(Taking place throughout 2012, the Woody Guthrie Centennial Celebration is designed to salute Woody Guthrie's extraordinary impact on American music. The GRAMMY Museum has been an active participant in the celebration, co-producing a tribute concert on April 14 in Los Angeles. For more information on the celebration, visit www.woody100.com.)
Songwriter Steve Earle has often acknowledged how artists such as Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt have influenced his songwriting career. But Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan arguably played the biggest parts in his musical evolution. Since his debut album, 1986's Guitar Town, Earle has successfully straddled the worlds of country, folk and rock to forge his own unique sound. He sings love songs and politically charged protest songs with equal fervor, and has made country, rock, bluegrass, and folk-flavored albums in his long career. He's taken home three GRAMMYs in the process, winning Best Contemporary Folk Album for The Revolution Starts…Now (2004), Washington Square Serenade (2007) and Townes (2009), among 15 total nominations.
In conjunction with the Woody Guthrie Centennial Celebration, Earle is set to help give back to one of his heroes. Taking place at the City Winery in New York July 11–13, Earle will host WoodyFest, a festival celebrating Guthrie's legacy. Artists scheduled to perform include Billy Bragg, Amy Helm, Tim Robbins, and Rachael Yamagata, among others. In an exclusive interview with GRAMMY.com, Earle discussed how Guthrie's music has influenced him and his role in WoodyFest.
When did you first hear Woody Guthrie's songs?
Like most kids, I grew up singing "This Land Is Your Land" in grammar school, but with the most radical verses neatly removed. This was before I knew it was a Woody Guthrie song. Becoming aware of him was a function of my age. When I started to play in front of audiences, I was too young to play in bars, so I played coffeehouses full of hippies and folkies and people who were against the Vietnam War. Everyone I met knew who Woody was, but I learned most of what I know about [Woody] from Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Richard Dobson, who taught me how to play "Hard Travelin'" and "Deportee." That's how folk music works. It's handed down from singer to singer. I'm an amateur musicologist, so when I started tracking down the lineage of the music I loved, it all went back to Woody and Dylan. They're the musicians that invented my job, the self-taught singer/songwriter who is trying to make art, not just entertain people.
As far as political songs, Guthrie grew up during the depression and that made him radical, like the Vietnam War made me radical. He taught me there has to be a poetic and a journalistic component to your stuff if you want to write good topical songs.
Did you ever try to write a Woody Guthrie song?
Of course. My favorite is "Deportee," although [Woody] never completed it. The music is by Martin Hoffman, but it's an incredible lyric. I'm from South Texas and it struck a nerve with me because I was around Mexican music all my life. I tried to write [my version of] "Deportee" five or six times. All we do as songwriters is rewrite the songs that have impressed us till we find our own voice. It's part of learning the craft.
To celebrate Guthrie's 100th birthday, you're hosting WoodyFest at the City Winery in New York. How did your participation come about?
I do a residency [at the City Winery] every winter. It's close to my house, so I can walk to work. It's become one of the best places in New York to see singer/songwriters perform. Shlomo [Lipetz, who books the club] asked me to call [Woody's daughter] Nora Guthrie, who runs the Woody Guthrie Archives. She's the keeper of the flame and was supportive about a New York City celebration of Woody's birthday. Without the time he spent in New York, I don't think Woody would have become the Woody we know. We started planning with a list of 30 people and then got whoever was available. It's going to be three guests and myself every night. You want to put a show together that makes sense and will be fun, but the scheduling can be frustrating. I included Tim Robbins because he grew up in Greenwich Village. His dad was Gil Robbins. He was in the folk singing group the Highwaymen and managed the Gaslight Cafe. He knew Woody, Pete Seeger and all those guys. Tim grew up around them.
Do you know Nora Guthrie? Have you worked with her or the Woody Guthrie Archives?
I wrote a song called "Christmas In Washington" that has a line in it that says, "Come back Woody Guthrie, come back to us now, tear your eyes from paradise and rise again somehow." Nora heard that song as an affirmation of what she was doing to keep Woody's memory alive. She introduced herself to me at a folk festival I was playing. Whenever I do anything that has anything to do with Woody, I call Nora. Woody left an important legacy; it's not something to screw around with. Nora gave her blessings and we were off. We'll be donating part of the proceeds to the Woody Guthrie Foundation.
Has Nora asked you to write tunes for any of Woody's lyrics?
Yes, but I've never quite had the balls to do it. I don't judge anyone else who has done it, but Woody borrowed most of the melodies rather than writing his own. That's how Dylan started writing, too. On Another Side Of Bob Dylan, his own melodies were emerging and he stopped being Woody Guthrie and became himself. Dylan picked up where Guthrie left off and made it possible for rock to become an art. A lot of people from the folk scene followed suit. Lyrics became important and rock turned into something akin to folk music, an art form with its own voice. Without Dylan and Guthrie, that might not have happened. It might have been just a louder form of pop that lead to a dead end.
In today's music climate, it's hard to say what the future holds for singer/songwriters. I think the singer/songwriter genre is going to be like bluegrass and jazz. You can make a living at it, but it's not part of the musical mainstream anymore.
(J. Poet lives in San Francisco and writes about Native, folk, country, Americana, and world music for many national and international publications and websites.)