American folk legends gather under the stars for “Woody Guthrie All-Star Tribute Concert 1970″

By on September 6, 2019

On September 12, 1970, a little over a year after Woodstock, American folk legends — like Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Country Joe McDonald, Odetta, Richie Havens, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and others — gathered under the stars at the Hollywood Bowl to pay tribute to legendary songwriter and folk music icon Woody Guthrie, who had died three years earlier after his long battle with Huntington’s Chorea.

This previously-unavailable concert film, featuring onstage narration by actors Peter Fonda (just a year after Easy Rider had been released) and Will Geer, has just been released as Woody Guthrie All-Star Tribute Concert 1970, now streaming on Night Flight Plus.

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This historic nearly hour-and-a-half long Hollywood Bowl concert confirms that in the more than fifty years since his death in 1967, Guthrie’s star still shines brightly in the firmament of true American folk heroes.

Filmed by four-time Emmy-winning producer/director Jim Brown, the concert was actually a benefit to help raise funds for the California chapter of the Committee to Combat Huntington’s Disease (now the Hereditary Disease Foundation), to find a cure for the rare neurological disease.

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Benefit concerts are sometimes very somber in tone, but as this was a celebration of Guthrie’s music and legacy, spirits were high (some of the performers may have been also).

Many of the evening’s performers, including both narrators, are sadly no longer with us — Fonda recently passed away on August 16, 2019 — so this concert also gives us a chance to see everyone in their prime, backed by a great house band led by Ry Cooder.

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Actor and social activist Will Geer, by the way — who’d befriended Guthrie when he was still a rising star — had not yet been cast as the mercurial “Grandpa Walton” in TV’s “The Waltons,” which didn’t begin airing on CBS until 1972.

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There are many highlights here, including Odetta singing “Ramblin’ Round,” Richie Havens singing “900 Miles,” and Woody Guthrie’s son Arlo singing “Oklahoma Hills,” right before joining Country Joe McDonald on harmonica on “Pretty Boy Floyd.”

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We also enjoyed many of the duets and ensemble performances, including Country Joe, Arlo, Ramblin’ Jack and Pete Seeger singing “Goin’ Down The Road Feeling Bad,” which is accompanied by a little joke about L.A.’s water quality (that’s still an issue, folks, forty-nine years later!).

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The concert climaxes with a rousing gr0up version of Guthrie’s populist folk hit, “This Land Is Your Land” — the unofficial national anthem of America — followed by a reprise of “So Long, It’s Been Good To Know Yuh,” the perfect last song for any American folk concert.

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Read more about Woody Guthrie below.

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It’s impossible to sum up the significance of Woody Guthrie’s career in just a few paragraphs, but we should at least note he was singularly responsible for the resurgence of American folk music in the early Sixties.

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie — named for the then-recently nominated Democratic candidate who became our 28th U.S. president — was born on July 14, 1912, in Okemah, Oklahoma.

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Guthrie’s early life was beset with tragic personal losses, including his older sister’s death in a fire that destroyed the family home, his father’s financial troubles, and his mother’s early death, also from Huntington’s.

By the time he was a teenager, Woody was busking on the streets of new hometown, Pampa, Texas, in order to help the family survive.

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Guthrie married first wife Mary Jennings when he was nineteen, with whom he had three kids (Gwen, Sue and Bill).

During the Great Depression, like nearly everyone else in the country, Guthrie struggled to survive (there are great archival black & white clips interspersed throughout).

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These years were particularly hard on “Okies” and other desperate souls living in the drought-stricken “Dust Bowl” of the Great Plains, victims of vast unemployment.

Guthrie ended up leaving his family behind in 1935 to travel west in search of work, taking any odd-job he could find as he hitchhiked, rode trains and walked his way to California.

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He set down these open road adventures in the lyrics of his songs, as well as his 1943 autobiography, Bound For Glory, an inspiration to Jack Kerouac and others (this concert preceded by quite a few years Hal Ashby’s 1976 film based on Guthrie’s memoirs).

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In L.A., Guthrie performed his songs with partner Maxine “Lefty Lou” Crissman on radio station KFVD, but his wanderlust eventually led him back east, where he fell in with left-leaning artists, union organizers and folk musicians in New York City.

He quickly became an activist and a leader for social changes, writing “This Land Is Your Land” in the mid-Forties.

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After spending some time on the Columbia River in Portland, Oregon, Guthrie served in the Merchant Marines during World War II.

After the war, his music took a more stridently anti-fascist slant — his guitar famously stickered “This Machine Kills Fascists” — and settled down with second wife Marjorie in Coney Island, NY, with whom he had four children (Cathy, Arlo, Joady and Nora).

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Guthrie began to show symptoms of Huntington’s in the late ’40s, which slowed him down considerably, although he continued to travel, heading for California with a young protégé, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.

His marriage to third wife, Anneke van Kirk, lasted just one year (1953-1954). but produced another daughter, Lorina.

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Bob Dylan — who didn’t perform at the 1970 Hollywood Bowl concert — would move to New York City in order to make regular visits to see Woody Guthrie in the hospital during his “Hospital Years” (1954-1967).

Guthrie died on October 3, 1967.

Watch Woody Guthrie All-Star Tribute Concert 1970 and other concert films on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.