Billy Bragg – Crystal Theater (Okemah, OK)
You have to have grown up in Oklahoma a champion of Woody Guthrie to really understand the significance of Billy Bragg’s July 14th birthday salute to Guthrie in the great Okie song-poet’s hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma — a place where an anti-Woody sign still glares through a downtown shop window, and the only reminder of their most famous son is on the water tower as you drive into town.
Other than an occasional hint of recognition, Guthrie has been ignored in Okemah. But that all changed on this wonderful evening of words and music, leaving the audience a recognition of Guthrie that was more personal than his long-standing image of dust bowl socialist songwriter. Bragg didn’t downplay Guthrie’s socialist leanings — he simply reminded the amalgam of folkies, leftists, and locals in the crowd that Guthrie was a lot more than that.
After short sets from Peter Keane and Ellis Paul, Bragg (armed with his customary electric guitar) took the stage of the historic 600-seat Crystal Theater, wearing his enthusiasm on his sleeve as he held court on the very stage Guthrie stood as a high schooler. The show was a chance for Bragg to explain to us Okies why Guthrie is so important to the rest of the world. In between his often poignant and funny “lecture,” he became Guthrie’s mouthpiece, as over a dozen long-lost lyrics (most from the brilliant Mermaid Avenue album with Wilco) bounced off Bragg’s guitar and out into the old but stately theater. With members of Guthrie’s family in attendance, Bragg brought the real Woody Guthrie to life, making him more flesh and blood than historical icon.
Other than a few unreleased gems from the Mermaid Avenue sessions, including the early-’50s-styled rocker “My Flying Saucer” (which Bragg revealed that Guthrie had intended to be played as a “supersonic boogie”) this evening was a chance to perform the songs that have been released, including Bragg’s versions of the Jeff Tweedy contributions “Christ For President” and “Another Man’s Done Gone”. The former allowed an opportunity to comment on Guthrie’s faith and drew the loudest applause of the evening, while the latter was proof positive that Guthrie was more of a singer-songwriter as we know today than just an Okie socialist folksinger fighting Fascists and singing about the dust bowl. Also memorable was the folk-rockin’ “Hesitating Beauty”, the funny and sensuous “Ingrid Bergman”, the visionary “She Came Along To Me”, and the anthem-like “I Guess I Planted”, which yelled union loud and clear.
While Woody Guthrie’s hometown may never fully realize his greatness to both the musical community and the social fabric of our country, at least on one hot summer evening folks in Okemah, Oklahoma, got to know him a little better. Maybe by listening to the politeness of Bragg’s words and the everyman quality of Guthrie’s lyrics, folks in his hometown can return him to his iconoclastic flesh-and-blood self. He wouldn’t want to be remembered any other way.