An abbreviated version of this feature appears in Friday’s Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman. To read my review of the “Woody Guthrie at 100! Live at the Kennedy Center CD/DVD, click here.
Nora Guthrie remembers her famous father, Woody
Although the Woody Guthrie Centennial Celebration ended last year, the legacy of the folk icon lives on with the opening of the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, this week’s release of the “Woody Guthrie at 100! Live at the Kennedy Center” CD/DVD and the upcoming Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah.
TULSA — Nora Guthrie occasionally hears from rather opinionated ghosts, and they have guided her father’s legacy back to Oklahoma.
Several years ago, Woody Guthrie’s daughter received a phone call out of the blue from a woman in Norman who had once worked as a nurse at the “Central State Hospital for the insane,” where her grandmother and namesake, Nora Belle Guthrie, spent the last few years of her life.
“She was institutionalized when Woody was about 9 years old. They thought she was just rundown and beat up and kind of had enough of hard times. It turns out she had Huntington’s disease and it was never diagnosed. No one knew what Huntington’s was in those days, so people like her were sent to the insane asylum in Norman, Oklahoma. And that was kind of the last time Woody was to see his mother; it was a very painful separation,” Nora Guthrie said, adding that her father would die of the same genetic neurological illness in 1967.
The former nurse was able to direct Guthries, including Woody’s younger sister Mary Jo Guthrie Edgmon, who is still living, to Nora Belle’s long-lost gravestone. The family, along with musician Jimmy LaFave, later gathered there for a service decades after her grandmother’s death in 1930.
“I had this very powerful experience that day that Nora, my grandmother, simply reached out her arms and said, ‘Thank you for bringing my son home to me.’ And that’s all there was to it,” Nora Guthrie recalled on an April afternoon the day before the opening of the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa.
“I realize that people’s life journeys are just these huge circle stories that we all go through. But in the end, there’s this sense of return, and you’ve changed, you’ve grown, you’ve had experiences, you’ve been here, you’ve been there, you’ve married, you’ve had kids, whatever happened to you, there’s this sense of homecoming that seems so important,” she added. “And that was the first clue I had that we should be coming to Oklahoma, and I didn’t know where, I didn’t know when, I didn’t know how.”
Woody Guthrie was born July 14, 1912, in Okemah, and in 2012, the world celebrated the centennial of his birth with a series of concerts, album and book releases, historical exhibits and more.
The celebration is continuing as Woody’s 101st birthday approaches. “Woody Guthrie at 100! Live at the Kennedy Center,” a grand concert CD/DVD featuring John Mellencamp, Jackson Browne, Donovan, Lucinda Williams, LaFave and Nora Guthrie, was released Tuesday.
Less than two months after the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa’s Brady District, the facility is already planning a Pre-WoodyFest Concert Series on July 9 that will feature several performers who will go on to play the 16th Annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival July 10-14 in the famed folk hero’s hometown of Okemah.
But Nora Guthrie hopes the center, which is the new home of the Woody Guthrie Archives, shows that her father was more than a folk singer.
A display on Woody Guthrie’s down-home national anthem, “This Land Is Your Land,” sits at the heart of slickly remodeled 12,000-square-foot red brick building in the burgeoning arts district. But exhibits of his writings, drawings and family heirlooms serve as reminders that the Okie was a poet, artist and activist as well as a Dust Bowl balladeer.
Although Nora Guthrie housed the Woody Guthrie Archives for many years in her Mount Kisko, N.Y., home, she credits her mother, Marjorie, with starting them.
“My mother was the one who saved all of his writings, his notebooks, his diaries, his lyrics, his artwork, and they were all over house on bookshelves, in desks, in kitchen drawers, just everywhere. So for me, this experience, being here, is kind of like being at home. But it’s a much nicer home than I grew up here on Mermaid Avenue on Coney Island,” Nora Guthrie told about 20 journalists gathered in the center’s theater.
After her father died, Nora said her mother’s focus turned to finding a cure for Huntington’s disease. Her mother was a dancer, not a scientist, but she still sought out medical researchers in the hope the still-undiscovered cure would one day be found.
“Not only did I grow up with my father’s side of the world — the Leadbellys and the Pete Seegers and all that — later on I grew up with all the genetic scientists of the world and the research scientists of the world. I also grew up with all the dancers … because my mother was in Martha Graham’s dance company for 15 years,” Nora said. “It was just this huge 360-degree life that we actually experienced, and I really hope that the museum and the contents of this center … all participate in this wonderful 360-degree collaboration of life.”
