Last night Bruce Springsteen was honoured as the 2021 recipient of the Woody Guthrie Award, presented by Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, who claimed this award recognises those who “listen and represent the peoples often quiet voices that you as an artist are privy to hear.”
With that being the description, it’s really unsurprising that Springsteen was the recipient, and to a degree it’s a surprise it’s taken this long for him to get the nod. Always cited as a voice for the voiceless and the common man, the influence of Woody Guthrie’s music was present in Springsteen’s long before the folk inspired tours of the late nineties and mid-thousands. We can hear it in his writing from the early seventies in songs such as “Lost in the Flood” and “Song For Orphans”, and of course it led to a variety of titans tracks in his catalogue in the years that followed: “Badlands”, “Darkness on the Edge of Town”, and “Born in the U.S.A.”, and many more.
Giving a special performance from his Barn last night for the occasion, it was the songs from his Ghost of Tom Joad album that he opted for instead to convey the influence and inspiration Guthrie had upon his songwriting. Singing and playing particularly well – which is exactly what you want as this pandemic draws nearer to its end and the thought of live concerts returning becomes all the more real – he treated us to excellent performances of both “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and “Across the Border“, songs that also have their roots in the words of John Steinbeck, the cinematic direction of John Ford and cinematography of Gregg Toland.
Alongside his originals, he also brought out gorgeous renditions of two of Guthrie’s own signature songs, the apt “Tom Joad” – a song Bruce would often alternate his own “Joad” with to open shows on the 1995 – 1997 world tour – and “Deportees (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)“. Bruce’s most famous performance of the latter came on August 28th, 1981 in Los Angeles, a stand highly revered by the Springsteen diehards, not only because of the August 20th show, The Night for the Vietnam Veteran – the Holy Grail of official live Springsteen recordings. Bruce’s writing on Joad speaks for those struggling in the San Joaquin Valley area, and to complement those tracks here with a song notable in his fandom for its links to his support of Vietnam veterans makes for a superb four song sequence we can use to highlight the way he’s echoed Nora Guthrie’s words at the start of the night over the course of his career.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Bruce’s comments last night about a “new album” that’s “largely set in the West“. Amidst the excitement, there’s been some discussion as to whether he slipped up here and was actually referring to 2019’s Western Stars, but even with that, it’s undeniably a line that will have us keeping an eye open in wait for future announcements and new singles randomly dropping.