A version of this story appears in Friday’s The Oklahoman.
Radoslav Lorkovic follows gypsy life to Woody Guthrie Folk Festival
The Croatian-born pianist/accordion player has become a regular at WoodyFest, which continues through Sunday in the folk icon’s hometown of Okemah.
“My mom, I remember I was about 3 years old, and we were walking around in Zagreb, Yugoslavia — this was before it was Croatia — and I remember hearing, ‘Gypsies, gypsies, careful, hide the kids, hide the kids.’ They were always trying to shield me from the gypsies,” Lorkovic said with a laugh Thursday during a visit to the Okfuskee County Historical Society.
“I think here I came to America and the gypsies finally got me. … There’s something in the blood because I’m the happiest when I’m traveling.”
A mutual passion for music and movement helps explain how a Croatian-born pianist/accordion player became a regular at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, which takes place annually in the folk icon’s hometown of Okemah.
“He was the stuff. Like, you see it everywhere: “Your rock ‘n’ rollers, your country stars, your singer-songwriters, he was the first one,” Lorkovic said. “And he was just a guy with some stories and a guitar and he changed the world. He dramatically changed America … and it just keeps unfolding.”
WoodyFest continues through Sunday, which would have been Guthrie’s 101st birthday, in various locations around Okemah. The free event is marking its 16th year; Lorkovic, known to most everyone there as “Rad,” played his ninth WoodyFest this week.
“Rad’s a great player, but he also has achieved the highest level you can achieve in music, which is to make others better by what you can contribute to them, which is also the highest thing you can do as a person,” said renowned jazz musician/composer David Amram, a fellow WoodyFest regular. “He is a great musician that understands that that’s our role: to try to lift things up.”
Lorkovic, 54, was born into a family with two disparate musical traditions: Antonija, his maternal grandmother, sang him Croatian, Slovenian and Czech folk songs. His paternal grandmother, Melita Lorkovic, was an acclaimed classical pianist.
“No accordions were played in my house. My grandma was the premier pianist of Yugoslavia. It was classical music,” he said. adding his great-grandfather was influential conductor, too.
“So I came from this world as a proper pianist and I landed on the accordion … and it became the perfect instrument for me because there was so much expression there. The piano’s amazing, too, but the accordion, I think it’s one of the most versatile instruments out there.” It’s a lead instrument, it’s a wind instrument and … I pretend that I’m playing lead guitar on it.”
During Wednesday night’s festival kick-off, Jimmy LaFave’s musical and narrative show “Walking Woody’s Road,” Lorkovic accompanied most of the performers on piano but played his accordion along to his rendition of Guthrie’s “The Jolly Banker.”
“He addressed the issues of working people. Of course, there was the Dust Bowl, and that was a tremendous issue. But he was also keenly aware of the power abuses of the top financial (class). It’s almost like he predicted … what happened five years in 2008 on this enormous scale,” Lorkovic said of Guthrie’s songwriting.
From the boogie-woogie ditty “Doin’ It” and the jazzy blues ballad “Allegra” to the Americana story-song “Ridin’ on the Night Train” and the pain- and Tex-Mex flavored “Mexican Cafe,” the Chicago-based musician stuck with the keyboard but proved his own versatility during his solo set Thursday at the Brickstreet Cafe. He showcased songs from his 1990 debut album “Clear and Cold,” which he recently remastered for rerelease with the help of LaFave and his Music Road Records.
“Jimmy LaFave brought me to WoodyFest,” Lorkovic said of the Stillwater-bred, Austin,Texas-based folk musician. “He said ‘You know, I’ve written songs about this festival,’ and I just thought, ‘OK, whatever, sounds good.’ … And then I got here, and I was like ‘Oh my God, I am home.”
When he was 5 years old, Lorkovic moved with his family to London, and about a year later, they came to America. After initially relocating to St. Paul, Minn., they settled in Iowa City, Iowa, for most of his childhood.
“I started out loving rock ‘n’ roll, and then I discovered the Grateful Dead. And then I discovered the blues and then I discovered Bob Dylan. You just keep working your way backwards and then you discover the guys that influenced Bob Dylan: Woody Guthrie. And then here we are,” he said with a laugh.
“It’s a true hub and “It’s a connecting point. … It’ll start from an informal jam in a hotel room or out in the (parking) lot, and you’ll be invited to their set here at this festival. And all the sudden you’ll find yourself being flown to Europe to play a tour with this guy.” That’s the way it works.”
After hugging fellow musicians and signing CDs for fans, Lorkovic made an uncharacteristic early departure Thursday from WoodyFest. The ramblin’ player and actor-turned-folk-singer Ronny Cox (“Deliverance”) were bound for British Columbia, where Lorkovic was looking forward to playing his first Vancouver Island MusicFest.
“Rad is the best, and not only is he the best player, he’s the best guy to be with. I mean, he’s a great guy to travel with, just a great human being,” Cox said.
But it’s hard to imagine that Lorkovic’s travels won’t bring him back Woody’s way.
“It is my favorite festival … and it’s truly a magic festival. And you gotta credit it to Woody. I mean, every festival brings something and they bring their own charm. But honestly, every festival that I go to after this one is a bit of a letdown — and they might be huge, famous international festivals. And it’s like, eh, it’s not WoodyFest,” he said with a laugh.
“I think Oklahoma has a good deal to do with it, something about the people here.”
Woody Guthrie Folk Festival
When: Through Sunday.
Where: Various venues in Okemah.
What: Musical performances, children’s activities, open mike, poetry reading and fundraisers for the state chapter of the Huntington’s Disease Society of America.
Parking: Free for daytime events; $15 per car evenings at the Pastures of Plenty Stage (includes a festival program).