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OpinionColumnistsMark Chiusano

Red Hook ‘drinking church’ where Guthrie’s America sings

Saturday night at Sunny’s, you’ll hear this piano song.

Tim Davis at Sunny's Bar in Red Hook.

Tim Davis at Sunny's Bar in Red Hook. Photo Credit: Michael Weinstein

Tim Davis discovered the song two hurricanes ago, tooling around on a Boston piano. A storm raging outside, he switched from major to minor key.

The song was the protest staple “This Land Is Your Land,” recorded by Woody Guthrie while on shore leave from the Merchant Marines. It’s a hopeful song but also an angry one, the story of a shared land from California to New York Island, with extra verses that form a screed about a big high wall, a sign saying “private property.”

When Davis slammed out the ballad in minor, the song’s darker edges popped. The words were more foreboding. He realized something special had happened. That’s the version he’s now playing almost every Saturday night at the venerable Red Hook waterfront bar Sunny’s.

“We call it our drinking church,” says Davis, 43, of Sunny’s, a place that over the years has inspired thousands of written words.

There has been a bar-like institution on this watery spot for decades, and it was once run by a beloved character of a man named Sunny, an artist who back in the day used to open the place when he felt like it.

Davis says he used to go to Sunny’s when it was more like a speakeasy, before he had children, back when he was playing in bands. He returned to Sunny’s five or six years ago after what he calls his “paternity leave,” and he started back at the piano.

It was one of the items partially submerged when superstorm Sandy flooded the bar, but that has only given its sound more soul, Davis says.

Nearly every Saturday around midnight, he now approaches that piano to accompany the weekly bluegrass jam for which dozens cram into the bar’s garage-sized room in the back. And at some point during that set, he starts “This Land Is Your Land.”

When he was playing the song early on, he says people told him, “well that’s sort of novel,” but it didn’t really take off. Then, a few years ago as Occupy Wall Street started happening and the Obama administration waned, and political and social divisions popped into starker contrast, people started saying to Davis what a good song it was, particular his darker minor version.

Times change.

Davis, who has been working at a stock photo agency for some 16 years, says it’s now more or less the only song he sings all week. He puts all of his energy into it, all of his struggles and worries, working to support his family, concern about the country: “It all comes out.”

It’s late and Davis mostly plays looking down just at the old piano, rocking and banging out the song, a growling Tom Waits drawl that tends to fill the crowded room, where people sometimes sit on the floor among the chairs.

Lots of times, audiences feel it and it’s the song that gets the most participation of the night. “I really feel like I’m leading a prayer or a sermon,” Davis says.

A mix of different people participate and watch during the jams: professional musicians coming after gigs, artists, writers, lawyers, a few accountants, different generations and political sides of the spectrum, Davis says.

But the populist, humanist message of the song is hard to ignore. Davis thinks it should be the national anthem.

The bluegrass night has been going on for around 15 years, hosted by Tone Johansen, Sunny’s widow.

Johansen, 52, calls “This Land Is Your Land” “empowering.”

Johansen says she worries that people feel very “dissociated” in different ways today — she sees her bluegrass jam as sort of the antidote to that, a communal experience.

A certain segment of the population doesn’t want to hear anything nationalistic, she thinks: “They feel funny about it.”

But she thinks there is a certain pride that people can have in the down-to-earth lyrics of Guthrie’s song, with the dogged emotion and energy that Davis gives it.

She is originally from Norway, she says. “I still love this country.”

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