Woody Guthrie’s Star-Studded 100th Birthday Party

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Kris Connor / WireImage for NARAS

Tom Morello and Rob Wasserman perform during This Land Is Your Land - The Woody Guthrie Centennial Celebration Concert at The Kennedy Center on October 14, 2012 in Washington, DC.

This year, folk legend Woody Guthrie would have been 100 years old. So last night, a suitably impressive cast of pickers, warblers and icons gathered in Washington, D.C. to “blow out the candles,” as his daughter Nora Guthrie put it. The music was sublime; the three-hour show was fun and inspiring—even if the finale was, shall we say, unexpected. 

A Guthrie retrospective has the potential to be a tear-jerker. This is a folk musician who had lived in poverty, who made his mark by telling the stories of the Depression. He immortalized displaced Okies who were run down by California—that promised land turned purgatory for migrants fleeing dusty Midwestern farms. Hardship, endless roads and oppression are regular characters in his ditties, which is part of what makes his historical legacy so powerful. But it’s not the type of thing you’d associate with a birthday party.

While there were emotive performances—none more so than Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s rendition of “1913 Massacre”—the opening act dipped into Guthrie’s upbeat canon. “Tonight on this stage, we’re all singin’ in one band—and that’s Woody’s band,” said Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor. The decidedly white-haired bunch clapped and hooted while the bluegrass band started the jamboree with “Howdi Do.” A celebratory tone was set.

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Their second song, “Union Maid,” made another point clear: this was going to be a political evening, because Guthrie was a political guy—a musician who put a sticker on his guitar that said “This machine kills fascists.” The performers bared their own politics as they relived his. Ani DiFranco ironically dedicated the sympathetic “Deportee” to Mitt Romney, who during the Republican primary said that illegal immigrants should “self-deport.” In his version of “Vigilante Man,” guitar wizard Ry Cooder added a verse about Trayvon Martin. Tom Morello, the Rage Against the Machine guitarist who has become an Occupy troubadour, got a line about Occupy Wall Street into “Ease My Revolutionary Mind.”

The program breezed through Guthrie’s adherents: the likes of Judy Collins, Lucinda Williams, John Mellencamp, Jackson Browne and Del McCoury. The range of genres—from folk to country to gospel—was a testament to Guthrie’s broad influence and roots. Sweet Honey in the Rock, an African-American a cappella group, gave the dark, sad “I’ve Got to Know” doo-wop flair. Jimmy LaFave, a fellow Oklahoman, turned “Hard Travelin’” honky-tonk. Rosanne Cash, daughter of Johnny Cash, sang a soulful “Pretty Boy Floyd,” while her very presence reiterated that music is a tradition to be bequeathed. (There were a few notable absentees, too. Bob Dylan and Joan Baez weren’t on the program. Arlo Guthrie, Woody’s son, was supposed to be there, but his wife Jackie died that morning.)

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The show was the culmination of a year of Guthrie-themed events around the country: educational panels, concerts, tributes. For decades, impresario Nora Guthrie has teamed with institutions such as the Smithsonian and—for this event—the Grammy Museum to seed America’s cultural consciousness with her father’s legacy. Sunday’s tribute showcased the variety of Guthrie’s work: there were ballads, children’s songs, excerpts from his novels and letters that read like down-home John Keats. Actor Jeff Daniels spoke Guthrie’s words at intervals. “I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose,” Daniels read after taking off his suit coat, throwing it on the floor and rolling up his sleeves. “I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world.”

By the time all the acts had joined each other on stage for a final, big group sing-a-long of “This Land Is Your Land,” it was easy to feel proud of Guthrie and America and Guthrie’s American music. It was easy to think saccharine thoughts about how different the present could be if we took a page from his book. Certainly some of the performers felt that way. “As we go along through time, who emerges?” Ry Cooder told TIME. “Fewer and fewer people like this will emerge … He was a witness to things. He wrote about what he saw and he was very good at it. There would be a great use for this now, if people would only look.”

Despite a few production hiccups, the tribute had reached its climax. Which makes it all the more confusing that in the final minutes, the singing paused for a spoken interlude, and the microphone was handed to Morello. Perhaps, given that his Occupy ties were lauded by Nora Guthrie, he was meant to represent the next generation of social-justice pioneers. As Mellencamp, Elliott and Collins stood around him, Morello asked for the house lights to go up and started pointing at specific people in the audience who were still sitting and pointedly telling them to get up. While dropping F-bombs, he instructed the crowd to sing the next chorus with him and then start jumping—as if they were, say, in a mosh pit at a Rage Against the Machine concert. The very senior attendees tried to do as they were told. But the result was awkward, certainly squandering momentum and making the next generation seem rather self-involved.

Still, as a whole, the hootenanny was a helluva show. Happy Birthday, Woody.

LIST: All-TIME 100 Songs