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.”