It’s no overstatement to say that American music and America itself would be very different without the lasting influence of the late singer/songwriter Woody Guthrie (1912 – 1967). He was the prototype of the 20th Century rambling minstrel, turning his travels and observations into a huge body of topical and timeless music – songs that contrasted our country’s natural glories and sociopolitical shames, pro-labor songs, both pro- and anti-war songs, kids’ songs, patriotic and “left-wing” songs, music for everyday people to think about as they sing.
When the 21-year-old Pete Seeger first met Guthrie, six years his senior, backstage at a benefit concert in 1940, he was enthralled by Guthrie’s music, lyrical vision, and charisma. The two men started traveling and performing together, which was, in Pete’s words, his own “big, big education in learning about America.” On the new 2-CD "Pete Remembers Woody," Pete recounts his vivid firsthand reminiscences, wide-ranging and frequently humorous, of Woody’s adult life – Guthrie’s transmutation of his experiences and omnivorous readings into popular although often controversial songs, his tips on freight-hopping and saloon singing, encounters with musical contemporaries Leadbelly and others, and many of the skills Pete has subsequently used in his own career, still ongoing in this Centennial year of Guthrie’s birth.
Interspersed with Pete’s recollections of Woody are versions of some of Guthrie’s most famous songs performed by idealistic links in the topical music chain like Arlo Guthrie (dueting with Pete on one of the few Woody-Seeger co-writes, “66 Highway Blues”), the Work o’ the Weavers (“This Land is Your Land,” “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh!”) and member/CD producer David Bernz, whose own three-part “Woody’s Ghost” serves to bookend and provide an intermission between the two CDs, and Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer, who added music to Woody’s lyrics for “Howdy Little Newlycome.” The Vanaver Caravan, the 40-year-old troupe of musicians and dancers, performs the Depression plaint “Do Re Mi,” “Union Maid,” “Pastures of Plenty” and “Peace Pin Boogie,” while members of Hope Machine tackle “I Ain’t Got No Home” and “I’ve Got to Know.” Woody himself, with another of his running buddies, Cisco Houston, is heard on a 1940s recording of “New York Town.” Fink’s banjo-playing on various traditional tunes helps tie together the masterful sequencing of spoken stories and related songs.
That two men – Guthrie and Seeger – with a passion to carry on and expand music’s potential for social change among the less fortunate, as well as for entertainment – should overlap, interact and inspire fellow and future musicians and listeners was a timely miracle. Listen to how it happened – and how it lives on – on this lively spoken and sung musical document.