This post contains my complete reviews of this annual festival ...
Singer-songwriter's sincere performance a fitting opening to festival
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
OKEMAH — Most music fans my age missed the boat on
Jackson Browne. We were just coming around when "Lawyers in
Love" was being foisted on Top 40 radio (a silly song that
was not surprisingly missing from Browne's 1997 greatest
hits collection) and the tepid but memorable "Somebody's
Baby" was the coda to the quintessential teen-sex film "Fast
Times at Ridgemont High."
These were not Browne's greatest artistic achievements.
They were Jackson bollocks.
What we young'uns missed were the crucial years of
lyrical songwriting eloquence long before that early-'80s
wash-out and the equally important years of political
proselytizing that followed. As rock critic Dave Marsh has
said, Browne's career is like Bob Dylan's in reverse:
Browne was first an intensely personal songwriter and then
became interested in the politics and social causes of his
This gave Browne the advantage of employing artful and
romantic lyricism to his political songs; the loving detail
of these individual pieces helps link his artistic vision
to his political idealism. At a gritty event that simply
vibrates with Dylan's brave, wheezy influence, Browne's
tenderness, humility and grace spearheaded the third annual
Woody Guthrie Free Folk Festival with a refreshing and
apropos concert Wednesday night in Okemah's historic
"Folk music is what made me want to start playing music,"
Browne told the sold-out crowd during his show. "Woody, Pete
Seeger, Leadbelly -- these are the people who lit a fire
Of course, what else would you say on stage at a Woody
Guthrie festival? But he proved his sincerity with a
three-hour solo show (he even donated his time for this) of
his "more folkish stuff," switching between acoustic guitars
and piano to perform nearly 30 of his own carefully drawn
classic songs from the last 30 years. He sang an old
Rev. Gary Davis cocaine blues tune ("I learned this from a
Dave Van Ronk album," he said), Dylan's "Song to Woody" ("Ah, I
love that song," he said as he finished) and then Guthrie's
own classic "Deportee."
Between these, he invoked the nervousness and purpose of
every folk singer ever born: "Boy, singing these songs on
the edge of your bed is one thing. Singing them in front of
other people is, well . . . But, you know, I started
singing them not because I was a good singer but because I
The songs Browne did write, he sang beautifully. After
the show, he was mildly distraught, convinced that his
voice had been terrible that night. It was not. Thick with
its own natural peat and the mid-summer Oklahoma humidity,
his voice resonated through the hall with as much
reassuring purpose as it always has.
It's not a dynamic voice, and Browne's one weakness is
that he writes songs within his limited vocal range; he
uses the same keys and modulations so that, after a while,
the songs tend to sound the same. (The occasional
finger-picking and slide guitar Wednesday night threw a
nice country-blues change-up, though.) However, Browne's
music stands tall over the rest of his ilk -- the laid-back
southern California sensitive singer-songwriter stuff of
the '70s -- because he somehow managed to avoid the cynicism
that corrupted his peers.
While Linda Ronstadt tried to prove she was everywoman
by singing in Spanish, and the Eagles reunited to sing
acidic songs of contempt and charge $300 a ticket, Browne
quietly continued through the late '80s and '90s writing
songs with quizzical questions and wry social observations.
He's no optimist, but -- in the spirit of Guthrie -- he
operates from a live-and-let-live perspective that brings
an audience to an awareness of personal or political
foibles without humiliating the ones at fault. It's a more
graceful, humanitarian approach to empowerment through
As he illustrated Wednesday night, this approach works
on both sides of his music. The confessional songs show it
just as readily as the socially conscious ones. "Fountain of
Sorrow," he pointed out, is about an old girlfriend, and "it
turns out the song is better than she deserved." Still, he
sang its words at the piano with none of the bitterness we
might expect from the situation: "You could be laughing at
me, you've got the right / But you go on smiling so clear
A politically fierce song, "Lives in the Balance," rails
against the United States' "secret, covert wars" around the
world not by calling the president names but by
illuminating the toll exacted by these unwise policies:
"There are people under fire / There are children at the
cannons." It's the same process of focusing on the "right"
details that Woody employed. "Deportee" is a song about the
victims, not the perpetrators. Empathy is a stronger
motivator than anger.
Even though, as mentioned, early songs such as "For
Everyman" and "Late for the Sky" were unflinchingly personal,
the seeds of Browne's social conscience were evident from
his first solo hit, "Doctor, My Eyes." Despite its catchy,
pleasant Brill Building groove, the song is an early
expression of a social observer's initial squint into
life's harsh light (lyrics above).
Again, here's Browne swiveling the camera around to the
person struggling -- in this case, himself -- instead of
setting sights on those causing the struggle. It's a cry
for help, but not in the sense of whining or welfare;
Browne instead seeks validation of his own feelings of
sadness and frustration about the world's situation. In
this song, he hasn't learned yet how universal that feeling
is -- a lesson Guthrie himself learned at about the same
point in his own songwriting career.
His performance of "Doctor, My Eyes" was part of a medley
that began with that song and ended with another early
standard, "These Days." As he see-sawed the groove on the
piano, Browne began to brighten noticeably. Throughout the
bulk of his show, he had been fairly sober, concentrating
on songs he hasn't played regularly in concert and closing
his eyes in serious songwriter mode. Perhaps it was the
song's upbeat momentum or the relief of a relatively
stage-shy performer realizing that the concert was nearing
its end, but Browne started smiling. His eyes stared at a
distant point, then he would suddenly focus on the crowd
before him and smile.
