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 the Guthries, including Woody's younger sister Mary Jo Guthrie Edgmon, who is still living, to Nora Belle's long-lost gravestone. The family 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.
“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 and Nora Guthrie, was released Tuesday.
Just two months after the Woody Guthrie Center opened in Tulsa's Brady District, the staff already is planning a July 9 Pre-WoodyFest Concert Series featuring 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.
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.
Nora Guthrie was just 17 when her 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.
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 of Harold Leventhal, legendary manager to her father, Seeger, Joan Baez and more, who was getting ready to retire.
“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.