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Listening to Woody



On a chilly Friday evening following a gorgeous spring day last month, Sarah Lee Guthrie made me cry when she sang her grandfather, Woody Guthrie's, alternative national anthem, "This Land is Your Land." Holding a big acoustic guitar in her thin bare arms, she led the crowd on the chorus which everyone, including the 20-somethings, knew.

I never heard Woody play live, but you could tell his grandaughter was still making her version of the people's music, even if her guitar didn't sport the same inscription as Woody's did, "This machine kills fascists." In addition to covering Gram Parsons, Emmy Lou, traditional material and their own stuff, Sarah Lee included a bawdy ballad Woody wrote about an itinerant preacher and the farmer's daughter called, "There'll Be No Church Tonight."

Apparently, he wrote over 3,000 songs, but only recorded about 200. Since he didn't write music, it remains to the descendants to delve into the Guthrie archives and set those other lyrics to music. So Woody was channeled.

Sarah Lee and her husband, guitarist and singer Johnny Irion, played under the stars and the twinkle lights of the homemade stage at the Bynum General Store for the store's innaugural concert this year. About 200 of us listened. They were backed by local country rockers from Tift Merritt's band and Chatham County Line who also helped on Sarah and Johnny's recent seven-song EP and their past recordings.

They played to a crowd of Bynum locals, young Chatham hippies, UNC professors and lots and lots of babies. Cupcakes, cola and CDs were sold by flashlight under a little tent next to the porch of the General Store. A hand-lettered sign next to the stage said, "No Alcohol" and the crowd seemed in compliance. Jerry, owner of the general store, did a brisk business from the little bit of merchandise he had inside. I had an IBC root beer. Two young girls passed the pith helmet and raised over $450 for the musicians, a lot for one of these shows that I overheard usually average about 50 cents a head.

After about an hour and a half of great tunes, most of the crowd was getting cold and began to fold their lawn chairs to leave. The band finished and then, almost as an afterthought, the emcee came up and said to the 50 or so of us remaining, "Don't leave, they're doing an encore."

That's when she and Johnny, with their 20-month-old daughter Olivia in tow, did "This Land is Your Land." The last verse, which she sang with particular fervor, doesn't appear in all the songbooks, but goes, "Nobody living can ever stop me/As I go walking that freedom highway/Nobody living can make me turn back/This Land was made for you and me." I'd almost forgotten that message.

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