If you’d ever wondered what might induce Tom Morello and Van Dyke Parks to get together, you got your answer last night at Club Nokia in Los Angeles, where rockers and folkies of varying ages and inclinations gathered to pay tribute to Woody Guthrie. The roots-music legend, who died in 1967, would have turned 100 this year, and last night’s all-star concert capped a week of commemorative activity at L.A.’s Grammy Museum, including lectures, film screenings and a performance by Guthrie’s son Arlo. Morello appeared halfway through the three-and-a-half hour show, first pairing Guthrie’s “Tom Joad” with “The Ghost of Tom Joad” by Bruce Springsteen (whom the Rage Against the Machine guitarist called “the only Boss worth listening to”); then Morello invited Parks, Jackson Browne, Graham Nash and the members of Dawes onstage for “Ease My Revolutionary Mind,” from last year’s Note of Hope: A Celebration of Woody Guthrie. A lullaby, you might not be surprised to hear, it was not.
Described by Morello as “the spirit that inhabits social-justice movements around the world,” Guthrie inspired plenty of election-year hand-wringing last night. In “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos” Kris Kristofferson worried about the plight of migrant workers, while John Doe of X introduced a rowdy version of “Vigilante Man” with what seemed like an implicit reference to the Trayvon Martin case. And Nash played a new song of his own that he said was about Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army solider accused of passing classified documents to WikiLeaks. “What I did was show some truth to the working man,” Nash sang over an eerie acoustic-guitar figure, “All I did was blow the whistle and the game began.”
It wasn’t all politics: Guthrie’s daughter Sarah Lee Guthrie and her husband, Johnny Irion, did a tender rendition of “California Stars,” first set to music by Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett of Wilco; in “You Know the Night” Browne sang words from a love letter Guthrie had sent to his second wife. Parks, the West Coast pop experimentalist best known for his work with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, emphasized Guthrie’s melodic know-how in a typically whimsical take on “Pastures of Plenty”; Dawes were similarly tune-minded in a gorgeous “Hard Travelin’.”
Still, concerns about America’s next 100 years definitely defined last night’s proceedings, which is probably how Tom Morello ended up closing the show by leading the entire cast (including Joe Henry, Joel Rafael and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot) in Guthrie’s best-known song, “This Land Is Your Land.” “The wheel of history is in your hands,” he informed the audience, before demanding that everyone in the house – “from the youngsters to the octogenarians” – “jump the fuck up.” Nearly everyone did.