By the time he launched into "The Pretender," his most
iconic hit song and the most frequently shouted request of
the evening, Browne was revived -- and leading a revival. He
liked the feel of the line "I'll get up and do it again /
Amen" so much that he did it twice with gospel fervor, the
same with "Get it up again" later in the song. He seemed so
into the flow of the tune that he didn't want to finish the
song, telescoping the ending with extended riffing and much
satisfied nodding to himself.
How many times has he played this song? Thousands? Tens
of thousands? And he's still this into it?
So when he came out for an encore and played "Take It
Easy," the Eagles' breakthrough hit he co-wrote with Glenn
Fry, it was clear exactly how much taller Browne stood than
his contemporaries. He so easily switches gears between
singing about "the blood in the ink of the headlines" and
standing on that mythical corner in Winslow, Ariz. But when
you hear him in concert, you realize that even "Take It Easy"
encourages us to "find a place to make your stand."
This undercurrent underscored how much Browne belonged
at the opening ceremony of this festival, honoring a
songwriter who could also switch gears swiftly -- one minute
decrying the fascist menace, the next minute bouncing up
and down making kiddie car noises. It was a strong
beginning to a worthwhile festival gathering more strength
and purpose every year.
Seeger sparks Guthrie Festival
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
OKEMAH — Folk music, you know, is not about showmanship.
This is its saving grace and sometimes its most
frustrating trait. It is folk music, after all -- by and for
folks -- and each of its practitioners labors to keep their
own songs and themselves as close to The People as
possible. No fancy clothes. No fancy shows. Sometimes, it
seems, not even a simple rehearsal.
This is fun and even noble when performing in a coffee
house or hootenanny. When entertaining a throng of
thousands from a 50-foot stage rig in a spacious pasture
east of Okemah, however, folk music's struggle against
separation from the masses becomes a tougher fight.
Saturday's final concert at the Woody Guthrie Free Folk
Festival here was such a brave battle -- full of glorious
triumphs and tragic defeats.
Leading the charge was folk's figurehead, Pete Seeger.
Indispensable as a living archive of American folk, Seeger
commanded the Pastures of Plenty main stage with a
childlike charm, telling the tales behind the songs and
leading the audience in sing-alongs with every one.
Seeger is the epitome of folk music's anti-showmanship.
He'd been in town for days without being mobbed by fans. He
has no entourage. He strolls confidently but slowly wearing
faded jeans and an untucked knit shirt. He walked by fans
and musicians alike in downtown Okemah, most of whom had no
idea who the old man was until someone whispered, "Hey,
that's Pete Seeger."
This is how he took the stage Saturday night -- jeans,
untucked, cap askew -- picking at a tall banjo and leading us
right away into a sing-along of "Midnight Special." Scruffy
looking, scratchy-throated and rarely keeping the beat, the
thousands clustered in the steamy Okemah Industrial Park
pasture swooned, sang and lit up the late night with an
electric storm of flashbulbs.
Over the next hour and a half, Pete got the crowd
singing not only because he prompted us with each line
before he sang it but because the utter joy radiating from
his ruddy-cheeked smile was impossible to disallow. He led
us through "Turn! Turn! Turn!" with such exuberance you'd
think he had composed the tune in a Biblical revelation
backstage that evening, not nearly 50 years ago. He sang
several of Guthrie's children's songs, such as "Why Oh Why,"
and led the crowd of all ages through the cheery tune of
wonderment. We sang along because he wasn't talking down to
us as if we were children; rather, he crackled with the
obvious thrill of sharing the song and the joy its has
brought him with one more huge crowd of people.
All of this was off the cuff, and while Seeger's undying
passion for American folk song charged him for the
situation, his compatriots on stage didn't fight the good
fight with the same conviction. On stage with Seeger and
his grandson, Tao Rodriguez, were the Guthrie clan: Arlo,
his daughter Sara Lee, his son Abe and Sara Lee's husband
Johnny Irion. As the pendulum swung back and forth between
Seeger and the Guthries, it was clear the latter suffered
most from the spontaneous nature of an unrehearsed mass
The Guthries rumbled through a rousing rendition of
Woody's "Sinking of the Reuben James," supported by Seeger.
But when the Guthries' turn came around again, there were
often lengthy deserts of no music. Arlo had a tough time
keeping his guitar in tune, and he told mildly amusing
stories while cranking his strings -- the same stories he
told at the first and second Guthrie festival here.
Sometimes he would sit helplessly and wonder aloud what
songs they could play that everyone knew. These were always
the moments when a family or two would decide to pack up
the chairs and blankets and call it a night.
Rodriguez saved the show a time or two by belting out
some Cuban songs, including an enlivening duet with his
grandfather on "Guantanamera," a hit for the Sandpipers in
1966. The show wrapped up with an all-star jangle through
"Will the Circle Be Unbroken," featuring a stage full of most
of the evening's performers.
Preceding the Seeger-Guthrie set Saturday night was
another charter performer at the festival, the Joel Rafael
Band. A quiet treasure, Rafael brought down nightfall with
his patient, comforting roots music. The band consists of
congas, acoustic guitars and viola -- a wellspring of wood
creating wholly organic and soothing sounds. In addition to
being the only performer in three days to point out the
bloated, bright full moon shining over the festival
grounds, Rafael evoked Guthrie with a most weathered and
righteous approach. He first sang "Way Down Yonder in the
Minor Key," one of the Guthrie lyrics Billy Bragg and Wilco
put to music, then he tackled a rare Guthrie tune called
"Don't Kill My Baby and My Son" about the planned lynching of
a black woman, her young son and her baby near Okemah early
in the century. During his "Talkin' Oklahoma Hills," though,
he summed up folk musicians' burgeoning perspective on
Guthrie, saying, "Will Rogers is the most famous Oklahoman
in the whole country, and Woody Guthrie is the most famous
Oklahoman in the whole wide world."
