To celebrate the 100th anniversary of music legend Woody Guthrie’s birth, Billy Bragg curated a performance at Queen Elizabeth Hall on 16 September with singer-songwriters Joe Henry and Grace Petrie. Richard Downes responds to the songs and the legacy handed down by Guthrie - arguably one of the most influential musicians of the 20th Century.
Grace Petrie is introduced as a keeper of the topical song and treats us straight away to ‘Margaret Thatcher’s Dream’ - a song about today’s economic situation. A middle class man loses his job, home, aspirations and dreams, becomes down-pressed by his own.
This is a great start to a night about Woody’s legacy; a stand-alone troubadour championing the people, revealing the real depth of politics and its consequences. Petrie’s next song speaks for the college student who threw a fire extinguisher during a demo. She didn’t hurt anyone but was imprisoned for more than two years.
She compares this event with the news seeping out about Hillsborough and wonders who speaks for us now, when powerful people are coming down on us, when police and media are not to be believed. And then the real kick for single mom’s, their children and we disabled people alike - her anthem ‘Farewell to Welfare’ Then on importantly to a song of solidarity - ‘They Shall Not Pass’ Fighting the power for those who follow.
Joe Henry starts with the first song he ever performed live - Woody’s ‘I Ain’t Got No Home’ - a song about dispossession in which they who made the crisis, the bankers, take the homes of the workers. It’s a first mention for the theme of economic migration - a life Woody lived. Joe turns to his ‘Tiny Voices’ album to render ‘Sold’ with its killer line; ‘You don’t need to sell me with another word. I’m already sold’.
Following this with ‘Odetta’ - a fine civil rights era folksinger whose influence he calls on to express his own need for freedom from mental slavery. By the time he reaches ‘After The War’, I remember why I love Joe Henry, the voice, the intensity, the way you have to work to follow the song, how he never makes things easy for you, unlike Woody whose ‘1913 Massacre’ outlines the venality of unregulated capitalism, whilst telling a human story.
Woody based songs on real events. So does Joe Henry. ‘Joe’s Flag’ was a response to events after 9/11. He worried about putting out something on the dangers of confusing patriotism with nationalism and would not have done so without Harry Belafonte’s intervention.
Billy Bragg focused on the ‘Mermaid Avenue Sessions’, which are now out in their entirety including DVD ‘Man Of Sand’. He recorded this with Wilco and others having been asked to do so by Nora Guthrie who discovered an archive of 3,000 of her father’s songs. Billy explained the sole purpose of his approach was to show another side of Woody other than the bi-lateral tales routinely travelled out by Dylan-ologists and academics.
So we are treated to the lewd, lusty, rocking, comedic Woody. Billy’s always best live where he reveals a reverent, respect and deep understanding of tradition. He reminded us Woody took a long time to die of complications from Huntingdon’s Disease revealing he never stopped writing from his hospital bed, recording his life in song form.
In spite of Billy's revelation as a raconteur and wit, what struck me most about the legacy is this: we live in hard times, hard travelling to a false promise of work and a true time of oppression, as we are forced to move from the benefit trap into work slavery. The downpressor is here and our people’s champion is hard to find. Who captures our lives now, holding us up in celebration? The style is set, the form remains free, expression is an opportunity waiting to be taken.
I’m glad to have found out more about Woody Guthrie but have a deeper craving for another disabled person to take up the mantle and drive the legacy further. Guess we continue to do it for ourselves.
Billy Bragg continues the tour celebrating the legacy of Woody Guthrie with eight dates in Australia. Click on fasterlouder.com.au for details