The “official” Annual Woody Guthrie Birthday Celebration July 14-18th
The Woody Guthrie Folk Festival
It is ALL about the music!
For 5 days in July, the population of a small town in Oklahoma more than doubles. The 2.6 square miles of Okemah, OK the birthplace of Woody Guthrie is home to an annual free festival, simply named the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, lovingly shortened to “Woody Fest”. This is the annual birthday celebration that takes place in Woody’s honor (he would have been 98 this year). As mentioned earlier the festival is free and in the spirit of all that Woody represents, all the musicians perform for free. This is not just a music festival; this is a weekend of friends and families from all over the globe paying homage to an icon in our American folk music history.
The festival started in 1998 by the Woody Guthrie Coalition with the blessing of the entire Guthrie family. Arlo played the inaugural year and has since played 11 of the 13 years. Some past headliners and festival performers included Pete Seeger, Jackson Brown, Judy Collins, David Wilcox, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Tom Paxton, John Gorka, Peter Yarrow, Steve Earle, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Eliza Gilkyson, Dave Carter, Vance Gilbert and the impressive list goes on. A few of the annual performers and honorary festival alumni include Jimmy Lafave, Joel Rafael, Ellis Paul, Don Conoscenti, The Burns Sisters (Who also tour with Arlo), Terry “Buffalo” Ware and The Red Dirt Rangers, just to name a few. These road warriors keep their busy tour schedules open every year around July 14th in order to make their pilgrimage to Okemah. A few of my favorite performers added to this year’s lineup are Jess Klein, Betty Soo and Steppn’ in it
Click Here For The Entire List of 2010 Performers
When you’re told of a free festival with performers donating their time you probably think to yourself, well can’t be very good. In this day and age we think we have to pay $150 to see a great concert. Or attend a festival like Bonnaroo for a cost of over $1000+ all expenses in. At Woody Fest most of the performers are not hitting the radio charts or selling millions of albums, but they are some of the most extraordinary, critically acclaimed songwriters, poets and troubadours who are touring and performing all over the world. The audience is for the most part serious music lovers with a musical palette dedicated to great songwriting and a love for everything Woody Guthrie. As a musician invited to perform, it seems the most important criteria for selection is to have significant writing chops. We are talk’n serious wordsmiths. Be prepared to gasp, cry, and rejoice over lyrics. No fancy lighting show or over the top choreography here, this festival is all about the music… A well sung line of a stunning love ballad or a politically driven song gets the standing ovation at this festival. The performers sing their own music, but have no fear; there is no lack of Woody Guthrie sing-alongs! Throw a greatest hits CD into the player on your way to brush up on the obscure verses of “This Land is Your Land” you’ve never heard before, “Deportee”, “Minor Key”, and “Oklahoma Hills”. (See below for a CD recommendation.) Of course, this would not be a true folk festival without some Dylan, Mitchell, Baez, and Seeger squeezed into a set or two.
The atmosphere at Woody Fest is very different; it feels a bit like a time warp. Downtown Okemah is a dusty little town that can fit inside Fenway Park, and store fronts have not changed in decades. You stroll leisurely, say hello to people, stop to greet a friend you haven’t seen in a year, and chat about your travels or the sublime musical experience you just witnessed. The Brick Street Café and the historic Crystal Theatre are the two main attractions on the street running through town. It is between these two venues where the festival goers spend a majority of their day as performances are happening at each venue every hour from 11:00 am until 5:00 pm. You’ll pass buy a young trio, with their acoustic guitar, mandolin and banjo, busking on the street with hope to get noticed by one of their hero’s or the festivals decision makers. But mostly, they are there for the pure joy of playing and sharing music. This festival is truly A diamond in the rough!
Here’s the best part for me, the comradely nature amongst the musicians and the attendees is so special. All the performers attend the shows, as well as play on each others sets and sit amongst us mere mortals to chat about music or how hellish hot it is. I’ll say it again; it is all about the music here, no overpaid rock stars or lavish green rooms. It’s a hoot to see all these performers jumping on songs with each other, and they love it to, which creates lots of jovial frivolity on stage. These musicians are so top-notch; they are playing one another’s songs without a lick of a rehearsal! Talk about improv, it is all over this festival!
At 6:00 festival goers start parading to the Pastures of Plenty filling the massive grassy field with their blankets and chairs to hunker down for 4 hours of music on the main stage. The attendance rises to about 5,000 for the main stage show. The Oklahoma sky is always so dramatic and it usually cools down enough to make evening’s festivities easy to enjoy.
Arlo Guthrie will be performing on Wednesday night to start off the festival; this is the only ticketed event, at a meager $30 to see a legend. The money from this event goes to offset the cost of the rest of the 4 days. Abe, Arlo’s oldest son will be performing with him as well as grandsons Krishna and Mo Guthrie, and band member Terry Hall. Opening for Arlo is son-in-law Ramsay Midwood. There is no lack of Guthrie’s on hand this weekend; Woody is well represented by his sister Mary Jo, who holds a delightful Pancake breakfast for $5 includes live performances by several of the festival performers and lots of singing along. Just a small part of the beautiful community that is formed here, all the money from this event goes to Huntington’s Disease research; the disease which Woody died from at the age of 55 after many years in the hospital. Woody’s daughter Nora, as well as granddaughters Sarah Lee, Kathy and Annie are also present, the latter three perform at some point during the festival.
The Final event on Sunday at noon is the hootenanny at the Crystal Theatre. Many of the festival musicians get up to perform with each other taking turns singing lead or harmonies while backed by the incredibly talented festival band. It feels a bit like an “old time radio hour” and is just a good ole hoot’n holler’n time! This is a simple festival with the quality all invested in great performances by simple folk. My guess is it’s everything Woody would have wanted it to be. You sing, dance, laugh, care about other human beings, celebrate life, love and the pursuit of the American dream! (Play background music of “This Land is Your Land” while reading that last paragraph.)
The Festival is coordinated by the Woody Guthrie Coalition who dedicates many hours all year long to uphold this important legacy. I would be remiss to not mention the spot-on job all the volunteers do to make this festival such an enjoyable experience.
Purchase Ribbon of Highway Endless Skyway. This is a beautiful Woody Guthrie Tribute album. Featuring Bob Childers, Jimmy LaFave, Joel Rafael, Slaid Cleaves, Eliza Gilkyson, Sara Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion, Ellis Paul,Kevin Welch, Michael Fracasso with special appearances by Pete Seeger and Fred Hellerman.
Watch theVideo: Jimmy Lafave and a bunch of festival performers sing “Oklahoma Hills”
Watch the Video: John Fullbright at The Brick Street Café. An emerging song writer creating lots of buzz, hails from Woody’s home town of Okemah performing an original song
Ellis Paul sings Gods Promise. Nora Guthrie invited many contemporary musicians including Billy Bragg and Wilco to put music to lyrics of Woody’s that were never finished. This is the song Ellis chose, Woody wrote this song while he was in the hospital for Huntington’s disease. The video was filmed at the Guthrie Center in Great Barrington, MA