Newport Folk Festival: Guthrie Family Reunion

There was one act on Saturday that was cheerful and fun despite the heavy amount of sorrow it carried beneath the music. The Guthrie Family Reunion group took the stage, armed with all sorts of folk instruments, for a tribute to their father and grandfather (respectively), Woody Guthrie. Made up of several of his children and grandchildren, the Guthrie Family Reunion celebrate the first family of folk.

American singer-songwriter and folk musician Woody Guthrie passed away in 1967 at the age of 55 from Huntington’s disease. The disorder never held him back from standing tall as a figurehead of the folk movement, though. It’s for this prowess, political flair, and understanding of folk that Woody is fondly remembered and cited by many (Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Pete Seeger, Joe Strummer, Billy Bragg, Jeff Tweedy, Tom Paxton) as a major influence. If the majority of your recorded songs are archived in the Library of Congress, you must be doing something notable.

“Thank you so much, I’m Arlo’s youngest daughter,” said Annie Guthrie to kick off show. It didn’t take long until her father, Arlo, came out. Together, the group started with “Folk Song”. “I’m glad you asked how to make a folk song ’cause all this night we got to try,” he sang. The whole thing seemed perfectseemed perfect in reference to their granddad.

While many of Woody’s songs are folk and blues songs about the Great Depression, his family brought to life the sunnier side of some of his works. Having so many people on stage acted as a crazy family reunion, especially with all of the instruments, but in an excited and understanding way.

The funniest part of the set was actually near the beginning when Cathy Guthrie sang an original song her band Folk Uke wrote. The reason she chose it? It was the only “appropriate” song for the festival. It wasn’t until she started singing “S**t makes the flowers grow” that the audience cracked up, aware that she was (at least) partially kidding. Cathy’s Folk Uke song added a funny vibe to what could have been a sad performance.

It wasn’t long before folk music icon Arlo Guthrie came onstage and the crowd began cheering. His presence acted as a spell to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. Arlo told a story that Woody once told him. “He said if an outlaw robs a bank, a ton of guys look for him,” he said. “If a bank robs a farmer, well, it’s a little different… Robbery is a chapter in etiquette.” Arlo later went on to play classic tracks such as “Pretty Boy Floyd” which, like most of the other songs Guthrie Family Reunion went on to cover, had a miniature back-story that needed to be told.

Woody Guthrie was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame in 1997, but it’s more than his achievements that keep him alive. The spirit of the Guthrie Family Reunion has him closer to their hearts, making it easy to share him with the world to remind us why folk music is so important after all.

 

By Nina Corcoran

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