Throughout 2012, much of the musical world has celebrated the legacy of famed Oklahoma troubadour Woody Guthrie.
Greg Johnson hasn't paid much attention to the “Woody at 100” celebration commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Okemah native's birth. After all, the proprietor of Oklahoma City's Blue Door has made it a habit to celebrate Guthrie's legacy for more than two decades.
“The modern songwriting legacy really started with him, as far as guys being able to just write whatever they want to write about. He sort of opened the door for songwriters to just be themselves,” he said.
On Sunday, Johnson will host a show he said the Guthrie family has deemed the longest-running tribute to the legendary singer-songwriter in the world. Now in its 22nd year, the Blue Door's Tribute to Woody Guthrie actually predates the venue.
In 1991, Johnson organized his first Woody Guthrie tribute in Austin, where he was involved in the singer-songwriter community.
“It was partly Okie pride living down in the heart of Texas ... and realizing what an impact Woody Guthrie's songs had,” he said.
The yearly tribute played for three years in the Texas music hub, and he moved the concert to his Blue Door in 1994, the year after he opened the Oklahoma City venue. Although the show has occasionally been played elsewhere, he has kept the tribute going for more than two decades.
Many of the singer-songwriters on the 2012 lineup bill, including the Red Dirt Rangers, Tom Skinner, Terry “Buffalo” Ware, Monica Taylor, Susan Herndon and Greg Jacobs, have played the tribute for many years. This year's show will double as a fundraiser for Texas troubadour Michael Fracasso, a regular who has been sidelined since breaking his hand in an October car accident.
In addition, Johnson is pleased to have young Oklahoma singer-songwriters like Samantha Crain, Parker Millsap and tribute newcomer Beau Jennings on this year's lineup.
“It's wonderful. It's just real important that young people honor Woody and learn the songs and pass 'em around,” Johnson said.
Although Herndon has lived in Guthrie's hometown for about four years, the Tulsa native said the icon's writings have influenced her for much longer. She has played the Blue Door show and Okemah's Woody Guthrie Folk Festival for so many years she has lost count.
“‘This Land Is Your Land' is something every kid sang in elementary school. So for me, it goes back to when I was a little kid,” she said.
“And I think it happens even without you knowing it because of his influence.”
When Guthrie's singer-songwriter son Arlo Guthrie announced back in October that his wife of 43 years, Jackie, had died of cancer, Herndon realized the closeness she felt to the Guthrie family.
“It goes beyond the blood. It really does feel like that big Woody Guthrie family, we're all a part of it, just by virtue of those great, great, great songs,” she said. “Especially since he went from Oklahoma to Texas to California to New York, it seems like he really did touch everyone and a lot of the country. He really did gather up the spirit of this land.”
For Jacobs, Woody's Dust Bowl ballads ring particularly true, and their influence can be heard clearly in the Checotah native's story-songs “Farmer's Luck” and “A Little Rain Will Do.” He lives and runs cattle on farmland his grandfather bought more than 100 years ago.
“Both of my sets of grandparents were farmers during the Great Depression, so I kind of heard those stories plus the Woody Guthrie songs,” Jacobs said, adding that the past few years of drought have made the songs particularly resonant.
“Woody was ... telling real stories about real people. He happened to live in a time that he had a lot of fruit to pick from there. And that's kind of what I do; I'm kind of just a folk singer/storyteller.”
Along with the little-known historical epic “Lindbergh,” Jacobs plans to perform Sunday the Guthrie favorite “Do Re Mi” but to slow the tempo to emphasize the sadness of the lyrics.
“Greg is taking a song that's usually played fast ... and making it a completely different interpretation of a fairly familiar Woody Guthrie song, so that's pretty cool,” Johnson said.
“That's one of the things I love about this little show, those moments like that.”