Bellevue College hosted a tribute Wednesday, April 13 for the American folk and country protest singer Woody Guthrie. The event, organized by BC’s English Language Institute, hosted Ian Moore and “Country” Dave Harmonson to perform a few of Guthrie’s songs for the tribute.
Professor Ethan Anderson of the English Language Institute said that they had several reasons to run this particular event now. The ELI is currently running a class called Rock Your Grammar World, which introduces ESL students to English grammar and sentence structure through music. Anderson also said that the event was meant to introduce the students to both the genre of folk music and the idea of political messages in songs. Two students, one from Saudi Arabia and one from Brazil, came to Anderson on Thursday to tell him how the event had opened their eyes to the genre. After the event, Taylor Dalrymple, a professor with the ELI, said they hope Guthrie will receive “as much of a spotlight as possible.”
Born in Oklahoma on July 14, 1912, Woody Guthrie lived there and in Texas until 1930, when the Dust Bowl prompted Guthrie and thousands of other Oklahomans to head west to California in search of work and rosier economic prospects. It was there that Guthrie began to associate with the political Left, first through newscaster Ed Robbins, the man who became Guthrie’s political mentor.
Though Guthrie never formally joined any of the numerous organizations in California, he was considered a fellow traveler, the term for an individual who was sympathetic to the cause but unable, for whatever reason, to officially join. Many of Guthrie’s songs included socialist or communist themes, attacking what Guthrie saw as the injustices in American society. His most famous song, “This Land Was Made for You and Me” protested class inequality in the oft-omitted fourth and sixth verses, dealing with private land ownership and urban poverty respectively.
This lifelong dedication to protest singing is part of what drew the artists that performed Wednesday to Guthrie’s work, according to performers Moore and Harmonson. Moore, a singer-songwriter from Austin, TX said that to him, “Woody Guthrie was the last great protest singer.”
Anderson also said that the event was part of a larger series meant to commemorate Guthrie’s work in Washington. This April marks the 75th anniversary of Guthrie’s Month of Song, when he was inspired to write an entire 26-song album about his travels on the Columbia River. Included in that album is Washington’s state song, “Roll On, Columbia.” The 75th anniversary of the album’s release is May 26 and will be commemorated with a concert at Benaroya Hall in Seattle.