OKEMAH, Okla. — Folk music is by the folk, about the folk, and for the folk.
The Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah, Okla., embodied that on Friday (July 13). If there were any doubts, Michael Fracasso’s rendition of Woody Guthrie’s tune "1913 Massacre" about a labor issue gone awry in Calumet, Mich., washed them away.
In a clear, sweet voice, Fracasso mimicked Guthrie’s tragic lyrics: “The gun thugs they laughed at their murderous joke/While the children were smothered on the stairs by the door.”
The social politics of Guthrie’s music are what made him the folks music icon he is today and have made him somewhat of a polarizing figure both on the national and local level. Regardless of what side of that pole you fall on, his legacy of songs and generations of inspired musicians is something to be celebrated.
While the demographics of the crowd was definitely on the older side of 1960s folk music scene, there were some dedicated younger folks in the crowd as well. Abbie King of Sterling, Okla., is one such individual. In 2006, she came to WoodyFest and sat on the cornerstone to Woody’s boyhood home. It was then that she decided to learn how to play guitar. She was back there again Friday, six years later, in the same spot, with her guitar, making her offering to Woody’s legacy.
A few short blocks away on the official stage venues, a wonderful range of musicians were enjoyed by hundreds of festival-goers. Samantha Crane, a local favorite from Shawnee, Okla., played to a welcoming crowd at the Brick Street Café. With a voice reminiscent of Bjork, she wooed the crowd into a blissful afternoon. Fayetteville’s 3 Penny Acre also played to a receptive audience. Singer and actor Ronny Cox, well-known for playing one of the dueling banjos in Deliverance, took the stage at the Crystal Theatre and quipped: “I grew up in New Mexico. Actually a lot of Oklahoma blew into it.”
The Burns Sisters joined him to add a trio of angelic harmonies to his set.
The Brick Street Cafe and Crystal Theatre stages are both indoors and on the main drag of the Okemah Business District, just two blocks apart on Broadway Street. The newly renovated Crystal transported patrons back in time as they walked in to find great folk music performed in the quaint old theater. The stage is in the basement at Brick Street and is reminiscent of beatnik bars serving up folk ideology and cold beer.
Adjacent to the Crystal is the Okemah History Center. There, the sister of Woody Guthrie, Mary Jo Guthrie Edgmon, was signing copies of her book Woody’s Road and will continue from 2-4:30 p.m. Saturday (July 14). All daytime events are close in proximity to maximize listening pleasure.
The Rocky Road Tavern on Second Street, just next to the Brick Street Cafe, has an outdoor stage with a cue of people playing open mic sessions — the likes of Pete Seeger have been known to drop in on this venue. On Friday, a wide array of music could be heard coming from the stage. Festival-goers are encouraged to bring their instruments on Saturday and contribute to the fest. In addition to the scheduled stage acts, random music was breaking out on the sidewalks of Okemah. The spontaneous joy of shared music was welcomed by many.
The evening venue shifted to Pastures of Plenty on the far east side of Okemah. A much-needed rainstorm delayed the music, but a large and enthusiastic crowd enjoyed the headliner of the night, Jimmy LaFave.
Saturday’s cue of bands includes Happenstance, Ronny Elliot, Grant Peeples and Sam Baker at the Brick Street Café and Crystal Theatre Stages, with music running continuously through 6 p.m. The show will close out at Pastures of Plenty with Terri Hendrix, Ellis Paul, Melanie and Judy Collins.
The entire event is free except for a $15 parking fee at Pastures of Plenty.