This post contains complete reviews of this annual festival ...
Singer-songwriter Steve Young performance opens Woody Guthrie Folk Fest
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
"It is raining right now all over the farmlands around, and I have never seen prettier nor heartier land" . . .
— Woody Guthrie in a letter to Moe Asch, July 8, 1945
OKEMAH — It came as no surprise Wednesday night when Steve Young darkened the skies over this small town and brought rain upon the land.
It happened just as he began playing one of his signature tunes, "Montgomery in the Rain." The song is restive and mournful, laced with memories of Young's youthful binges and nights toasting the great Hank Williams atop his Montgomery grave.
The lyrics resonated in the hearts of the crowd gathered to hear Young kick off this week's Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, the fifth annual celebration of the late Okemah native's folk legacy.
"I don't want to stay here, and I'm just rolling through your town," Young sang, his voice like pure cream shot through a fire hose -- powerful, direct and smooth. "I just came back here to remember the joy and the pain . . . go out to Hank's tombstone and cry me a thunderstorm chain."
That's when the beige stage curtain behind Young began to breathe, then flutter, than flap audibly. A backstage door had been left open, and the cold front plowing across the Okfuskee County fields was pressing its gusts into the historic Crystal Theater, the very place where Guthrie often came as a boy, where as the evening's emcee, scholar Guy Logsdon, pointed out Guthrie first heard the song "Midnight Special" in 1925.
There were flashes of lightning on the backstage brick walls, and a faint rumble of thunder underscored Young's performance.
Guthrie's Okemah tombstone is merely ceremonial. He was cremated and scattered at sea in 1967, but the thunderstorm chain cried just the same. Young looked back only once to acknowledge the commotion before someone got the door closed. He seemed pretty nonplussed. He's likely prone to these kinds of mystical accidents. He's definitely got his mojo working.
In my story about Young last week, I described his music as "darkly Southern." It's not dark as much as it is shadowy, and it's more worldly than Southern.
He played Tex-Mex tunes and Irish jigs, but the phrase worked to hint at Young's Gothic nature. His songs seem haunted, like a crumbling Georgian mansion draped in moss and memories. Songs such as the heaving, churning "Jig" seem conjured from a graveyard, ghostly reminders to live life to its fullest and that "if you want to rock the jig, you gotta play it real."
Most of Young's performances heave and churn. That voice -- better suited to evangelical preaching -- no doubt careens out of his throat with incredible strength and control, frequently pinching off a phrase like a wincing Dylan, and his guitar picking is lightning-fast. His right hand moves all over the strings of his acoustic guitar, ringing every one and filling the hall like an orchestra.
Alternately driving and delicate, I scribbled in my notebook that it reminded me of Windham Hill Records founder Will Ackerman, whose last album, oddly enough, was "Sound of Wind Driven Rain."
Largely unknown as a performer, which, after seeing him, is unfathomable, Young presented an impressive catalog of songs, songs about being "a dreamer and . . . a drifter," songs about Oklahoma ("What a good place to be born"), songs about his southern Appalacian youth.
He delivered a jaw-dropping tribute to Selena, the late Tejano singer, that swelled and hollered like a classic Slim Whitman lament ("She rode out of Corpus Christi into the old Tejano land . . . so they might understand that they had a hidden beauty"), even mentioning Judge Roy Bean, like some mythic tale off of Dylan's "John Wesley Harding."
He also presented two Guthrie songs, neither of which smacked of last-minute preparation in order to justify this particular booking. The precursor to his Selena song was a carefully considered reading of "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee)," which he restructured almost like an Elizabethan ballad.
Near the end of his set, he added "Pastures of Plenty," played high on the neck of his guitar in minor keys, singing fully and richly, like Ralph Stanley singing "O Death."
The convictions of that song have never sounded so personal, so real. Even as he worked through a considerable number of songs by other songwriters -- Tom T. Hall, Lloyd Price, John D. Loudermilk -- Young was the master, controlling and often reshaping the songs instead of merely replaying them.
And, after a day of intense, choking heat, we all appreciated the cooling rain that greeted the audiences as we emerged, charged from the performance.
However inadvertent it may have been, it was yet another annual blessing that took the edge off a festival under the sun during a typically scorching July week.
Luke Reed opened the Wednesday night benefit concert (before the intermission, during which, oddly enough, the sound man played Jenny Labow's "everything but you" album).
A native Oklahoman who's been in Tennessee a long time, Reed played original songs weighted with homesickness and pining for these "Oklahoma Hills," with which he closed his set in a jazzy, swinging rendition.
I've been away a long time, and it comes out in my songs," he said between tunes about being a "descendant of the wind" and "missing you and wide open spaces."
Reed is a songwriter, first and foremost. He writes good, solid tunes, but his voice and delivery are unsteady, wavering in a manner that no doubt matters more in Nashville than at a folk festival. He sounds like what Patrick Williams of the Farm Couple probably sounded like decades ago as a novice: not yet smooth, but smart. Funny, too, as he ended his set with a humorous song, reminding us that in spite of all the songs written about horses, spurs, saddles and guns "there wouldn't be no cowboys if it wasn't for the cows."
Guthrie Folk Festival 'matures'
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
OKEMAH — At most available opportunities, the organizers of this weekend's Woody Guthrie Folk Festival made announcements from the various stages to recognize the presence of members of the Guthrie family, from relatives of Guthrie's son Roy to the omnipresent firecracker that is Guthrie's sister, Mary Jo Edgmon.
Guthrie's family, however, is not limited to these blood relatives. If the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival has shown the world anything at all, it's that Guthrie's family those who embrace the music he created and the ideals for which he struggled is a vast, diverse crowd of folks. The festival has become an annual family reunion for "Woody's children," the folk singers and fans who relish the old songs and their renewing spirit. This year, the festival's fifth, they came from all corners of the globe six countries and countless musical genres to pay homage and have a major hootenanny.
How do I know it's a family gathering? Because this year everyone seemed to bring their girlfriends. Performers Ellis Paul, Don Conoscenti and Slaid Cleaves brought along wives and significant others for the first time. A few of the crewmen had girls in tow. Some organizers joked that if the spouses were consenting to Okemah in July, that spoke well for the careers of the performers, the stamina of the festival, or both.
But the most significant indications of the festival's family atmosphere are in watching the "children" grow up and in the consistent helping hands and support the artists give one another.
First, this year's festival featured few new acts — at least, none of the headliners were new names to the festival roster. Most have been here throughout the festival's history, and eight of this year's performers were honored with plaques for having participated at all five festivals (Conoscenti, Paul, Bob Childers, Tom Skinner, Joel Rafael, the Red Dirt Rangers, Peter Keane and Jimmy LaFave).
But the lack of new blood did not slow festival attendance as some, including myself, expected it might. In fact, the most interesting new act, Steve Young, drew a paltry crowd for the Wednesday night benefit concert in the Crystal Theater.
No, the clans still came to the festival grounds Thursday night's being the biggest draw yet and, more intriguingly, we got something more from the routine performances. The kids have grown up. The performers we've watched at this festival for up to five years have matured, gained confidence, come into their own.
For instance, Boston's Ellis Paul took the main festival stage Thursday night with, I dare say, a swagger. A kind, gentle, sweet-voiced poet, Paul has been a fairy of the festival for years, fluttering in with tunes spun of tulle and tales of intricate and tortuous(CQ) romance.. This year, with his lengthening hair, he donned a gnarly cowboy hat ("I want to be a Red Dirt Ranger, you see") and strutted onstage with never-before-seen power and assurance. He plowed right into a hard blues wailer, "Rattle My Cage," full of the strength we'd seen in him before but now apparently confident in it, flaunting it a bit, proud. He has come a ways, too. Five years ago, at the first festival, he was a wide-eyed dreamy songwriter still getting his road legs. Today, his songs score Gwenyth Paltrow movies, and Nora Guthrie, Woody's daughter, seeks him out to add new music to old Guthrie lyrics.
