POSTED ON MARCH 7, 2012:
Low Plains Drifter, High Prairie Poet
At last, troubadour Guthrie gets prophet's praise in his own land
As one of the most important and iconic American folk musicians in the first half of the 20th century, Woody Guthrie has had an influence that courses through the veins of American culture.
Guthrie's voice, charisma and legend cut a wide swath from the New York Island to the Red Wood Forests, and into adoring media at his personal career peak in the 1940s. At that time he was a major label recording artist, published author and nationally broadcast radio personality.
As Guthrie's health declined to the point of permanent hospitalization in the '50s, his career and influence continued to grow to new levels. As a primary inspiration for the folk revival movement and major influence of the singer/songwriter movement that began in the mid '60s and early '70s, with artists like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, Guthrie continued to make an indelible impression in the hearts and on the minds of the next generation of thinkers and musicians.
Guthrie's work actually continued to gain stature up to and even beyond the time of his death in 1967. As his songs were recorded by other artists and appeared on dozens of new records, his own recordings were being reissued or released for the first time and volumes of his prolific writings were compiled and edited into books.
Guthrie's influence on U.S. culture is aural and visible. Who, as a child, didn't hear and learn the words to his most well known song, "This Land Is Your Land," in elementary school? Guthrie's songs and writings were a vehicle for awareness and social and political change.
Although he was in later years accused of being a Communist, or at least accepting of some Communist principles, it was never proven he was a card-carrier. His sympathies to the movement were apparent, however, in his work and a regular column in a Communist newspaper, People's World.
Moreover, his work had a socialist and populist bent, supporting labor unionization and reflecting his experiences as a migrant worker as his life led him from Oklahoma to Texas to California.
Over the course of his career, Guthrie's songs ranged from achingly beautiful and reflective of his view of America, to socially and politically aware. His extensive catalog even included a series of children's songs which addressed issues including friendship, family and community, as well as another series of songs reflecting Jewish culture -- as influenced by his then mother-in-law, Eliza Greenblatt, a Yiddish poet.
Although Guthrie never stayed settled in any location for an extended period of time and was prone to migrate across the country and back, he has always been identified by his Oklahoma roots. Born in Okemah on July 14, 1912, Guthrie spent his formative years in Oklahoma before moving to Pampa, TX when he was 17 to be with his father.
It was his childhood in Oklahoma, however, that indelibly and undeniably formed his career's work, not just in the imagery of songs like "Oklahoma Hills" and "Dustbowl Refugees," but in the common man approach of his lyrics throughout his career.
Now, as the centennial of Guthrie's birth approaches, Guthrie's presence and influence on American music is as strong as ever, perhaps stronger. Spearheaded by the GRAMMY Museum -- partnered with the Guthrie Family/Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc. and The Woody Guthrie Archives, Guthrie's lasting contribution to American music is being celebrated with a year-long series of concerts, programs and events, held across North America and abroad.
Appropriately, the Centennial celebration of Guthrie's life and contributions is beginning in Oklahoma -- a celebration of his roots and background as well as his music and writings. The initial event came with the opening of the Woody at 100 exhibit at Gilcrease Museum on Feb. 5. The exhibit, on display through April 29, explores Guthrie's life and lasting legacy by drawing from more than 10,000 original items that have been compiled by the Woody Guthrie archives.
Woody at 100 examines Guthrie's entire life -- from his formative years in Oklahoma and Texas, through his experiences as a Dust Bowl refugee, and emergence as a performer and social commentator, and on to his time and transformational years in New York. It further explores his brief stint as a songwriter for the Department of Interior, military service in WWII, and the latter years of his career -- including the publication of his autobiography Bound For Glory.
The exhibition, curated by Nora Guthrie and the Woody Guthrie Archives in collaboration with Bob Santelli and The GRAMMY Museum, includes an assortment of song lyrics, journals and Guthrie's own artwork. Perhaps most notable is the original draft of "This Land Is Your Land," which is on display for the first time.
The entire exhibit is sponsored by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, which purchased the entirety of the archives and Guthrie collection from the Guthrie family in late 2011 with intents to relocate them to Tulsa. A new Guthrie museum and study center is being built in the Brady Arts District for the permanent display and archiving of the collection.
