A Woody Guthrie diary

Published 11 years ago - 3

by Gene Perry

Photo by Gene Perry.
Photo by Gene Perry.

The Woody Guthrie Folk Festival can make you believe in ghosts. He may have died more than 40 years ago, but last week Woody Guthrie haunted Okemah, OK, the town where he was born.

Guthrie lives on in many ways at this festival, which is held very year during the humid peak of summer. His words and songs are repeated like scripture by visitors from all over the world. Woody’s descendants and other relatives can appear both onstage and off, so that it becomes a de facto family reunion. You might even come across Woody’s signature scrawled in Okemah sidewalk cement.

It’s a testament to the impact one person can have with nothing but a passion for life. He didn’t need money or power to be heard across generations. He simply traveled and talked and wrote and lived. In Oklahoma he was infamously tarred as a communist, but he never bought into any ideology besides human decency and generosity. As he put it, “Left wing, right wing, chicken wing – it’s all the same to me. I sing my songs wherever I can sing ’em.”

His prolific creativity continues to pay dividends. Thousands of unreleased Guthrie lyrics are kept in the Woody Guthrie archives in New York City, and musicians are mining this resource to produce new Woody Guthrie songs every year. These range from obvious heirs to Woody’s music, like the folk-rocker Billy Bragg, to more surprising choices, like the modern Yiddish musicians The Klezmatics or the Native American punk band Blackfire.

It’s tempting to use the cliché that he was “larger than life.” But Woody shows us how little that means, because life is plenty large all by itself. It’s large enough to share freely and never run out. Woody wasn’t more than human – he was more human.

The festival embodies that principle as well. Like few other cultural events, it attracts people of many types. Veteran festival bums with ragged beards and political bumper stickers mingle alongside old ladies in flower-bedecked hats, small-town Oklahoma folks in suspenders and cowboy boots, and young families with bopping toddlers who’ve learned to dance before they can walk. It just takes the right song for magic to drop into the room, and heads of every sort nod in unison to the beat.

Music allows a special kind of generosity. Share a song that you love, and it becomes larger by the sharing. Spread it far and wide and it becomes the seeds of more music, of more life. In Woody’s metaphor, “my songs has been my messages that I tried to scatter across the back sides and along the steps of the fire escapes and on the window sills and through the dark halls.”

It is by this ideal that Woody’s presence is felt most strongly at the festival. What happens on the main stage has never been the soul of Woodyfest. Instead it is the open mic at Rocky Road Tavern and the song circles at the campground that run long after the “official” shows have ended. You don’t need a famous name or a recording contract to join in.

It’s also in places like these that we can find the purest Okie pride – free from the tribal rivalries of football or the inferiority complex of being a small place in a big country. It’s a magnanimous pride, where we can recognize that we have something special and still not be afraid to invite the world to share.

The Woody Guthrie Festival, and Woody himself, have at their core a celebration of life, a gratitude for the smallest things which are also the most important. In the words of Woody, “Nothing in this life is vulgar to me / Nothing around this planet’s crust is low down to me / I see nothing obscene around me / No matter where my ten senses scratch around.”

Or in the words of John Fullbright, another young songwriter from Okemah who is continuing Woody’s journey, “There’s a man in the alley just singin’ the blues / Tellin’ everybody that they’re born to lose / One day he’ll wake up and see the sun / See that everyday we’re breathin’ is a day we’ve won.”

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3 thoughts on “A Woody Guthrie diary

  • Your commentary was insightful and captured the essence of Woodyfest well. Follow-ups on some of the local artists who are bringing Woody’s lyrics back to life could be worthwhile.

  • I enjoyed your Woody piece online very much. I love the Woody Guthrie Festival–despite the incredible heat! I go every year, volunteer to sell stuff, including my books, and then I make a donation for each one sold to the Woody Guthrie Coalition to help keep the festival going. I think it’s so great that his hometown of Okemah used to have a serious problem honoring Woody–a few still did when the festival began 12 years ago–and now has this wonderful festival every year to honor him and his music. I also think it’s great that the state of Oklahoma finally got over its hangup with Woody enough to have a Charles Banks Wilson portrait of him hanging in the state capitol (as his son Arlo said when he learned about it, “Damn, they finally hung Daddy in the state capitol!”) AND inducted him into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame a few years back.
    Woody, you see, spoke up for the common people of the Depression/Dust Bowl era in a powerful, sometimes radical way. You note his comment about “right wing, left wing, chicken wing….” Maybe you’re also aware that once when “accused” of being a Communist, he reportedly replied, “I ain’t necessarily never been a Communist, but I have been in the red all my life.”
    Woody is central to my approach to Oklahoma history. My first book of “alternative views” of Oklahoma history, “AN OKLAHOMA I HAD NEVER SEEN BEFORE,” has a picture of the Okemah water towers on the cover, one of which says “Home of Woody Guthrie,” and an essay on Woody’s Oklahoma years. My second such collection, ALTERNATIVE OKLAHOMA, is dedicated “To the memory and spirit of Woody Guthrie” and contains an essay by Thomas Conner (of the Woody Guthrie Coalition and the CHICAGO SUN-TIMES) on Woody’s continuing influence on Oklahoma’s Red Dirt music scene. (Both books were published by the University of Oklahoma Press.)
    My approach to Oklahoma history is much influenced by Howard Zinn’s approach to American history, especially in his million+ seller, A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES. (Prometheus Books published my study of Zinn’s life and writings a few years ago entitled HOWARD ZINN: A RADICAL AMERICAN VISION.) It’s an approach sometimes called “people’s history,” or, perhaps more revealingly, “history from the bottom up.” Thus, my Oklahoma history books emphasize such subjects as women, minorities, common people, and the radicals/reformers who work to improve people’s lives. Even when I deal with a familiar subject, such as Oklahoma’s
    (in)famous land runs(s), I look at it from a different point of view, as in Jerald C. Walker’s essay entitled “The Difficulty of Celebrating an Invasion” in my first book.
    Pardon me for the element of self-promotion involved in this message, but it’s my hope/belief that some readers of this site might be interested.
    Davis D. Joyce

  • Thank you for printing the great comments on Woody Guthrie, and it is very educational to get more information to the people of Oklahoma too.
    I hope to see this web site forwarded to many people and friends who have this access, and it will be very good to get more people to read and learn of such great Oklahoma people as Woody Guthrie and many more like him.
    Thanks again for the publication and web site work, and Have A Great Year!
    Jesse McGaha

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