Guthrie's message still rings true today

(Edmonton) In today’s turbulent social and economic times, the poignant words and ideas of folk icon Woody Guthrie are still achingly relevant, 70 years on.

Celebrating what would have been Guthrie’s 100th birthday this year, the University of Alberta hosted a conference in conjunction with the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, reflecting on the legendary artist’s legacy and his messages of social equality and justice.

The U of A conference—the only one if its kind held in Canada to honour Guthrie—acknowledges his powerful body of work. In his lifetime, he produced 3,000 songs (most of them unpublished), along with poetry and visual art, said Jonathan Kertzer, director of folkwaysAlive!, a partnership between the U of A and Smithsonian Folkways Recordings that is deeply connected to Guthrie’s work.

“Guthrie was one of the first really socially conscious performers, and a lot of what he wrote rings so true today because of the economic times,” Kertzer said. “He was not just a musician; he was a literary genius, a poet, a multi-dimensional talent.”

The U of A hosted the event to continue fostering overall contemporary awareness of folk music, an ongoing legacy enriched by its unique folkwaysAlive! partnership with the Smithsonian.

“We want to show a willingness to study musical culture and are appreciative of the people’s role, not just the well-known pantheon of composers. We are looking at the role of traditional folk and world music and [the U of A] is really a centre for it. This event really supports that idea,” Kertzer said.

“The centenary of Guthrie is a once-in-a-lifetime event and creates knowledge that wouldn’t happen otherwise.”

A child of the Great Depression and then of the Second World War, Guthrie, who came from humble beginnings in Oklahoma, went on to pen the anthemic This Land Is Your Land, sung by most Canadian and American schoolchildren at one time or another. Though Guthrie died young from Huntington’s disease, his message was carried on by other key folk singers like Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, as well as Joan Baez and Bruce Springsteen, Kertzer said.

Guthrie’s themes, though formed at a different time in history, are as meaningful as ever today, he added.

“He wrote songs about the plight of migrant workers, about different political issues; he was outspoken and not shy about writing things, and so much of what he wrote rings true today in a really strong sense.”

Guthrie’s work can be viewed in an exhibit, Woody at 100, on display at the Art Gallery of Alberta until Aug. 26. The Edmonton Folk Music Festival is also showcasing Guthrie’s music with a performance by his son, Arlo Guthrie, and the Guthrie Family Band.