Various Artists

Woody Guthrie at 100! Live at the Kennedy Center

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Woody Guthrie defined an era and culture in transition in his Dust Bowl ballads, his outlaw tales, his work and labor songs, anti-war songs, children's songs, political songs, and a host of love songs and songs that touched on philosophy, geography, and the hard work of living day to day in an emerging industrial world. He was kind of a maverick beat journalist. He wrote and drew constantly, and new poems, writings, drawings, lyrics, and even previously unknown songs and recordings have kept turning up even a decade into the 21st century, making him, in retrospect, a kind of maverick gonzo beat journalist, and if he defiantly wished, yearned, and politicized for a better America, it's hard to imagine a more American artist. This CD/DVD collects highlights from a concert held at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. on October 14, 2012 to honor the 100th anniversary of Guthrie's birth, and as these various performers that night present their versions of Guthrie's songs, what quickly becomes obvious is how varied, versatile, poignant, literate, and lyrical he was as a songwriter, even if he worked mostly in a vernacular style. His best songs both capture an era and transcend that era, and his feel for the downtrodden in the land of opportunity is unparalleled. But he also wrote love songs and kid's songs, and all of these are here, including highlight performances by Judy Collins (she turns back the clock with a beautiful piano and acoustic guitar arrangement of "Pastures of Plenty"), Ani DiFranco (a haunting "Deportee," complete with ghostly fiddle and some fine atmospheric guitar from Ry Cooder), Rosanne Cash (her takes on "I Ain't Got No Home" and "Pretty Boy Floyd," with John Leventhal adding guitar, are revealing, particularly "Pretty Boy Floyd," which is done with her father Johnny Cash's patented Tennessee Two shuffle), and Joel Rafael (he sounds so much like Bob Dylan here on "Ramblin' Reckless Hobo" that one could swear it was a long lost Dylan song circa Another Side of Bob Dylan -- and underscores how much Dylan learned from Guthrie). The one sort of sad note in the set is Ramblin' Jack Elliott's (perhaps the purest of Guthrie-influenced acolytes) ramshackle and wobbly version of "1913 Massacre." Time and a life of constant gigs have settled in on Elliott here, and it's heartbreaking to hear him struggle through the song, the kind of song he used to carry in his pocket. It's easy to imagine Guthrie doing the same thing, though, which he did, actually, singing until he simply couldn't sing anymore. But these songs are sturdy. They're timeless. Someone will always be singing them, and it really doesn't matter how well.

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