Woody at 100: Woody Guthrie would have celebrated his 100th birthday today
A version of this story also appears in Saturday’s The Oklahoman.
Woody Guthrie at 100
At the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in his hometown of Okemah, musicians, fans and relatives of the Oklahoma icon reflect on the lasting legacy of the famed folk troubadour, who would have turned 100 on Saturday.
On Saturday, this land belongs to Woody Guthrie.
The famed folk bard would have turned 100 years old on Saturday (today), and in his hometown of Okemah, the free Woody Guthrie Folk Festival will include many events the Dust Bowl balladeer likely would have appreciated: poetry readings, children’s activities, a pancake breakfast hosted by his younger sister Mary Jo Guthrie Edgmon and, naturally, lots of live music.
This year, the 15th Annual WoodyFest is part of a worldwide centennial commemoration dubbed “Woody at 100,” a series of all-star concerts, album releases and tributes of all kinds.
Although he is best known for penning the anthem “This Land Is Your Land,” between his birth on July 14, 1912, and his death of Huntington’s disease on Oct. 3, 1967, at the age of 55, Guthrie wrote about 3,000 songs as well as essays, newspaper columns and novels. At WoodyFest, musicians, fans and relatives of the Oklahoma icon reflected on Guthrie’s lasting legacy as a political rabble-rouser, an insatiable rambler and a complex, colorful character.
Gene Shay, a venerable Philadelphia folk music disc jockey and co-founder of the Philadelphia Folk Festival, called him “one of my heroes” deserving of a global celebration.
“‘This Land Is Your Land’ is really a better national anthem than we really have: easier to sing and more memorable. And you pick apart the best verses that he writes, it’s really about the freedom for people to travel, to live their lives unfettered, to join unions when they want to, to get together and protest without being afraid of police beating them on the head and arresting them. And he was a man who was very courageous and brave to take those stands,” Shay said Thursday in between bites of fried catfish at Okemah’s Brick Street Cafe.
“We love him for his talent, his productivity because he did write over 3,000 poems and songs and also for his humanity because he cared about people, he cared about civil rights and civil liberties.”
For aspiring musicians, Shay said Guthrie’s work speaks to the beauty in simplicity and versatility.
“He wrote songs about everything, every conceivable subject. There’s songs like ‘Dry Bed’ — ‘Mommy, look, I woke up in a dry bed,’ it’s for a little kid who used to wet his bed’ — I mean, that’s an unusual song. … His children’s songs alone taught a zillion kids about life,” Shay said.
“He was influenced by the Carter Family and some of the great country acts of the past and because of that, he’s dealing with universals and great melodies that are so easy to learn and so accessible. Even young kids that only know one or two guitar chords can learn them so quickly and sing them and they’re easy to remember,” he added. “That’s an education right there because getting into his music is very easy.”
Singer/musician Mary Reynolds of Oklahoma City jazz/folk band Miss Brown to You said
Guthrie not only created memorable music, he also preserved old folk traditions for future generations. Along the way, he popularized the mythical image of a traveling troubadour making his way with a guitar slung on his back.
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