Noel "Paul" Stookey, the singer-songwriter who once made up one third of the '60s folk band Peter, Paul and Mary, said that to know more about Woody Guthrie is to know more about ourselves.
Though the days of the Dust Bowl era and the Great Depression are long gone, Guthrie's most famous ballads like "This Land is Your Land" are still well-known songs.
Stookey said Woody's songwriting reminds modern men and women that even the common man is capable of doing great things, and making big changes.
Singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie performs in this courtesy photo. Penn State is holding a conference next week on Guthrie, who would have been 100 this year.
"Issues were more clearly defined in the early '60s, but music continues to inform and inspire," Stookey said. "Whether it's done through one guy with a guitar or hip-hop, it is no less impactful. ... People do really care about the circumstances in which they live and other people live, and are willing to do something through their art and music."
Guthrie's legacy and the continuing tradition of enacting social change through music will be celebrated Altoona and State College this weekend as Penn State hosts "Woody at 100: Woody's Legacy to Working Men and Women." Including a day-long conference Saturday and various exhibits, activities and performances, "Woody at 100" is just one of the many conferences taking place across the nation this year to commemorate what would have been Guthrie's 100th birthday if he had lived.
Presenters and performers like Stookey will converge on the local area to put on an array of programs throughout the weekend.
If you go
What: Woody@100: Woody's Legacy to Working Men and Women"
When: Sept. 6 through Sept. 8
Where: Penn State Altoona and University Park Campuses
Details: For a full list of events and pricing, visit http://www.altoona.psu.edu/ guthriecentennial/events.htm.
Jerry Zolten, an associate professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State Altoona and the conference facilitator, said the number of artists and supporters willing to come out to the event paints a clear picture of how important Guthrie was, and the scope of his influence even for modern artists.
"Woody is an extremely important figure in American culture, probably a lot more than most people realize," Zolten said. "He stood for the little guy and for working class people. ... If it weren't for Woody, I'd go so far as to say there wouldn't have been a Bob Dylan, there wouldn't have been the Beatles, there wouldn't have been a whole genre of music that spoke to social injustice and the plight of people."
The centerpiece of the celebration is Saturday's conference, Zolten said, and it will feature various presentations from authors, music writers and scholars speaking on a wide range of subjects. There will also be various events in State College, including a film series and concert on Friday at the State Theatre and an exhibit of Guthrie's belongings in the on-campus Borland Gallery.
Nora Guthrie, the daughter of Woody Guthrie, will give a keynote address at the conference. Zolten said she has been an essential player in making the conference happen.
"Part of her goal is to reach out to the youngest generation, kids in school who know songs like 'This Land is Your Land' but may not know who Woody is," Zolten added. "This is a way to reach out in the community and introduce them to his musical legacy."
A family-friendly and free-to-the-public form of entertainment will take place at Penn State Altoona's Misciagna Family Center for the Performing Arts at 7:30 p.m. Friday when The Vanaver Caravan comes to town. Giving their performance titled "Pastures of Plenty: A Tribute to Woody Guthrie in Music and Dance," an intimate cast from the Caravan will demonstrate a variety of traditional dance styles set to Guthrie's music.
Bill Vanaver, who founded the company with his wife, Livia Vanaver, in 1972 and arranges the music, said he rearranged some of the folk legend's tunes to match the dance styles, giving them hints of everything from bluegrass and rock to mariachi and swing.
And with Guthrie having met his second wife, Marjorie, a dancer for the Martha Graham Company, while he was providing the music for one of her rehearsals, Vanaver said he and the Caravan enjoys being able to further practice how Guthrie's music became entwined with dance.
"We have come to feel we're continuing that tradition," he said.
In that same spirit, Stookey and his daughter, Liz Stookey Sunde, will help support the tradition of socially-conscious songwriting by holding an open master class and competition for area musicians starting at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Foster Auditorium at Penn State University Park.
"Thursday night is going to be like 'American Idol' meets social change music," Liz Stookey Sunde said. "It's not like we're going to have chairs that turn around ... but it will be a very unplugged opportunity to witness what it means to be making a song with consciousness."
Hosting the contest is just one of the many initiatives the father-and-daughter team sponsor through their nonprofit group Music2Life, which aims to promote all genres of music for social change through various virtual, educations and live performance platforms. Stookey Sunde said learning more about Guthrie through the celebration of his centennial has made her feel like Music2Life's goal is "clearly standing on his shoulders."
"I knew when we started he was this great social change musician," she said. "But the more I heard his music and heard scholars talk about him, I was like 'Oh my gosh, this fuels what we're doing' ...Woody embodies so much of our country's history, good and bad. He's a historical figure that's worthy getting to know."
Mirror Staff Writer Beth Ann Downey is at 946-7520.