Music Prelude: Jimmy LaFave & Eliza Gilkyson (with Juanes) Celebrate Woody Guthrie @ SXSW
This Land Is Your Land
Jimmy LaFave + Eliza Gilkyson’s Woody Guthrie Dream
Nora Guthrie’s father would’ve been 100 years old this year, yet somehow the music he left behind remains timeless and timely. It’s a notion she savored at the Prelude Music: Woody Guthrie Tribute – which served to warm-up the audience for Bruce Springsteen’s keynote address at the 2012 SXSW – telling the crowd, “These days are exciting times … My Dad would’ve loved to been here for this. This is a very important Presidential election coming up.”
With a twinkle in her eye, Woody Guthrie’s activism is given a jolt of Puckish sparkle, Nora – like her Dad – sees the humor in agitation, especially when its for the sake of the less fortunate.
She spoke of having a permanent home for her father’s archives in Oklahama, then she demonstrated her sense of extended family. Introducing roots songwriter/rocker Jimmy LaFave as a family member and the lithe hard folkie Eliza Gilkyson with such joy. In the gesture, it’s obvious how personal and familial this music becomes.
As an embodiment of Guthrie’s legacy, journeyman guitarist LaFave made a slow, soulful start on “This Train (Is Bound for Glory)” with his right hand loose and pumping through the chord changes with a sense of delivery. LaFave embraced the song as a man who knows, who can settle in the truth and not have to charge the gates of heaven – a settled confidence that allowed Gilkyson to slide in with a conviction that’s bracing.
With a voice like electricity passing through copper, the lifelong progressive aggressive folkie understands the way life moves – and her knowing gives her a delivery worthy of Rosalie Sorrels and a clarity of tone that evokes Joan Baez’s purity and ardor.
“Woody’s best-known songs go through time and seem appropriate no matter the time period,” she said. Over the next 30 minutes, she and LaFave would share anecdotes, facts and realities about Guthrie’s life, legacy and meaning in today’s world.
Having written the first million-selling country song with “Oklahoma Hills,” recorded by Gene Autrey and almost every other cowboy singer of the day – a fact LaFave noted, “he’s not in the Country Music Hall of Fame, but thanks to Robert Santelli and Nora, he is in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame” – Woody Guthrie wrote of the Dust Bowl, the natural beauty and the indigenous people of the West.
Though the cowboy singers dropped a verse which Guthrie lamented, LaFave made it a point to put the one celebrating the five Native American tribes back in. He tackled the tongue-twisting word-slide of five tribes in one line with aplomb – and showed that even in a classic cleberation of the cowboy life, he could still weave a little politics in.
The pair drew quiet dignity and gentle compassion out of the chilling “Deportee,” a song about those who come to America dreaming of something better only to perish and be sent home without even the benefit of their given name. Elegance in such hard-scrabble details was Guthrie’s hallmark and the two songwriter/performers matched his intention with their performance.
To underscore the point, Columbia’s reigning sex symbol (a fact lost on most of the audience) was also brought to the stage to embrace Guthrie’s mien. Invoking the legend’s universality, he told the audience, “More than language, time and space, there is always life and humanity.”
He sang two songs in Spanish. His accompanying guitarist providing an almost flamenco undertow. For Juanes, like novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, there is a sensual beauty to pain and an honor to deprivation – and that sensuality shone through words that the English speakers couldn’t understand.
Gilkyson and LaFave returned to the stage, with the goateed guitarist invoking Guthrie to ratify the Latin heartthrob’s point. “Woody used to say, ‘We as human beings are just hope machines’,” suggesting that beyond the facts are the drives to believe, to press on and to perhaps persevere.
Suggesting that they were closing with a song everyone could sing,” Juanes brought the suppleness of his tenor to the time-honored “This Land Is Your Land” with an exuberance that comes from being a citizen of the world. LaFave and Gilkyson got in their verses as well, celebratory and churning as they ramped up the crowd. And, in the revelry of the global truth of pride being as much a fact of ownership as deeds and titles, the audience was coaxed to sing out in the best Woody Guthrie/Pete Seger fashion.
Even Juanes, theoretically a stranger in a strange land, exhorted the crowd to sing louder, to reach down and express much. What started as tentative reflex response, the ghost of grade school long gone, turned into a communal moment of pride in the beauty of our nation.
It was a glorious way to remember what matters, the legacy of being born in the U.S.A.
All the land, the streams, and rivers are part of the riches of this country, and they belong to all of us. In our spirit and in our soul, that natural wonder is what makes each of us great.
All as one, the crowd sang, knowing Springsteen would soon be onstage, addressing the faithful. It wasn’t a campfire jamboree, yet in the knowing how pointed and urgent these songs remain today, there was an innocence and hope.
Springsteen would talk of Guthrie’s will to ask questions, to stand firm in what he believed. There was truth and there was clarity. And, in that, a conviction that delivers.
As a warm-up for what Bruce Springsteen would have to say, it set a tone that the rock legend aspires to.