Pastures of Plenty: Oklahoma town draws wealth of talent to honor Woody Guthrie
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
OKEMAH — The July afternoon heat was hard and brutal,
even with an uninspired breeze. Triple-digit temperatures
radiated from Okemah's downtown pavement, and shoe soles
foolish enough to be tramping up and down Broadway at
highnoon stuck to the blacktop. Townspeople hibernated in
air-conditioned places of business, peering warily out
And yet . . . where was that accordion music coming
In the heart of downtown Okemah, in the little patch of
park that now boasts a crude statue of Woody Guthrie, sat
Rosemary Hatcher huffing on her squeezebox. A former music
teacher from California, now living in Payola, Hatcher was
visiting Okemah for the third annual Woody Guthrie Free
Folk Festival, a festival that took over the small town
with live music events from Wednesday to Sunday. On
Thursday, she had setup her stool and music stand in the
tiny park and was pumping softlyunder the shade of her
straw cowboy hat and four huddling pinetrees.
"I just got this Woody Guthrie songbook," Hatcher said,
clothes-pinning the pages to the music stand. "I'm playing
through a lot of songs I haven't played before. You know,
they were meant to be played on guitar. This book even
tells you where to put your capo. But I think they sound
nice with accordion, too. Do you know this one, `Oklahoma
"I just like to travel and play my music," she said,
echoing the sentiments of the majority of musicians playing
at the festival, most of whom donate their time for the
privilege of offering up their songs in Guthrie's
Feeling hot, hot, hot
Erica Wheeler started her set on the festival's Pastures
of Plenty main stage with a song called "Hot," she said "in
honor of all of you who are."
She'd been battling the 100-plus heat index all day
Thursday, refusing her 2 p.m. sound check (as all of the
day's acts did) because of the oppressive temperatures. On
stage that evening, the sun had just begun to ease off as
the Maryland songstress began strumming her pretty,
"It gets to hot / I ain't complaining / No, I am not," she
sang, and she meant it, despite her wardrobe: long sleeves
and an ankle-length skirt, all black.
The following day, bluesy singer Peter Keane voiced his
own ideas about the heat.
"Today is Woody's birthday," he said, "and that's why they
have the festival here. Makes you kind of wish he'd been
born in March or April, doesn't it?"
The protest against Woody Guthrie in his hometown has
dwindled to a feeble poster in a storefront window. It's a
blown-up copy of an anonymous newspaper column from a 1989
edition of the Oklahoma Constitution, and it's posted in
the window of Okemah's American Legion building.
The column, titled "Woody Was No Hero," lambasted the
Oklahoma Gazette, a weekly newspaper in Oklahoma City, for
honoring Guthrie through its Oklahoma Music Awards. The
actual awards were called Woodys.
"He loved the totalitarian dictatorship of Josef Stalin,"
the author proclaimed about the songwriter, on whose guitar
was scrawled the slogan "This Machine Kills Fascists," and
the column wrongly described Guthrie as "a militant
A woman in a nearby clothes shop, when asked about the
sign, discouraged investigation of the matter.
"That's not how the majority of this town feels anymore,"
A good sign
J.R. Payne knows how Okemah used to feel about Woody. He
also knows something about signs that pop up when the
festival comes around.
"This town for a long time was pretty hooky-hooky over
all that propaganda," he said, making a see-sawing so-so
motion with both hands, "though none of it amounts to a hill
Payne tends the Okfuskee County Historical Museum,
downtownnext to the Crystal Theater where several festival
performances take place. He's quick to point out a long
sign that sits atop a case of Guthrie artifacts in the
museum. The sign reads, "This Land Is Your Land."
"I had that sign made several years ago, and one morning
I noticed that it had disappeared," Payne said. "But then,
when all this Woody Guthrie hullabaloo started just last
year or so, well, suddenly that sign came back out."
Among three rooms full of regional memorabilia, the
museum shows off several Guthrie photographs, including two
classphotos (you can quickly pick out Woody's aw-shucks
smirk without the aid of the notations) and one photograph
of a girlish, near-toddler Guthrie standing outside his
family's original Okemah home.
Payne, 82, remembers Guthrie from these school days. His
first year at Okemah High School was Woody's last year
"He was living back in the trees there," Payne said,
pointing toward the east where Woody had lived alone in his
old gang clubhouse behind his family's last Okemah home. "He
was just a guy, you know. Funny. He was the joke editor for
the school paper. But he was just like anybody else."
Real roots music
In addition to the main-stage concerts each evening,
this year's festival included live music all day long at
two Okemah mainstays: the Brick Street Cafe and Lou's Rocky
Road Tavern. Several main-stage acts reappeared on these
stages -- Ellis Paul played for a while Saturday afternoon at
Lou's -- and even more new artists played here, including a
new band with an incredible legacy.
The group was called Rig, an acronym for the members'
last names -- Tao Rodriguez (Pete Seeger's grandson), Sara
Lee and Abe Guthrie (Arlo's kids), John Irion (Sara Lee's
husband) -- and they played an unadvertised show Saturday
afternoon to a packed house at the Brick Street Cafe.
