Woody Guthrie and Country Joe McDonald both lived in turbulent times, and both became known as voices of their generation.
Guthrie wrote songs about the economic fallout of the Great Depression in which millions of Americans lost their homes and farms to foreclosure. Many headed off down the road in search of greener pastures, often landing in migrant camps with starving children and dogs in tow.
Guthrie has been cited as a musical influence by scores of famous artists, but his songs, like “This Land is My Land,” “Do Re Mi” and “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad.” His children included Arlo Guthrie, famous for the song “Alice’s Restaurant.”
McDonald is best remembered for his songs and performances against the Vietnam War with Country Joe and the Fish, including the obscene “Fish cheer” he delivered at the Woodstock music festival in 1969. He has his FBI file proudly posted on his professional web site.
For the last decade, however, McDonald’s performances have skipped back a generation to sharing the songs of Woody Guthrie, as he will on Saturday in Cedar Rapids as part of Woodyfest.
Although McDonald could as easily be singing about the Vietnam War generation, the depression era is more agreeable to audiences.
- Woodyfest: A 100th-year celebration of folk singer Woody Guthrie’s birth features Country Joe McDonald with Dave Moore, Waite & Drake, Rob Lumbard, Sam Knutson, Pigs & Clover and Evan Stock Band
- It runs from noon to 9 p.m. Saturday at NewBo Beach, New Bohemia District, Cedar Rapids
- The cost is $20 at CSPS
“It’s safe and interesting to go back a couple generations,” says McDonald, who will perform at about 7:15 p.m. Saturday night at NewBo Beach as part of Woodyfest, a celebration of Woody Guthrie’s . “The world they lived in was horrible – starvation, segregation, fascism – but it’s divorced by a generation of time.”
Guthrie’s depression ballads were sung with a kind of upbeat, folksy sensibility that is anything but depressing. It’s a style and a voice that McDonald echoes convincingly.
“We can laugh, and enjoy it, and get some wisdom out of it,” McDonald said.
McDonald’s career conversion to musical historian and Woody Guthrie reenactor may seem like a drastic turn, but as he describes it now, was almost inevitable. His father came from rural Oklahoma, eventually becoming a dust bowl refugee like Woody Guthrie. He also shared Guthrie’s whimsical sense of humor.
“I heard Woody Guthrie playing in my house when I was five or six years old,” McDonald said. “It never impressed me as something I would copy or do.”
McDonald recorded an album, “Thinking of Woody Guthrie,” when he went to Nashville in 1969 to make a country music record, and found himself with extra studio time and a bunch of talented studio musicians.
“Nothing big happened with the album,” McDonald said.
Then in 1975, the manager of the Woody Guthrie Archives, Howard Leventhal, asked McDonald to put to music some of Guthrie’s previously unrecorded lyrics for the West Coast Hollywood Bowl Tribute to Woody Guthrie concert. They included some of Guthrie’s more erotic writings, and went out on an album produced from the event.
McDonald went on to produce a record of original songs by Joady Guthrie, one of Woody’s sons, in the 1980s. In 2001, the National Steinbeck Center in California contacted McDonald to perform a live show of Guthrie’s songs at a special event. He dug into his archives for Woody Guthrie material dredged from the folksinger’s newspaper columns and letters he could use to tell Woody Guthrie stories during the show.
McDonald was encouraged when Marjorie Guthrie, one of the folk singer’s former wives, said it was the best performance of Woody Guthrie material she’d heard.
The performances became a regular thing, which he estimated he’s performed 50 times over the last 11 years in between other musical performances. This year, the 100th anniversary of Guthrie’s birthday, is expected to be his busiest yet for the Guthrie tribute show.
“It’s the story of my interest in Woody Guthrie, and his influence on me, my father, and my family,” he said.
A common thread in Guthrie’s musical style was simplicity. Common men and women could easily understand and connect with the songs, and many of them were easily singable for untrained voices. They were sympathetic to union, socialists, and others who supported the working class, and against the more oppressive forces of capitalism. Guthrie’s favorite guitar bore the inscription, “This machine kills fascists.”
McDonald says Guthrie always “looked on the sunny side,” although he admits it’s a hard sensibility to relate to these days. He says Americans today live in a “science fiction world” in which wars are fought with technology and presidents can order assassinations by drone attack halfway around the world.
“When I have those everyday computer or phone glitches, I sometimes say out loud, “glad I’m not on the electronic battlefield,” McDonald said.
— Dave DeWitte