A version of this story appears in Saturday’s The Oklahoman.
Stories of Woody Guthrie’s childhood shared at Okemah festival
Longtime Okemah residents, members of the Guthrie and musicians gathered Friday during WoodyFest to record their memories of the folk icon for posterity.
OKEMAH — Raymond Overall kept the rocking chair creaking steadily on the old wooden porch as he shared old stories about Woody Guthrie and his boyhood pals.
“They would go to the Jewel Theatre in Okemah … and probably see the cowboy picture with Tex Ritter or Tom Mix or somebody like that three or four times and stay on into the evening. Well, anyway, when they did leave the theater, they were needing to pee real bad. They’d been holding it quite a long time,” Overall said with a matter-of-fact amusement.
It seems Guthrie and his friend Bud Mosier made it a habit to empty their full bladders in some old tin cans in a shed behind the nearby local drug store, irritating the proprietor.
“He got ahold of a crank telephone, which puts out a pretty good jolt, and he wired it into those tins back there and was waiting on the boys. … When they started relieving themselves on the tin cans, why, he cranked up the phone and it gave ‘em quite a jolt,” Overall finished, smiling while Guthrie’s sister Mary Jo Guthrie Edgmon giggled and son Arlo Guthrie belly-laughed.
On Friday during the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, Okemah residents, Guthrie family members and musicians gathered inside the Okfuskee County History Center to casually swap stories about the late, great songwriting legend. While the storytellers spun their memories on the front porch of a mocked-up room built of wood from the London House, Guthrie’s one-time childhood home, a videographer kept his camera rolling.
“Nobody’s a prophet in their own country, you know,” Arlo Guthrie said. “Especially during the festival … it’s nice to hear stories about my dad with friends that remained friends wherever his career may have gone. It’s nice to just know, because if you’re a celebrity of any kind, a lot of people just have a distance. And it’s nice to hear that he had friends and relatives that he could return to, meet up with, catch up with, who know him for him and not for the work that he did or the trouble he got into or the other stuff that sometimes makes it hard to have a home.
“And home means family and friends and neighbors that stick with you no matter where they go.”
The 17th annual WoodyFest continues through Sunday with musical performances, children’s concerts and historical presentations in various venues in the folk icon’s hometown of Okemah. The nonprofit Woody Guthrie Coalition organizes the free festival each year around the famed minstrel’s July 14 birthday.
Woody Guthrie, who died of Huntington’s disease in 1967, would have been 102 this year — and his legacy only seems to be growing.
On Friday afternoon, Okmulgee singer-songwriter Brent Giddens crooned his ballad “Hero Down the Hall,” an emotional tribute to his late father, at the festival’s new outdoor stage at Third and Broadway. Inside the historic Crystal Theatre, once another movie house that Guthrie frequented, New Tulsa Sound standard-bearer Wink Burcham cracked up the midday crowd with his cover of Guy Clark’s “Homegrown Tomatoes” before yielding the stage to Arlo’s singer/songwriter daughter, Annie Guthrie.
“This is our first official rehearsal,” she joked. “My dad said – and Pete (Seeger) said it, too – never over-rehearse.”
Back at the history center, the stories were ad-libbed but several clearly had been told many times before. Edgmon, 91, gasped in wonder when Okfuskee County History Center President Wayland Bishop showed her a 1971 letter she wrote about the time she was kidnapped by her brother Roy.
“Y’all want to hear about my kidnapping?” Edgmon asked. “When I was 3 years old, townspeople called Papa and said ‘Mr. Guthrie, there’s a little girl down here running loose. … We think it’s your little girl.’”
It was her wandering around Main Street. Her mother, Nora, was already suffering the debilitating effects of Huntington’s disease, the neurological disorder that institutionalized and killed her – and eventually did the same to her famous son. So, Mary Jo was sent to live with her aunt in Texas, but her older brother Roy showed up and whisked her off to his home in Konawa– before his wife, Anna, even knew he had a younger sister.
“I was 3 years old, and I just don’t remember anything from Okemah – except for what Woody wrote. I never knew or remembered my mother, but because of Woody, I learned all about her,” Edgmon said.
It’s important for the community that stories of its most famous resident are preserved, while the tellers are still around to share them, Bishop said. After all, the Guthrie family on Wednesday laid to rest Anna Guthrie, who was 97.
“My dad knew Woody, too,” Bishop said. “They used to go to Colonel Martin’s beer joint … and visit with Woody when he came back to town because that’s where he always went to meet his friends. So we want to get all these stories taped so we’ll have them for history.”
Lunching across the street at Sooner Drug & Gifts, Overall, 92, said he didn’t know Woody personally growing up since he was 10 years younger than the future folk star. But the longtime Okemah resident said they had mutual friends like the late Bud Mosier, Woody’s moviegoing pal who had the shocking encounter with the drug store owner back in the day.
“Over the years, I have accumulated a few stories about Woody,” Overall said. “That same theater, the Jewel Theatre, I went down there to see those cowboy movies myself in the ‘30s.”
After playing a children’s concert Friday at the festival, Brad Piccolo of Payne County band the Red Dirt Rangers contemplated Woody’s hometown legacy while sitting with his wife and daughters at the Sooner Drug counter.
“It’s good to see Woody being accepted in his hometown, which didn’t happen for so many years. So, it’s good to see it come full circle and go from where he was like sort of the prodigal son to where now he’s the hero. I love that,” Piccolo said.
17th Annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival
When: Through Sunday.
Where: Various venues in Okemah.
What: Musical performances, children’s concerts, open mike, poetry reading and fundraisers for the state chapter of the Huntington’s Disease Society of America.
Festival admission: Free.
Parking: Free for daytime events; $20 per car (including campers) evenings at the Pastures of Plenty Stage.