Playing mostly old folk songs from their respective family
lineages, they opened with a rousing rendition of Guthrie's
"Union Maid" and closed with an equally ferocious "Rock Island
Line," both belted out with real passion by a red-faced
Seeger and Arlo Guthrie were in attendance, beaming with
Some of the most exciting performances at this year's
festival were at the late-night All-Star Jams in the
spacious basement of the Brick Street Cafe. Hosted by the
Red Dirt Rangers, the shows carried on after each night's
main-stage concert and featured the Rangers as a house band
for whichever performers happened to be in the cafe with
This is where fans could see real musicianship unfold.
For instance, Michael Fracasso took the basement stage
Thursday night and unleashed a more raucous side of
himself, shouting a series of chords to the band before
beginning the song and letting the players improvise parts
as each song plowed along.
George Barton, from Barton and Sweeney, led the band --
which that night featured Don Conoscenti, the Neal Cassady
of folkmusic, on drums -- through a visceral blues song,
singing, "You don't have to be black to feel blue / Any
color will do." Scott Aycock, host of the "Folk Salad" show on
KWGS 89.5-FM, led the band through a haunted, wailing
rendition of Dylan's "One More Cup of Coffee." Friday night,
Stillwater's Jason Bolan and the Stragglers took over the
stage for three songs and had the entire basement full of
people on its feet dancing.
The Rangers held court a while each night there, too.
Friday night they performed "Dwight Twilley's Garage Sale," a
song singer-guitarist Brad Piccolo wrote about stopping at
a garage sale run by Tulsa's own pop legend Twilley. "I wish
I could afford that guitar," Piccolo sings, "I'd take it home
and write a hit song / Say adios to the bars."
The Oregon tale
This year's Guthrie festival included a film screening
among all the music. "Roll On, Columbia: Woody Guthrie and
the Bonneville Power Administration" is a documentary about
Guthrie's 30-day job in May 1941 writing songs about the
dam projects along the Columbia River in Oregon and
Washington. The video was released in February and was
produced by Michael Majdic, an associate professor at the
University of Oregon.
The film neatly sums up this pivotal chapter in
Guthrie's career, featuring interviews with Arlo Guthrie,
Pete Seeger, Mary Guthrie Boyle (Woody's first wife), Studs
Terkel, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Nora Guthrie (Woody's
sister) and numerous BPA dam workers. It was during this
unusual assignment that Guthrie wrote some of his most
sparkling work, including "Pastures of Plenty," "Hard
Travelin' " and "The Biggest Thing a Man Has Ever Done."
The three screenings of the film this weekend in Okemah
were part of a larger program that included performances of
the songs by another Oregon professor, Bill Murlin, and
Guthrie impersonator Carl Allen.
Ellis, himself and us
Bill McCloud, McCloud is the president of the Orphanage
Society in Pryor, which puts on the festival with the Woody
Guthrie Coalition, introducd Boston singer Ellis Paul,
saying, "People said we'd never get Ellis Paul this year,
that he'd gotten too big for us. But that's not what Ellis
Paul, who's performed at all three Guthrie festivals
thus far, told the large crowd Friday night that he plans
to play the festival every year he's asked to.
Paul's song "The World Ain't Slowing Down" is featured
prominently in the latest hit film from the Farrelly
brothers starring Jim Carrey, "Me, Myself and Irene." The
only thing the new prominence has brough Paul is the
ability to retrieve stolen goods, as he said in a story
from the stage.
"I went to the premiere of the movie and the party
afterwards, and I decided not to take my cell phone inside.
I figured, it's a Hollywood party, everyone's going to have
the things, I don't want to be one of those people," he
said. "When I got out to my car that night, my phone had
Later that week, Paul was singing the National Anthem at
the baseball game between the Boston Red Sox and the New
"A friend of mine there said, `Hey, Ellis, I just talked
to the guy who stole your phone.' So I called the number
and said,`Hey, you've got my cell phone.' The guy said, `I
know. You're famous.' He'd been talking to my old girl
friends and probably doing interviews. I think he's doing
Letterman next week."
Paul played a thrilling, albeit brief, set with fellow
singer-songwriter Don Conoscenti and Joel Rafael Band
percussionist Jeff Berkeley. He included his rousing
rendition of Guthrie's "Hard Travelin'."
Shy rockers in flight
Ellis Paul has charted higher than the northeast
Oklahoma duo of Barton and Sweeney, but the Oklahomans'
music has soared much higher -- physically.
Earlier this year, NASA astronauts took Barton and
Sweeney's latest CD, "On the Timeline," with them on a space
shuttle mission. The space walkers heard Barton and Sweeney
in a bar one night, bought the disc, then called later to
ask if they could take it with them into orbit. One morning
during the mission, the astronauts were awakened with one
of the tracks.
That's a little consolation for Sweeney, who recalls
when Paul got the better of him at the 1994 Kerrville New
Folk Contest. Paul won first place; Sweeney got second.
"That's why his name's a little bigger on the festival
T-shirts there," Sweeney laughed.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
The Mystery Band has managed to live up to its name
Rumors are rabid about the band's club gig this weekend:
just who is this Doug Wylie, the Mystery Band's new
Is it really Dwight Twilley, or just some Twilley
The Mystery Band certainly has a history with Twilley.
