Doug Morris started bringing evenings of protest music to the Cornerstone Coffeehouse in Camp Hill about four years ago.
First, he played for Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday, a celebration of the iconic songwriter/performer who wrote, “This Land is Your Land.” He then started organizing around different themes and songwriters such as Pete Seeger, Utah Phillips, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.
“Pete Seeger offered the following: Some music can help us escape our troubles; some music can help us understand our troubles; and some music can help us overcome our troubles,” Morris said.
Morris, who plays monthly at Cornerstone, attempts to provide “some of each.”
He next will perform at the popular Camp Hill café on Feb. 18, holding a “Woody/Bruce Heavyweight Championship,” during which he’ll pair Guthrie and Springsteen tunes. He’ll also offer commentary about how both songwriters, though very different, have sought to raise public consciousness about struggles for social justice and against inequality.
“So, Woody’s ‘This Land is Your Land’ could be paired with Bruce’s ‘This Hard Land’ and Woody’s ‘Bound for Glory’ with Bruce’s ‘Land of Hope and Dreams,’” said Morris.
Audience members are encouraged to sing along at the free event.
For his day job, Morris is a professor at West Chester University, and, before that, played jazz guitar and studied with Philly guitar legend Joe Federico. Morris also has written scholarly papers about the history of protest music and has done studies on the connections between progressive politics, radical music and social transformation.
Morris has been captivated for years by Guthrie’s humanist politics and finds his music gripping and transformative. As a prolific songwriter, a satirical cartoonist and newspaper columnist, Guthrie turned complex ideas about democracy, human rights and economic equality into simple drawings, stories and songs that all Americans could embrace.
His catalogue of songs includes favorites such as “Pastures of Plenty,” “Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad,” “Union Maid” and “Bound for Glory.” His most famous song, “This Land is Your Land,” was written in 1940 as a socialist response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” Guthrie wanted to write about the Depression-era America he knew, so he wrote lyrics addressing liberty, individual rights, poverty, freedom, equality and property ownership.
“The song should really be heard as a rousing anthem for working people—i.e. most of us,” Morris said.
According to Springsteen, it’s “the greatest song ever written about America. It gets right to the promise of what our country is supposed to be about.”
Many Springsteen fans may not recognize how politically informed his music is or that he considers that his work “has always been about judging the distance between American reality and the American Dream,” Morris said. Throughout the years, Springsteen has become progressively more vocal about social injustice and inequality, which, he believes, get in the way of making America great.
Springsteen’s contributions were recognized this past November when President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In his remarks, Obama called Springsteen “a songwriter and a humanitarian” and said, “Through stories about ordinary people from Vietnam veterans to steel workers, his songs capture the pain and the promise of the American experience.”
“Woody and Bruce are among the world’s preeminent protest songwriters as both are informed by an expression of workers’ struggles against exploitation,” said Morris. “Their work is grounded in and alive with history.”
Their music often addresses such issues as the horrors of war, social marginalization and economic inequality.
“They’ve demonstrated an engagement with our most serious social crises and challenges,” Morris said. “They are critical and hopeful observers who have been able to interject into their songs our human capacities for empathy, creativity, solidarity and love.”
Morris performs monthly at Cornerstone Coffeehouse, 2133 Market St., Camp Hill. He’ll perform the “Woody/Bruce Heavyweight Championship” on Feb. 18 at 7 p.m. He’ll also present the show at Crave and Co., 614 N. 2nd St., Harrisburg, on Feb. 17 at 6 p.m. For more information, visit www.thecornerstonecoffeehouse.com or www.craveandco.com.
Author: Jess Hayden