OKEMAH, Okla. — On Saturday (July 14) — what would have been Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday — thousands of fans made the pilgrimage to Okemah, Okla., to revel in Guthrie’s legacy and take in performances by other iconic and up-and-coming folk singer-songwriters.
The afternoon shows at the Woody Gurthrie Folks Festival (also known as WoodyFest) were well-attended and filled with fantastic music, but the finale of the show captured the hearts of the festival-goers with sets by Terri Hendrix, Ellis Paul, Melanie and Judy Collins.
If there are any “authorities” in the folk music scene, Judy Collins is one of them. Not only was her voice a crystal clear beam of energy resonating into the bone marrow of all those in attendance, but her message — the message of folk music, of social justice — rang out loud and clear.
Collins covered two quintessential Guthrie tunes that are as prescient for us today as they were then: “Pastures of Plenty” written by Guthrie in 1941 and “Deportees,” which he wrote in 1948 after a plane of migrant laborers crashed in the hills of California on their way back to Mexico.
“Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita/Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria/You won't have your names when you ride the big airplane/All they will call you will be deportees/Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?/Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?/To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil/And be called by no name except deportees?”
Collins noted that the song is really the song of America as “Migration started in 1492.” Throughout her set, she broke into wisps of song fragments of a cappella verse in blazing clarity. Suddenly, “This land is your land/this land is my land” became a column of energy radiating from the stage.
Her final two songs revealed a more contemplative theme: “In My Life” by the Beatles and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” As she sang, “Some are dead and some are living/In my life I’ve loved them all” one got the distinct impression she was reflecting back on her life, her long career and the assortment of great artists she has known.
Before playing Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” she told a story of how she was awakened by the tune one morning at 3 and went downstairs to find Dylan in the act of composing it.
“I snuck downstairs and sat quietly behind a closed door for two hours and just listened as he wrote the song,” she said. Similarly, the crowd of hundreds sat soaking in the rich lineage that Judy Collins conveyed from the stage.
Terri Hendrix, accompanied by Lloyd Maines kicked off the Saturday evening performances and covered a wide range of tunes. One of Hendrix’s contemporary contributions to folk causes was the song “Monopoly.” The song begins: Supersize my fries/bring back two apple pies/on your way out/turn on the radio/goodbye originality/say hello to conformity/in the name of change/we’re at an all time low.” It ends with “Hey FCC don’t you turn your back on me!”
Ellis Paul’s engaged the audience when he covered Roy Orbison’s “Crying” and then had them sing along to his ode to Johnny Cash, “Kick Out the Lights.” Paul was joined on stage by David Amram to perform “Chief Joseph,” Paul’s song about the Nez Perce Indian leader who strove for a non-violent solution with the United States government.
Melanie performed a solid set accompanied by her son. She covered Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd,” the last lines of which she emphasized: “Some will rob you with a six gun/some will do it with a fountain pen.” By the end of Melanie’s set, no less fewer 14 musicians from previous performances joined her on the stage and closed out with the refrain “All we are saying/is give peace a chance.” Melanie introduced her song “Hushabye” by declaring “This is a peace song, it’s not an anti-war song. You know there’s a difference.
The lyrics echoed her sentiments: “After all is said and done/Daddy’s a hero/You are a widow’s son/And after all the fighting’s done/Life will take over/No one will have won.”
The performers and audience that assembled for this festival serve as a reminder that folk music still has an active role to play in America and will continue to so long as there are social injustices to sing about.
The Okemah Historical Society and Nineteenth Century Restorations Inc. are working to secure the funds necessary to re-assemble Woody Guthrie’s boyhood home. Politics of Okemah led to its dismantling in the 1980s.
“Fortunately all the wood is still in Okemah stored in different places, and our goal is to have it reassembled by next year,” said Dan Riedemann of Nineteenth Century Restorations. According to Riedmann, Gurthrie’s son, Arlo Guthrie, has signed on to help swing a hammer in the rebuilding. He said Jimmy LaFave has agreed to play a concert at the house once completed.
The little town of Okemah is reminiscent of the “little engine that could.” WoodyFest pushed the city’s infrastructure to the limits as air conditioning units gave way and plumbing fixtures fumbled. While these things left some wondering if the festival had outgrown itself, most were simply relieved as the sweltering crowds from the afternoon venues were cooled by a mid-July breeze that washed over the Pastures of Plenty stage Saturday evening.
The final event of the 2012 Woody Guthrie Folk Festival was held Sunday morning in the Crystal Theatre. Musicians joined together in a benefit concert to raise money for the fight against Huntington’s Disease, which claimed the life of Woody Guthrie in 1967.