Drummer Jerry Naifeh played drums and percussion on several
of Twilley's pivotal early records, including the 1975 hit
"I'm on Fire." Naifeh and Mystery Band guitarist Bingo Sloan
played on Twilley's latest album, "Tulsa." Longtime Twilley
guitarist, Bill Pitcock IV, was also once a member of the
The other current members are not enigmas to local music
fans: Barry Henderson, guitars and keyboards, from the
"Mazeppa" show's Bo Velvet and the Desert Snakes; and Rick
Berryman, bass, who fans might remember from the Push.
Twilley himself has performed with the Mystery Band. In
1990, the band lost two of its members — Chris Campbell and
Jim "Tank" Parmley — in an auto accident. Twilley and his
longtime songwriting partner Phil Seymour played with the
band in the interim. In fact, it was the last time the two
local icons performed together on stage before Seymour's
death from cancer in '93.
Now the Mystery Band is back in action, and this week
they're adding the shadowy Wylie. The band claims he looks
like Twilley and sounds like Twilley but that he's really
just a hot new talent they discovered in Okfuskee.
The band's new single, "Come Together," has received
airplay on KMOD this week. It's a sharp pop song, but that
voice sounds an awful lot like Twilley.
Twilley is cagey when you broach the subject.
"He apparently does all my favorite old rock 'n' roll
songs. He thinks songwriting is stupid. He's doing `Good
Golly Miss Molly' and stuff. He does it pretty well, too,
so I'm told," Twilley said.
"I hear he even tries to do his hair like mine," he said.
"I wish him luck."
Wylie himself could not be reached for comment. He's
been in seclusion with Chris Gaines.
Figure out the Dwight Twilley/Doug Wylie mystery for
yourself when the Mystery Band plays at 9:30 p.m. Friday at
The Break, 4404 S. Peoria Ave. Cover charge is $3.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
Pete Seeger is the godhead of American folk music, but
like most folks, he was bowled over when he first saw Woody
"It was a magic moment," Seeger said in a recent interview
with the Tulsa World. "Woody had hitchhiked from New York to
California for a midnight benefit concert to raise money
for the California agricultural workers, most of whom were
Okies. I was working in Washington (D.C.), and Alan Lomax
drove me up for it ... I was on the program with one song.
I got a smattering of polite applause; it's quite
embarrassing to think about now, really. Woody was the star
of the evening.
"He strolled onto that stage with his hat on the back of
his head, and he just started telling stories. He started,
‘Oklahoma's a very rich state. We got oil. You want some
oil, you go down into a hole and get you some. We got coal.
You want coal, you go down into a hole and get you some.
You want food, clothes or groceries, you just go into a
hole and stay there.' And he did that all night, singing
songs and telling jokes.
People were just charmed by his laconic control of the
situation, and I was one of them."
As a close friend of Guthrie's for the next 30-plus
years, Seeger would collect countless tales of Woody's
musical magic — all the while becoming a folk legend on his
Extraordinary common folk
Seeger's destiny ran parallel to Guthrie's throughout
the most productive years of their youth. While Guthrie
found his path to folk music in his travels among the
country's migrant workers and poor, Seeger discovered his
way at home. His father, Charles Seeger, was one of the
country's premier musicologists. Young Pete fell in love
with folk music when he and his father attended a folk
festival in 1935 in North Carolina.
But Seeger wasn't sure at first where he fit into folk
music. After dropping out of Harvard University, he spent
much of his time helping Alan Lomax at the Library of
Congress' Archive of Folk Song. There he got to know
Guthrie, another regular at the archive. The two became
fast friends, and Seeger learned everything he could from
Guthrie about music, politics and social commitment.
After the two songwriters traveled to Oklahoma together
in 1940 (see related story), Seeger went back to New York
City and formed the Almanac Singers, the precursor to his
more famous — and influential — folk group, the Weavers, in
the early '50s. With these groups, and on his own, Seeger
became a repository of American folk music. He learned the
songs and the stories behind them, from centuries-old tales
of struggle to new songs from an early '60s upstart named
Seeger is 81 now, and he doesn't perform as often as he
used to. ("I'm 70 percent there from the shoulders down and
30 percent from the shoulders up," he jokes about himself.)
Still, he's decided to come to Oklahoma for the third Woody
Guthrie Free Folk Festival simply because he can't turn
down the opportunity to honor his late friend one more time
— especially on his home turf.
"I'm glad the people in Okemah are welcoming their
friends and neighbors and fellow Oklahomans. It's actually
a very brave and noble thing to do this," Seeger said.
"Okemah, I don't think, hasn't always been so welcoming. One
of the singers at this festival is Larry Long. He's one of
Woody's musical children. He never knew Woody but through
his songs. He came and worked in the Okemah schools for a
year or so, teaching the kids all of Woody's songs. There
was a local banker there who was quite upset about that. He
felt Woody was best forgotten. He was quite outnumbered."
Seeger himself has had his moments of doubt about Woody.
When Woody would shove songs into Seeger's hands — freshly
ripped from Woody's typewriter — Seeger said he often
thought they were too silly, simple or even dumb. Over
time, however, Seeger began to see the beauty of Woody's
simplicity and innocence.
"Over the years, I just gradually realized what an
absolute genius Woody was," Seeger said. "He fought long and
hard for his beliefs, and he created instantaneously. He
rarely rewrote anything. He had the genius of simplicity.
Any damn fool can get complicated. I confess that when I
first heard ‘This Land Is Your Land,' I thought it was a
little simple. That shows how wrong people can be. That
song hit the spot with millions."
