As a teenager growing up outside Denver, Judy Collins and a few friends used to hike up Lookout Mountain to listen to musicians play folk music. It was there that she saw a man wearing overalls and an engineer’s hat named Martin Hoffman singing a song called “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos).” It was the first Woody Guthrie song she ever heard, and for a kid whose home echoed with the works of George Gershwin and the American songbook, hearing the music of Guthrie from folkies up on the mountain was a revelation.
“It was like going up and getting an injection of this culture that I knew zero about,” Miss Collins said in a recent phone call.
She picked up the guitar and began writing songs. Hoffman moved to Arizona, taught school in the desert, and committed suicide. Miss Collins was so moved by his death that she wrote “Song For Martin.” Released in 1973 on “True Stories and Other Dreams,” she claims it as “a classic Judy Collins song.”
Recently in Brooklyn, Miss Collins and several colleagues who have celebrated and poached from the Guthrie songbook for decades performed in one of many celebrations commemorating what would have been Guthrie’s 100th birthday this year. There, she was handed a published copy of “Deportee” sheet music that said “Lyrics by Woody Guthrie, music by Martin Hoffman.”
“You could have bowled me over,” she says, “I never knew that that was his melody. Of course, Woody didn’t write a bunch of [his] melodies.”
Guthrie wrote something more impressive: social commentary that leverages the possibilities of song to bring a message beyond its base audience. One reason people are stilling listening to, talking about, and employing the songs of Guthrie is because in addition to coming with substance, the songs are actually good, unlike most of the social diatribes that pass for protest music today (see Neil Young’s “Living With War,” or “Election Special,” the latest from Ry Cooder).
It is ironic that while Guthrie’s 100th birthday is being celebrated across the country — culminating with “This Land Is Your Land: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Celebration Concert” Sunday at the Kennedy Center featuring John Mellencamp, Donovan, Ani DiFranco, Mr. Cooder and many others — the modern protest canon is on life support. The George W. Bush years provided ample material for the left, and President Obama’s tenure has been met with a chorus of jeers from the right, but neither side’s musical sympathizers have produced an enduring anthem to rival the best of the Vietnam era — such as Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” or Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s “Ohio” — to say nothing of Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”
This decline was noted in last year’s “33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, From Billie Holiday to Green Day.” In the book, author Dorian Lynskey writes: “During the Vietnam War, a handful of antiwar songs gained such cultural traction that it seemed as if everyone was making them. During the Iraq War, the opposite happened: many people wrote them, yet it seemed like nobody was. Instead of snowballing into a movement, myriad individual protest songs lay on the ground like flakes in a mild spring snowfall: frail, scattered, quick to melt away.”
The current state of the protest song makes Guthrie’s talent for slipping politics — or a call for a decent wage — into a listenable folk song seem all the more impressive.
“He had the knack, you know?” Miss Collins says. “He could put [commentary] into something that was palatable and also very, very political.”
Joel Rafael — a noted Guthrie historian and musician who has recorded several albums of the artist’s music and is performing at the Kennedy Center show — says that Guthrie’s songs have endured not just because they are singable tunes about critical issues, but also because Guthrie wasn’t an armchair pundit. He lived his life in the field — even at the expense of his relationship with his family.
“He kind of took the personal experience of the people in the story and was able to impart the human experience of the people who were actually there,” says Mr. Rafael. “He really finds a human element, so we relate to it more than just reading about what happened.”
To this day, Guthrie’s songs — in particular his immigration story “Deportee” and “This Land,” which was an Occupy Wall Street favorite — are employed at political and social events. Nora Guthrie, Guthrie’s daughter and the organizer of Sunday’s show, says her family is OK with the songs being played by people who share her father’s values, but she draws the line at any political party co-opting his most famous song as a campaign tool.
“It’s not for governments,” she says of “This Land.” “It’s for the people. It’s different if you have a song like ‘Deportee,’ because that song has to do with immigration. People who are concerned about that issue will sing that song, whether they’re Republicans or Democrats.”
In lining up artists for the tribute to her father at the Kennedy Center, Ms. Guthrie says she went with musicians who have a long history of celebrating her father’s music — not just star power that will sell tickets — regardless of their political affiliation. But most of the headliners — from Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello to Jackson Browne — have a long history with the far left.