With apologies to Ossie Davis and his great '65 oration at Malcolm X's funeral, Woody Guthrie was Oklahoma's great, shining, troubadour prophet/prince.
The Rolling Stone, on its online site late last week:
"...The George Kaiser Family Foundation plans to announce this week that it has paid Guthrie's family $3 million for the archive and will build a study center in his name. The vast archive includes dozens of notebooks, sketchbooks and manuscripts, more than 500 artworks and over 3,000 scraps of paper on which the prolific singer wrote song lyrics... Some see the flurry of activity as belated recognition from the singer's home state. The singer, best known for writing, "This Land Is Your Land" and the autobiography "Bound for Glory", left a legacy sometimes tarnished by those who view him mainly as a Communist sympathizer. Guthrie, who died in 1967...was not enshrined in the Oklahoma Hall of Fame until 2006."
Through the then new medium of radio, Guthrie became America's first multi-cultural entertainer/provocateur. This notion, having been brought to my attention by professor Brian Hosmer, the University of Tulsa Chair of Western American History, is telling. Guthrie cut his teeth on the music of epic guitarists Lead Belly, Cisco Huston and other performers of color; listening and learning over the faint radio signals coming through early 20th century Okemah. He later associated with (in what was then a socially audacious way), an electric array of American entertainers from every conceivable place and hue. And when he became famous, he frequently entertained union folks, desperate agricultural workers and small armies of unemployed black workers as an integral part of his "practice".
We could argue that it took the Occupy Movement and our still new national conversation about American inequalities to bring Woody Guthrie back to Oklahoma's attention.
But truth be told, there has been a lot of latent interest in Guthrie and his world. In a wild wrinkle that could happen only in Oklahoma, George Kaiser is fueling the long overdue Guthrie memorial/archival space. The new "Woody" space will illuminate Guthrie's outsized contribution with a facility and a bevy of outreach, school-linked and digital offerings. Kaiser/Guthrie Project manager, Stan Doyle, told me a few days ago that GKFF's commitment to the project has been five or six years in the making.
Doyle also told me that the Kaiser folks simply wanted to recognize one of Oklahoma's favorite sons; a party on par, he said, with Will Rogers. In response to a question I asked about "blowback" from the Kaiser's entanglement with the always controversial Woody G, he said that there's been very little -- rather mostly "all upside stuff" he said. The Guthrie archival/lab facility will be, he said, about a 10,000 square-foot element in the 80,000-foot reanimation of the Mathew's building in Tulsa's Brady District.
Guthrie and Oklahoma
John Dubio, an amateur historian/musician, told me a tale that rudely spotlights Oklahoma's schizoid pact with Guthrie. Dubio and a friend were working on building him a new house near Norman; John said he wanted a stone from the foundation of Woody's house in Okemah. At the time, around '85, Oklahomans, in the main, didn't cotton to Guthrie and Woody's house was slated for tear down. John and buddy drove up to Okemah early one morning: as they approached the Guthrie house, a man drove by and offered a cup of coffee. Soon thereafter, John got around to asking the fellow if the house actually was Guthrie's place, explaining that he was a great admirer. The man quickly proclaimed that Guthrie was a "com'unionst". Dubio didn't get a second cup of coffee: but a couple of year's later Guthrie's son Arlo, the musician, donated $500,000 to Okemah. If you drive into Okemah now, Dubio say's, there is a big ol' water tower banner that says "Okemah: Home Of Woody Guthrie."
The Woody Super Conference@TU
Brian Hosmer is a key organizer of a fascinating Tulsa "Woody" conference slated for March 2012. The event will be one of four nationally scoped conferences on Guthrie's life and his enduring bond to a passel of singular political, economic and social transformations -- convulsions sparked by the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl catastrophe and Oklahoma's early embrace of a fulsome populist/rural socialism mix.
Hosmer's collaborators for the Tulsa event include TU and a galaxy of educational and cultural hot spots including the Grammy Museum, the Smithsonian Institute, Brooklyn College, University of Southern California, and Pennsylvania State University. The TU event will spark the multi-event/multi-site effort and coincides with what would have been Woody Guthrie's 100th birthday.
Brady -- An Art District on Steroids
A big slice of the excitement associated with the Guthrie Project stems from the musician's provocative and uncompromising social/political outlook, his connection to our newfound interest in inequality and America's economic tumult. Another part comes from the eclectic band of projects in Tulsa's downtown Brady Art district: all have a kinetic nexus to the Arts and Tulsa futures.
The developmental planner Richard Florida has written widely about the impact of the arts on America's hottest downtown core communities. Florida, in a recent Atlantic Magazine post highlights a 2003 piece on regional development and the arts -- a striking article by Ann Markusen and David King, a couple of University of Minnesota industrial economists:
"Artistic activities are often viewed as a discretionary element in the regional economy, rather like icing on the cake of industry, finance and business services. The economic impact of the arts has generally been gauged by totaling the amount that patron spend on performances, restaurants, parking...we show that this is an impoverished view of the arts and its role in regional economies. (Americans) treat the arts as a consequence, even a parasite, on the successful business community."
This the two economists say, is not true -- the Arts, in their view, can be pulsing, powerful independent drivers of conventional economic activity.
Tulsa's last four years includes the move of Living Arts Tulsa to the Brady District and a fab rehab space -- "Living" concentrates on performance art, dance, mixed media etc. -- and is a haven for artistic experimentation and emerging arts. The Guthrie facility, which will be housed in the Mathews Building, is also in Brady, and will contain an art studio, a laboratory/studio warren for the arts department at the University of Tulsa, a Philbrook micro-museum and artists studios. And the Tulsa Arts and Humanities Council is completing a large facility immediately down the road from the new Mathew's project called AH-HA.
Together, this art "super-shop" ensemble will accelerate an already fevered art-linked development trajectory in Brady district: all in all, the "Woody" project is a grand holiday gift for Tulsa: and one we should celebrate.
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