As the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie’s birth draws near, tributes to the folk troubadour, political rabble-rouser and rambling man are planned as far away as Austria and Germany and as near as the Oklahoma icon’s hometown of Okemah.
Arlo Guthrie, Guthrie’s son and fellow folk singer-songwriter, again will make the pilgrimage to Okfuskee County to launch the 15th Annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival with a special benefit show Wednesday night at Okemah’s historic, newly renovated Crystal Theatre.
The free festival is planned every year around Woody Guthrie’s July 14 birthday.
The music legend, who died of Huntington’s disease on Oct. 3, 1967, at age 55, would have been a centenarian this year.
“When you have a parent, living or dead, whose 100th birthday comes around, the first thing you think of is ‘I must be getting old myself.’” Arlo Guthrie said in an email interview.
“At least, that is what I thought. As I turn 65 this year, the question ‘Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?’ has already been answered. It’s a comfort to be needed or at least fed as the years go by.” Guthrie said, referencing his contemporaries The Beatles.
“How much anyone needs Woody Guthrie has also been answered. It turns out that at 100 years since his birth in Okemah there are still hundreds of thousands (maybe more, maybe less) of people who are in some way celebrating my father’s life and work. By any measure it seems he is being remembered fondly even as the voices of his critics fade. I hope the lives of those who attempted to discredit him have not become as irrelevant as those opinions sound these days. And while it may always be true that ‘No man is a prophet in his own country,’ my father seems to have at least become more profitable.”
Woody Guthrie’s rich artistic legacy — he wrote about 3,000 songs along with essays, newspaper columns and his partially fictionalized autobiography “Bound for Glory,” and as a visual artist created many paintings and illustrations — has been celebrated throughout 2012, with even more events planned for his centennial year.
Arlo and his sister Nora Guthrie worked closely with officials at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles to plan “Woody at 100,” a series of all-star concerts, album releases, conferences and tributes of all kinds. In March, Arlo Guthrie played his father’s home state as part of a multiday centennial celebration in Tulsa, where the Woody Guthrie Archives are being relocated.
The younger Guthrie shared the stage at Tulsa’s Brady Theater with The Flaming Lips, Hanson, John Mellencamp, Jackson Browne, Del McCoury and more, with the eclectic lineup bearing witness to the elder Guthrie’s sprawling influence.
“It’s interesting to me in that my father wasn’t some great musician — he used his basic understanding of music to convey his thoughts. There’s plenty of better guitar players, or people who can hit the notes he never even attempted to sing,” Arlo Guthrie said in his email.
“What’s influencing these people is a sense that he wasn’t selling anything. At times he spoke for one group or another, but never to the point of giving up on his own sense of what was wrong or right. It’s hard even these days to find an entertainer (let alone a politician) who’s not selling you anything. He saw his truth his way and called it as he saw it.”
With Arlo Guthrie and Melanie Safka, the lineup of this year’s WoodyFest features two Woodstock legends. Judy Collins, Jimmy LaFave, Carolyn Hester, Ellis Paul, Ronny Cox, the Red Dirt Rangers, Sam Baker, Don Conoscenti, John Fullbright, The Damn Quails and Samantha Crain also will play this year’s Okemah event.
Because of all the centennial celebrations going on, Arlo Guthrie won’t get to stay in Okemah for all of WoodyFest, where he will be making his seventh appearance. Still, he volunteered to play his famed songs, including “The City of New Orleans,” “Coming Into Los Angeles,” “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” and more, at Wednesday’s festival fundraiser at the Crystal Theatre, where his father used to go to the movies.
“It’s always so much fun to perform there. ... I love that towns across America (are) trying to keep their histories alive by renovating the old places. The Crystal has been around a long time. I’m thrilled it’s being used and enjoyed,” said Arlo Guthrie, who makes his home in Massachusetts.
“I’ve been visiting family and friends in Okemah since I was a little kid. Family has always been an important part of my life and that includes our extended family, the ones we know so well they might as well be related.”
Message has meaning
Even a century after Woody Guthrie’s birth, the son believes his father spread a message that still has meaning.
“My father stood with the ones who believed that everyone counted. He says it over and over again in the songs, books, letters, essays and notes; ‘I am out to prove to you that this world is your world.’ It seems to me that when you quit judging others or try to make them conform to your way of thinking, you accept that the differences we have are not all negative,” Arlo Guthrie said.
“He was one of us, not more nor less. Sometimes a rascal, sometimes a saint — he was all the things we are — the best and the worst of us. He fought the demons everyone fights. Sometimes he won, sometimes he lost. He was able to forgive his failings and not brag too much about his successes. He came to the end of his life knowing he’d done about the best he could under the circumstances. I believe that’s about all we can ask of anyone.
“And, if you couldn’t already tell, I am so very proud to be his son.”
Photo by Bryan Terry, The Oklahoman ARCHIVES
15th Annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival
•When: Wednesday through July 15.
•Where: Various venues in Okemah.
•What: Musical performances, children’s activities, open mike, poetry readings, guitar workshop, fundraisers for the state chapter of the Huntington’s Disease Society of America and more.
•Parking: Free for daytime events; $15 per car evenings at the Pastures of Plenty Stage. Cost includes a festival program.
•Fundraising concert: Arlo Guthrie will play a solo acoustic show benefiting the festival at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the newly renovated Crystal Theatre, 401 W Broadway, Okemah. Doors will open at 6:30 p.m. Gretchen Peters will open the show. Tickets are $25 for balcony seating and $35 for general admission; gold circle seating is sold out.