From Woody Guthrie to Bette Midler, these are tunes for the times

“I think the theme this year is celebrating the rugged individualist and songwriting as a tool for changing society,” says Songwriters Hall of Fame chairman Jimmy Webb of the organization’s 43rd annual Induction and Awards Dinner being held tonight at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York City and at which the late Woody Guthrie will be honored with the org’s inaugural Pioneer Award. “Most people seem to agree that society needs a little bit of work right now, so the work of our inductees is more relevant than ever.”

Webb sees this year’s crop of honorees — who include Gordon Lightfoot, Bob Seger, Don Schlitz, Harvey Schmidt & Tom Jones and Jim Steinman — as being particularly worthy, “if only for purely personal reasons,” he says. “I’ve always been a huge fan of Bob Seger and Gordon Lightfoot, and consider myself an acolyte of the latter. I would have envied having his voice and that kind of free-ranging, gaunt, wolf-like profile that he has in the musical landscape.”

Webb stresses that this year’s event honors “a particularly wide range of songwriters, from rockers like Steinman and Seger to country great Schlitz, and Schmidt & Jones, who wrote ‘The Fantasticks.’ So I think there’s something there for everyone.”

Other honorees include Bette Midler, who will receive the Sammy Cahn Lifetime Achievement Award; Ne-Yo, who will accept the Hal David Starlight Award; and Lance Freed who will get the Abe Olman Publisher Award.

Webb says the choices are “very meaningful for songwriters, as you’re voted on by your peers and then inducted in front of your peers.”

This year also sees the Towering Song Award and Towering Performance Award going to “Stand by Me” and Ben E. King respectively. “It’s only the third time we’ve done this award, and I can’t think of more worthy recipients,” Webb says.

According to Linda Moran, org president and CEO, the event is different each year. “We always get a natural theme going, usually as a result of the inductees on stage all talking about how they wrote certain songs, which I’m sure will once again be the case this year,” she says. She cites the 2010 show when Earth, Wind & Fire and David Foster were inducted. “David’s first hit was for them, when he played keyboards in the band, and Phil Collins was getting the Johnny Mercer Award, and David and Phil knew each other well,” she says. “So it all flows naturally.”

Webb and Moran stress “how intimate” the event is, “especially when you compare it to other awards shows,” she says. “We have some 900 people, but everyone likes to sit close together and tell their stories, so it feels like you’re in someone’s living room.”

Webb adds that while there are plans afoot to raise the hall’s profile, “we never want to lose that special intimacy we have.” He also promises some surprises in the show. “When you have an artist like Bette Midler being honored, you never know quite what to expect.”

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