Walkin' the Long Road

by Danny Marroquin

4 August 2006

At first, Woody Guthrie's birthplace tried to forget his name, but Okemah, Oklahoma has become home to a growing Guthrie festival, now in its ninth year.

People shop for groceries as if nothing is happening. Two men walk by Brickstreet Café while the basement door vibrates. “Don’t go in there,” one warns the other, and they continue their walk. There’s more noise in town than usual, but some still aren’t hearing it.

Okemah, like dozens of other towns in Oklahoma and Texas, blossomed during a brief spell of oil production only to be left gutted, infertile. The town looks as if it can barely scrape together a sidewalk sale. But for the past nine years, for one week in mid-July, Okemah sees a rush of chasers wandering the beaten Broadway strip, and the town experiences an unlikely surge the likes of which it hadn’t seen since the late 1920s oil boom. Some local shoppers eye these foreigners suspiciously on Broadway, where two worlds converge. J.R.‘s Movie House has the movies, Ruth Ann’s Flower shop has the flowers. At the Farmer’s Market, watermelon, potatoes and onions sit in crates. Thousands of the freaks of America have come, armed with guitars and amplifiers.

Brickstreet Café
Built in 1907, Brickstreet is a veritable hang out in Okemah and houses live music in its cavernous basment.

As a child in Okemah, Woody Guthrie witnessed the oil boom, describing it in Bound for Glory, his autobiography: “The first people to town was the rig builders, cement men, carpenters, team skinners, wild tribes of horse traders and gypsy wagons loaded full, and wheels breaking down; crooked gamblers, pimps, whores, dope fiends, and peddlers, stray musicians and street singers, preachers cussing about love and begging for tips on the street corners, Indians in dirty loud clothes chanting along the sidewalks with their kids crawling and playing in the filth and grime underfoot. People elbowed up and down the streets like a flood on the Canadian, and us kids would run and jump right in big middle of the crowds, and let them just sort of push us along a block or so, and play like we was floating down stream.”

Now it’s not the gunslingers and money-hungry roughnecks that descend on the town. Instead there are folkies with Kerville shirts, academics, protesters, architects, professionals, children, teachers, Oklahomans who come to Guthrie’s birthplace to catch a little piece of something authentic on July 14, the singer’s birthday. Some of these people noticeably need something to do. Some want a weekend Oklahoma history lesson they didn’t get in school. Others remember recent years past, when Billy Bragg, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Steve Earle, Jackson Browne and Pete Seeger walked the same streets. The Woody Guthrie Music Festival keeps showing growth, which is funny for a town that tried to forget about Guthrie.

Randy Crouch
Crouch gushes after viruosic fiddle/guitar led mash-ups, “I hardly get out of Tahlequa!”

Rob McNurlin of Ashland, Kentucky sings Guthrie’s song about Mexican Migrant workers “Deportee” in an old theatre fit for a David Lynch movie, Greg Klyma an Austin, Texas émigré from Buffalo, New York, sings a fake standard a capella with accompaniment and a chorus of “He’ll fuck you up / God he’ll fuck you up”. A man in overalls plays harmonica and sings on the streets. The Farm Couple, who are indeed a couple from a farm in Afton, Oklahoma, sing a tender bluegrass rendition of “Way Over in the Minor Key.” The mad gray-bearded self-proclaimed Master of Space and Time and Randy Crouch, from Tahlequah, empties his Budweiser onto his guitar before opening up a wild fiddle rendition of Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun.” Somehow all this feels right at home in Okemah.

Ain’t Got No Home

In the early 1960s Guthrie lived in Coney Island as his body and mind deteriorated from Huntington’s Disease, a hereditary condition that remains rare and incurable. While a young Bob Dylan made a pilgrimage to visit Guthrie, Okemah was forgetting about its native son.

It’s hard to tell what Guthrie’s dying thoughts were of Okemah. Guthrie is known for what he did outside of Oklahoma, and he returned to Okemah only once, in a nostalgic haze in his later years. With a full Jesus beard, Guthrie was a stranger in his town when he returned for a glance. He was bigger than the town. He wrote songs for the Grand Coulee Dam. He wrote songs for the merchant marines, where he survived two sinking ships. He was a radio star in Los Angeles, “Oklahoma Woody” with his co-star Lefty Lou. And in California Woody found Okies everywhere and wrote songs about them that were even more accessible than Steinbeck’s short stories. He was the poet of the people who left Oklahoma for the same reason he did, the kind who lived west of the stockyards in Hooverville slums after the Depression. When these people got no play in The Daily Oklahoman, they got it in Woody’s songs. He junked Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” for “This Land Is Your Land,” a song translated into more than 80 languages.