He played that song Thursday night, too his Guthrie collaboration, "God's Promise," an intricate musing on the double-edged facts of life that Guthrie wrote from his hospital bed in 1955. "It's the coolest thing I've ever done as a human being," Paul said of the posthumous collaboration. "Anyone who knows me knows that this was like me writing a song with Jesus."
Another branch of the family that's grown by leaps and bounds is the Oklahoma- bred Red Dirt Rangers, who rocked and rolled Friday night on the main stage harder than I've ever seen them. Of course, it may have just looked that way the festival crew used the Rangers' set as the opportunity to test drive a new fog machine, so much of their set looked like a Spinal Tap concert but the extended jam with a fret-wanking guitar solo in the title track to the band's new album, "Starin' Down the Sun," was no hallucination.
The bulk of their set concentrated the bulk of their set on Guthrie material, from their song "Steel Rail Blues" ("What would Woody Guthrie say if he were in my shoes?") and the Guthrie-esque "Leave This World a Better Place" to covers of " Cadillac Eight" (a moody number that really broke in the fog machine), the kickin' "Rangers Command" and "California Stars." When they closed with Jimmy LaFave's "Red Dirt Roads at Night," guitarist Ben Han was practically doing Pete Townshend windmills. R-a-w-k, rock.
LaFave joined the Rangers for that song, and therein lies the real other thrill of this festival's familial spirit: the family is pretty incestuous. Most of the artists respect, admire and maybe even adore each other. As a result, they take advantage of these rare opportunities to play together, to jam, to back each other up.
To wit: Don White joined Tom Skinner during his set. Later, Irene Kelly, an old acquaintance of White's from Nashville, asked him to join her during her Thursday night set. ("I guess I'd better go listen to her CD," he chuckled that afternoon.) Darcie Deaville brought the incomparable Mary Reynolds up to help her through Guthrie's "Union Maid," then added Conoscenti (who had just stepped out of his car arriving in Okemah) and Terry "Buffalo" Ware for a swingin' rendition of Guthrie's "New York Town." Conoscenti joined Paul, his old friend, during his set, as did Joel Rafael Band percussionist Jeff Berkley. Berkley and Ware, in fact, played with just about everyone.
Fayetteville bassist Melissa Kirper backed the Farm Couple, knocking out the Brick Street Cafe´ crowd by singing an "O Brother" staple, "I'll Fly Away" and sounding exactly like Gillian Welch. Bob Childers was backed by Skinner, Brandon Jenkins, and two DoubleNotSpyz members, John Williams and David Cooper. Amanda Cunningham joined him for harmony. The Rangers included fiddler Randy Crouch in their lineup and allowed Childers to come up and sing, once more, his classic song about Guthrie, "Woody's Road." The Rangers then joined Kevin Welch for an unrehearsed barreling through the bad-to-the-bone "Kickin' Back in Amsterdam." David R joined George and Linda Barton during their cafe´ set.
Fierce fiddler Wes Gassaway played the whole Wednesday night set with native Okie Luke Reed. Plus, in order to fill the main-stage slot left vacant by Abe Guthrie's band Xavier (an ill guitarist kept them from attending), festival organizer Mike Nave encouraged and helped to assemble the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival All-Star Band, a sprawling and unrehearsed-but-still-tight conglomerate that included Ware, Gassaway, Skinner, Reynolds, Deaville, Conoscenti, Don Morris, Greg Jacobs, Phil Lancaster (from the defunct Still on the Hill), T.Z. Wright. The band cycled through songs by Skinner, Reynolds and Jacobs, including Skinner leading the crowd through Arlo Guthrie's "Last Train to Glory," a rousing ballad about the railway to heaven that perfects Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready." The group had no rehearsal ("We wouldn't dream of it," Ware later joked) and still thrilled the crowd. That's a folk festival for you, and this one is indeed for all of us.
Around, about the festivities
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
OKEMAH — Some sights and sounds from a week of concerts, panel discussions and camaraderie at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival:
Interesting acts: Roger Tillison, an old cohort of J.J. Cale (he wrote "One Step Ahead of the Blues" for him) and Leon Russell, showed up Thursday at the Brick Street Cafe´ for a temperate run through some good old songs. Effron White, from Fayetteville, sounds exactly like the singer for the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and he wrapped his Brick Street set with the festival's most rousing reading of Guthrie's "Hard Travelin'" rousing because that gravelly voice sounded like it had actually done a lot of hard travelling. The best songwriter at the festival, though, surely must be Slaid Cleaves, whose economy with words creates gut-kicking images and butt-kicking songs. In "Broke Down," his latest Americana hit, he tells of a ruined suitor who tries to pawn the ring he bought for a girl; the next line skips a lot of narrative but lets us know exactly how the deal and his emotions turned out: "Somewhere at the bottom of Lake Ponchatrain there's a love note carved inside a wedding ring." Genius, even without his excellent yodeling.
The mother of all festivals: Mary Jo Edgmon, Guthrie's sister, is always in high demand at the festival. Appearing at panel sessions, pancake breakfasts and book signings throughout the week in Okemah, she brightens the event with her boundless energy and infectious cheer. At a local eatery one night, she stopped at my table to say hello. She was due at her tent near the festival stage 10 minutes earlier. But then a fan stopped her to relay her admiration, and a friend called her over to meet another couple. She made the rounds of the restaurant, leaving half an hour later after another family member, exasperated, cried, "She ain't left yet?"
Like an angel: I've printed it before, I'll print it again Mary Reynolds has the most beautiful voice in the world. A fixture on many stages, her pipes ring like the bells of heaven, from a jaunty run through "Union Maid" with Darcie Deaville to stopping the main-stage show Thursday night as part of the all-star band singing "I Can't Help Falling in Love With You" as a lullaby. Jimmy LaFave even got her onstage to sing "Hobo's Lullaby," her performance of which might as well be the festival's anthem. Sandpaper-throated Bob Childers joked backstage: "She reminds of me of myself before I started smoking."
Doctor's orders: Boston-based Vance Gilbert once again proved to be the funniest and most empowering act at the festival, in no small part because of the a cappella gospel prayer with which he closes his show.
Gilbert steps into the audience and shouts out this old-time holler without a microphone. He wasn't supposed to do that this year, though, under orders from physicians trying to heal his stressed vocal chords. "I'm not going to do it anywhere else, but if they think I'm not going to give my best show at this festival, well, uh-uh, no sir," he said later.
He gets around: One festivalgoer came all the way from Scotland for the event and wore his traditional garb, including kilt, the whole time. But if you really want an idea for the transcendent nature of Guthie's songs, ask performer Bill Chambers from Australia. "I've heard aborigines singing 'This Land Is Your Land' in the heart of the bush," he said.
The late show: Scheduled after-hours shows this year lacked a lot to be desired including attendance. Chicago's Cedarcase proved competent, at best, and Beaver Nelson from Austin, Texas, barely justified the buzz that's followed the band. The best Brick Street set, though, came from Tulsa's own marshallcity, which rocked the basement despite operating under a stern "no Led Zeppelin covers" order. One of their alt-country songs, though, still slipped in a few barks of "It's been a long time since I rock 'n' rolled."
A little ingenuity: Ohio-native, Texas-based singer-songwriter Michael Fracasso is a lone gunman. He holds the stage by himself with just his guitar and .,. where's that bass drum coming from? Ah, it's only Fracasso's foot. He taps a bass drum microphone with his boot for rhythmic support. Similarly, the Farm Couple added a trumpet solo to their closing number, "Ain't Misbehavin'." There's no trumpeter in the duo, but singer-guitarist Patrick Williams huffs out a mean impression of one through his moustache.
Someone didn't get the memo: Arlo Guthrie could not make this year's festival; he's touring with Judy Collins. However, the marquee outside the Okemah Mazzio's still read, "Welcome to Okemah, Arlo."
Documentary in works: An OETA crew was at the festival this year filming interviews to add to an upcoming extended feature on Woody Guthrie on the network's quarterly "Gallery" program. The piece is scheduled for the September episode.
