Various Artists – Woody Guthrie Folk Festival (Okemah, OK)
The boomtown days of Woody Guthrie’s birthplace are long gone. Okemah is a sleepy — one might say depressed — little town in the Oklahoma hills, situated on an industrial park in Okfuskee County. It’s hard to imagine that Broadway, the main drag with its run-down storefronts and humble churches, has changed all that much since Woody’s Tanglewood days.
It was only recently, and, it seems, reluctantly, that the town fathers of Okemah paid any recognition to their most famous balladeer, Guthrie’s communist and hippie affiliations being none too popular in his conservative hometown. The Folk Festival, known affectionately as Woody Fest, is in only its sixth year, and it’s still very much a grass-roots affair, but it seems Okemah is warming to the memory and legacy of its firebrand native son.
The festival, which is free of charge apart from car parking fees, opened at the downtown Crystal Theater with a concert billed as “Welcome Home Woody: An Oklahoma Tribute To Woody Guthrie.” The little theater was packed with mostly middle-aged folks in rainbow-coloured garb, with a few kids running around, and had the feel of a community meeting. This relaxed, down-home atmosphere continued all weekend, as Woody fans strolled leisurely about town in the 110-degree heat to enjoy live music in a handful of indoor and outdoor venues.
Woody Fest is the occasion for a Guthrie clan reunion, and Woody’s son Arlo and granddaughter Sarah Lee (the latter with husband Johnny Irion and baby Olivia in tow) participated in a Guthrie Family Jam Band at the Brickstreet coffee house amidst much spontaneity and warmth.
Family friend Jimmy LaFave served as an informal host, leading song circles throughout the weekend and performing some fine solo sets, along with Michael Fracasso, Terry “Buffalo” Ware and the Burns Sisters. Australians Bill Chambers and Audrey Auld charmed their audiences, and singer-songwriter Eliza Gilkyson and fiddler Darcie Deaville put in commanding performances.
Most artists performed original material with generous sprinklings of Woody standards. Given that the Guthrie songbook is so notoriously deep, it was curious that there was so little diversity in the choices. Not that “Deportee (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos)”, “Hard Travelin'” and the ubiquitous “This Land Is Your Land” don’t stand up to repeat listenings, but overall the selection was somewhat staid. And why has the Billy Bragg/Wilco project Mermaid Avenue not found greater favor among the Woody faithful? There were several renditions of “Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key”, perhaps because it resonated so well in its hometown surroundings, but little else from the Mermaid annals.
The highlight event was the Saturday night finale at the Pastures Of Plenty outdoor amphitheater, under an enormous white water tower, with a giant backdrop of Woody’s face looking out over the deck-chair-filled field. A lineup of amiable singer-songwriters progressed throughout the day, with anticipation building for the evening sets by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie.
Elliott more than lived up to his name, his surreal, stream-of-consciousness and oft-cantankerous banter every bit as entertaining as his music. Seeger, the guest of honor, was a frail, almost otherworldly presence. His voice has all but deserted him with age, but he whispered his way along with Arlo, then commanded the entire company onstage for what appeared to be a genuinely impromptu sing-along of “Amazing Grace”. Seeger led the ragtag choir at a funereal pace, building to a rumbled assembly that was at once strange and moving. Then there was a joining of hands and voices for “This Land Is Your Land” as the throng rose to their feet, cheered and rejoiced. Woody would no doubt have approved.