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.