Living history: Joel Rafael's new CD of Guthrie covers, "Woodeye" (officially released this week but available for the first time at the festival), includes the haunting ballad "Don't Kill My Baby and My Son." Guthrie wrote the song about a mob lynching of a black family near Okemah in 1911. Again this year, he and his wife drove some of the backroads in Okfuskee County looking for the site of that horrific vigilante crime. My companion and I did the same, discovering photos of the lynching on display at a small "Old West" museum just west of Okemah off the interstate. The museum also has newspaper clippings about "Pretty Boy" Floyd, the subject of Guthrie's famous eponymous song (one of the clippings attributes two bank robberies on the same afternoon one in Texarkana, one in Kansas City to the famed outlaw, expanding Guthrie's claim that "every crime in Oklahoma was added to his name"), as well as a copy of the McIntosh County Democrat from 1964 reporting on the progress of the Eufaula Dam. Festival regular Greg Jacobs sings a phenomenal song about that dam and the creation of Eufaula Lake, which submerged his family's farm.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
If you don't recognize the name Steve Young, he's got an impressive list of references.
"Steve Young is the second-greatest country music singer behind George Jones. He has no idea how great he is," said Waylon Jennings.
"Steve is in a league with Dylan and Hank Williams, and he sings like an angel." That's from Lucinda Williams.
"For that voice, that guitar and those songs to come together in one person is a wonder," mused the late Townes Van Zandt.
Gram Parsons played on his first album, "Rock, Salt and Nails" on A&M in 1969. Van Dyke Parks plays on his latest, "Primal Young" on Appleseed in 1999.
Young's song "Lonesome, Orn'ry and Mean" became Waylon's signature tune. Hank Williams Jr. covered Young's "Montgomery in the Rain." And, boy, everybody's covered "Seven Bridges Road" -- from Dolly Parton to the Eagles.
But Young -- take a minute to sweep up all those dropped names -- is one of those musician's musicians, a songwriter's songwriter. They know him well even though you might not.
Darkly Southern and musically restive, Young is a visceral poet of the backwaters -- or, as he likes to consider himself, a wandering troubadour in the old tradition. He lives part of the year in the Barrio in Los Angeles, the other part in glitzy Nashville, and he spends every possible moment on the road. His travels fortify his songs with lyrical and musical colloquialisms that makes listeners cock an ear and say, "Hey, that's my turf in that song."
That's what makes him one of the last great folk singers.
We caught up with him this week in Nashville to chat about wanderlust, Greenwich Village and the odd opportunity to play the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival.
You're too good a country singer to be in Nashville. What are you doing there?
It's not my favorite city, but I got rooted here years ago. My son's here. But yeah, I'm too diverse to be in Nashville. That's the problem. I don't consider myself a country singer, either. I'm more in the ancient tradition of the troubadour. I do folk, country and blues with a touch of rock. That pretty much makes it modern-day folk music. I'm fascinated by folk music. For instance, it's fascinating to me that the song "Streets of Laredo" originated in Ireland.
An Irish balladeer pining for the lone pray-ree?
It's originally about a sailor dying of venereal disease. But the same melody and sentiment evolved into a song about a cowboy dying in Laredo. That's folk music -- when it moves like that.
You must be a folk singer then, because you seem to be constantly on the move. Is a restless soul a necessity to be a folk singer?
It's the blessing and the curse, yes. Years ago, I tried to write in Nashville, tried to co-write and see if I could do it. One of these guys asked me one day -- and this just astounded me -- he said, "What's it like to be on the road and travel?" I assumed musicians and writers knew all about that. This guy just stayed in Nashville and wrote. He wasn't a troubadour, he was one of those Nashville craftsmen.
I can't stay put like that. What would I write about? The folk music process involves travel. It involves seeing different things, exchanging ideas, exchanging stories. I have fantasies of settling down and all that, but at this age I realize that's not gonna happen.
How old are you?
I'll be 60 on July 12.
Is your mix of styles endemic to that wandering, or does that spring from growing up in the South?
It's largely a product of growing up in the South. I grew up in the foothills of the Appalachians. The music of the mountains and its Celtic influence fascinated me. I was lucky to hear street singers in Gadsden (Ala.). There was music in church, too, from guitars to some pretty wild gospel. I heard all of that, plus the pop of the day, the standards. I even encountered flamenco guitarist Carlos Montoya when I was a teen, and I was blown away by that. I was open to music period, and I stayed open.
On "Primal Young," you seem to be quite open to folk music from Scotland. What inspired that exploration?
Well, there's that Scottish influence underneath all that music in Appalachia, but in high school, in a literature class, I completely fell in love with the writing of Robert Burns. He collected folk songs, you know. In fact, that's a lot of what he did. I studied that stuff for hours, reading the footnotes, trying the dialect, trying to understand completely what he was saying.
So what brings you to the Woody Guthrie festival?
I've always admired Woody Guthrie. When I was a teenager and starting to play guitar and absorbing music around me, I encountered Sing Out! magazine. I learned all about the New England hierarchy of folk singers, Pete Seeger and all that, and through them I encountered Woody Guthrie. I identified with him and what he had to say. I had grown up with similar people who were very poor and rural, down-to-earth people. My father was part Cherokee, and he was a sharecropper when he was 13 years old. The fact that Woody was willing to speak out against the wealthy powers that be and tell the truth about these kinds of people was very inspiring.
It was unusual. The country people I liked were great musicians, but they didn't have the same attitude. Indirectly they represented these poor as whatever, the common man, but they weren't saying it like Woody was saying it. They didn't want to get too deep into the dark truth of things.
Do you find it as easy as Woody to probe those deep, dark truths?
I live there. It's difficult to get me out of the deep, dark truth. It's healing to me, but I guess the masses see it as depressing.
Did you run into Seeger or any of those Sing Out! folkies when you hit Greenwich Village in the early '60s?
I ran into Phil Ochs, saw Dylan from a distance. I'd never been outside of the South when I moved to New York. New York completely blew my mind. I'd never heard people talk to each other that way unless they wanted to kill each other. It took some time to adjust. I did some auditions, and they said, "Yeah, we'll give you a job, but we're booked for three months." I couldn't wait three months for a job. I was using an apartment loaned to me by Dick Weissman of the Journeymen, so I was there long enough to absorb some things. Then I went back home to digest it all, but the South was harder to live with after New York. The South was never tasteful to me again.
But you mined it for so many great songs. The "Seven Bridges Road" is a real road, right?
It's an old road in the countryside outside of Montgomery. It turns into a dirt road and crosses seven bridges. It became this enchanted place, with moss hanging from ancient oak trees -- a beautiful setting, like something out of Disney. I thought my friends had made up the name, but it's actually the folk name for this road; it's not official. People have just been calling it Seven Bridges Road for over a hundred years.
There's a longing that that song comes out of. A myth has sprung up around it, that it's about going to Hank Williams' grave. That's not entirely true. Sometimes we'd go out Seven Bridges Road, then go back to Hank's grave and sing songs and drink at 3 a.m., which used to you could do. It's just part of the nostalgia for those times and that road. It's such an innocent little song, really. I thought nobody would ever understand it. Shows you how wrong I am.
What: Woody Guthrie Folk Festival benefit concert featuring Steve Young with Luke Reed
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Crystal Theater, on Main Street in Okemah
Admission: $20 plus service charge at the door or through www.okctickets.com
This post contains complete reviews of this annual festival ...
Community, kin embrace annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
OKEMAH — Arlo Guthrie drove into town by himself in a
pickup truck. Before he appeared on stage Wednesday night
here at the Crystal Theater, Woody Guthrie's younger
sister, Mary Jo Edgmon, insisted the audience sing "Happy
Birthday" to him, his 54th birthday having been Tuesday.
Like a good relative, he grinned and bore it, waving to the
A young woman behind me sighed and chuckled, "It's a
family affair tonight."
And every night this weekend.
That comment nailed the overriding spirit of this year's
Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, the fourth annual folk music
celebration in the late balladeer's hometown organized by
the intra-state Woody Guthrie Coalition. It's all about
family -- immediate, extended and created.
