Ellis Paul

Ribbon of Highway - Endless Skyway: A Concert in the Spirit of Woody Guthrie


Monday, September 1, 2003

by Susan Moore

A dust bowl wind from up Oklahoma way blew into Austin Saturday night bringing the Ribbon of Highway--Endless Skyway tour to the capitol city. The spirit of Woodrow Wilson Guthrie himself seemed to creep in the back door and sit a spell in the Texas Union Theater on the University of Texas Campus. I can't help but think he liked what he heard. An ensemble of modern day folkies including Slaid Cleaves, Eliza Gilkyson, Ellis Paul, Jimmy LaFave, granddaughter Sara Lee Guthrie and her husband, Johnny Irion, performed the Woody tribute. The tour, which began in California in late January, has had some cast changes, picking up Sarah Lee Guthrie when it stopped at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville February 4. The tour is the brainchild of LaFave who, along with other folk artists, was recently given permission by Woody's daughter Nora Guthrie to put to music many of the lyrics in the Woody Guthrie Archives. A rousing version of "Bound for Glory" with the entire cast on stage initiated the two hour concert. Oklahoma songwriter Bob Childers, known affectionately as the "Dylan of the Dust," narrated the program, quoting Woody often and introducing each performer. Each performer had an opportunity to sing favorite Woody songs along the way as Childers chronicled the troubadour's troubled life. Especially haunting was the duet by Gilkyson and Paul of "Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key" dedicated to Woody's mother Nora, who inspired the songwriter with the songs she sang to him as a child. She ended up institutionalized for what was later diagnosed as the symptoms of Huntington's Chorea. It was this inherited degenerative disease that later ravaged Woody and put an end to his brilliance.
Always one to take up the cause of the common man, the hobo and even the outlaw, Guthrie wrote "Pretty Boy Floyd" at a time in history when folks were looking for a Robin Hood of sorts to save them from the Great Depression. Slaid Cleaves sang this song Saturday night in his usual style and it made me think of his song about the logger, Big Sandy. "Pastures of Plenty," sung by Gilkyson and LaFave, resonated with patriotism that the times we are now in warrant. It was noted that many of Woody's themes, so pertinent in the 30's and 40's, ring just as true today as we stand on the brink of war in the midst of a shaky economy.

Well, it's always we ramble that river and I
All along your green valley, I'll work till I die
My land I'll defend with my life, if it be
'Cause my pastures of plenty must always be free

Before intermission, Sara Lee Guthrie led the audience in a sing-along of "Big Square Walking," a song she wrote about her childhood, and Cleaves got the mostly middle aged crowd up on their feet with "Do-Re-Mi" - you know, "I don't need /no do-re-mi." After a break, the performers returned to sing the gospel tinged, "We've All Got to Walk That Lonesome Valley" and Woody's anti-organized religion song "This Morning I Was Born Again." Woody thought that if Jesus walked the earth today he would identify more with the sinners than with the " people sitting in the pews." "No Church Tonight" was one of the archive songs without a tune that Sarah Lee and her husband put to music. A little racy, it showcased Sarah Lee's sultry vocals. Perhaps the highlight of the night was Ellis Paul's rendition of "God's Promise," put to his own melody and powerfully delivered. Known for having a Woody Guthrie tattoo, Ellis also had "anti-terror machine" emblazoned on his guitar, no doubt emulating Woody's "this machine kills fascists." As expected, the concert ended in the early hours of the morning with "This Land is Your Land." Although this was the second show of the evening, the performers seemed inspired, even energetic, and signed commemorative posters after the concert, with proceeds benefiting the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives. It could be that Woody rambled on out into the night, heading for the highway, happy to be remembered, but a little disturbed to see the WWWD (What Would Woody Do?) buttons.

For more information about Woody Guthrie and the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives visit the Foundation's website.

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