Seventy-five years ago, folk hero Woody Guthrie put pen to paper and fingers to strings to compose a subtle and catchy protest song. Many of us can sing at least a verse or two of “This Land is Your Land”, and most of us can gleefully shout out the chorus, but not everybody realizes that hidden in those lyrics are some significant political undertones about this country’s “haves” and “have nots”. This is the beauty of Woody Guthrie and the reason his songwriting and his activism continue to resonate and inspire nearly half a century after his death.
Born in Okemah, Okla. July 14, 1912, Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was not always embraced by his home state. Suffice it to say his left-leaning politics were out of favor with his more conservative neighbors. Decades later, the tide has turned, and this legendary troubadour and advocate for social change is loved and celebrated in his Sooner homeland. Okemah’s annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival turns 18 this year. On July 8, thousands of Woody fans will descend on Guthrie’s hometown for five days of music, friendship and general revelry. Tulsa’s Woody Guthrie Center, an educational facility dedicated to preserving Guthrie’s body of work and continuing his legacy, celebrated its 2nd anniversary in April. In full circle, Woody has returned home.
“Definitely having Woody back in his home state is very important to us,” said Deana McCloud, executive director of the WGC and a member of the advisory board for “WoodyFest”. “For so long he wasn’t recognized in Oklahoma for the important face in American history that he actually was, so we’re honored to be the caretakers of that work and share it with a new generation.”
In addition to interactive displays about the life and times of Woody Guthrie, the WGC is the steward of Woody’s art, photos, music and other related artifacts. It also houses the Woody Guthrie Archives, making it a destination for students and scholars from around the world. While all of these material objects are relevant to its mission, the WGC is also devoted to the “spirit” of the man himself.
“In addition to Woody’s songwriting and his artwork, we always want to make sure that the social advocacy part of who Woody was is at the forefront because that really was what he was trying to express,” McCloud explains. “We know that in today’s society there would be other things that he would be fighting for and there would be other social activism that he would be taking, even in our home state. What would he be fighting against now? Would it be fracking or what we are doing to the environment? So having him as a voice that came out of this state that we take such pride in is very special to us.”
The musicians who perform at Woodyfest share this belief. This year’s lineup includes performances by artists like the incomparable John Fullbright, who was born in the tiny hamlet of Bearden, a stone’s throw from Okemah, Flatlander Butch Hancock, the Red Dirt Rangers, torchbearers of the Red Dirt sound, and many more. Many of these musicians have participated annually in the festival, and most of them have done it without pay.
McCloud has worked closely with these performers over the years. Along with her husband Bill and Mike Nave, she booked and produced the concerts for the festival for the first 17 years of its existence.
“I think that the festival overall has a great sense of community and that goes from the highest level performer to the most local performer who’s just getting his or her start,” she commented. “You’ve got this sense of community with Okemah itself and with the festival attendees…Okemah is a small town…so the people who are attending and the artists kind of bond together to make it all work. Having it accessible to everyone, regardless of who’s playing, whether its Arlo [Guthrie] or when Pete Seeger was with us, seeing them walking down the street eating a snow cone or an ice cream cone or just hanging out.”
Singer songwriter Jonathan Byrd first played WoodyFest in 2010 on the stage of Okemah’s historic Cyrstal Theater. He’s returning to the festival this year. “It’s an honor to be asked to help celebrate the life and art of Woody Guthrie,” Byrd said. “An invitation to the festival is an affirmation of my work. ‘We see that you are carrying the torch,’ it says. ‘We recognize you as part of Woody’s legacy.’”
Byrd feels Woody’s influence in his own songwriting. “Woody Guthrie never wrote a complicated song in his whole life. He never tried to prove how smart he was. He spoke the truth. He never sent you to the dictionary. You don’t need a degree in music theory to learn a Woody Guthrie song. That was his magic,” Byrd explained. “I keep writers like Woody in mind when I’m trying to say something…You have to have a story; you have to relate.”
Boston-based musician Ellis Paul has played the festival every year except 2004 when his daughter was born. He, too, credits Guthrie as an inspiration for his own music. “Lyrics and intention,” Paul noted. “He was writing to inform in a way that the listener would come to a conclusion about the song that wasn’t spoon fed. Like a good teacher or journalist, he inspires anyone who cares to dive into the Woody rabbit hole. There’s a lot there, even beyond his music. He was living in a century of war, change and social causes. Not only did his art and music reflect this, but his whole life: his family, his jobs, his travels and writing.”
McCloud sees Woody’s influence in her own life. “Once you’re exposed to the work and Woody’s legacy, I don’t think there’s anyway you could avoid being inspired by it,” she explained. “There are those social issues that we’re all aware of and we think, ‘who’s going to speak up about that?’ Well, if Woody were around, he would be the voice, regardless of what anybody thought about him. He certainly was outspoken and had a way of getting his point across in a non-aggressive approach. It was a positive way of presenting a problem and the solution to that problem.”
*With permission from Currentland.