The first two rows at Wednesday night's tribute concert
were full of Guthrie relatives. Don Conoscenti and Ellis
Paul shared the stage that night, and Conoscenti ribbed
Paul about his new haircut; they've spent the week tagging
around town together as if they were actually brothers. As
fans arrive in the campground and at the various Okemah
venues, there are numerous jubilant reunions of old
friends, many of whom see each other once a year -- at this
Larry Long, who is scheduled to perform on the main
stage Saturday night, said in a conversation earlier this
week that this family feeling is exactly why this festival
has remained successful in these early years. Long, an Iowa
native, struggled with a Woody Guthrie tribute concert in
1989 here in Okemah, when the town was still somewhat
divided over honoring its hometown hero (a dispute that
arose because of the communist company Guthrie sometimes
kept in the 40s).
"This festival has a great capacity to do good work and
honor the place that Okemah is," Long said. "When we were
trying it, that's what we wanted to achieve: to make this a
celebration of the traditions that nurtured Woody, his
sense of love of community and place and the family
traditions that make places like Okemah so delightful."
A sense of community and a laid-back spirit made Wednesday
night's tribute concert all the more enjoyable. For the
first time in the festival's four years, though, the
Wednesday night show had a handful of empty seats, largely
because previous kick-off shows have featured big-name
talent. This year the Wednesday fund-raiser was the annual
tribute concert modeled after the bi-coastal tributes
following Guthrie's death in 1967. Nearly two dozen
performers cycled through the show, performing Guthrie
songs between readings of Guthrie's prose.
But the lack of mega-commercial giants on the historic
Crystal stage hardly dampened the energy or worth of the
ticket. Instead, performers and audience were able to let
their hair down and experience the occasional magic that
occurs when everyone laughs and thinks, "Well, we're all
Of course, when a reviewer begins carping about the
laid-back spirit of a performance, that usually means the
sound system was bad and the performers forgot some words
and there were some production mistakes. Some and maybe all
of these things were true Wednesday night. The crucial
difference is that nothing seriously derailed the show -- or
the moments of magic -- and if there's somebody out there
complaining I'd be real surprised.
The first magic moment came early, on the fourth song.
Conoscenti and Paul together sang Guthrie's eerie portrait
of a Vigilante Man, accompanied only by Conoscenti's
Kokopeli-painted banjo. He played the song with a ghostly
tension and foreboding, and Paul's piercing harmony gave it
an unearthly feel. The song marched like a posse through
the darkness, evoking Stephen Stills live performances of
"Black Queen." They kept their eyes locked on each other from
start to finish -- who knows if they'd ever performed this
together before? -- and the audience barely breathed.
The second breath-taker was nicely balanced, the fourth
song from the end. Mary Reynolds, a native of Oklahoma
City, played and sang "Hobo's Lullaby." It's not as important
to say that she played the song as it is to say she sang
it. Reynold's voice is a clarion call, a beautiful and
controlled birdsong, and with the help of two friends
backing her with harmonies, the performance was as if three
angels were hovering over a lonely hobo in a dank boxcar,
their voices alone filling him with hope.
Those were the jaw-droppers. Other great moments
included Slaid Cleaves' chilling reading of "1913 Massacre,"
a festival repeat that never gets old; a fiery (but not
brimstony) run through "Jesus Christ" by the versatile and
spunky trio Still on the Hill; and the playful -- and only
barely cheesey -- dialogue between the Farm Couple on
After the all-star finales -- with every performer from
the night crammed on the stage for "Hard Travelin'"
(jumpstarted by Paul, who belts it out with gusto),
"Oklahoma Hills" and "This Land Is Your Land" -- half the
audience hung around chatting and meeting the musicians.
The theater sweepers eventually had to shove people out the
door. There was no boundary between star and fan, no
rushing off to an ivory tour bus. This is folk music, after
all, and the folks gathered here this weekend are one big
Audience heats up on opening evening
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
OKEMAH — Pity the band with that first set.
It's Thursday evening at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival
-- on an outdoor stage, in July, in Oklahoma, for Pete's sake
-- the sun's still high enough in the sky to make misery, and
nobody is fool enough to be out in the heat.
Well, some folks were. A dedicated stage crew and about
30 fans when the first band started.
"What in tarnation are we doing out here?" asked a fan to
no one in particular.
By the time Xavier finished its opening set, though, the
crowd was coming on, hauling lawn chairs and fans into the
field where the Pastures of Plenty main stage looms. By the
time the Red Dirt Rangers brought down the rafters, the
audience was several hundred strong.
Xavier is the band featuring Abe Guthrie -- son of Arlo
Guthrie and thus grandson of the festival's honored
namesake. They've come a long way, baby. What was once a
clunky and often ill-advised heavy metal band has matured
over the last decade into a tight and buoyant
Southern-sounding rock band.
The quartet opened the main stage festival by singing an
a cappella version of the Beatles' "Nowhere Man," no doubt a
ringer in their repertoire but an ironic opening to the
festival; the song describes an anonymous slacker who
couldn't be more the reverse of Woody Guthrie's do-or-die
gumption. The rest of the band's set chugged ahead
unfettered, maintaining the same sharp harmonies through
rootsy rock that see-sawed between Alabama's rockin' side
and Little Feat's country side.
But the heat was getting to them, too.
"We're from Massachusetts, so this hundred degrees is a
bit different for us," guitarist Randy Cormier said from the
stage. "We just shoveled out our last bit of snow up there."
As the sun dipped behind the Okemah hill, the Thursday
night main stage bill continued to shine. Grammy-winner
Pierce Pettis slipped by, and Lucy Kaplansky (who's
performed with everyone, from Shawn Colvin and Dar Williams
to John Gorka and Bill Morrissey) played a beautiful,
subdued set, which included a surprising cover of Roxy
Music's "More Than This."
Slaid Cleaves moseyed his way through a batch of songs
that further proves he is one of the most talented singers
out of Austin, Texas (if not the reincarnation of Cisco
Houston himself). He led off with his current hit, "Broke
Down," before singing a character sketch of a very colorful
character. The song included a couple of yodels, which both
generated their own applause. When fellow Austin musician
Darcie Deaville joined him onstage, she ribbed him about
the yodeling. "I got that from Don Walser," Cleaves said, and
the two of them then played a Walser tune. Cleaves later
added his own, festival-centric verses to Guthrie's "I Aint
Got No Home" and then closed with a haunting, pre-"Mermaid
Avenue" collaboration with Guthrie: Cleaves' tune to a 1940
Guthrie lyric, "This Morning I Was Born Again."
The Red Dirt Rangers closed the show with their usual
backbeat, once again being the first festival act to get
audience members on their feet dancing. They opened with
"Rangers Command," a groove-greased Guthrie original and the
title track from their latest album. Later, they played a
tune by the late Benny Craig, a former Ranger and a
much-missed and talented multi-instrumentalist. The tune,
called "Leave This World a Better Place," was unusually funky
for Craig -- or was that the Rangers? -- but its lyrical
sentiments were perfect for a festival honoring a scrappy
songwriter who tried his utmost to leave the world just
Off-stage activities sometimes outshine headliners
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
OKEMAH — The Woody Guthrie Folk Festival has grown
substantially in its four years, so much so that the
experience involves much more than the evening headliners
in the pasture. Music and other activities continue
throughout the day, especially on the weekend. Here's a
round-up of some of the magic moments from around Woody
Guthries hometown this weekend:
It's not in the brochure
This festival offers an awful lot of music for the
hungry folk fan, but there's even more available than fans
find printed in the official schedule. Sometimes the best
shows of the week occur at about 4 in the morning in the
parking lot of the OK Motor Lodge. That's the only motel in
town, and during the festival it's full of musicians and
concert organizers. Musicians often live by the slogan,
"I'll sleep when I'm dead," so when they get home after the
night's gigs, many of them pull lawn chairs into a corner
of the parking lot and swap songs until dawn.
Friday night (er, Saturday morning), for instance, found
Jimmy LaFave, Bill Erickson, Bob Childers, Terry Ware,
Emily Kaitz, members of Xavier and scattered Red Dirt
Rangers camped out with several fans and budding musicians
softly strumming tunes in the cool July night. Kaitz had
her stand-up bass on the blacktop and lightened the mood
early on with a song about bass players taking over the
world and righting its fret-ful wrongs.
