Gimme an F, Country Joe. That spells F-O-L-K.

January 10, 2012 § 1 Comment

Folk music is my heart and soul. It makes me proud to be an American citizen. It is fundamental to my musical character, like the patina of an old wooden rocking chair.

I play many kinds of music, for several reasons and reactions – bluegrass for foot-stompin’, or blues for butt-shakin’, or rock for fist-pumpin’ or air-guitarin’ – but folk music is THE medium to bring everyone together in song. It is the People’s Music, and it is made to tell stories, remember hard times, and lift spirits toward some kind of hope: for more unity and less greed; more love and less intolerance; more understanding and less viciousness.

Folk music is stolen and amended as needed, revised and renewed and retold by generations that follow, chasing the ever-present truths of human existence, in the context of whatever modern story can bring that truth to light in song or spoken word. No one did this better than Woodie Guthrie, the Oklahoma-born author of the unofficial national anthem “This Land is Your Land” as well as scores of other message-driven songs telling the personal stories of Americans during the Great Depression.

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie would be celebrating his 100th birthday this year. His legacy is carried forward not just by his family, but also by many adoring folk music icons of the 60s and 70s, many of whom are playing tribute concerts in his honor this year.

One such adoring musical icon is Country Joe McDonald, the lead singer of the psychedelic rock band Country Joe and the Fish, which was made famous at Woodstock for the “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin-to-Die-Rag”.

Swell Productions hosted a sold-out show of McDonald’s “100-year Tribute to Woody Guthrie” on Jan. 7, at the Sierra 2 Center / 24th Street Theater in Sacramento. The theater was filled with a mostly octogenarian crowd, with only a smattering of young people. Boy, how times have changed for Country Joe since the Woodstock days…where are the Occupy folks?

What really got my goat was this: after three compelling opening performances by Sacramento-area musicians Alex Nelson, Sherman Baker, and Richard March (each of whom played one Woody cover and one original tune), this guy representing the McDonald show – or the public radio station, or Swell Productions, I don’t know which – came up on the stage and reminded the crowd to “please extinguish anything that could be construed as a (recording) device.” Furthermore, he asked if anyone sees anyone else doing anything that LOOKS like recording a bootleg, to “please lean over nicely and ask them to cut it out.” What a brow-beating!

OK, I am a musician, so I understand the need to protect musicians’ meager livelihoods, but…REALLY? At THIS show? Of ALL shows? Remember, we are talking about an anti-war singer who hasn’t had a hit since the sixties, singing the borrowed songs and speaking the borrowed words of a man who represents FREEDOM for musicians and others alike. Remember that revolutionary “extra” verse that has been omitted from the patriotic renditions of “This Land is Your Land”?

As I was walkin’ – I saw a sign there
And that sign said “No Trespassing”
But on the other side, it didn’t say nothin’
THAT side was made for you and me!

Illegal recording for profit is wrong, and it should be frowned upon, but there are many precedents (think: Grateful Dead, Phish, and Widespread Panic) for tapers to grab down a recording for trading or listening to. Asking the crowd to please honor the musicians by using recorded material for personal use only? Ideal. Explaining that the show is being recorded for a documentary and the musicians need your support? Fine. But…scolding a crowd of people who paid nearly $30 apiece for the privilege of hearing these words and songs of freedom, and then being reminded to police our neighbors? This smacks of something that is just plain counter to my belief in Woody’s message.

Let’s rewind…
I remember my first concert, a double-bill at the Mosque Theater in Richmond, Virginia, with John Prine and (get this!) Woody’s son, Arlo Guthrie. In this pre-digital age, I owned a Walkman cassette player that had recording capability (very fancy), and I snuck it into the show and taped it. Don’t worry, Arlo, I never sold the tape, and it was probably the worst recording ever made. Instead, I played that tape over and over again and remembered how much fun that show was. I learned the Garden Song and others that I didn’t know. I pondered Arlo’s place in the 60s and today. I listened to the way that Arlo talked about how his song “Alice’s Restaurant” was celebrating its twentieth year, and how funny it was that kids (like me) were still listening to it.

And as for protest songs, I think that Country Joe and the Fish were as pivotal as any band I heard. I LOVED the Woodstock album and learned most of the songs on the two LP set. My dad was a Vietnam veteran (’68/’69), and my mom was a war protester. Both of them were counter-culture, in their own ways. I had to find my own understanding of the people, the causes and the cultural messages of the 60s, and much of this came from my exposure to anti-war singers like Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, John Prine, the younger Guthrie and, of course, Country Joe and the Fish.

Let’s fast forward…
Today’s culture embraces fast-traveling media. If a recording (live or studio, legit or bootleg) gets out into the public and is heard, it is exceptional. If it gets forwarded to ten people, it is remarkable. Count yourself lucky if you have anything worth Googling, thumbing up on Reddit, or liking on Facebook.

I suppose the concert promoter for the 100-year tribute was concerned that bootleg movies, photos, or recordings would ruin McDonald’s sales of CDs and other materials? Puh-leeze. The show was not that good. I know this NOT because I watched the whole thing (we left at intermission), but because I bought a copy of his two-CD live show, which was verbatim what McDonald played that night (a musician friend of mine calls this “phoning in the gig”). There was nothing original or unique about the show that was worth bootlegging, unless you count the five minutes he spent tuning his guitar throughout the show.

I really want to see musicians change the world. And we need new protest songs today more than ever. Musicians, pick your topic: corporate greed is flamboyant, war and destruction persists around the globe, the natural environment suffers from our mistakes or active insults. Any of these topics, or any stories of individuals who suffer from them, would make great fodder for a song. The Occupy movements, whatever their cause, are not pulled together with any common string, and if they are, a beautiful soundtrack may emerge. So get to it!

Until then, Woody Guthrie lives on in his songs for mankind, and all good musicians with good hearts should play his music loud and long for young people to hear and learn. Don’t charge anyone for folk songs that you don’t write – give them away for the improvement of our culture. If anyone makes any money, I hope that the royalties go to a good cause.

My money, sadly, went to Country Joe. And I will sell the album to you, today, for half-off, just for reading this rant.

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