But because of his “Woody Sez” column in a communist paper, The People’s World, and his concerts with Pete Seeger and Cisco Houston at labor union rallies, Guthrie was regarded with some suspicion in Oklahoma. William Savage Jr., professor of Oklahoma history at the University of Oklahoma, calls Guthrie a class C communist at best, but nevertheless, lessons about Guthrie are omitted from the Oklahoma high school curricula. Savage explains, “I was teaching Oklahoma History and I had a girl in class who was born and raised in Okemah, who’d been to school in Okemah. She left Okemah to go to a University. She came up to me after class and said, ‘I lived in Okemah my whole life there and I never heard Guthrie’s name.’ And that reflects a local problem.”

Woodie Guthrie Statue

In the 1970s, when hippie types began making pilgrimages to Guthrie’s home, writing on the walls, smoking grass and staying nights, an Okemah buyer let the house rot and the city council ordered it to be demolished. The national media reported, “Woody Guthrie’s home town divided on paying him homage”—an understatement. Arlo Guthrie, always reluctant to flaunt the family name, made occasional trips to Okemah to talk with the town’s people to “feel the situation out.” But things didn’t change until Nora Guthrie passed unpublished Guthrie lyrics to Billy Bragg (who fiittingly christened the first Okemah festival in 1998 with only an electric guitar and a couple of unappreciated leftist jokes) and Wilco that his hometown gave in. “Those albums were what really did it,” says Dustin Wallace, of Oklahoma City record shop Size Records, of the two Mermaid Avenue volumes Wilco and Bragg made of the lyrics. The albums created a new generation of Guthrie fans, which in turn created a new set of business opportunities for Okemah.

Woody’s New Birthday Celebration

John Hays, the vice mayor of Okemah and owner of Citizen’s State Bank, enjoys his five days at the festival as he jeers the mayor, who is dressing plates at the Brickstreet Café. Hays admits that once upon a time his father, heading the Citizen’s State Bank, was interviewed on national television and declared he wouldn’t honor a communist like Guthrie in his town. Today the festival is a practical piece of the town’s economy. Hays points out that the Homeland grocery of Okemah makes $10,000 more on the festival weekend, so he welcomes the festival with open arms.

The free festival is broken into five days of music, poetry, and historical exhibitions of Guthrie’s work and influence on pop and foreign cultures—this year a showcase of his underrated abstract paintings hangs at Okemah’s historical society. The Crystal Theatre and the Brickstreet Café serve as the daytime beat-the-heat spots for music, and at 6:45 the festival goers migrate to a large field under the water tower to catch the final five performances.

David Amram
Jazz/beat figure David Amram bangs the drum for the last night of Woody Fest. This was his 9th year at the Festival. Dig it.

David Amram, jazz artist-composer-writer, marvels that the town is “untouched by time,” not unlike Lowell, Massachusetts, hometown of Jack Kerouac, with whom Amram can be seen, raving mad on piano, in the film Pull My Daisy. In his second year appearing at the festival, Anram is an ambassador from the jazz world and the beat movement. He was drawn to the festival because he had met Guthrie in 1956, a time when the folk and jazz worlds intermingled seamlessly on the streets of Greenwich Village. Going to see Woody at his apartment in Coney Island, even if he was noticeably sick, was a must for anyone looking to continue a serious folk tradition.

Amram’s Okemah set this year was filled with improv scats indebted to his old friend Kerouac, acoustic numbers sung by his two near-twin daughters, drum work by his son Adam, and a Native American rain-dance song dedicated to the tribes who settled in Oklahoma. He hinted at returning next year with something new, an orchestral work called “Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie,” which will integrate all Irish, Hispanic, and Native American music into “This Land Is Your Land.” Amram’s symphonic ambitions will likely fare better than the decision to have Austin songwriter, Woody Fest cofounder read the last paragraph of On the Road over piano. The Oklahoma native with the honey tenor may have worn the same outfit he had on last year, but he was no Beat.

Festival Grounds

At the St. Paul’s United Methodists Church, Amram relived his Beat days by accompanying 30 Oklahoma poets on a baby-grand piano during a two-hour spoken-word session. The poems were freeform personal accounts of life in Oklahoma. One poet imagined what Woody would say about his portrait hanging in the Oklahoma State capital. After two lines of each poem, Amram improvised a fitting melody. One graduate student from Missouri went on a bender about John Wayne and Stalin exchanging nicknames. Kerouac would’ve been proud.

