In 1968, after presidential hopeful Sen. Robert F. Kennedy suggested American folk singer Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” as a viable national anthem, The Wall Street Journal published an editorial challenging the senator’s proposal. Fifteen-year-old Joe Uehlein wrote a letter to the editor defending the song as anthem material. The Wall Street Journal published the letter and Uehlein’s lifelong admiration of Guthrie began.
Forty-four years later, on what would have been Guthrie’s 100th birthday, Uehlein will honor the late folk musician’s legacy as a pioneer in American music and social activism with a celebration concert sponsored by the Institute of Musical Traditions. On Saturday, Uehlein’s band, the U-Liners, will join husband and wife folk singers Greg Artzner and Terry Leonino, otherwise known as Magpie, in performing some of Guthrie’s classics at the Takoma Park Community Center Auditorium.
“We thought Takoma Park made a good place for a Woody tribute,” says Uehlein, who has lived in the city for 28 years.
“Takoma Park is a haven for folk musicians,” adds Leonino. The couple lived in the Washington, D.C., area for 34 years before settling in upstate New York. “It has a very large artist community.“
In addition to writing perhaps one of the most popular songs among American schoolchildren, Guthrie was known for lyrics with a political or social message. Much of his music is based on his experience during the Dust Bowl Era and the Great Depression. Although the events may be history, Guthrie’s lyrics about adversity are timeless.
“He wrote songs that expressed a lot of the hardships people were going through,” says Artzner.
“He was renowned for writing about what was happening at the time,” adds Leonino. “We do similar things, we write about it.”
A student at Kent State University in the 1970s, and a survivor of the shootings there, Leonino started playing folk music with Artzner in her dorm room.
“It was one of those kind of unbelievable unions that we formed playing this style of music,” she says.
There’s no denying that the duo’s folksy-acoustic sound has Guthrie influences, but the singer’s message of acceptance also has played an important role in the music Magpie produces.
“All of our work is very social activist-centered,” says Leonino. Both Leonino and Artzner have dedicated their music and their time to fighting for civil rights and on behalf of environmental issues.
The country-infused, roots-rock sound from the U-Liners also has origins in Guthrie’s music. And much like the members of Magpie, Uehlein says he sees the parallels between issues Guthrie sang about during the early 20th century, and the issues still facing society today.
“He was one of the original occupiers,” says Uehlein. With a background as a labor union and environmental activist, Uehlein says about 10 percent of the music the U-Liners do is social activism-related. The band even has connected with the Occupy movement in New York and Washington, D.C., and has played for various political organizations and unions.
As Uehlein, Leonino and Artzner all are quick to point out, they aren’t the only ones who have been impacted by Guthrie’s music. Music legends in their own right, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen both credited Guthrie with influencing their sound and rock ‘n’ roll in general. Guthrie’s influence even has found its way into today’s music.
“Woody’s songs were the first protest music to make the jump into the mainstream,” says Uehlein. “I think now there’s probably more political music and protest music, music with social commentary being written than there ever has been before.”
Although both bands had the opportunity to honor Guthrie at the Washington Folk Festival at Glen Echo Park last month, the chance to honor him locally is a special one.
“No one else is doing anything on his actual birthday in D.C.,” says Leonino. Uehlein adds that every audience member, no matter what their preference in music can find something about Guthrie’s sound that they like.
“He has influenced every sort of American music,” he says.