Erickson tried unsuccessfully to lead a sing-along ("I
guess they're too tired," he later muttered; of course, he
actually said tarred), and LaFave coursed the group through
"You Ain't Going Nowhere." Dawn usually found a handful of
these desperados still fumbling through "Sweet Home
Coffee, black as night
Those all-night parking-lot sessions take their toll,
though, when you're scheduled to perform the next morning.
Of course, 12:40 p.m. isn't morning to most of us, but it's
the crack of dawn to most guitar-slingers. Bob Childers
needed a lot of coffee Friday morning.
His early afternoon set at the Brick Street Cafi may
have been slow going at first, but Green Country native
Childers is armed with a wily charm that squeezed through
his own squinting eyes. Thanks to a Brick Street waitress
who kept his coffee mug topped off on stage ("I'm loving you
right now," Childers said as she poured him coffee at the
microphone, "I'm gonna write a song about you"), the
early-bird crowd learned or was reminded of Childer's tall
talents as a songwriter. He muddled his way through
original classics such as "Sweet Okie Girl," "Restless Spirit"
and his appropriate finale, the eloquent "Woody's Road." Just
when he thought he was off to bed, the crowd hooted for an
encore, a rarity on the afternoon indoor stages.
Can I see some I.D.?
At this or any other music festival, the surest way to
find great performers is to follow the performers. See the
shows the musicians see, and your eyes and ears will rarely
be sore. Case in point: the crowd for Dustin Pittsley was
practically half the festival roster.
Pittsley is another hot blues phenom, a teenager fresh
out of Chandler High School. He recently placed third in
the "Jam With Kenny Wayne Shepherd" contest, and his looks
and licks are dead ringers for that blues guitar upper
classman. He wailed on an acoustic guitar Saturday
afternoon inside the Brick Street Cafi while pal Smiley
Dryden huffed on harmonica and main-stage star Kevin Bowe
sat in on a few of Pittsley's groove-jammed originals. A
name to know.
A harp with no strings
"We got accused once of being a bluegrass band," said
DoublNotSpyz singer John Williams midway through the band's
Friday set at the Brick Street Cafi. "We had all the
instruments. It was an easy mistake."
He then launches into a song with a Jew's harp solo.
Easy mistake, indeed.
The DoublNotSpyz (ask a "Beverly Hillbillies" fan to
explain the name) are more than mere bluegrass, though, and
Williams is often the proof. He was tapped as a favorite
harmonica player throughout the festival, especially during
Wednesday night's tribute concert and that's the instrument
through which he rocks the hardest.
He's more interesting to listen to than big-shots like
Blues Traveler's John Popper because Williams wailing isn't
just self-aggrandizing improvisation; Williams sticks by
the melody being steered by singer and co-songwriter Larry
Spears and keeps his audience in the song, not the
spotlight. His harp-heaving alone received a standing
Coming into his own
Austin-based singer-songwriter Michael Fracasso started
his set Saturday afternoon in the Crystal Theater with his
poignant, droning reflection on the 1950s, and he ended
with a song called "1962." The timespan framed him well: his
naked, honest songs are deeply rooted in that era of folk
music's second great revival, the same era that inspired a
In white T-shirt and cuffed blue jeans, Fracasso's
rugged Rust Belt looks belied his sensitive nature. It's
that sensitivity that produces such beautifully crafted
original songs ("Wise Blood," inspired by the novel "The Last
Temptation of Christ," was enormously uplifting) and is able
to tap into vast new realms of emotion buried deep within
His reading of Guthrie's "1913 Massacre," for instance, is
a masterpiece of vocal and acoustic dynamics. I've heard
that song and even his rendition of it dozens of times, but
I must confess: Saturday's performance of it flooded my
eyelids more than a bit. That's how folk songs stay alive
in the hearts of the people.
Everything's new, again
This happens every year, and Friday afternoon was no
different. A young guy or his girlfriend stumble wide-eyed
down Okemah's bustling Main Street. They're brand new to
the festival, no doubt, and they stop a stranger to ask
about the goings-on. Then one of them asks, from a well of
perfect innocence, "So when does Woody Guthrie perform?"
Woody, we hardly knew ye.
Woody Guthrie Festival draws together friends and family
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
OKEMAH — Near the end of his Saturday night set
headlining the Pastures of Plenty main stage, Arlo Guthrie,
son of the namesake of this weeks Woody Guthrie Folk
Festival, started a sweet old tune by one of his dad's
"There've been enough people playing songs by my dad. I'd
like to play a song by one of his friends. That's kind of
what this festival is about a festival of friends," Guthrie
Indeed, the four-day festival this year glowed with the
jubilation of reunited friends and renewed family ties, in
the audience and backstage. Some company used to offer a
long-distance calling plan called "Friends and Family," and
this fourth Woody Guthrie Folk Festival could have flown
that same banner.
The unseasonably cool and clear weather, which came
through late Thursday night -- just before the festival
schedule reached its full intensity outdoors -- aided both
attitude and attendance. Friday and Saturday shows at the
outdoor stage were crowded, despite organizers nervousness
about not having a big name on the festival bill this
All that big-name talk is more than a little insulting
to Arlo, though, who is hardly a slouch. For a festival
honoring his late folksinging father, he's plenty big
enough and clearly draws and holds a large crowd.
Austin songwriter Jimmy LaFave mentioned during his
Friday night set that he wishes the festival were called
the Woody and Arlo Guthrie Folk Festival. Arlo has
performed at each Guthrie festival thus far and has
remained dedicated to the gathering, which brings together
a good chunk of his relatives, too. After his performance
at Wednesday night's tribute concert, he hardly had time to
talk to fans and media; there were too many relatives to
greet. For Arlo, this is a family affair, in every
In fact, backing him up Saturday night was Xavier, the
band featuring Arlos son, Abe. (Sara Lee, Arlos daughter
who thrilled audiences at last years festival, could not
attend this year because she's finishing an album.) Xavier
had opened the outdoor stage on Thursday night with a
powerful blend of homey harmonies and taut rock, which
beefed up Arlos songs considerably.
We've heard Arlo strumming and wheezing through his
songs so many years now that we forget how tightly they
usually are written and how easily they can rock if given
to the right band. The Xavier boys gave Arlo some muscle
and breadth through "Coming to Los Angeles," "Chilling of the
Evening" (which opened the show as a tribute to the weather,
perhaps?), and a springy version of the blues classic "St.
Preceding Arlo was the Joel Rafael Band, another family
affair. Playing violin for her dad was Jamaica Rafael, who
also sang a creeping and eventually moving version of
Woody's "Pastures of Plenty."
Joel sang a few Guthrie songs with his inimitable
patience and grace, as well as his talking tune about his
first visit to Okemah and this festival a few years ago.
The song describes his surprise upon being unable to find a
parking space outside of Lou's Rocky Road Tavern in Okemah
that first night. As a result of the song and the familial
friendship kindled between Joel and Lou, there's a sign up
outside the bar reserving a space especially for him in
Friday nights main-stage lineup was almost one big
Vance Gilbert, Don Conoscenti and Ellis Paul have been
close friends for several years now, and they played the
Woody Guthrie Folk Festival this year one after another, in
"We hardly ever get to play together, or even see each
other for long stretches of time, being out on the road as
much as we are," Paul said Saturday afternoon.
From the stage Friday night, after inviting Conoscenti
to join him for a couple of songs (including "3,000 Miles"),
Paul said, "I haven't played with Don in about six months.
It's a lot like not having sex for six months."
Go ahead, snicker, but these guys really think that much
of each other. Gilbert even performed a song he had written
years ago for Paul, a semi-bitter broken-hearted lament
about Paul's plans to move from their Boston base to
Nashville. Its an amazing song, "Taking It All to Nashville,"
expressing deep love between two (heterosexual) men, and it
was the jewel of Gilbert's set.
"I'm not mad at him anymore," Gilbert said from the stage
after finishing the song. "He moved back to Boston."
