Michael Fracasso sang ‘I’m going back to Oklahoma…’ and that’s exactly what thousands of people did to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie’s birth. This annual festival is free apart from the opening night concert at the historic Crystal Theatre, which this year featured Guthrie’s son Arlo. A sold out audience also enjoyed the opening act, Gretchen Peters, whose latest album HELLO CRUEL WORLD has been critically and commercially acclaimed as her best yet. That speaks volumes for a woman who has penned many hits for mainstream country stars.
The inaugural festival in 1998 featured a number of artists who have returned each year since (of which more later) but one who played that first festival and who hadn’t returned until this year was Billy Bragg. The protest folk singer, who headlined on Thursday, took the (outdoor) main stage, strapped his Telecaster guitar around his neck and proceeded to capture the essence of Guthrie as he sang songs from the MERMAID AVENUE sessions. In his distinctive accent Bragg spoke eloquently about his work with the Guthrie archives and how it had led him to reassess who Woody Guthrie was. Yes, Guthrie wrote songs standing up for the dispossessed and disfranchised but what is less known are the children’s songs, the love songs, the Jewish songs…there are almost 3000 individual lyrics in the archives. Bragg observed that I Ain’t Got No Home could have been written any time in the past five years rather than some seventy years ago such is its relevance today. Political activism is in Bragg’s DNA and he pulled no punches in railing against those in power who do little to address social and economic inequality. It was a triumphant return to the festival for Bragg; he finished with his own A New England warmly acknowledging the additional verse included for the late Kirsty MacColl.
‘The most popular band in the state of Oklahoma’ preceded Bragg’s set. The Red Dirt Rangers have performed at every festival. In 2004, shortly after they had been involved in a serious helicopter crash in which two of five passengers were killed, Brad Piccolo managed to perform one song. Tonight though they were on top form as they delivered a rousing set that included Cadillac Eight a Guthrie lyric for which they had written the music. Joined by ‘Oklahoma’s youngest teenager’ David Amram (in his early 80’s) they performed California Stars, a gentle rocker with words by Guthrie and music by Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. Whenever I’ve seen the Rangers, they have totally captivated the audience and invariably left them wanting more.
Others who have played every festival included Joel Rafael who is a leading authority on Guthrie; Don Conoscenti, a multi-instrumentalist, who is one of the most respected musicians on the circuit and Jimmy LaFave who has headlined here more often than anyone else.
Rafael in honour of Guthrie’s 100th birthday chose to include Oklahoma Hills, Ramblin’ Reckless Hobo, Don’t Kill My Baby And My Son, 1913 Massacre, Dance Around My Atom Fire, Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key and Love Thyself in his set list. With a just released new album AMERICA COME HOME Rafael played just one self-penned song from it Meanwhile The Rain. That gives you a measure of the man and his respect for Guthrie’s legacy – how many musicians, playing in front of thousands, would rather have chosen to promote their own material?
Conoscenti joined by his three piece band and long time friend, Ellis Paul (vocals) opened with Beautiful Valley ‘me and my banjo, are going to pick a little music, we sure are happy to be here tonight…’ Terry Ware, John Fullbright and Bill Chambers joined in for Red Man Sky and Red Dirt Rangers, Brad Piccolo and John Cooper together with Butch Hancock joined in for What Else Could I Do. Conoscenti seemed to call upon a cast of many and that is one of the best things about this particular festival. Many of the artists stay around for the duration and help each other out – it means that we get to see some dream combinations that are only possible here at ‘WoodyFest.’
LaFave who for a decade led the ‘Ribbon of Highway, Endless Skyway’ tribute to Guthrie has been busy in this centenary year performing at many ‘Woody 100’ shows across the States. He is a festival main stay, not only as a performer but also as an advisor to the organising committee. LaFave, with his band headlined on Friday night and showed what a wonderful interpreter of other people’s songs he is by commencing with Guthrie’s Bound For Glory, followed by Bob Childers’ Restless Spirit, Bob Dylan’s Dusty Old Fairgrounds, Butch Hancock’s Bluebird (for which he was joined by Hancock) and Townes van Zandt’s Snowin’ On Raton. LaFave did include some of his own songs before finishing with Guthrie’s Oklahoma Hills and This Land Is Your Land. By this time the stage was full to bursting with musicians who took turns at lead vocals – the biggest cheers were drawn when Johnsmith changed the words of a verse to reflect the ‘Occupy’ movement’s protests.