As much as Guthrie's influence can be felt throughout pop culture and music in general, it is most often visible and apparent in Oklahoma's local and regional music scenes. His influence may be most recognized in artists like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Morello and Wilco; but Guthrie's fingerprints are all over the folk, country and Red Dirt music movements of Oklahoma. That influence is apparent in the storytelling and imagery of our region's artists, even extending to major label stars like Garth Brooks and Ronnie Dunn. It undeniably extends to the point that makes it hard to refute that every songwriter in the U.S. has been influenced by Guthrie to some degree, whether directly or indirectly.
Guthrie's presence and influence may be most substantial within the Red Dirt genre, where he is reflected in everything from story development and imagery, to cadence and underlying social consciousness.
When discussing Guthrie's impact and influence with Tulsa based singer/songwriter Travis Kidd, he explained that "I've played the festivals and stuff for years, but feel kind of guilty that I don't know more about him. He hasn't really been an influence of mine on a first hand basis, but it's definitely there. I feel more like I'm a third generation influence, where I'm influenced by the people that he influenced.
"I really think it's just a matter of degrees," he further explained. "I was already cruising along through rock and roll, listening to '70s California country rock and southern rock. They're kind of the second generation, because they were influenced by Bob Dylan, who was obviously directly influenced by Woody, making him the first generation.
"Red Dirt was definitely influenced by Woody," Kidd said. "It really boils down to Tom Skinner and Bob Childers. They were, without a doubt, influenced by him and it all rolls downhill from there. But the college frat boys that were listening and drinking beer didn't get it; they probably didn't even realize it. They're not the ones that are going to go listening to the archives, but they're still influenced by him and they don't even know it."
When discussing Guthrie with Tom Skinner, he said "I was introduced to Woody Guthrie by people like Bob Dylan and John Prine. I remember the first time I actually heard Woody, I thought he was copying Dylan. It was later that I realized who he was and that Dylan was copying him."
When asked how Guthrie's influence is felt most in the Red Dirt scene, Skinner said "For sure, it's in the social consciousness -- and definitely in the storytelling.
"His music was folk, but it was also rock and had a lot of other stuff in there, too," Skinner continued. "It was really about what one guy could do and tell with a guitar. Right now, I'm sitting in a hotel in Fort Worth, Texas, and you couldn't bring a rock and roll band into the room and have it work, but you could bring what Woody did with a guitar and have it be just as effective in this hotel room as in any other venue. It's about that one person connection. When I was in college, that's what Red Dirt was all about: one guy with a guitar singing and telling a story."
Perhaps John Cooper, of Red Dirt Rangers, explains Guthrie's influence most vividly and accurately. "I've always said that there are two rivers that flow into Red Dirt," he shared. "One is Bob Wills and the other is Woody Guthrie. Bob Wills brings the 'Lets party, let's dance' aspect and Woody brings the social consciousness.
"With the Rangers, we have a blending of the two. I want to dance at the revolution," Cooper laughed. "And you can."
"No one artist is more important or better than the other, but Woody is huge, partially because he's ours -- he's from Oklahoma. There's something special that I think all Oklahoma artists identify within his ties to the state.
"If anyone ever asked where he was from, Woody always answered 'Oklahoma'," Cooper said. "He was always an Oklahoman."
That's important to remember as Cooper pointed out that "You know, Woody left when he was 17 and he never came back. I think he only came back through twice before he died, but he always identified himself with Oklahoma."
When discussing Guthrie's influence on Oklahoma artists with singer/songwriter Susan Herndon, she stated "I think it's in there, in all of us, but it's not something you consciously think about. Like today, I was writing a song with someone and after we finished, I said 'Gee, that last verse almost sounds like Woody Guthrie,' but he didn't see it. It's not something you try to do or are conscious of, but if it happens, it's just naturally there."
Much in the way that Guthrie's songwriting has a distinctly Oklahoman voice, Herndon pointed out that everyone's music reflects where they are from. "I just played a showcase in Nashville tonight and played before an artist from Massachusetts and after a band on tour from Chicago and you could hear it in their music," she said.
