The colorful life and rich musical legacy of Woody Guthrie, widely considered America's greatest folk troubadour and songwriter, will be celebrated throughout 2012 in an expansive nationwide series of all-star concerts, previously unissued recordings, conferences, museum exhibits and educational programs marking the 100th anniversary of Guthrie's birth.
Guthrie's family, including his children, Arlo and Nora, is collaborating closely with officials at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles in assembling "Woody at 100." This will include a broad swath of activities that will take place from California to the New York island, from the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters -- mirroring the words of "This Land Is Your Land," Guthrie's best-known song among some 3,000 he wrote before his death in 1967 at age 55.
A key goal of the activities is to introduce younger audiences to Guthrie's music and remind all listeners of his place in the long history of music as a tool of social change, said Grammy Museum executive director Robert Santelli, who is overseeing much of the centennial planning with Nora Guthrie.
"This is without question the largest centennial celebration of any American pop or roots musician," said Santelli, who previously worked at the Experience Music Project in Seattle and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland before coming to Los Angeles to open the Grammy Museum a little more than three years ago.
Lineups for various concerts are being finalized, but Santelli said the performances will include numerous contemporary musicians whose music has been influenced by Guthrie's songs empathizing with the poor, the powerless and the downtrodden.
His music strongly influenced generations of musicians, from '50s folk revivalists including Pete Seeger and The Weavers to '60s singer-songwriters such as Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Joan Baez on through politically and socially conscious performers including Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp and latter-day provocateurs including Rage Against the Machine and System of a Down.
Getting hip-hop on board
It's unclear whether Dylan or Springsteen will take part in any of the concerts, but Santelli said that participants also will come from well beyond the folk, Americana and rock genres most closely associated with Guthrie's music. He is reaching out to the hip-hop community to show the connection between Guthrie's songs of conscience and the music that has represented the voice of the disaffected urban communities in the last three decades.
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"We're just trying to keep up with what everyone is doing," said Nora Guthrie, the youngest of his three children and the driving force behind the Woody Guthrie Archives. "We're not going around creating press for Woody Guthrie. We just feel this is a nice time to say, 'This is what Pampa, Texas, is doing, this is what's going on in L.A., this is what's going on in France, Germany or Spain." The fact that many of Guthrie's songs have been sung during Occupy protests in different cities is further proof of his ongoing relevance.
"He was lucky enough -- or unlucky enough -- to be the guy who all this stuff came into and came out of," Nora Guthrie said. "He was the one who was able to take in what everybody was saying and put it back out. Who was it that said, 'I thought this land was made for you and me'? Maybe it was a hobo. He was that kind of writer, picking up sayings and stories, attitudes and emotions. He was the ultimate fly on the wall, and that kind of character will always be around, and those ideas will always be around."
CD and book releases
So the plethora of centennial activities is both "ambitious and totally apropos given the nature of songs of conscience right now," said Santelli, co-author of the 1999 biography "Hard Travelin': The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie" and who has a second Guthrie book coming next month, "This Land Is Your Land: Woody Guthrie and the Journey of an American Folk Song." It's one of at least half a dozen new books on Guthrie slated for publication this year. A three-CD box set, also titled "Woody at 100" and due in February, collects previously unreleased recordings discovered by the Smithsonian Folkways label where Guthrie did much of his recording.
"When I grew up [in the 1960s], a big part of what popular music did had to do with expression -- political and social expression in lyrics," Santelli said. "We have gotten away from that for the last couple of decades and Guthrie is, of course, the poster boy for songs of conscience."
"Today we have a generation, maybe a generation and a half, that's grown up without any sense of the power that music can have," Santelli added. "One of the goals for 2012 is to remind people that music is a very viable and potent agent for social and political change in this country. Regardless of your political beliefs or affiliation, music is a powerful tool and it's always played a part in the American political process."
Santelli said "Woody at 100" will strive to stay above partisan politics by emphasizing Guthrie's historical and cultural contributions, rather than delving into the specifics of his political beliefs.
There are a couple of events celebrating Woody Guthrie at 100 happening this year in New York. For updates, check out woody100.com.
On Wednesday, Jonatha Brooke and Dar Williams celebrate Guthrie by singing new songs with his previously unused lyrics.
WHEN|WHERE 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, The Allen Room, Lincoln Center
INFO $35-$100; 212-721-6500, lincolncenter.org (sold out, but call for last-minute availability).
Brooklyn College hosts a Guthrie conference and concert celebration Sept. 22. Details will be announced.