Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Review: Woody Guthrie All-Star Tribute Concert 1970

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2019
Images from the Internet

Woody Guthrie All-Star Tribute Concert 1970
Directed by Jim Brown
Hereditary Disease Foundation / Jim Brown Foundation / MVD Visual
51 minutes, 1970 / 2019

Excuse the way I am phrasing this, if you must, but Woody Guthrie was punk as fuck. Perhaps not in volume or electricity, but certainly in message. For example, he quite famously had written on his guitar, in big letters, “This machine kills Fascists.” Woody also had a strong influence on other proto-punk folkers like Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs.

Most people I know who came to punk got there through the loud guitars of bands like the MC5, the Velvet Underground, or even KISS. For me, I grew up on folk (Simon & Garfunkel, Peter Paul & Mary, Ochs, and others; Dylan would come later for me, after the Ramones in 1975). For example, my very first concert was Melanie (Safka) at Carnegie Hall in early February of 1973.

Over the next few years, before I became obsessed with the bands at CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, I had the opportunity to see a lot of the musicians that are on this DVD (an asterisk will appear next to the names in the Song List below, of those I saw).

The purpose of this tribute concert was to not only honor Woody, and rightfully so, but as a benefit for a charity to fight the disease that killed him in 1967 by robbing him of his movement, his voice and then his life: Huntington’s Disease.

Filmed at the Hollywood Bowl, this is the first official release of the film. I do remember there were showings of it in 16mm at local churches along St. Mark’s Place (between Second Ave and Tompkins Square Park), but this is my first time seeing it.

If you read through the song list, you will most likely see lots that you may have heard before, especially if you’re an older camper like me, though done by other artists. His songs were carried forth by his fans (i.e., musicians) so it makes total sense for the rhythm to continue.

First up is a huge line-up for his song about a post-death heaven-bound train, “This Train is Bound for Glory” (which Peter Paul & Mary did so well with as “This Train”). Each musician takes a turn at a stanza; like the Traveling Wilburies, where Roy Orbison’s voice outshines the rest, there is some of that here too, with Odetta being the fiercest and certain Joan Baez being the highest pitched.

Between songs, there are narrations read from Woody’s words, by Will Geer (Grandpa from “The Waltons”; d. 1978) and Peter Fonda. These lead into the next song. For example, when the notes read are about Woody’s Oklahoma upbringing, they slide into Arlo singing “Oklahoma Hills.”
I am not going to discuss every song (which are listed below), but I would like to highlight certain points and show how prescient Woody could be beyond the grave. For example, Baez and Seeger sing the dust bowl cry, “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh.” This song is actually bogged down, in my opinion, by the catchiness of the chorus (same as title), so most people don’t know it beyond that. But it may be a song for modern times as well, as climate change is severely affecting weather patterns to where it may occur again; last time was natural, this time it may be induced by some governmental policies. For example, where I’m living in the Prairies now, it’s been an overtly dry spring.

This was understandably a large focus of Woody’s music from this period, and the troupe here follows through with his “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad,” “I Ain’t Got No Home,” and Arlo provides a musically updated and rocking “Do Re Mi.”

The dustbowl created a migrant class both from the US and below the border, for which Woody addressed with the extremely powerful “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee).” I first learned the song from Seeger, but it is worth checking out the devastating version elsewhere by Washington DC-based acapella group, Sweet Honey in the Rock (who I’ve seen on more than one occasion). Here, Baez picks it up and gives a sincerely expressive version that is just beautiful. In these times of locking kids in cages and mass deportations, it’s worth a listen because things have definitely come in a sad and scary circle.

Odetta’s solo “Ramblin’ Round” shows something I have felt for a long time. She essentially had a one-hit-wonder with “John Henry,” but her voice is amazing, and she should have been bigger and more popular. Her sound is to folk what Aretha was to R&B: unique and powerful. Similarly, Richie Havens steals the scene with his “900 Miles,” as he had one of the more unique guitar playing styles and a voice that is incredibly different than any other artist here. He was a regular at the Bottom Line in New York, as well as some of the Greenwich Village haunts.

For “Woman at Home,” Country Joe seems to be physically trying to channel Jim Morrison, but his vocal tones remind me more of Johnny Thunders.

Of course, for the finale, they all gather together to perform Woody’s arguably most well known song (well, the first verse and chorus is etched in the general psyche), “This Land is Your Land,” in a beautifully shared and joyful rendition that includes all the verses.

The nearly 13-minute extra is worth the watch. Within the backstage footage and thoughts by Arlo and Ramblin’ Jack, there are some additional songs, namely “1913 Massacre” by Ramblin' Jack, “John Hardy” by Odetta, and Baez covers the powerful “Pastures of Plenty.”

My only nit-picking issue is that I would liked to have the option of playing just music without the talking, so I can just use it like an album. The talking is fascinating, but not something I need to listen to numerous times, unlike the music.

One last thought, while most of the musicians mentioned above play their own instruments (yes, guitars), they are backed up by a stellar band which really enhances the sound.

I think my favorite thing is that this is not just a tribute of playing songs, but rather each performer gives the songs the power and concentration they deserve. There are a couple of numbers where they read the lyrics of a sheet, but other than that, it’s an enjoyable albeit intense presentation. So good.

Song List:
·       This Train Is Bound for Glory: Arlo Guthrie*; Joan Baez; Odetta* (d. 2008); Pete Seeger* (d. 2014); Country Joe McDonald; Richie Havens (d. 2013); Ramblin' Jack Elliott; Earl Robinson (d. 1991)
·       Oklahoma Hills: Arlo Guthrie*
·       Pretty Boy Floyd: Country Joe McDonald
·       So Long, It's Been Good to Know Yuh: Joan Baez; Pete Seeger -
·       Goin' Down the Road Feeling Bad: Country Joe McDonald, Arlo Guthrie, Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Pete Seeger
·       I Ain't Got No Home: Pete Seeger; Arlo Guthrie
·       Do Re Mi: Arlo Guthrie
·       Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee): Joan Baez
·       Ramblin' Round: Odetta
·       Roll on Columbia: Pete Seeger; Earl Robinson
·       Nine Hundred Miles: Richie Havens
·       Woman at Home: Country Joe McDonald
·       The Sinking of the Reuben James: Pete Seeger
·       I've Got to Know: Arlo Guthrie; Joan Baez; Odetta; Pete Seeger; Country Joe McDonald; Richie Havens; Ramblin' Jack Elliott; Earl Robinson
·       This Land Is Your Land: Arlo Guthrie; Joan Baez; Odetta; Pete Seeger; Country Joe McDonald; Richie Havens; Ramblin' Jack Elliott; Earl Robinson

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