echo Park concert lineup that included folk, Hip hop, experimental jazz, modern dance and psychedelic funk? Linda Ravenswood ventured an opinion: “Woody wasn’t static. He could change and grow. He had a genuine interest in people – he was a good listener and a great observer. He was all about encouraging people to find their voice, to sing songs about their own lives. A lot of his songs were about conversations he had and overheard with people he met in his travels. If he had listened to Olmeca’s lyrics he might have even been inspired to write his own song in response. I would have loved to hear his take on the Echo Park concert. I think he would have seen it as a beautiful tapestry.
In giving permission to The Trailer Trash Project the event, Nora Guthrie wrote: “In planning this “journey” through Woody’s Centennial, I knew…it would take …many different kinds of people, with many different ways of doing things to tell the story. The old guard, the new guard, the no guard…the not yet discovered, the not yet known. I’ve worked with enough artists in my life to know that some go into the arts to tell us something, while others go into the arts to look more deeply for something new to tell. I love them all.
Perhaps the final word on employing a diverse musical lineup for a birthday tribute comes from Woody himself:
“Life has got a habit of not standing hitched. You got to ride it like you find it. You got to change with it. If a day goes by that don’t change some of your old notions for new ones, that is just about like trying to milk a dead cow.” – Woody Guthrie
The Trailer Trash Project is a project of the Pasadena Arts Council’s EMERGE Fiscal Sponsorship Program. CLICK IMAGE TO DONATE.