Seeger's own songs have hit the spot with millions.
Seeger's songs, though, were most often commercial hits in
the hands of other performers — "If I Had a Hammer" for Trini
Lopez and Peter, Paul and Mary or "Turn! Turn! Turn!" for the
The same was true for Guthrie. Most of the young folkies
paying tribute these days discovered Woody by way of Dylan.
Even Billy Bragg, who made the critically acclaimed "Mermaid
Avenue" albums of lost Guthrie lyrics with the band Wilco,
heard Dylan first.
Guthrie's legacy, though, did not fade, even after his
decline throughout the '60s and his death in '67. The
opening of the Woody Guthrie Archives in New York City in
1996 spurred an appropriately grassroots revival of Woody's
songs and spirit, part of which resulted in the Okemah
festival taking off from its inception three years ago.
It's a legacy that's too important to ignore, Seeger said --
it simply can't die. Long life, if not eternal life, is the
very essence of the folk tradition.
"Woody's legacy will not die, ever. I'm not just saying
that. (In the '70s) Woody's second wife Marge went to
Washington to seek money to help fight Huntington's
Disease. President Carter said to the assembled group there
one day, ‘I'm not sure if any of you realize that this man
Woody Guthrie, centuries from now, will be better known
than anyone in this room,'" Seeger said. "I think he's quite
right. Who remembers President Buchanan's name? But
everyone knows Stephen Foster."
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
It was the spring of 1940, and Woody Guthrie was
becoming a star — or as close to one as he'd ever let
In May of that year, Woody stood alone in Victor
Records' New Jersey recording studio and sang out some of
his best — and now best-known — songs: "Dust Bowl Refugee," "I
Ain't Got No Home," "Do Re Mi," "So Long, It's Been Good to
Know You" and many more. He was paid $300 for the session,
more money than he'd ever thought a man could be paid for
singing "dusty ol' songs."
Immediately after the session, Woody wrote to his
younger sister Mary Jo back in Oklahoma about his recent
good fortune in New York City. "I just bought a new
Plymouth, and it really splits the breeze," he said. Then he
added, "I'm coming to Oklahoma as soon as I get a check from
Months later, he began that journey back home, and his
traveling companion was fellow folksinger Pete Seeger. It
would be a pivotal journey for Woody's political
motivations and a crystallizing moment in his personal
According to Joe Klein's Woody Guthrie: A Life, the two
young folkies headed south and rolled through the
Appalachian Mountains "carrying on a running conversation
about music and politics."
Along the trip, they stopped briefly in Tennessee to
visit the Highlander Folk School, a training center for
labor organizers. The owners, Myles and Zilphia Horton,
were focusing on the use of music as an organizing tool.
From then on, Woody became preoccupied with writing union
songs, and later in the trip he would pen his ultimate
They traveled through Arkansas into Oklahoma, stopping
in Konawa to visit Woody's family. It was a tense reunion.
The Guthries had been split up years before after Woody's
mother Nora went to the mental hospital in Norman. After
that, Mary Jo was sent to a relative's in Pampa, Texas, and
Woody's father, Charley, moved to Oklahoma City. Woody and
his older brother were left behind in Okemah to fend for
themselves. Woody's inherent restlessness got the better of
him, and he left soon after high school.
Charley was in Konawa during this visit, but as Klein
wrote, there was "a real tension between them, and the visit
lasted only a few hours."
They pressed on to Oklahoma City, where they spent a
night with local Communist Party organizers Bob and Ina
Wood. The Woods put Guthrie and Seeger to work, singing for
the poor people in the Hooverville shantytown on the banks
of the Canadian River. It was during this stay that Woody
wrote one of his most recognizable songs, "Union Maid."
Later in his life, Woody wrote that the song was
inspired by the story of a southern Tenant Farmers' Union
organizer who was badly beaten, but in a recent interview
with the Tulsa World Seeger recalled the more direct
inspiration for the song.
"We were in the (Woods') office, and Ina said, ‘Woody,
all these union songs are about brothers this and brothers
that. How about writing songs about union women?' " Seeger
said. "Well, it was true. The (union) meeting that night
might have been broken up had it not been for the women and
children singing songs and keeping it peaceful."
"Union Maid" — with its chorus, "Oh you can't scare me, I'm
stickin' to the union" — was written that night as a parody
of an older song called "Redwing." At first, Seeger thought
Woody's song was silly, but he said its simplicity and
directness soon won him over.
"His words now are much better than the ‘Redwing' words,"
he said. "Who would think that ‘stickin' to the' would be
such a fun line to sing?"
The rest of the trip was personally difficult. Woody and
Pete continued to Pampa, where Woody had left behind his
first wife and children. That reunion also was tense.
Seeger didn't stay long, opting to continue travelling west
after a few days. Woody left soon after that, leaving his
wife the $300. He headed back through Oklahoma City and
picked up Bob Wood, taking him back to New York City for a
huge Communist Party convention at Madison Square Garden.
When the convention was done, Woody gave Wood the
Plymouth so he could get home. It was the official car of
the Oklahoma Communist Party for several years after that.
Historical notes on the Cain’s Ballroom
by Thomas Conner
Tulsa World Pop Music Critic
© Cain's Ballroom
One day, I’m going to meet Malcolm McLaren, and I’m going to buy him a pint. Maybe two.
I owe him that, at least. He sent the Sex Pistols through Tulsa back in ’78 and put T-town on the rock ‘n’ roll map. Well, not Tulsa, really, but certainly the Cain’s Ballroom.
