What Would Woody Say?

December 1st, 2011

By Jan Barry

Sharleen Leahey (center) in concert“Woody Guthrie spoke plain
About deportees and dust bowl days…

So what would Woody write?
Right now in these hard times”

That’s the sobering, yet enticing question that activist-songwriter Sharleen Leahey raises in her new CD collection, entitled “Rumors of Peace.” What would the “Poet of the People” who sang about plain folks’ hard lives during the Great Depression make of America today? With dobro, fiddle and guitar pickin’, reelin’ and strummin’ bluegrass, folk, country and gospel airs, Leahey offers her take on the times in a foot-thumping tribute to Guthrie.

“Now it’s time to speak plain
About bailed-out bankers having their way
While families are forced to move
People sick and tired of being attacked
Are standing up trying to fight back…
But the boss is getting richer as we go broke
They’re taking our jobs and our homes and our hope
Say Woody…has that much really changed?”

In a song titled “Corporate News,” she lambasts “CNN & Fox – talking heads who shock/ Fair & balanced they declare/ Dissenting voices kicked off the air.” Leahey lets loose, knowing she won’t be invited to appear on any mainstream television talk show any time soon. And neither will anyone else who doesn’t improve the corporate bottom line. Her chorus line to that damning fact goes: “And you know the rich men break the rules/ And oooh how they pull the wool/ And they think we’re fools/ Democracy is what we lack/ Free speech has been hijacked.”

So like Woody Guthrie, she takes what she’s got to say to people at the grassroots, singing at peace demonstrations, teach-ins, conferences, fairs, coffeehouses, bookstores, libraries, museums, churches. Sharleen Leahey, who grew up in New York City and now lives in suburban New Jersey, gets around with her guitar and her protest songs to places where the corporate-branded and approved entertainers on TV talk and squawk shows haven’t a clue as to what’s going on.

Here’s how she prefaced a recent performance at a small-town event: “Before singing ‘This Land Is Your Land,’ she said Mr. Guthrie wrote the song as an ‘anti-God Bless America’ song because he didn’t like how ‘God Bless America’ says God blesses the United States, but not other countries,” noted a news story in The Cranbury (NJ) Press in August. “‘Woody was defined by the Great Depression,’ she said. ‘He was one of us, a hard worker. He was an activist.’”

Other songs on her new CD address working for peace in the Middle East and around the world, embracing the wonders of Nature and being open to change. A photo caption for her receiving, in July, a Peace Patriot Award from the Coalition for Peace Action in Princeton, NJ succinctly captured her song writing spirit: “For many years Sharleen has organized and performed at countless rallies, vigils and events to call attention to our urgent need to end our nation’s wars and occupations overseas and address our crises here at home.”

A couple of generations back, that kind of talk would have gotten a songwriter summoned to a grilling by the House Un-American Activities Committee. These days, it’s an invitation to join a picket line at the White House—as Leahey did at a recent Occupy Washington protest march.

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(This article was also posted at EarthAirWater.)

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One Response to “What Would Woody Say?”

  1. Tom Carter |

    I haven’t heard Sharleen Leahey, but I’d like to. I’ve always been interested in Woody Guthrie, and I think “This Land Is Your Land” is one of the greatest of authentic American songs.

    Interestingly, the music was taken from “When the World’s on Fire” by The Carter Family, somewhat modified (but not much) by Woody. Too bad so few Americans know much about the iconic Carter Family (no relation to me, unfortunately). They made the music of that era what it was, and their influence stretches far and wide, even if not well understood. (June Carter, a member of the family, was married to Johnny Cash and a talented performer in her own right.)

    Go to the iTunes store and find “When the World’s on Fire” by The Carter FAmily and listen to some of it for free. Also, here’s a good biography of Woody Guthrie.

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