On January 20, 1968, less than four months after folk music icon Woody Guthrie died in New York City at the age of 55, Carnegie Hall hosted an all-star tribute concert honoring the influential and much-loved musician, featuring such leading lights of the folk world as Judy Collins, Bob Dylan (his first appearance after his 1966 motorcycle accident), Guthrie’s son Arlo, Richie Havens, Odetta, Tom Paxton, and Pete Seeger, all performing songs written or popularized by Woody. Between songs, narration and stories (most from Woody’s own writings) were read by Will Geer and Robert Ryan. Two-and-a-half years later, on September 12, 1970, “A Musical Tribute to Woody Guthrie” at the Hollywood Bowl—a benefit to fight Huntington’s Disease, which had killed Woody—also brought out many folk greats, including Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Arlo Guthrie, Richie Havens, Country Joe McDonald, Odetta, Earl Robinson, and Pete Seeger (with Will Geer and Peter Fonda supplying the stories/narration at that one).
Incomplete, edited versions of both concerts have been released in various forms through the years (often intermingling tracks from the two), but now, 50 years after Guthrie’s passing (Oct. 3, 1967), Bear Family Productions has put out a truly spectacular box set that includes three CDs containing both concerts in their entirety, in sequence, plus contemporary and historical audio reminiscences; a wonderful, picture-studded 160-page hardcover book filled with stories, essays, memorabilia, and information about Woody and his legacy, the concerts, and the performers; plus a hardcover reproduction of Ludlow Music’s 80-page 1972 Woody Guthrie Concert Book, which contained music and lyrics from 29 of the songs performed at the ’68 and ’72 tribute concerts, plus stories and photos.
There is so much to enjoy here it’s staggering. Everyone will have their own favorites, but from the Carnegie Hall concert I was most impressed by the crystalline purity of Judy Collins on “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee),” Odetta’s haunting “Ramblin’ Round,” Tom Paxton’s “Pastures of Plenty,” and, of course, the ever-enigmatic Dylan, who performs three rockin’ songs with The Band, including “Grand Coulee Dam” and “Dear Mrs. Roosevelt.” And from the Hollywood Bowl concert (which sonically is far superior to Carnegie Hall), I love everything with Joan Baez on it (such as “Hobo’s Lullaby”), Country Joe’s take on “Pretty Boy Floyd,” Richie Havens’ exciting “900 Miles,” Odetta’s “John Hardy” (with Ry Cooder on bottleneck guitar!), and Arlo’s “Doremi” and “Jesus Christ.” But like the best folk music, it’s all cool, soulful, and rough around the edges; a fitting tribute to one of America’s most important musicians.
This article originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.