Before the poetry readings, across the street in the 105 degree heat, John Fullbright became the only native of Okemah to perform. “He can’t read music, but it just flows through him,” said one local volunteer. If the much discussed spirit of Woody was anywhere during the festival—and it may have been omnipresent to the exuberant performers—it was with this young performer, who with perfect Guthrie picking style and a harmonica attached to his neck went through songs by Robert Earl Keen, Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt and Don McClean. Fullbright howled like a country outlaw, singing tough songs with an anger that would’ve done the ornery activist in Guthrie proud. His originals were painful poems to a deceased grandfather and to his brother, currently doing a tour in Iraq. “No I ain’t gonna die for you,” Fullbright sang with an unwavering stare, sounding 20 years older than he was. The mostly older audience seemed to disagree with the lyrics; still they gave him a standing ovation when he finished his set.

Saturday night Joe Ely, with a lone acoustic guitar, explained why some of Guthrie’s best tracks could never be matched by anyone. “I tried looking for those songs, like they were in a well, but I couldn’t find them,” he said. Woody’s songs were his own idiom. His outlaw ballads—Ely’s favorites—rolled regional language, lore, and social issues into disarming melodies. Ely sang Woody Guthrie’s ballad to a bank robber, “Pretty Boy Floyd”: “And as through your life you travel / Yes, as through your life you roam / You won’t never see an outlaw / Drive a family from their home.”

Jimmy LaFave
Austin songsmith Jimmy LaFave has been with the Guthrie family to rebury Woody’s mother Nora in Norman,OK and he’s at his 9th Woody Guthrie inviting all for “Oklahoma Hills.”

The best moments of the Guthrie festival come in the morning hours, when Woody’s sister Mary Jo sponsors a pancake breakfast at Lou’s Rocky Road Tavern. Host Jimmy LaFave and others play pass the guitar in group sing-a-longs that echo through the small patio roofed by green leaves. LaFave, Amram, Joel Rafael, Rob McNurlin, a Burns Sister from Ithaca, New York, after each choosing a song (mostly traditional songs like “Amazing Grace” to accompany the Guthrie songs “Oklahoma Hills” and “Lonesome Road”) sang together. The breakfast closes as Mary Jo starts a circle of conjoined hands and the musicians sing about the circles uniting us in the by and by.

After five days of music here, the inescapable of myths of Oklahoma life reappear from the words of Guthrie’s songs. To listeners without books, Gutrhie was and is Oklahoma history. Also, the fact that a self-educated little guy found his way out of Oklahoma to cause trouble and raise the rabble in freight carts, around canyons, rummaging in big cities remains remarkable. “If you take a body of his songs—for instance his Dust Bowl Ballads he did for RCA—those songs are each social documents; they reflect the thinking of a lot of people who lived in Oklahoma,” says Savage. “A lot of proper people, again the elites, don’t seem to be aware that there was a depression, and if there is, they don’t care.”

During his travels Guthrie remained an Okemah man. If he hadn’t, Eddie Cochran would never have lied and told people he was from Oklahoma. Robert Zimmerman wouldn’t have lied repeatedly about his Minnesota roots. When the intellectual contingents back East yearned for the integrity of folk music, they turned to the songs of Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston Pete Seeger, Sonny Terry and Leadbelly. These were people from “real” places—like prison and poverty.

So it’s fitting that Okemah’s festival, in relation to other national megabuck festivals marred with bohemian paraphernalia, is a modest affair with basement performances and sidewalk mingling among old folks, young folks and families. And it may be like that because of the town’s attempt to whitewash the name. Or it may be like that because high-profile Guthrie fans like Bruce Springsteen, Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar have yet to catch on to the festival. (Festival loyalists say there were a few too many drunks bellowing “Copperhead Road” when Steve Earle performed in 2004).

During the festival’s five days there is so much music going on that those present in Okemah are hardly able to revel in the immensity of Woody’s influence on folk music, rock music, pop music, American music. The idea of Woody Guthrie is something you begin to ponder on the ride home to wherever it is you’re going, as the wind kicks by and trees whip about along the dark summer highway of the Oklahoma hills that Guthrie sang about. On that ride you begin to question the things you see on Oklahoma’s highways: the countless Indian casinos that mysteriously sprout up here like oil derricks, the billboards with God’s name on them, Tinker Air Force Base, in Midwest City, where the boys leave for the Middle East via its runway. As beautiful as the landscapes are and as generous as the people of the state are, you see that even Woody Guthrie would have had a tough time subverting business and politics to get the real story of today compressed in song. But he probably would have done it anyway.

Bound For Glory - Tribute to Woody Guthrie with a recording by Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen, Bono, Emmylou Harris, Little Richard and John Mellencamp

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