Sunday, September 23, 2012

Woodie at 100

Concert for Woodie Guthrie at Brooklyn College
Gatherings to celebrate heroes of folk music and the old left sometimes feel like events for senior citizens.  Last night's concert at Brooklyn  College to celebrate the centennial of Woodie Guthrie's birth was an exception. Despite the abundance of gray hair,  there were enough young people and enough inspired renderings of Woodie's lyrics that the future of folk music and fights for social justice felt secure for another 100 years.

The key to this is the Woodie Guthrie Archive, run by Woodie's daughter Nora. In the archive, along with artwork and more, are almost 3,000 lyrics that Woodie wrote. Over the years, Nora has encouraged musicians to put them to new uses.

Two of the best products of this splendid idea could be heard last night.

Billy Bragg, a great interpreter of Woodie's songs, performed "God Down to the Water," which draws on Woodie's years as a merchant  seaman in World War II. The lyrics, which Bragg set to the haunting tune for he Irish song "She Moved Through the Fair," are a beautiful mediation on love, distance, and the danger of loss.

Equally beautiful, and very different, was the Klezmatics' version of "Mermaid Avenue," Woodie's splendid tribute to that thoroughfare in Brooklyn.  The opening verse alone makes it one of the greatest New York City songs:

Mermaid Avenue that’s the street
Where the lox and bagels meet,
Where the sour meets the sweet;
Where the beer flows to the ocean
Where the wine runs to the sea;
Why they call it Mermaid Avenue
That’s more than I can see.

To get the sound of "Mermaid Avenue," check out this Klezmatics version on YouTube, recorded at the Tarrytown Music Hall.

Woodie's centennial will culminate soon in a concert in Washington, DC. But as far as I'm concerned, his spirit  lives in raised voices, honest struggles, and the sounds of Mermaid Avenue.


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