- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 8, 2006

In his first appearance at Alexandria’s venerable Birchmere Music Hall, 87-year-old Pete Seeger shared his voice, memories and a bit of advice during a concert paying tribute to his old musical partner, Woody Guthrie. The program, appropriately enough, was to benefit a Takoma Park-based arts and activism project called CultureWorks.

Hosted by two-time Grammy winners Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer and labor activist and performer Joe Uehlein and his U-Liners band, the concert also featured stunning harmonies from Mr. Guthrie’s granddaughter, Sarah Lee Guthrie, her husband, Johnny Irion, and farm labor organizer/Tex-Mex singer songwriter Baldemar Velasquez and his accordion player, Jesse Ponce.

The fast-paced program had the earnest air — as well as the soundtrack — of a labor rally. Twenty of the evening’s 25 selections were written by Mr. Guthrie. Of the remainder, Mr. Seeger said he had learned “You’ve Got to Walk That Lonesome Valley,” a Carter-family standard, from Mr. Guthrie, and Mr. Valesquez said the songs he had written and performed, largely in Spanish, were of the Guthrie tradition.

“If Woody were here, he’d be writing these songs,” Mr. Velasquez said. Included in one of his own compositions, a song about the death of a migrant worker in the North Carolina tobacco fields, was a snippet of “This Land is Your Land.”

The ensemble performed that Guthrie anthem as its encore, following the closing song, “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh (Dirty Old Dust).”

Mr. Guthrie, who died of Huntington’s Chorea in 1967, rose to prominence as a singer-songwriter in the Dust Bowl era. He left a legacy of songs that formed the foundation for American protest music, paving the way for such artists as Bob Dylan, the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary, as well as his own son, singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie, and countless others.

Yet, his influence has been established anew in the past decade. The Woody Guthrie Foundation maintains an archive of more than 10,000 Guthrie artifacts, including lyrics to an estimated 3,500 unrecorded songs. Mr. Guthrie himself recorded only about 100 songs in his lifetime, Miss Guthrie said.

In 1998, British punk rock artist Billy Bragg teamed with the alt-country band Wilco and mined the archives to release “Mermaid Avenue,” a CD collection of previously unrecorded Guthrie material. The artists at the Birchmere drew upon those songs, too.

One concert highlight was a stirring version of “Peace Call” led by Mr. Irion and Miss Guthrie, a Guthrie archive piece newly issued by Austin singer-songwriter Eliza Gilkyson. The U-Liners joined in a blazing rock finish to the song.

Mr. Seeger, who performed with Mr. Guthrie in the politically charged Almanac Singers starting in 1940, also led the audience in an obscure Guthrie song, “Why Do You Stand There in the Rain?” written about a 1940 American Youth Congress job rally in front of the White House.

Later in the program, Mr. Seeger regaled the sold-out Birchmere with a few Guthrie stories in a 12-minute interview with Mr. Uehlein.

His advice to prospective protest singers?

“Try and stay away from commercial work,” Mr. Seeger said, eliciting chuckles from the audience. “I was saved most of my life by my lefty reputation. But with this new Springfield record [sic], I’ve blown my cover.”

Mr. Seeger, who was blacklisted as a performer during the McCarthy era and refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, was referring to the successful 2006 Bruce Springsteen recording, “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.”

Mr. Springsteen is currently touring in support of that disc in Europe, where its reception is reportedly favorable.

Banjo in hand, leading the audience in song and clearly enjoying every moment of it, Mr. Seeger returned to center stage toward the end of the evening with “The Sinking of the Reuben James.”


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