The year is 1940. The winter is cold and bitter, as Woody Guthrie hitchhikes his way from California to New York. Frustrated with what he witnessed on the road, Guthrie pens “This Land Is Your Land.”
Now, Guthrie’s spirit, message and music are being brought to State College’s land with Woody at 100, a multi-programmed event honoring his legacy. Guthrie, a folk singer-songwriter, wrote for the working class and has influenced artists who use music for social change.
The series begins at 7 tonight with Stand Up and Sing: Open Master Class for Music of Conscience and concludes on Sept. 9 with the closing of the “This Land Is Your Land: Woody at One Hundred” exhibition in Borland Gallery.
Elizabeth Stookey Sunde, Music2Life executive director, has personally witnessed the power of music. When she was about nine years old, she said she realized how energized concert–goers were after listening to Peter, Paul and Mary, of which her father, Noel Paul Stookey, was a member.
The two began Music2Life, a nonprofit organization that supports and broadens the accessibility of music for social change.
“We’re trying to create a soundtrack for social change,” Stookey Sunde said. “Our core is to support the musicians who create this music… [to] ensure that songwriters have this venue.”
Music2Life’s work caught the attention of The GRAMMY Museum and a partnership was formed for the centennial, Stookey Sunde said.
The free event, held in the Foster Auditorium in Pattee Library at 7 tonight, will feature performances by pre-screened regional songwriters. Stookey — who composed “The Wedding Song (There is Love)” and performed at the March on Washington with Peter, Paul and Mary — Grammy-nominated performing artist Carolyn Malachi and other accomplished musicians will offer their advice on the artists’ work. The overall winner of the competition will then have the opportunity to sing at The State Theatre’s concert the following night.
“What I’m looking for is just pure intention,” Malachi she said. “For me, I would like to see the heart and soul behind the song.”
Stookey said he was initially drawn to social change music because it can serve as “a drummer boy for any kind of movement,” which is important in order to make an impact on the world.
“There is a timeless aspect to humanity,” he said. “We generationally share a desire to love and to be loved and to better understand that circumstance… the most important thing is that we need to be reminded of our natural affections for one another.”
Music2Life will also showcase a free documentary screening at 2 p.m. Friday in Foster Auditorium called “Music Matters: A Live Multimedia Documentary.”
Artists of Music2Life are not the only ones who have been inspired by Guthrie’s work. Two musicians will return to State College to perform at The State Theatre’s Friday night concert.
Kahn, a State College native, said he’s looking forward to the concert because it’s presented him with the opportunity to return home. And since Kahn works in the Guthrie tradition, Jerry Zolten, a coordinator of the conference and concerts in State College said it was “too tempting, too perfect,” making it necessary to invite him.
Kahn said he, like Guthrie, tries to write about all aspects of life, citing Guthrie as a “musical journalist,” exploring more than just the political issues of the time.
“What I like about Woody is [that he] wrote about life in all its fullness,” Kahn said. “I hear people say, ‘so you’re a protest writer,’ and I say, ‘no, I’m basically for stuff.’”
The theater, along with the Pennsylvania Labor History Society, will host An Evening of Hard-Hitting Songs: Celebrating Woody Guthrie’s Legacy to the American Labor Movement. The concert, which features Kahn, Anne Feeney, Joe Uehlein, Mike Stout, Saul Broudy and Stookey, begins at 8 p.m. Friday, and tickets are $23.
But Kahn isn’t the only one returning to State College. Uehlein, a Penn State graduate from Class of 1975, has been playing in the tradition of Guthrie for most of his life. He said social change music is still pertinent because it inspires people to make a difference.
“New generations are challenged to find solutions with global warming and climate change. If they’re going to succeed, they’re going to need a movement,” Uehlein said. “They’re not going to build that movement without art and music. They’re going to need it to inspire people.”
And the concert isn’t all the theater has in store. Beginning at 11 a.m. Friday, The State Theatre, 130 W. College Ave., will screen three films for a $1 admission fee. Tom Weber’s “Troubadour Blues,” Director Michael Maglaras’ “O Brother Man: The Art and Life of Lynd Ward” and Ken Ross and Louis Galdieri’s “1913 Massacre” make up the lineup.
Richard Biever, executive director of The State Theatre, said the theater was “honored” when Zolten asked it to take part in Woody at 100.
“It’s really important to continue the legacy of what Woody Guthrie accomplished and bring it to a new generation,” Biever said. “All of the arts hold up a mirror to humanity and help us work through things in our own life.”
After two nights of music, the conference portion of the weekend will kick off at 8:40 a.m. Saturday and will run until 5:20 p.m. at the Nittany Lion Inn. Keynote Speaker Nora Guthrie, daughter of Woody Guthrie, will commence the schedule discussing the role of Woody Guthrie as her father and her partner.
Though many of the sessions will be academic, Zolten said a number of them will also be fun, including a talk by a 14-year-old girl who will discuss Guthrie’s relevance to her life.
In addition to the conference, an exhibition titled “This Land Is Your Land: Woody at One Hundred” runs in Borland Gallery until Sept. 9. Curated by The GRAMMY Museum and the Woody Guthrie Archives, it features photographs, lyrics, art work and more. Dean R. Phillips, Esq. and his family sponsored the exhibition in memory of his father Penn State Professor Emeritus Gerald M. Phillips because his father “shared many of the same goals” as Guthrie, Phillips said.
The fee to attend the conference ranges from $145 to $245, but at 8 p.m. Saturday in 117 Osmond Auditorium, Nora Guthrie will offer a free presentation called Woody in NYC.
“It’s an academic conference, and I think there are fantastic questions still being asked,” Kahn said. “The conference will have the drama of a good novel or movie because Guthrie’s that kind of character.”