It was a shameless publicity stunt McLaren always was brilliant at causing a fuss though by the time the Pistols pulled up in front of the Cain’s that winter, the gas had pretty much spewed out of the band’s eight-show tour. This was the Pistols’ first jaunt across America, and it would be their only one until a lame reunion tour in 1996. Instead of sending them to New York City and L.A. where they would be easily adored and scrutinized, McLaren scheduled shows throughout the Southern states parading this snarling, angry Brit punk band before crowds who would understand them the least. The reactions were volatile, the carnage was massive and Johnny Rotten spent most of Jan. 11, 1978 hiding out in Larry Shaeffer’s office at the ballroom. The night before, in Dallas, he’d destroyed a $10,000 lens belonging to a documentary camera crew, and he was a walking target.
The Sex Pistols concert at the Cain’s was tepid. “They were hot for the first three numbers, then lost it,” said local music maven Peter Nicholls immediately after the show. Tulsa Tribune critic Ellis Widner wrote in his review, “It was too loud, too dull, and the songs were too much alike to make a serious, lasting impact.” But the quality of their performance never carried high expectations, nor was it even necessarily important in the long run. In the end, it was only relevant that the soon-legendary Pistols actually played here, and since the Cain’s is the only venue from that tour that’s still in operation, people know about it. The connection is made. The details are inconsequential. The Pistols played here and that’s enough to open many musicians’ otherwise tired eyes and ears to a ‘burg in the middle of nowhere.
This tidbit of Cain’s rock ‘n’ roll history has been brought up by countless stars during interviews with the Tulsa World and Tulsa Tribune. Members of Garbage, Van Halen, the Ramones, the Blackhearts, the Plimsouls and Cake have asked something along the lines of, “Didn’t the Pistols play there?” David Byrne knew about the Sex Pistols show, as well as the fact that the Cain’s was originally, as he put it, “a cornerstone of western swing music.” David Grohl, formerly of Nirvana and now the leader of the Foo Fighters, placed his hand in the hole that Sid Vicious allegedly punched in a backstage wall, like a kid trying to measure up to his dad’s handprints. The most telling remark, though, came from Rancid guitarist-singer Lars Frederiksen: “You hear horror stories about people from Arkansas and Oklahoma, but the Sex Pistols played there, so it’s got to be OK.”
Swinging into action
This, of course, is but one extreme in the rollicking history of the Cain’s Ballroom. This is how people my age came to know the place. We’re the third or fourth generation which has rocked the Cain’s-Bah. But one thing’s for sure: the place has always rocked. Long before the word “rock” meant anything more than stone, the building that would become Cain’s Ballroom was erected in the heart of a burgeoning oil-boom city. It was 1924, and the place was built as a garage for one of the city’s founders, Tate Brady (as in Brady Street, the Brady District, the Brady Theater). By the latter half of the decade, though, the garage already had transformed into a nightspot called the Louvre Ballroom a taxi hall where two-steppers could buy a dance for a dime. Madison W. “Daddy” Cain bought the building in 1930 and christened it Cain’s Dance Academy, where dance lessons were also 10 cents. The music folks were dancing to wasn’t yet called western swing and wouldn’t be for many years. Instead, people came to hear that “hot hillbilly music” or “hot string-band music.” Many of the tunes and most of the bands came from Texas. In Fort Worth during the late ’20s, an aggregate of nimble musicians was defining the music on a daily radio show sponsored by the makers of Light Crust Flour. They were called the Light Crust Doughboys, and one of the leaders was Bob Wills.
The band’s manager, W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, was a slave-driver, insisting that the players work 40-hour weeks loading flour trucks in addition to their musical duties. Wills and the playboys didn’t like that arrangement, so they parted company and struck out on their own. That infuriated O’Daniel, and he dogged the former Doughboys every time they tried to set up shop elsewhere in Texas. Eventually, Wills, his players and a new manager, O.W. Mayo, traveled to Oklahoma, seeking a radio station out of reach of O’Daniel’s impeding influence.
The whole bunch of them drove to Tulsa with an appointment to meet the owners of 500-watt KTUL radio. But just for the heck of it, they decided to stop first at 25,000-watt KVOO radio. A skeptical station manager put them on the air at midnight, and Wills and his newly christened Texas Playboys played their first Tulsa broadcast. When letters of praise came from fans as far away as California, the station was no longer reluctant.
On Feb. 9, 1934, Wills and the Playboys played their first regular broadcast concert direct from the Cain’s Ballroom. For the next nine years, nearly all of their daily (except Sunday) shows originated from the Cain’s stage. In addition, they played dances in the evenings, including regular ones at the ballroom on Thursdays and Saturdays.
“We played six nights a week and funerals on Sundays,” recalled the late guitarist-arranger Eldon Shamblin in a 1981 interview with the Tulsa World. “I can remember doing 72 one-nighters without getting a night off.”
KVOO soon doubled its power, and its clear-channel signal reached all over the continent. The Playboys quickly became a national phenomenon, and Bob Wills was recognized as a big-time bandleader on par with Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller or Benny Goodman. The music they were creating would soon be called western swing, and Wills’ name as well as the ballroom’s would be inextricably linked to it.
In 1943, Wills left for Hollywood where he continued to play and began appearing in movies. His brother, Johnnie Lee Wills, who had formed his own band in 1940, took over the daily broadcasts and dances without missing a beat. Johnnie Lee Wills kept up the shows all the way to 1958. In fact, many people who recall seeing and dancing to Bob Wills at the Cain’s during the ’40s and ’50s actually saw Johnnie Lee.