"I found it interesting because you grow up in a region and the music you write comes from and reflects that place you come from. I don't stand back from my own music enough to know or see it, but I'm sure mine does too. You can't help it, it just comes through."
It's often that the Oklahoma identity that continually pops up in Guthrie's writing ties so many artists to him and connects their musical paths. When asking Cooper how Guthrie is most reflected in Red Dirt, he answered "It's a little of everything. Part of it is the lyrics: he wrote such beautiful lyrics, some of them are just gorgeous prose.
"There's also the social aspect, though," he continued. "Taking care of your brother and sister? That's an Okie tradition, to take care for each other. You can see it on how bands interact with each other and even within the bands -- that goes back to the Blue devils in Oklahoma City and the Wills Band. Bob was the leader, but everyone had a say and was part of it. It's really a community thing."
According to Skinner, "I don't know, maybe it's something in the geography that comes through and people identify with: The whole common man, poor and downtrodden, Dustbowl refugees thing. That's the kind of attitude that that we have here in Oklahoma. We were driven from our homes and wandered back -- well, not us, but our grandparents and people before us."
Justin Orcutt, president of Okie Tone Records said "I think it's the hardship part of his (Guthrie's) life that colored his music and is so relatable to people in this region. Even if you're in Tulsa, you know someone who identifies with that. I'm the only one of five boys that doesn't work with his hands, every one of my brothers does."
Orcutt also mirrored Skinner's identification of Guthrie as a rock artist by drawing comparisons to punk rock and folk music. "The interesting thing about punk is that if you strip away the distortion, it shares the same ethos with folk -- the social issues and political concerns. Punk really is just folk music set to distortion."
Okie Tone's flagship artists are Mike Williams and John Moreland and although they aren't directly influenced by Guthrie, Orcutt can easily point out his impact on their music. "They're both heavily folk influenced, although you may not see it at first," Orcutt said. "Mike's stuff is really stripped own and you can see and feel it in that."
Lyrically, Orcutt pointed to Guthrie's influence in the ability to tell a story and the common man, working class struggles of Guthrie's characters and parallels Moreland's song, "Good Enough" on Everything the Hard Way.
Moreover, Orcutt pointed out that "If it weren't for Oklahoma, there wouldn't be a Woody. Every great artist struggles with where they're from and what they are and in many ways, that's Woody's relationship with Oklahoma."
While Guthrie's influence is probably more apparent in older artists like Red Dirt Rangers, Greg Jacobs and Tom Skinner, his influence continues to flow through in our region's younger artists. Not only is Guthrie's ethos and working class struggle reflected in artists like Williams and Moreland, it also shines through in artists like Jesse Aycock and Bo Robberson.
Skinner specifically pointed to Robberson and Wink Burcham in particular, stating "I'm not sure if he's studied Guthrie, but they definitely came from the same place or drank the same water or something. You can see it in him and in his songs."
One of Burcham's latest songs, "Town in Oklahoma", which was just recorded for the upcoming New Tulsa Sound, Volume 2, is a direct reflection of Guthrie. With lyrics like "We lost out land in spite of our will; Skies turned black, time stood still..." -- it's a song that could have been lifted from Guthrie's own catalog, both lyrically and thematically. Instead of playing out as a mimic of Guthrie, however, the song is more a reflection of the environment and economy, addressing a subject that's just as timely now as it was in the '30s and '40s, when Guthrie was addressing many of the same issues
Similarly, Guthrie's influence can be readily seen not just on Oklahoma artists, but in more mainstream artists as well known as Tom Morello and Bruce Springsteen. Morello has been channeling Guthrie most directly with his solo work (released under the moniker The Nightwatchman) over the past five years, with songs like "Let Freedom Ring," "The Road I Must Travel" and "Union Song," even going so far to release his version of "This Is Your Land", which includes the more radical verses that are often omitted, on last year's Union Songs album.
