Concert review: Billy Bragg celebrates Woody Guthrie's centennial at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, Okemah, Oklahoma
Nearly twenty years ago, when over 3000 songs in the Woody Guthrie archives became available, the icon's daughter, Nora, offered British protest songster Billy Bragg first dibs. The choice resulted in three "Mermaid Avenue" albums with Bragg collaborating with Wilco, Natalie Merchant and Corey Harris to breath life into Guthrie's unrecorded compositions.
Bragg continues to bring Guthrie's words to the people, marking the 100th anniversary of the songwriter's birth with this summer's "Ain't Nobody That Can Sing Like Me" world tour. His compilation of Guthrie covers landed him in tiny Okemah, Oklahoma, on Thursday, July 12, as part of the fifteenth annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival.
In the "Pasture of Plenty" - a festival set-up in a field behind Okemah High School - Bragg was preceded by Larry Long, Butch Hancock and Red Dirt Rangers. This, after a day of folk musicians and open mics at the bars around Guthrie's hometown, left an enthusiastic but rather calm crowd for Bragg. Cordoned away from the stage by orange plastic fencing, the audience mostly remained seated while Bragg, with only his electric guitar for accompaniment, tore through a set of Guthrie classics interspersed with stories from both Bragg and Guthrie's life, political discourse and encouragement to keep their hometown hero's message alive for the next one hundred years.
Bragg opened the show by dedicating "Against th' Law" to Bob Childers, the father of Oklahoma's Red Dirt music movement. He then traced Guthrie's lineage back to Shakespeare, since American folk music originated with Scotch Irish descendants like Guthrie. A horse named Black Bess appears in Guthrie's highwayman tale "The Unwelcome Guest" and the legend of eighteenth-century British highwayman Dick Turpin. Did Guthrie hear the tales of Turpin at his grandmother's knee? There's no way to know, but Bragg effectively links his heritage to Guthrie's by illustrating the lines connecting oral tradition and folk music.
"All great artists have their hand down their pants," Bragg quoted Patti Smith before pointing out the double-entendres in "Ingrid Bergman" and "Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key." After giggling over the ejaculatory wordplay, Bragg filled both songs with big, passionate vocals, giving them heart to match the bawd.
In the days before his Okemah appearance, Bragg did two shows in Madison, Wisconsin. A longtime advocate for unionization, he joined protesting state workers in song on the capitol steps during their lunch break both days. He dedicated "I Guess I Planted" to them, explaining that what the protesting workers are doing is the closest Americans have seen to Woody's spirit in action in decades.
After the song, Bragg paused to point out a large moth had planted on his shoulder, refusing to move through the three songs prior. "Do you have vampire moths in Oklahoma? I've never seen anything like this! Is this thing going to stick a pipe in me and drain my blood?" Despite flailing, the moth didn't budge as Bragg's stage manager doubled over laughing. The moth eventually got the hint, but sent reinforcements throughout the show. Bragg reacted accordingly, working references to them into his songs.
Bragg dipped into his own catalog for "Tomorrow's Going to be a Better Down," pointing out that Guthrie never wrote a cynical song. Skeptical, yes, but never cynical. Bragg calls cynicism the biggest enemy of progress, urging his audience to stay positive in their pursuits for change. Oklahoma bears the title "Reddest of the Red States," but Bragg's words elicited cheers of agreement and approval as he praised the passage of the Affordable Care Act, renaming Socialism "organized compassion."
He returned to stories of his Guthrie experience by telling how an Irish butter commercial featuring Shane MacGowan singing "She Moves through the Fair" inspired Bragg's melody for Guthrie's "Go Down to the Water." Guthrie wrote the haunting, evocative love song to his wife and infant daughter, encouraging them to go to the beach near their Coney Island home and writing letters to him in the sand while he was overseas during World War II. Sounding nothing like MacGowan or a butter ad, Bragg's guitar was nearly silent under vocals that ranged from ocean deep to soaring.
How does a Brit know about Guthrie? Not the same way Americans do, which he proved by sharing a tale of being on a panel discussion about Guthrie with Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie and Ramblin' Jack Elliott. When they threw him a verse of "This Land is Your Land," Bragg apologized. "We don't sing that song in my country," he explained to the panel. On Thursday, he elaborated, "We know Woody because he painted, 'This machine kills fascists' on his guitars," as he tore into an Oklahoma-hot opening riff for "All You Fascists," leading into his original "There is Power in the Union."
Bragg extolled how good protesters have it today since we're the first generation that can protest without "the shadow of totalitarianism." "They can't tell you to go to the Soviet Union if you don't like it here, because it doesn't exist anymore," he explained. While democracy might be in better shape now than it used to be, some of Guthrie's songs are still all too relevant. Before a slow, forlorn take on "I Ain't Got No Home in This World Anymore," Bragg points out that Guthrie's tale of unemployment, poverty, inadequate health care and foreclosure is just as real today as it was over seventy years ago.
"We've not yet heard what Woody Guthrie had to tell the world," Bragg said as he wound down his set. "Only fifteen percent of his songs have ever been recorded." Delightfully long-winded, Bragg declined a pre-encore break, opting instead to talk about Guthrie's extensive catalog and how no, there isn't another "This Land is Your Land" buried in the archives. "If so, don't you think Pete [Seeger] or Arlo [Guthrie] or Bob [Dylan] would have been smart enough to record it?"
Instead of going with another Guthrie great, Bragg said he wanted to go to the opposite end of the spectrum with Guthrie's revision of "The Bear Went Over the Mountain." It ends with the bear shitting a fireball Guthrie equated to the Republican party. After a one-note pause, Bragg went from shit to "A New England." Partway through the song, he dedicated the song to Kirsty MacColl, who had a hit with his composition in 1984. As he's done since her 2000 death he included her third verse that's absent from his original recording, paying tribute not only to Guthrie, but to a beloved friend in a night dedicated to keeping musical legacies alive and evolving.