Ribbon of Highway

Jimmy LaFave's Woody Guthrie Tribute
at L.A. Acoustic MUSIC Festival

By Terry Roland

Ribbon_of_HghwayOral traditions have long been the way we've handed down our stories, our characters, the dreams we've dreamed and our tragedies. Even in the end, with technology being what it is, it still may come down to one person talking to others with something urgent to tell them, some lesson learned, some human comedy. I think it'll always be that way, no matter how many phones, networks and computers preoccupy us. Jimmy LaFave's near decade run with the staged presentation of the words and music of Woody Guthrie, Ribbon of Highway, certainly embodies this tradition. With an ever rotating roster of artists who even included Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Sarah Lee Guthrie and Odetta, and with access to the Woody Guthrie Archives thanks to Nora Guthrie, the show has developed into the ever deepening portrait of America's most legendary troubadour.

It seems natural and ruggedly organic that this has fallen into the hands of Texas born, Jimmy LaFave. Stemming from to his love for Bob Dylan, LaFave spent his teen years in Stillwater, Oklahoma absorbing the music of Woody Guthrie. Over the last three decades Jimmy has proven to be a singer-songwriter with a vision of his own that clearly has grown out of the red-dirt soil of Woody's music. He won the Songwriter of the Year award at the Kerrville Folk Festival in 1995 and repeated this honor at the Austin Music Awards in 1996. There's a contemplative stillness and soul to his songs that reaches the same heart-felt territory as Woody and similar troubadours like Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and Joe Ely. He has also become known for his original, sensitive and exquisite interpretation of Dylan songs.

With the centennial of Woody's birth coming up next year, I was able to talk with Jimmy about what the Ribbon of Highway production has meant to him and to get some of his thoughts about our most American and possibly legendary of folk singers. During the course of this interview I found that the Ribbon of Highway production will have its final performance at the upcoming L.A. Acoustic Festival on May 22nd at Broad Stage in Santa Monica.

Terry: How did Ribbon of Highway begin?

Jimmy: It started ten years when Ellis Paul and I were doing some shows together. We had Woody in common and we'd trade off his songs. I had heard the recordings of the Carnegie Hall Tribute concert and the one at the Hollywood Bowl and it inspired the show. So, the concept had been around for a while. You know, having the narration of Woody's words together with people playing his songs. Nora let us into the archives and it unlocked a whole pandora's box of Woody's narration. He only recorded about 70 songs in his career but there were all these unrecorded songs and lyrics. That's how Ellis Paul wrote God's Promise and Eliza Gilkyson wrote the music for Peace Call. We got out a bunch of out of print Woody songs and ended up doing those as part of the tribute.

Woody_GuthrieTerry: Have you traveled the show around much?

Jimmy: Yeah, we've been from Florida to Vermont and all over Texas. We've done it everywhere. The cast is ever changing. The main narrator now is Joel Rafael, but we've had 14 years of great shows. You know, Jackson Browne has done it and Judy Collins and Steve Earle. Even some of the older people from Woody's time like Odetta, Ramblin' Jack Elliot and Pete Seeger. One time we did in Anaheim and this actor, David James Elliott, from the TV show, JAG, came up. It turned out he was a big Woody Guthrie fan. Even Stetson Kennedy was in the cast, he was this famous guy Woody lived in the swamps of Florida when they fought the Ku Klux Klan together. We've had a lot of other guest performers. When a new artist comes in, I ask them what their favorite Woody song is and we do it.

Terry: How did you discover Woody?

Jimmy: I was so into Dylan when I was a kid. So, I started figuring out who Woody was from there. I also knew of him from growing up in Oklahoma. I'd hear older folks talking about him. So, in high school I started listening to him. My two favorite songwriters are him and Dylan. I first heard of him in Stillwater. There was This Land Is Your Land, everyone knew that. But, even then, at that time in Oklahoma, you'd hear a lot of his songs. So Long Been Good To Know You, even Dust Pneumonia Blues and the dust bowl ballads. I got a hold of the Folkways recordings and pretty much all the Ash recordings I could find. I immersed myself in all of the Woody stuff. Sometimes, we'd take a midnight run to Okemah back then, when the walls of Woody's house were still standing and we'd go there. The town of Okemah didn't acknowledge him for a long time, like they thought of him as this communist or something. Now, today it's totally the opposite. Now they have a statue, they've embraced him. I think it was because of local politicians back then that he got swept under the rug. By the 80s, about 14 years ago it had changed.

Terry: Why do you think Woody is so important, even today?

Jimmy: His message is timeless. The narration in the show is so spot on, on politicians and banks making a mess out of our economy. You know, politicians arguing about the national debt. He has this song, Jolly Banker. It's fun too. He talks about that. He talks about everything from religion to war. But the greatest parts of the narration is when he talks about the power of love.

Terry: One of the things that's impressed me with Woody's family is their accessibility. When I first discovered Woody and bought the Lomax recordings, I found an address in the album for the 'Guthrie Foundation.' I wrote asking for materials and I received a three-page personal letter with tons of material from Marjorie Guthrie (Woody's second wife & Arlo's mom).

Jimmy_LaFaveJimmy: That's great. It's still that way. If you call up or write the archives you'll probably talk with Nora or her daughter, Anna. They've moved it up to Mt. Kisco in New York. If you stop there Nora lets you have a personalized experience. They're getting ready to move to Oklahoma, to Tulsa. It'll be something for Woody's archives to be in his home state.

Terry: So this'll be the last time around for a while for Ribbon of Highway, this upcoming L.A. show for L.A. Acoustic Music Festival?

Jimmy: After nearly a decade it seems like it's run its course. But I'll always be doing Woody's songs. Eventually it all morphs into something else. There'll always be somebody else picking it up and doing the concept.

Terry: What will you doing for the next year?

Jimmy: I'm finishing up a new record. It's getting so hard in the music business now. I know it's a different conversation, but I begin to wonder if even calling it making records is valid anymore. But, I will have a new CD out by summer and I'll be playing around the country. I'll throw in Woody's songs as usual. It's been about taking the music back to the community, just playing town to town.

Terry: Like Woody.

Terry Roland is an English teacher, freelance writer, occasional poet, songwriter and folk and country enthusiast. The music has been in his blood since being raised in Texas. He came to California where he was taught to say ‘dude’ at an early age.