Gilbert's performance was amazingly powerful. He dished
the sass between songs, joking that "LaFave sounded blacker
than I do, like a cross between Bob Dylan and Al Green," but
his songs couldn't be sweeter or more delicately
constructed. His voice is like butter, and when he was
called back for an encore -- not a given occurrence at this
festival, by any means -- he showcased it by stepping into
the audience, sans microphone, and singing a moving myth
called "The King of Rome." He is definitely a new member of
the festival family.
Oddly enough, though, for all the spirit of camaraderie
and family, I never heard anyone on stage Saturday night,
the festival's climax, wish Woody a happy 89th birthday.
That is, after all, the reason this festival occurs in the
hottest possible part of the summer; Woody Guthrie was born
on July 14, 1912.
If the festival maintains the strength it enjoyed this
year (on what organizers thought might be a slow year), he
may be reborn again every July in a pasture west of his old
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
Kevin Bowe and his band, the Okemah Prophets, performed
in Okemah for the first time at last year's Woody Guthrie
Folk Festival. They lucked out with an indoor cafe show
during the heat of an afternoon, and their Ramblin' Jack
Elliott-meets-the Replacements songs bowled over a crowd of
Guthrie fans, including Guthrie cohort (and last year's
headliner) Pete Seeger. After the Prophets' fiery set,
Seeger even remarked, "That's different, but of course I
Kevin Bowe and his band will be back at the Woody
Guthrie Festival this week -- with a high-profile slot on the
outdoor main stage Saturday night -- and Bowe says he's eager
to return. His road to Okemah from his native Minneapolis
has been a long and winding one (appropriately for an
acolyte of the festival's namesake) and owes its coming
full circle to the magic of the Internet. Last year, one of
the festival organizers entered "Okemah" into an online
search engine just to see what returns would come up;
suddenly he was reading about this Minneapolis-based band
called the Okemah Prophets and led by a widely acclaimed
songwriter (who's written for the likes of Jonny Lang, Leo
Kottke, Peter Case, Chuck Prophet, Delbert McClinton and
more). Two phone calls later, they were booked.
In an interview from his Minnesota home this week, Bowe
retraced his circuitous route from young punk to
Guthrie-influenced songwriter and band leader.
TC: How and when did you discover Woody?
KB: Well, I'm 40 years old. My musical coming of age was
in the '70s. Music had gotten so awful by the late '70s
with the corporatization of rock. I mean, I first listened
to radio as a young teen, when FM was freeform and had no
playlists. You'd hear Led Zeppelin segue into John Prine.
The first record I bought was by Taj Mahal because I'd
heard it on the radio and liked it. By the late '70s it was
all Foreigner and Heart, and I felt very disenfranchised by
the shift. So I started listening to older music. I
discovered country through this weird genealogy: "Exile on
Main Street" (by the Rolling Stones) has pedal steel on it,
and investigating that I found Gram Parson, and through
that discovered the Byrds' "Sweetheart of the Rodeo," and
then you get to Hank Williams Sr. and it's all over. I
probably discovered Woody through Bob Dylan. I mean, I'm a
Jewish guy from Minnesota -- who else am I going to be
listening to, right?
TC: What grabbed you about Woody's music, though?
KB: By the time I discovered Woody Guthrie, I was more
of a songwriter than a band guy. I was focused on writing
more than performing. That's what grabbed me about him. In
the introduction to (Guthrie's novel) "Bound for Glory," Pete
Seeger says that any damn fool can write complicated, but
it takes a genius to write simple. Also, the humor in
Woody's stuff -- that grim humor.
TC: The sense of humor is crucial to understanding
Woody. Someone mentioned to me the other day that the
reason they don't like the film of "Bound for Glory" is that
David Carradine (who played Guthrie) has no sense of
KB: Sure. I mean, it seems to me like Woody Guthrie was
having a great time. He was pissed about certain things,
and rightfully so, but he was all about having a good time
while bringing down the man, you know? ... I was reminded
of Woody a little bit recently when I was watching a
bio-pic of Abbie Hoffman called "Steal This Movie." I rented
it because I have a song in it, which I just found out
about. Anyway, I'd always regarded Hoffman as a bit of a
clown, but this movie's position was that he was into using
humor to bring down the corrupt forces in government. That
reminded me of Woody.
TC: Tell me why you wound up primarily a songwriter
instead of a front man.
KB: When you pick up a guitar at 13, you don't think, "My
goal is to make a living writing songs for people younger
and more talented than me." I've been in moderately
successful bands, but when you hit 30 and the people you
went to high school with are becoming really successful,
you start to evaluate your strengths. I was sitting there
going nowhere, playing in a bar one night, and there was a
producer in the audience named David Z (Prince, Jonny
Lang). He talked to me afterward and said, "Your band is OK,
but your songs are really something. Maybe I could use some
sometime." Our first project together was placing my song
"Riverside" on Jonny Lang's first album. We've worked on a
lot of projects since, and my career now is flying around
to work with different artists, writing songs.
TC: I read somewhere that Paul Westerberg was
instrumental in your turn from performance to writing.
KB: For me, it's all about Bob Dylan and Paul
Westerberg. I don't know if this goes over well at a folk
festival, but punk rock was a huge thing for me.
TC: Of course, it goes over well. The first year of the
festival Billy Bragg was on stage explaining how Woody was
the original punk.
KB: Well, yeah. You're either
someone who gets punk or doesn't, and that's part of my
enjoyment of Woody Guthrie. He was more punk than most
punks. The Replacements -- well, there's never been a better
band, but I don't think Westerberg thinks of himself as a
punk. He happened to be an unnaturally gifted songwriter in
a punkish band.
TC: Your bio makes a point of mentioning your childhood
in Minnesota, how you were half Irish and half Serbian in
the land of Scandinavian settlers. How did that affect your
songwriting, and do you think it was anything like being an
Okie in California?
KB: Oh yeah. Actually, I feel the same way up here that
Woody must have felt in Okemah -- a stranger in a strange
land. We've never fit into the scene up here. When we play
here, we can't get arrested. But when we play in Nashville
or Austin or Okemah, it's a big deal. We refer to Okemah as
TC: And why did you call your Minneapolis band the
KB: In Bound for Glory, Woody describes the town lunatic
and calls him the Okemah prophet. He's this guy in the town
square who babbles and dances. I've spent a lifetime on
stage doing just that. The prophet doesn't think he's
babbling, of course, but the people walking by are going,
"Yeah, right, there's the prophet." It's the story of my
life, playing in bars. That's why it's nice to get to
Okemah where the prophets are now at least listened to.
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
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
Arlo Guthrie just loves the idea of this week's annual Woody Guthrie Free Folk Festival. He's got only one complaint.
July? In Oklahoma?
"I know it's a real grand notion to schedule this event around my dad's birthday and all, but I kind of thought September would be nice," Arlo said, chuckling in an interview this week.
Arlo Guthrie performs Wednesday night -- what would have been Woody's 87th birthday -- to kick off the second annual festival celebrating the life and music of the late Woody Guthrie.
He'll be playing indoors and out of the heat at Okemah's beautiful Crystal Theater, at the festival's fund-raising starter show. Wednesday's bill also includes the Kingston Trio and Country Joe McDonald.
It's certainly not the first time Arlo has paid tribute to his legendary folksinger father in performance or even on record, but he's been careful not to make his entire 30-year career one long torch-bearing ceremony for his father's music.
"I sort of became a poster boy at a young age," Arlo said. "Luckily for me, though, my own success has made it possible for me to do both -- to sing my own songs and help keep my dad's alive.
"If I was nothing but Woody's kid, that would be fine, but you know, there are probably more people today who know Woody Guthrie as my dad than know Arlo as his son. I think I just lasted longer in the public eye. My dad really only had 15 really good years being a public entertainer. I've had 30, almost twice as much. I've also had the advantage of living in a media-driven age, and because of that my record, 'Alice's Restaurant,' outsold all of my dad's records combined. I'm not saying this to have a popularity contest but to point out that the way things work now made it possible for me to support all the things of my dad's life without compromising anything for myself."
