OKEMAH — On Saturday, this land belongs to Woody Guthrie.
The famed folk bard would have turned 100 years old Saturday, 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.”
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,” Shay said Thursday in between bites of fried catfish at Okemah's Brick Street Cafe.
“And he was a man who was very courageous and brave to take those stands.”
For aspiring musicians, Shay said Guthrie's work speaks to the beauty in simplicity and versatility.
“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.”
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.
Now, Guthrie's family and WoodyFest have preserved the troubadour's legacy in his hometown and state.
“If you had asked me before 1998 if there would be a Woody Guthrie festival in Okemah, I would've said, ‘Not a chance.' They've done a tremendous thing. I mean, people have had guns pointed at them for advocating Woody Guthrie in Okemah. Some of the people that were really against it are in the crowd now, and that is just amazing,” Reynolds said before her band's set Thursday afternoon.
“To me, it's amazing that now that Garth Brooks is not that famous anymore, the two most famous Oklahomans are not oilmen or farmers or even football players, but philosophers.”
Singer-songwriter Jimmy LaFave, a regular WoodyFest headliner, said Guthrie has become even more renowned than fellow Oklahoma philosopher Will Rogers.
“It's interesting. He's more alive today than he's ever been, just his words and music. I think a lot of things that he preached are still valid today as far as the struggles that we all face. ... I think what he really was mostly against, what he really hated, was greed. And that's pretty much a lot of our national discussion now is greed.”
For Ann Guthrie, the singer-songwriter's 95-year-old sister-in-law, Woody isn't some mythical figure with a guitar in his hands and a song on his lips, he is a real person with strengths and flaws whose memory remains precious to her.
“We had to accept Woody as he was, the way he lived and how he traveled around like he did. With (his first wife) Mary and the children and the divorce, that was hard ... but we still loved her and the kids,” she said.
Her late brother-in-law was married three times and fathered eight children.
The songs he wrote, particularly during the Great Depression, speak to the strength and struggle of the common man, so they continue to inspire, she said. “His music that he writes, the songs, people understand the words and they know what he means and it has made such a change in our society. We've come a long way, and Woody was one of the first in this part of the country who brought about that change,” she said. “I'm overwhelmed ... that it was 100 years ago that all this has come to pass and that I lived a part of it. It's been quite a journey through these years.”
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Woody Guthrie Folk Festival