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Woody Guthrie, in an age of 'Occupy'

On his centennial, tributes pour in for a man who made complex social issues deceptively simple through song and championed the downtrodden.

Image

A page from Guthrie’s notebook from 1947, when he lived in New York City.

Bradly Brown/Woody Guthrie Archives

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Woody Guthrie did not know it, but his 100th birthday lands on a presidential election year, amid intensifying partisan bickering in Washington, a succession of state legislation to weaken labor unions, and growing discontent about the inequity of Wall Street wealth compared with Main Street distress.

In other words, Woody would be in his prime.

The songwriter, visual artist, and radical thinker died in 1967 and never saw the impact he made, not just on American song, but on generations of activists and artists who used his words and images as touchstones for making complex social and political issues relatable through deceptively simple images and poetry.

Jay Farrar, the songwriter and leader of Son Volt, considers Guthrie "the first pop artist," preceding rock groups like the Clash by several decades with his interest in provocative imagery and lyrics such as "this machine kills fascists," which Guthrie once plastered across his acoustic guitar. (See photo.)

"Woody was the first guy to put across the idea that music can change the world," Mr. Farrar says.

Bevy of tributes planned this year

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