Cook: Till the World is Level

Cook: Till the World is Level

September 4th, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Woody Guthrie was late to the soup kitchen Monday morning for his Labor Day concert.

"Freight trains ain't reliable,'' he told the crowd of 100 hobos.

"I know that's right,'' one of them answered back.

Guthrie, born 100 years ago, played songs and told stories for more than an hour yesterday before a clapping Chattanooga Community Kitchen crowd. Wearing a worn hat, workman's shirt, blue jeans, brown boots with a guitar slung over one shoulder and a canvas bag (Workers Unite! in red letters) over the other, Guthrie boot-clomped in about five minutes late ... all part of the act.

And after listening to the show, I realized Guthrie's not late at all.

He's actually right on time.

"These songs from the 1930s and 40s are still ringing,'' said Randy Noojin, who's been impersonating Guthrie in his "Hard Travelin' with Woody'' performance since its debut last summer in New York City.

Noojin was 3/4ths Guthrie with a shot of Tom Joad on the side. Set at a fictional labor hall before a crowd of striking mine workers, the performance was dangerous: few people speak like this in 2012.

"You've dug out a hundred mountains of wealth, but your wages won't feed your family!" he said to the crowd.

"Strike! Strike!," he said. "The only way to get a nickel out of a multi-millionaire on Wall Street is a union. We're Goliath if we stick together and organize."

We've whitewashed Guthrie over the years, settling for the sing-along, feel-good "This Land is Your Land'' folk singer. But Guthrie was deeply critical of capitalism, greed and Wall Street. (Sounds a lot like Occupy, right?)

"He was a revolutionary," said the actor-playwright Noojin, over cups of black Community Kitchen coffee after the show.

And it's shocking - embarrassing, really - that Guthrie's music is relevant after all these years. We've invented plasma television, gigabit Internet speeds and just landed a ship on Mars, but can't solve homelessness?

"I loved it," said Ricky Bayless, who's been on the streets for 8 years. "I've been out there in tents. Slept on cardboard. I've seen a lot of families [out there] too. I've eaten out of dumpsters a few times. Even though the stuff he was singing about was in the 30s, it is still going on today. People out of work, struggling, just trying to get by."

Noojin also showed Guthrie's wit and humor.

"If it wasn't for my bad breath, I wouldn't have a cent," he said.

Or: "I worked for a while at a bakery. Boss said he'd never seen such a loafer."

And: "It got so dry and dusty, I seen a fireplug chasing a dog."

Noojin, who performed last Friday for the International Brotherhood of Electric Workers Local 75 celebration, tells Guthrie's story as the story of the 1930s and 1940s America: dust bowls and depression, train hopping and handbills, striking workers and rich bankers.

At one point, Guthrie stumbles into a "hobo jungle" and hears a woman singing about needing three square meals a day for her children:

"I decided my songs would echo that song of starvation until the world looks level," Guthrie says to the audience. "Until the world is level. And there ain't no rich man and there ain't no poor man."

Noojin, whose work can be seen at www.hardtravelinshow.com, performs two more shows in Chattanooga - this Thursday and Friday, 7:30 p.m. at the Lindsay Street Hall, benefitting the Community Kitchen. Noojin said the goal of each show is to instill in audiences one thing above all else.

"Hope," he said.

Tuesday's online-only column is based around sharing a meal or drinks with someone in Southeast Tennessee or North Georgia. Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.