Regardless of country music’s current wholesome image, these dances weren’t always wholesome family gatherings. Those who decry alleged violence and craziness in today’s rock ‘n’ roll shows clearly never braved a night at a Cain’s western dance. In 1947, the city prosecutor declared the ballroom a menace, saying, “We have more trouble there than any place in town.” The Tulsa World reported that “some of the city’s roughest gang fights have been staged there.” In the late ’50s, the story remained the same, and the place became such a rowdy roadhouse that not many music promoters wanted to get involved with the place.
Throughout the ’60s, the Cain’s Ballroom struggled to stay open. Mayo had purchased the ballroom from the Brady estate the same year Bob Wills left for California. Alvin Perry and his wife, the Willses’ secretary, ran the place from the ’50s on. But once the Wills brothers were gone and ’60s rock ‘n’ roll shoved the great bandleaders into the shadows the Cain’s fell out of use and favor. For many years it sat virtually empty, until Marie Meyers bought it in 1972.
Meyers was 83 years old when she acquired the Cain’s. She wanted a dance hall more than a concert venue, and she tried to revive regular dances every Saturday night. Instead of the crowds of nearly 6,000 that jammed in and around the place during the Wills heyday, Meyers dances were lucky to bring in a hundred. Times had changed.
Over the next few years, there were several squabbles over ownership. Numerous local concert promoters leased it, made some improvements, then moved on. Late in 1976 one year after Bob Wills died a scrappy concert wizard named Larry Shaeffer bought the ballroom for $60,000 the profits he had made from one Peter Frampton concert. During the next several months, he put another $40,000 into refurbishing the place, being careful not to alter or mar the original look and feel of the already historical venue. In early September 1977, he reopened the new Cain’s Ballroom with a concert by Elvin Bishop.
If the Wills-Mayo era was a triumph for country music, the Shaeffer era was and still is a triumph for rock ‘n’ roll. Five months into his Cain’s reign, the Sex Pistols were on Main Street throwing snowballs outside Shaeffer’s new office. In the months and years that followed, Shaeffer booked a veritable who’s-who of new rock talent into the Cain’s. In most cases, the acts were not yet enormously famous, and some audiences you could count on two hands saw amazing concerts by bands who months later became huge international stars the Police, Pat Benatar, Huey Lewis and the News, the Greg Khin Band, Talking Heads, INXS, Bow Wow Wow, the Blasters. Heck, Van Halen played the Cain’s for $500 before anyone knew who they were.
Ever unsure of himself, Shaeffer would, during the early ’80s, announce about once a year that he was selling the ballroom. Investors would swoop in for the buy, but the deal somehow always would fall through. Shaeffer just couldn’t let go of the place. A Bob Wills disciple himself, the Cain’s history had entrusted itself to his care. During one attempted 1982 sale, Shaeffer received what he later would call “a kick in the rear from ol’ Bob.” “The day I told my employees I was going to sell, one of the ceiling panels in my office slipped down, and out fell three fan letters addressed to Bob Wills.” The prices bandied about one offer was reported at $290,000, another at $400,000 were clear indication of the ballroom’s new stature and success as a rock venue.
Shaeffer didn’t just expand the Cain’s music capabilities, either. Throughout the ’80s, he tinkered with an array of hilarious and bizarre entertainment events in the ballroom. In 1980 he began a series of mud-wrestling events, as well as some boxing matches. At one point, there were pig races. Things evened out once rock took hold. By the 1990s, Shaeffer had partnered with another Tulsa promoter, David Souders, who helped to lure the cutting edge of modern rock the way Shaeffer had earlier attracted the newest of the New Wave. Since then, the Cain’s has borne the impact of alternative acts ranging from the industrial rock of Ministry to the lewd bombast of My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult.
All of this has been watched over by the silent portraits on every wall. Roy Rogers, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Hank Thompson, Ernest Tubb, Tex Williams, Leon Mcauliffe, Tex Ritter, Eddy Arnold, Kay Starr, Roy Acuff, and Bob Wills himself hang around the ballroom, grinning wistfully, languidly … eerily. Their presence provides a sometimes alarming and often amusing contrast to the modern rock acts of the ’90s. They kept grinning when someone threw a burning Bible on stage during Marilyn Manson’s concert at the Cain’s. They’ve kept straight faces while Mr. Lifto picked up a car battery chained to his nipples during the Jim Rose Circus Side Show at the Cain’s. They even tap their frames when beat-heavy acts like Crystal Method have rolled into the Cain’s, putting the spring-loaded dancefloor to the test.
It’s that heady mixture of old and new that makes the Cain’s such a vibrant venue. Everybody has their Cain’s story, whether it involves fiddles and a pickup or Marshall stacks and crowd-surfing. The Cain’s can handle anything. On my watch thus far, as the local pop music critic, I have learned volumes about music just because of the people this silly building attracts.
I’ve met country and rock legends. I’ve seen shows I never would have approached. I’ve sat on the Cain’s stage and talked to Billy Bragg about the social implications of traditional American music and to members of the Dandy Warhols about post-Pistols noise rock. For over 75 years, the Cain’s has offered everything to everyone, and its ghosts belong in its rafters and in the heart of every music lover who lives in or passes through Tulsa. Even if, like the Pistols, you’re just looking to cause a ruckus.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.