Sunday, October 7th 2012
We arrived at Z Space a minute late (having been at the Lenore Kandel event) and were told to take any of the reserved seats in the front row. We were just 20 feet from a low stage which went way back into the darkness. Performers would emerge from the shadows, walking to the mic at the front of the stage, like something rising out of the depths of an 8-ball.
Woody Guthrie was born in 1912 and hard luck was his middle name – as much historically and genetically as anything to do with economics. He wasn’t dirt poor, but he came of age around the time the Great Depression hit, and he was in Oklahoma. He turned into the “Dust Bowl Troubadour” and migrated to California with a lot of other refugees.
(Note: his father was in the Ku Klux Klan and may have attended a lynching in the early 1900’s. To give you an idea of what it was like back then (especially in the South), postcards of lynchings were “as common as postcards of Niagara Falls.” The Post Office didn’t allow mailing them after 1908, but door-to-door sales were popular.)
By the 1940’s Woody had played with Lead Belly, had a Jewish wife, and was living in Brooklyn where he wrote many of his songs. He was a socialist with “This machine kills fascists” written on his guitar. He had lived through the Depression and World War II, but was showing symptoms of a degenerative nerve disease. He spent the last 11 years of his life in a hospital, dying in 1967 (at the age of 55). Several of his kids died prematurely from the same disease, or from fire and car wrecks.
But he wrote hundreds of songs, many of them protest songs, and there are thousands of lyrics he never got around to putting to music. He got the tune for “This Land is Your Land” from an old gospel song. Dylan did the same thing with some of his songs, including “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
You know you’re in for a relaxing evening when the MC is Country Joe. I wish he would have done a few songs. The last performer was Steve Earle in a tour de force appearance – walking out of the gloomy dark of that deep stage, already strumming his guitar with a harmonica fastened around his neck. He was finger-picking his guitar while he talked about the election, and then went into “Christmas in Washington” with its refrain of “… come back Woody Guthrie…” He also sang “Deportee.”
Courtesy of Charles Kruger, you can now watch Earle’s performance:
The other performers included:
- An all-woman trio with lovely harmonies led by Jill Olson. I used to see her at the Paradise Lounge when it had one small stage, maybe 1990. She was on stand-up bass and was known as “The Wholesome Jill Olson.” I still think she’s wholesome.
- Jay Farrar from Son Volt. He has been putting some of Woody Guthrie’s lyrics to music, and he performed at the blue grass festival in town (as did Steve Earle).
- Eddy Joe Cotton – one of the founders of the Yard Dogs Road Band, who I’ve seen several times over the years. There are very few bands I’ve seen more than once (the Ramones, the Reverend Horton Heat, and Fox and Woman come to mind). He read from his hobo book, while admitting (with his shoulders slumping) that Woody wasn’t so hot about riding the rails. It wasn’t romantic back then when one was forced to do it because of hard times.
- Alan Kaufman read something about Woody Guthrie’s life, and then a poem about being closely connected to the Holocaust through his mother.
- Other participants (either reading or singing): Francisco X. Alarcon, Chris Carlsson (co-founder of Critical Mass), Ed Cray, and Bryan McPherson – who ended his last song by practically screaming the word “free,” like it’s a condition we shouldn’t take for granted.
In closing, here are two verses from “This Land is Your Land” which are not heard very often:
As I went walking, I saw a sign there,
And on the sign there, It said “no trespassing.”
But on the other side, it didn’t say nothing!
That side was made for you and me.
In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I’d seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?
Steven Gray has been living in San Francisco since 1849 and has rent control. Self control is another matter. He reads his work on a regular basis in venues throughout San Francisco. Sometimes he accompanies other poets on guitar. He is co-editor of Out of Our, a poetry and art magazine, and has two books of poetry: Jet Shock and Culture Lag (2012), and Shadow on the Rocks (2011).