Still, Arlo and the rest of the Guthrie clan don't jump onto every we-love-Woody bandwagon. This festival, though, organized by the Oklahoma-based Woody Guthrie Coalition, passed muster with the entire family. Arlo's sister Nora, who runs the Woody Guthrie Archives in New York City, has contributed materials and supported the festival. Woody's sister, Mary Jo Edgmon, has a hand in this year's symposium on Huntington's Disease, the ailment that killed Woody.
"There are moments when events have a larger scope than just publicizing or promoting Woody Guthrie's name," Arlo said. "We've tried to stand behind things that are most valuable and meaningful and contribute to the things he enjoyed ... Not everyone who hangs a 'We Like Woody' sign in their window should have instant support from everyone else."
Arlo said he was impressed with the way the Okemah festival tries to present the whole picture of Woody -- more than just the greatest hits of his music. In the same way, he said he enjoyed the "Mermaid Avenue" album -- last year's historic CD of Woody Guthrie lyrics put to music by British folksinger Billy Bragg and American alt-country band Wilco -- because it put into perspective other sides of Woody's life.
"There was a time when folk songs were synonymous with protest songs. That's changing, in part because the way the world is now but also because we're beginning to understand that the songs of Woody and others were not just complaints about the world. They wrote about everything, a lot of which was pretty funny," Arlo said.
"The whole focus of Woody's writings was that everyone is a regular guy, that people are regular people. The underlying philosophy behind all his work is that those regular people are just as valuable as all the kings and queens, that there's nobility in being a regular person."
That outlook on humanity led Woody adamantly to support -- and sing about -- workers unions and some socialist causes. As Woody became a public figure in the '40s and '50s, these notions got him branded as a communist, a stigma that hung on his name long after his death in 1967. His home state was particularly slow in letting go of the old myths, a stubbornness Arlo sees as an amusing irony.
"My dad was a free thinker. He was convinced that if people were left alone, they'd do right by each other. I find it difficult to understand that people who also find too much big government around them also are afraid of too much free thinking," he said. "I mean, that kind of irony gives rise to a sense of humor which is unique to that part of the country. There are places where the wind blows a certain way or the preacher speaks a certain way or the water tastes a certain way that gives rise to a certain way of thinking about things. If they don't add up quite right, you either hang your sign in the window or go on and smile about it. There's some of both going on there."
After last year's lavish welcoming home of Woody's spirit -- involving the unveiling of a Woody Guthrie statue in downtown Okemah -- Arlo said he looks forward to coming back. He'll be performing Wednesday night with his son, Abe, who's traveled with Arlo for several years now, and his daughter, Sarah Lee, who started singing with Arlo and Abe last year.
The travelling troupe has been so busy on the road lately that they haven't found time to mix the latest record, the follow-up to Arlo's 1996 album "Mystic Journey." Last year, Arlo and Abe went into a studio in Branson, Mo., and recorded an album called "32 Cents," a record of Woody Guthrie songs celebrating Woody's appearance on a postage stamp. The album was recorded with the Dillards, icons of bluegrass music (though you may remember them as the demented hayseeds the Darling Family on "The Andy Griffith Show").
Fans can hunt down more information on Arlo events at http://arlo.net.
The Woody Guthrie Birthday Hootenanny featuring Arlo Guthrie, the Kingston Trio and Country Joe McDonald
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: The Crystal Theater, on Main Street in Okemah (about an hour south of Tulsa on Interstate 40)
Tickets: $27, available at all Carson Attractions outlets, (918) 584-2000
This post contains preview and review coverage of this annual festival ...
Free Woody Guthrie: a folkfest
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
After his historic performance on the inaugural night of last year's Woody Guthrie Free Folk Festival, British folk singer Billy Bragg loaded up and headed south. His next gig was an appearance on public television's "Austin City Limits." As he took that famous stage, the first words out of his mouth were, "I just got back from Okemah. They're putting on a festival there for Woody Guthrie, and it's the coolest thing ever."
The morning after that aired, David Gustafson's phone about came out of the wall.
Gustafson already had attracted a good deal of attention by organizing the weeklong homage to Guthrie, America's greatest folk singer ("This Land Is Your Land," "Pretty Boy Floyd," "Deportee") and an Okemah native, but Bragg's public endorsement rolled out a bandwagon ripe for jumping on.
"The word got out in all kinds of crazy ways, and after Billy's announcement people called from all over," Gustafson said in a conversation this week. "Artists were clamoring to be involved with this — and none of them get paid. That's not an issue, they don't care. They want to pay tribute to Woody in any way they can. We had to turn away a lot of people — big names, too. The future of the festival is bright."
The clamor has boosted this year's festival to more than 40 scheduled performers, up from last year's dozen. An extra charity night has been added to this week's entertainment, and the Wednesday night kick-off concert features three of folk's largest legends: Country Joe McDonald, the Kingston Trio and Woody's son Arlo Guthrie.
Last year's festivities — complete with the unveiling of a Guthrie statue in downtown Okemah — were inspiring on two fronts. First, the undying devotion of so many musicians to Woody's songs and legacy made clear how deeply the late singer's music touched the country's psyche. Plus, for the first time in decades, Oklahomans — and, more significantly, Okemahns — rallied around the Guthrie legacy. Guthrie's socialist leanings caused many people erroneously to brand him as anti-American and anti-religious.
That turnaround in public sentiment helped to convince the Guthrie family that this festival was worth supporting. Since Woody's death in 1967, the Guthries — daughter Nora, son Arlo, sister Mary Jo — have been hesitant to stamp their name on just every Woody Guthrie tribute event. And there have been hundreds.
"One thing Arlo's always said is that he's proud to be Woody's son but that he didn't ever feel like it was his job to carry the torch for Woody. He wanted to be his own artist. Now the entire family is saying that this is the event they want to sponsor and encourage," Gustafson said. "That kind of makes it official, and we feel great about that."
Gustafson said he sees the festival growing significantly every year. Big names in music already have been in touch with the festival organizers to talk about playing in future years.
Some may attend sooner than that. In January, the official Jackson Browne web page began listing the Guthrie festival on Browne's tour itinerary. Gustafson called Browne's organization to see what was up.
"It wound up not working out, but it was left really kind of vague. Maybe he'll show up anyway," Gustafson said. "John Mellencamp is ending his world tour in Dallas on Thursday, too, and he's been made aware of the festival. Who knows what could happen?"
An all-star start
The second annual Woody Guthrie Free Folk Festival begins Wednesday night in Okemah's Crystal Theater with an all-star concert that's not — as the festival's name implies — free.
"Arlo said he'd be here this year, but he could only be here for the Wednesday show," Gustafson said. "We ran the numbers and decided it would be best to charge for this show and raise some money to keep the rest of it alive."
Wednesday's show occurs on what would have been Woody's 87th birthday. Plus, while the MTV crowd focuses on the 30th anniversary Woodstock concert this summer in New York, this Wednesday night show reunites two acts that played the original Woodstock: Arlo and Country Joe McDonald.
Arlo did manage to make a name for himself as a folk singer, scoring hits from "The Motorcycle Song" to his magnum opus, the raucous and rambling "Alice's Restaurant." This will be Arlo's first Okemah performance in a decade.
Country Joe and the Fish rose out of Berkley, Calif., in the mid- '60s to lead the psychedelic movement in rock. By the time he played Woodstock, his "I-Feel- Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag" and his notorious f-word chant had become the rallying call for resistance to the Vietnam War. McDonald himself has had intermittent success as a solo artist since.
The Kingston Trio could be credited with the success — or at least the polarization — of mainstream folk music. Once one of the biggest acts in popular music (in 1961, 20 percent of Capitol Records' profits was all from the Kingston Trio), the Trio's staid, party songs struck a chord with cheeky, collegiate America and led to a string of No. 1 hits, starting with 1958's "Tom Dooley." The enormous success of this group gave other record companies the courage to sign acts like Bob Dylan. The Kingston Trio disbanded in 1967, but charter member Bob Shane revived it in 1971 and has nurtured a loyal following ever since.
Thursday's festivities are an added feature at this year's Guthrie festival. It's also the day Gustafson is most excited about.