Likewise, Guthrie is often an underlying reference in Bruce Springsteen's work, whether popping up within a live set list (as "Oklahoma Hills" prominently did with Jimmy LaFave as guest on April 28, 2005 on the Devils and Dust Tour), being mirrored in imagery as was the case on The Ghost of Tom Joad or simply addressing similar themes. The two are definitely on the same page with Springsteen's latest release as he addresses standing strong against adversity and hard times in the title track, "Wrecking Ball," and social consciousness in his latest single, singing "Where's the promise from sea to shining sea... Wherever this flag is flown, we take care of our own..."
Again, however, it's not something that's consciously planned, but more a reflection of Guthrie's lasting presence and connection to relevant issues.
That's a point that Cooper stressed when discussing Guthrie's impact on music. "What he did is just as relevant today as it was then," he said. "What he wrote and stood for is just as important today and even more so. His message is just so strong: help your brother and sister.
"When Woody grew up, Oklahoma was extremely Populist. It was a huge Socialist state back then. It's not now," Cooper laughed, "but even though our politics have changed, the values of the people haven't changed. Oklahoma is still very much about taking care of your neighbor and that was one of Woody's big messages."
Celebrating Guthrie's Oklahoma Ties
Indeed, the then populist Democratic Party exploited the Dust Bowl/Depression needs of Oklahomans to wrest state politics, and eventually lord over state government for the next 60 years. But the Oklahomans who didn't go to California never quite bought into the increasingly leftist planks that built the Demo platform. They took the union wages and benefits, but not the social agenda.
That was then. This is now. A couple generations past, Guthrie's voice -- a little more gravelly than fellow native son Will Rogers' -- is finally being recognized in his homeland.
Fittingly, the celebration of the anniversary of his 100th birthday is essentially beginning in Tulsa.
Skinner, in particular, remembers a time when Guthrie was not well spoken of in many circles anywhere in Oklahoma, often do to his political leanings. When reflecting on what has changed, Skinner said, "For lack of a better term, my parents' generation came from a different time. They had the Red Scare and the Communist/Socialist thing. Even the sentiment of 'This Land Is Your Land' is something the bankers didn't like.
"That generation has passed on and its different times and a different political climate. I don't think [this] generation is as concerned with those things and recognizes the bigger issues he was concerned with. I think that's probably the biggest difference."
Certainly, the tide has turned and Guthrie is being embraced once again by the state he originally came from. The aforementioned purchase of the Guthrie archives and their impending relocation to Tulsa is a major step in that new acceptance of Guthrie. As Cooper pointed out, it will also benefit Tulsa as people will travel nationwide to view the archives and learn more about Guthrie and his Oklahoma ties.
For years now, Guthrie has been celebrated in Okemah, his childhood hometown. The annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival is held during the week of Guthrie's birth (July 11-15, this summer) and overtakes the town for the duration. Now in its 15th year, the festival has grown to the point of drawing not only regionally and nationally recognized performers like Arlo Guthrie, Jimmy LaFave, Lloyd Maines, Sam Baker and Butch Hancock, but also visitors from across the country, making the pilgrimage to pay tribute to Guthrie in the town he originally came from.
The opening of the archival exhibit at Gilcrease Museum was only the beginning of Tulsa's Guthrie renaissance as the Centennial celebration hits full swing in the next week with a series of events, culminating in an all-star concert and celebration at Brady Theater on Saturday, March 10.
The "This Land Is Your Land -- A Woody Guthrie Centennial" concert will feature a wide cast of artists, including headliners Arlo Guthrie, Jackson Browne and John Mellencamp, along with Del McCoury Band with Tim O'Brien, Rosanne Cash, The Flaming Lips, Hanson, Jimmy LaFave and Old Crow Medicine Show with additional appearances that have not been announced. While artists like Arlo Guthrie and Mellencamp make sense, the inclusion of others like The Flaming Lips at first seem like a curiosity.
When discussing the concert and how the artists were picked with Bob Santelli of the GRAMMY Museum, who organized the show, he explained that Tulsa's is the first of a series of seven concerts that will be held across the country over the course of the year. When considering the Southwest region, organizers looked at artists from Nashville to Austin and all points in between. While some artists like Mellencamp, McCoury and Old Crow Medicine Show were a natural fit, Santelli and others continued to think outside the box.