Nora Guthrie was just 17 when her famous father died. Like his mother, the folk icon was institutionalized in a psychiatric ward when his daughter was only 4 years old.
“We would visit him every weekend in the hospital. And it was so scary. It was like Jack Nicholson in ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ land,” she said, adding her early memories were of shame and fear of the skinny, hungry and dirty man her mother sometimes brought home, cleaned up and stuffed full of food on weekends.
She didn’t feel like she really knew her father until decades after his death. In the early 1990s, she went to work in the office Harold Leventhal, legendary manager to her father, Seeger, Joan Baez and more, who was getting ready to retire.
“For about a year, I licked envelopes and typed labels. Then, one day, Harold came in and he dropped this box on the table next to me and said, ‘You ought to look through this.’ And I said, ‘What is it?’ He said, ‘It’s your dad’s stuff.’ ‘Oh, OK, cool,’” she said.
The first thing pulled out of the box changed her perspective of her famed father forever. It was a poem titled “I Say to You Woman and Man.”
“I’ll say to you, woman, come out from your home and be the wild dancer of my breed. I’ll say to my man, come out of your walls and move in your space as free and as wild as my woman,” she began, her voice thick with emotion as she read the evocative poem from the 1992 book “Pastures of Plenty: A Self-Portrait — The Unpublished Writings of an American Folk Hero.”
“That was written in 1947, and there’s so much content in that little piece of writing that stirred me to tears, literally. Because to be honest, I hadn’t been involved in folk music at all, other than it was around the house and I could sing every chorus of every folk song in the world. But I never memorized the verses. And I felt suddenly there was a place in Woody’s world for people like me, who were running out to work behind counters, running out to dance to their offices, running out to vote, to get involved in politics, whatever,” she said.
“I suddenly realized that that was what I could work for. It wasn’t about just the legacy of keeping Dust Bowl ballads alive, things like that. You don’t have to play an instrument to love Woody’s philosophy. You don’t even have to love folk music to love Woody’s philosophy. It’s included there if you want it, but if you don’t, there’s a road to Woody’s heart that’s open and available to anyone.”
Over the years, with plenty of help, she organized the archives into a public resource where people could get to know the many facets of her famous father. She even collaborated with musicians like Billy Bragg, Wilco and The Klezmatics to create new music using her father’s previously unpublished lyrics.
In 2011, the Tulsa-based George Kaiser Family Foundation bought the comprehensive archives and began construction on the artfully high-tech center.
“Working with the archives and reading this kind of material was really the joy of my life. That’s when I really got to play with my dad,” she said.
“Everyone has to give it up at some point in life, whether you die and you give it up or something happens to you and you give it up. No one holds on to anything forever. And I knew that time was coming. And I am a slow Band-Aid girl … that’s just my style,” she added with a laugh.
“I would say a majority of people wait ‘til they’re on their deathbed to make the most important decisions of their lives. … I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to start that process early while I’m healthy and I’m happy and I can be part of it? I can add my stories to it.’”
She said the decision to build the center and move the archives Tulsa came after about 10 years of visiting the city and getting to know the Kaiser Family Foundation folks.
And she could remember the moment she knew her father would approve.
“One of the weird things that happens with Woody a lot is when he’s present … the electricity warbles. Sometimes I can feel his presence. Any of you who like the idea of ghosts and stuff like that, electricity is how they make their presence known sometimes, so lights kind of flicker, they go out, little things like that, and this happens all the time with me,” she said.
“One of the times that I came to Tulsa and I was talking to George Kaiser and some other people, we had this really lovely meeting. And I came outside and we’re standing in the parking lot and there’s a huge boom. I look around and one of the Kaiser people goes, ‘Oh, my God, there’s a huge electrical generator just blew out,’ and it was right next to their building. And I went, ‘OK, you really like it here that much?’ … It was just so loud and so booming, and I went, ‘I got it. I heard you.’”
Now that the centennial is finished and the center is open, she suspects she knows what her father would think about all the fuss over his scribbled lyrics and old carved up fiddle.
“Honestly, I think he’d get such a kick out of it. He was a very funny guy. He had a great sense of humor,” she said. “He was very, very aware that he wanted people to remember him not as a celebrity, not as even a folk singer, but as a writer.”