The 15th annual Woodyfest kicked off Wednesday night in Woody Guthrie's hometown of Okemah with a concert headlined by his son, Arlo Guthrie.
Woody Guthrie, who died of Huntington's disease in 1967, would have turned 100 on July 14. The 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie's birthday has the whole town celebrating.
It is virtually impossible to drive through Okemah without knowing that Woody Guthrie was born and raised there. His image is on the town water tower, and statues and murals featuring him and his guitar can be found all over town. He even has a street named after him. Woody Guthrie is a major part of the identity of the city of Okemah.
Although he died 45 years ago, his legacy lives on — especially through his son, Arlo.
Arlo Guthrie performed for a packed house in the Crystal Theater, which reopened in April after a year of renovations. The theater was an ideal place to kick off the 100th birthday celebration because Woody Guthrie had close ties to the theater in his childhood and played there.
Like his father, Arlo loves to talk as much as he loves music. While singing “This Land is Your Land,” he stopped abruptly in the middle of the song to talk about how the song caught on around the world. He cracked a few more jokes and about 10 minutes into his story, he resumed playing the song without skipping a beat.
Arlo treated the audience to several of his father's songs as well as a few stories about the late folk singer. His guitar playing and ability to engage the audience are two qualities he clearly got from his father.
Gretchen Peters, whose song “Independence Day” was the Country Music Association's Song of the Year in 1995, opened the show. Though she had no direct relation to Guthrie, she said she was honored to perform at Woodyfest again.
Two months before this performance, she performed at the Grand Ole Opry.
“Getting to perform on the same stage that Johnny Cash performed on and now getting to perform on the same stage that Woody Guthrie has performed on is incredible,” she said to the audience. “I feel like I've fulfilled my musical DNA or something.”
She surprised the audience at the end of her performance with the first song she ever learned: Woody Guthrie's own “Deportee.”
Wednesday night, the Crystal Theater was at capacity. The air conditioning was not working.
It would have been tempting for audience members to bow out early and sneak out the back, but everyone stayed for the entire show.
But that is what's unique about this festival. It has an ability to keep people in a room with temperatures of nearly 100 degrees and singing along, word for word, to the songs of one of folk music's biggest stars. It is a legacy that Woody Guthrie would be proud to see.
The concert was a fundraising event as well as a kickoff to the festival. It was the only ticketed event of Woodyfest, offsetting the cost of providing other free concerts over the next four days.
Woodyfest runs through Sunday and is made possible by the Woody Guthrie Coalition. For more information on the festival, visit woodyguthrie.com.