"I've found that everyone is influenced by Woody Guthrie in one way or another, even if you don't think about it. When thinking about each of these shows we also wanted to include artists identified with the area," Santelli said.
When approached with an opportunity to take part in a show like this, almost no one has declined, and understandably so. Thus, it has opened doors for artists like The Flaming Lips and Hanson, who are more closely identified with indie rock and pop to participate and share their appreciation of Guthrie's contribution to music and our culture in general.
When asked how the concert would unfold, Santelli explained that "Each artist can do one of two things: they can either play only Woody Guthrie songs or they can play Guthrie songs with one or two of their own, in the spirit of Guthrie. The evening really is a celebration of Woody Guthrie and of Oklahoma."
As a result, no one knows exactly how the evening will go until it actually happens, but the combination of artists makes for a promising evening and will conclude with a sing along gathering of all the artists and others who make an appearance. Tickets are still available and range from $45-$250.
In addition, a conference and symposium, Different Shades of Red: Woody Guthrie and the Oklahoma Experience at 100, will be held at the University of Tulsa on Saturday afternoon, March 10. A collaborative effort between The GRAMMY Museum, Smithsonian Institute and TU, the symposium will explore Guthrie's Oklahoma roots and include three panels each with three speakers. One panel will discuss the political and cultural environment that shaped Guthrie's views, while another will discuss Guthrie's musical influences and the last will address Guthrie's legacy as it pertains to Dust Bowl and Depression-era Oklahoma.
Earlier in the week, on Thursday evening, March 8, University of Tulsa will host David Amram and the Tulsa Symphonic Orchestra at Lorton Hall in a performance of an orchestral piece Amram has composed based on Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land".
Friday night, Mar. 9, the week's celebration takes on a more local and Red Dirt flair as Cain's Ballroom hosts "The Woody Guthrie Folk Festival presents A Red Dirt Hootenanny." Red Dirt Rangers (who will also participate in the orchestral performance on Thursday) will headline the night with Stoney LaRue and a lineup that includes Randy Crouch, Monica Taylor, Terry "Buffalo" Ware and any other Red Dirt staples that may choose to show up and join in. Cooper also shared that there is a possibility and open invitation for anyone from Saturday night's show to join in as well. Friday night's Hootenanny will begin at 8pm with tickets ranging from $19-$30.
When discussing the intent of the week (and on a national level, the entire year's program) with Santelli, he explained that "We have a commitment to let young people know that music can be an agent for change. It has the power and ability to cause change. The opportunity is perfect as the centennial of Guthrie's birth comes up as he's the poster boy for that. This is a chance to introduce a new generation -- or reintroduce others -- to Guthrie's music.
"We're really trying to bring to light the importance of music as an agent for cultural and political change," Santelli explained. "A lot of the things that Guthrie wrote about are just as relevant -- or more relevant -- today than they were when he wrote them: everything from immigration to the Haves v. the Have-Nots, to civil rights and political change. We want to remind kids and let them know that music can be a weapon for change."
As the week wraps up and celebration of Woody Guthrie's music comes to its culmination next week, its isn't the close of the celebration of Guthrie's legacy. If anything, it's only the beginning as the GRAMMY Museum continues to take the campaign and message across the country throughout the year with concerts and symposiums planned in Pampa, Texas, Los Angeles, New York, Washington DC and Penn State University. Guthrie will also be at the forefront of this year's SXSW festival with panel discussions and a tribute showcase planned. Guthrie's presence continues to be felt and celebrated worldwide, with a number of festivals and tribute concerts honoring him throughout Europe as well.
As such, Tulsa shouldn't see this as merely a recognition of Woody Guthrie's birthday, but a re-awakening to his relevance and impact on us and our identity both regionally and nationally. Guthrie is already held in high regard nationally and oversees, and as the centennial of his birth arrives in July, he is finally beginning to be embraced once again by his home state as well.
If you're just rediscovering Guthrie yourself, you can find more information on him at woodyguthrie.org and more information on the year-long celebration of his life and work, as well as planned concerts and festivities at woody100.com.
URL for this story: http://www.urbantulsa.comhttp://www.urbantulsa.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A47408