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Spirit in the Sky 

Current tour keeps Woody Guthrie's music alive

"This song is Copyrighted in US, under Seal of Copyright #154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin' it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of our'n, cause we don't give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that's all we wanted to do." -- Woody Guthrie, on "This Land is Your Land"

Slaid Cleaves and some buddies -- Jimmy LaFave, Ellis Paul, Eliza Gilkyson, Johnny Irion and Sarah Lee Guthrie, to be exact -- are taking Mr. Guthrie up on his offer, putting his pre-Napster ideas of intellectual property and public knowledge to the ultimate test: the stage. The strength of Woody's songs, of course, is unquestioned. The real question they had was this: How would folks respond?As it turns out, rather well. Cleaves, a Texas-by-way-of-Maine singer-songwriter, is, along with the other folks listed above, part of a tour called "Ribbon Of Highway -- Endless Skyway: A Concert In The Spirit Of Woody Guthrie." The concert, which docks at the Neighborhood Theatre on February 26, is by all accounts picking up more fans at every stop. And for good reason, according to Cleaves. The songwriter says that with war looming and the economy in sharp decline, Woody's message is as important as it ever was.

"That's what makes the show what it is," says Cleaves. "Jimmy LaFave spent months reading everything he could find on Woody. All the old out-of-print books: Seeds of Man, Woody Says... he even went back and re-read Bound for Glory, the Joe Klein biography. He wanted fresh material, and not just the same old stuff. He put together the show by taking a piece of background material about Woody's life and matching a song to it.

"I just thought of this now," he continues, "but in a way, it's like those old Library of Congress recordings where you get a slice of Woody's life, as told by him, interspersed with songs that he did. The guy that does the reading on this tour is an old Okie named Bob Childers. He adds a certain level of authority to it, you know. (laughs) It feels really authentic, and it feels very timely. That's one of the geniuses Woody had. Some of the stuff he wrote about was time-specific, and as such sort of loses its effect, but most of it is totally timeless. However, a lot of the writings he wrote are about war and about justice wherever you are, and it just really hit home with me on tour last week. It holds its meaning."

Cleaves points at LaFave as being absolutely instrumental in the festival getting off the ground in the first place.

"Jimmy's been a huge part of the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah, which was Woody's hometown," states Cleaves. "I've known Jimmy a long time, and he supported me a lot as I was coming up through the ranks. His idea is loosely based on one of the things we do at the (Okemah) festival. It's kind of a recreation of the show they did at Carnegie Hall, called "A Tribute to Woody,' I believe. We've just updated it with a new crop of musicians."

On each leg of the tour, different musicians are shuttled into the mix with the core group of Gilkyson and LaFave. This leg features North Carolina songwriter Johnny Irion and his wife, Sarah Lee Guthrie. Irion you might know from the now-defunct rock act Queen Sarah Saturday. His wife Sarah Lee Guthrie comes by inclusion naturally: Her father is Arlo Guthrie, and she's the granddaughter of Woody. Cleaves says it's always nice to have new blood on tour, and to hear new takes on the rather timeless music.

"I had met (everyone on tour), but now I'm really getting to know them," he offers. "It's like a summer camp thing, where we're all stuck in a van together all day. That's added to the value of this show for me."

Like many of the artists on the bill, Cleaves says he first experienced Woody Guthrie's music after hearing another artist reference it.

"I remember singing "This Land Is Your Land' in kindergarten, and my mom had the Songs to Grow On record Woody and Pete (Seeger) did," he recalls. "But it was really through Bruce Springsteen that I went back and started discovering Woody. In high school, I was a huge Springsteen fan -- when Nebraska came out, that was a really moving record for me. At that time, I read that he was going back and listening to Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie, so I went up to the attic and to the local library and found all those great old records. It was at that point -- I think I was about 20 -- that I started writing songs."

Cleaves says the lessons he learned weren't necessarily about chord progressions and minor scales, but rather the lost art of getting to the heart of the matter in as few steps as possible.

"I remember listening in the school library to the Library of Congress recordings, and his character struck me -- just the way he drawled out those terribly tragic and terribly funny stories. He had songs for every little incident in his life. It just seemed so, so bare-boned and true to life. I was just learning to write songs, and he was such a model of how powerful music can be on the most elemental, basic level. He didn't need much musical training at all, and he didn't need any fancy equipment. It was just the thing for me at the time, and it stuck with me. I think when you're that age and become close to something, it kind of stays with you the rest of your life.

"We're getting some Woody fans and some of our own fans, so it's been a mix of both," he continues. "They don't know what to expect, so they just kind of sit there for the first few songs. Once we fall into a rhythm, though, there's not a dry eye in the house. It's a really powerful, moving show, even for us guys playing it. There were some high school kids at the last show, and they really seemed to be getting into it. That made me real happy. It made me proud to pass the torch to the next generation."

"Ribbon Of Highway -- Endless Skyway: A Concert In The Spirit Of Woody Guthrie" will be performed at 8pm on Wednesday, February 26, at the Neighborhood Theatre. Admission is $20, available by calling 704-358-9298.

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