Ellis Paul described by Guthrie’s daughter, Nora as ‘wise, tender, brilliant and biting…’ has only missed one festival in fifteen years and that was for the best of reasons – his wife gave birth to their first child. Made an honorary citizen of Okemah in recognition of all he has done to promote Guthrie’s work, Paul played main stage with accompanists Conoscenti and Radoslav Lorkovic. Highlights included Chief Joseph from his latest family album THE HERO IN YOU and the medley of Patsy Cline’s Walking After Midnight with Sam Baker’s Change. For the latter he invited Baker to join him – Baker is another very popular figure at this festival. He missed last year due to surgery to correct a detached retina so was welcomed back with open arms.
Baker’s own set at the Crystal Theatre was played to a packed house and he opened with a song he’d written for Guthrie’s 100th - it includes the lines:
'Woody's packed, he's gone, he's like a thunderstorm late at night
Give Woody just a little bit of time, he's gonna teach the angels to fight'
which got a rapturous response from the audience. Migrants an unrecorded song, influenced by Guthrie’s Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos) was a memorable moment as too was All Fall Down – a song in the burlesque style.
Another Texan who has performed at his ‘favourite festival’ on a number of occasions is Butch Hancock. One of the greatest living songwriters, on his 67th birthday, his band included his fourteen-year-old son, Rory. Whilst Hancock has a new album due later this year SEVEN CITIES OF GOLD he chose to concentrate on more familiar material inviting fellow ‘birthday boy’ LaFave to join him for Bluebird. Hancock paid homage to Guthrie by including Pretty Boy Floyd in his set list.
Local boy John Fullbright was given a main stage slot; it was delayed due to a rainstorm. With a band, he opened with David Halley’s Rain Just Falls before showcasing songs from his recently released debut studio album FROM THE GROUND UP. People who hadn’t heard Fullbright previously were stopped in their tracks by the brilliance of this 24 year old whose mature lyrics have an immediate impact. So visual…a great future beckons for this unassuming young man.
Festival debutants included John McCutcheon whose between song banter had the audience laughing with glee. With much affection, he recounted his story of falling in love, at 14 years old with the local librarian and how many years later, said local librarian brought her grandchildren to one of his book signings. McCutcheon was a perfect fit for the festival mixing political messages with songs for children and closing with Guthrie’s Hobo’s Lullaby.
Another debutant, Melanie, best known for her 70’s hit Brand New Key, polarised opinions. Some loved her set whilst others didn’t. Accompanied by her son, Beau Jarred, an accomplished guitarist, she opened with Beautiful People the song said to have been the first inspiration behind the waving of candles and cigarette lighters when played at Woodstock more than 40 years ago. An internationally recognised peace ambassador she rounded off her set with John Lennon’s Give Peace A Chance.
The festival finale was given over to the ageless Judy Collins. Known as an interpretive singer, her voice is still clear and beautiful. She told stories about times in New York, meeting a young Arlo Guthrie, being with Bob Dylan when he wrote Mr Tambourine Man and sang snippets of songs, without accompaniment, by way of illustration – her clear soprano ringing out across the Pastures of Plenty. Accompanied by her pianist, she entranced the audience with, amongst others, the Grammy winning Both Sides Now, Joan Baez’s Diamonds and Rust and took to the piano herself for a moving song about her late mother In The Twilight. Collins returned for one encore Somewhere Over The Rainbow - a fitting end to the centenary celebrations.
‘Woody is just Woody. Thousands of people do not know he has any other name. He is just a voice and a guitar. He sings the songs of a people and I suspect that he is, in a way, that people. Harsh voiced and nasal, his guitar hanging like a tire iron on a rusty rim, there is nothing sweet about Woody, and there is nothing sweet about the songs he sings. But there is something more important for those who will listen. There is the will of the people to endure and fight against oppression. I think we call this the American spirit’ (John Steinbeck). Jela Webb