BY MELISSA KANDEL
At the crossroads of power and protest, more than 800 music-loving demonstrators celebrated the coming 100th anniversary of folk song hero Woody Guthrie’s birthday, an event that coincided, or close enough, with the NATO Summit in Chicago. So, in keeping with the spirit of Guthrie, concertgoers opposed the policies and practices of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization not with demonstrations but with dancing.
“We saw this as a great moment to look at things through the lens of creativity and song,” explained Marguerite Horberg, executive director of Porto Luz, the non-profit organization that coordinated the concert. The show featured eight bands including headliner Tom Morello, former guitarist of the Grammy Award-winning group, Rage Against the Machine.
Horberg noted that Porto Luz began in 2007 to view the ailing economy and what she calls “the Second Great Depression,” through the perspective of multi-arts programming. The concert, entitled “This Land is Our Land! A Centennial Celebration of Woody Guthrie,” was the latest demonstration of those efforts.
“Music is a universal language,” said Airan Wright of B.S. Bass, one the groups that performed in the show. “It conveys emotion that anybody in the world can understand.” Wright applauds music’s inherent ability to communicate “exuberance, suspense or sadness without ever uttering a word.”
For Wright, Saturday’s performance was all about honoring Guthrie’s legacy and not really about displaying global dissent. “It felt much more like a simple celebration of a musician and his legacy than geared toward being a protest of what was happening outside.”
Other acts disagreed. “NATO coming to Chicago is obviously a slap in the face for someone like me and a chance to stir up some trouble Woody Guthrie style,” said Jon Langford, a Welsh-born musician now in Chicago who was also showcased on Saturday night.
“There are a lot of people out there questioning authority, which is their right and duty,” he affirmed. “I hope my music makes people realize that Woody isn’t some museum piece, that the stories in his songs go on to become more relevant as power and wealth consolidate in this country.”
Folk singer and centennial performer Bucky Halker concurred. “This concert is another way to celebrate the accomplishments of people before us but keep our eye on the need to change the world in a positive way.”
In fact, the concert’s upbeat vibe was precisely why it became such a necessary event for many peaceful dissenters to attend. The musical celebration arrived amid persistent reports prior to the Summit of possible hostility and aggression from various protest groups.
“We’re lumped in with the people who are violent,” Horberg stated. The Porto Luz organizer calls this assumption “insulting.” It was also a major reason why coordinators worked so hard to maintain the cheerful ambience of the night. “We want people to revel and celebrate being part of each other and part of the 99 percent,” she said. “The tradition of art, imagination and creativity is central to all these struggles and not just an afterthought.”
For Porto Luz and all involved in the show, it was a moment of good fortune that the weekend of the NATO Summit came close to Woody Guthrie’s centennial birthday. “He’s the originator of a model used by those of us who are songwriters actively engaged in American politics and trying to change the world,” argued Halker, who is Vice-President of the Woody Guthrie Foundation, based in New York City. “He is the godfather of modern American protest music.”
Langford recognized the concert as homage to Guthrie’s music but with a twist. “I hope it isn’t a back slapping nostalgia trip but an angry expression of honest dissent,” Langford confided just days before the show.
In that same time leading up to curtain call, Halker also viewed the evening with his own brand of optimistic expectation. Author of a book on labor song-poems and protests of the 19th century, the history PhD and songwriter set Saturday night within the framework of protest music’s past. “It’s good to know you had people who preceded you who were doing the same things and struggling with the same issues,” he said. “Once you realize you’re part of a long historical stream you can say to yourself, ‘I’m not fighting alone, I’m out fighting with people who have been fighting for years.’”