"I don't know how to explain how cool this is going to be," he said.
Thursday night's free show at the Crystal Theater will focus on Huntington's Disease, the nervous disorder that killed Woody.
Shortly after Guthrie died in '67, several of his musician friends, from Bob Dylan and Joan Baez to Judy Collins and Arlo, organized four tribute concerts — two at Carnegie Hall, two at the Hollywood Bowl — which featured a scripted performance mixing Guthrie songs with readings from his writings and journals. Actors Will Geer and Peter Fonda narrated the shows. Thursday's show will be a re-creation of those performances using the original script from the Woody Guthrie Archives.
"We've taken that script, modified it, added some of Billy's songs and will present it with about 40 musicians," Gustafson said. "(Boston folksinger) Ellis Paul got hold of some lyrics Woody wrote about Huntington's itself, while he was suffering from the disease. The song is called 'No Help Known,' and he's put music to them."
This show caps off a day-long symposium on Huntington's Disease for health-care workers from around the region.
"See, it's not just a music thing anymore. It's starting to stretch into an event of what the man was about and what his experience was rather than only the music," Gustafson said.
The weekend, though, is all about music. Nearly 30 folk performers will be playing on the festival grounds from Friday to Sunday.
National acts include John Wesley Harding, a British alt-rocker gone traditional and self-styled "gangsta folk" player; Jimmy Lafave, an Okie expatriate from Austin and one of the leading voices in red-dirt folk music; and the Joel Rafael Band, an acoustic quartet from San Diego led by exalted Native American songwriter Rafael.
Numerous regional red-dirt players will be on hand, too, namely Tulsa's Brandon Jenkins, the Farm Couple, DoubleNotSpyz and the Red Dirt Rangers.
More music will sound from a stage in the campground area, as well as several after-hours late- night jams in clubs throughout Okemah.
"Some people will go all night," Gustafson said. "The celebration will be intense."
The Birthday Hootenanny
Featuring Arlo Guthrie, the Kingston Trio and Country Joe McDonald
Crystal Theater, on Main Street in Okemah
Tickets are $27, available at all Tulsa-area Carson Attractions outlets. Call (918) 584-2000.
"Huntington's Disease: Caring for People in Mid and Advanced Stages" -- a half-day conference for health-care professionals
Featuring Jim Pollard, HD expert
Crystal Theater, on Main Street in Okemah
Tickets are $15, payable to the Huntington Disease Society of Oklahoma. For information, call Dorothy Hearn, (405) 236-4372.
"HD: Woody's Greatest Struggle in Story and Song" -- a panel discussion of Guthrie's battle with Huntington's Disease and how it affected his life and work
Featuring Woody's sister, Mary Jo Edgmon, plus Guthrie historian Guy Logsdon and singer Jimmy Lafave, Bob Childers, Ellis Paul and Peter Keane
Crystal Theater, on Main Street in Okemah
This event is free.
Hoot for Huntington's
Featuring the Kingston Trio, Country Joe McDonald, Ellis Paul, John Wesley Harding, Slaid Cleaves, Joel Rafael, Peter Keane, the Red Dirt Rangers, Jimmy Lafave, Larry Long, Tom Skinner, Bob Childers, and Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer
Crystal Theater, on Main Street in Okemah
This event is free, but donation opportunities will be available for the Huntington's Disease Society of Oklahoma.
Woody Guthrie Free Folk Festival
6 p.m.: M.L. Liebler and the Magic Poetry Band
6:30 p.m.: Brandon Jenkins
7:40 p.m.: Chuck Pyle
8:30 p.m.: Slaid Cleaves
9:20 p.m.: John Wesley Harding
10:10 p.m.: Jimmy Lafave
Pastures of Plenty Amphitheater, in the Okemah Industrial Park off of Interstate 40
This event is free.
Woody Guthrie Free Folk Festival
4 p.m.: DoubleNotSpyz with the Farm Couple
4:40 p.m.: Okie Songwriters in the Round featuring Tom Skinner, Bob Childers and Bill Erickson
5:30 p.m.: Women Singer-Songwriters in the Round featuring Emily Kaitz, Anne Armstrong, Linda Lowe and Darcie Deaville
6:20 p.m.: Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer
7:10 p.m.: Larry Long
8 p.m.: Red Dirt Rangers
8:50 p.m.: Peter Keane
9:40 p.m.: Bill Hearne
10:30 p.m.: Joel Rafael Band
Pastures of Plenty Amphitheater, in the Okemah Industrial Park off of Interstate 40
This event is free.
Woody Guthrie Free Folk Festival
1 p.m.: Songwriting contest winners
1:40 p.m.: Susan Shore
2:30 p.m.: Still on the Hill
3:20 p.m.: Don Conoscenti
4 p.m.: Country Joe McDonald
Pastures of Plenty Amphitheater, in the Okemah Industrial Park off of Interstate 40
This event is free.
For more information -- including directions to the site, a printable map and details on camping and available hotels -- look on the Internet at http://www.woodyguthrie.com, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (918) 825-6342.
Ellis Paul hangs onto the essence of Woody Guthrie's music and ideals
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Woody Guthrie was a restless soul. He couldn't stay in one place for very long, and he wound up traveling all over this country -- from the redwood forests to the Gulf stream waters. He saw different lands and different people, the scope of which informed the compassionate songs he sang with a reedy voice and a beat-up six-string.
Ellis Paul knows about that wanderlust, and he's thankful for what it brings to his own folk songs.
"It limits your experience to stay in one place," Paul said in a conversation last week. "Woody kept darting all over the country. He traveled without any route. He went out to California and got the migrant workers imbedded in his perspective. He wouldn't have had that if he'd stayed in Oklahoma. He was pretty worldly, he hung out with a diverse group of people -- poets and writers and artists and dancers and workers and politicians and union leaders. That's the great thing about the creative lifestyle: you hook up with the whole, romantic rainbow of humanity.
"I'm on the road a lot because that's the way my music gets out there. It's exactly what Woody was doing when he was around. It's essential because the majority of the airplay you get is in nightclubs in front of a focused group of people. I get some airplay on the radio, but the main drive for this music is the engine of my car."
Paul, who grew up on a Maine potato farm and is now a Boston- based singer, is a compelling songwriter in his own right and a workhorse on the neck of his open-tuned acoustic guitar. His latest album,
"Translucent Soul," was released last year on Philo Records, part of the Rounder Records group.
He will be one of several featured performers in Thursday night's Hoot for Huntington's concert, a preliminary event at the Woody Guthrie Free Folk Festival in Okemah. The show will re-create a Woody Guthrie tribute concert from the late '60s as a fundraiser for the Huntington's Disease Society of Oklahoma.
Paul has won numerous awards -- seven Boston Music Awards, even the prestigious Best New Artist award at the Kerrville Folk Festival -- and the Boston Globe once hailed him as "a national folk star and ... the quintessential Boston songwriter: literate, provocative, urbanely romantic."
"I don't know if that quote sums up me, but it sums up the Boston scene. It's a literate scene because it comes out of listening rooms rather than bars," Paul said. "Boston has always had a great folk scene, and it's one of the only ones in the country that's thriving. It's a real industry here. It may be because of the collection of colleges here, all with radio stations catering to this kind of music. Folk is a somewhat intellectual art form, a little more heady than pop music. You don't have to know how to beat the bars here. If you emerge from playing bars, you have to do tricks to shut people up, like using more hooks. If you're in one of these listening rooms, all you've got is you and your words. The hook and the volume are secondary. That's why Boston songwriters tend to me more thoughtful and soft."
Woody wasn't exactly loud, either. In fact, his quiet voice is usually what made the biggest impact.
Paul has the same thing going for him. His small tenor has power whether cooing or squeaking, and he said he tries to adhere to Woody's same songwriting principles.
Asked what in his own music is inspired by Woody, Paul said it would be "a complete awareness of the truth and trying to get to the bottom of it every single time, regardless of commercial viability."
"Woody was a painter more than a singer -- or a journalist, really," Paul said. "He was trying to paint a picture of where he was in the time he was living. I feel like that's what I'm doing. I'm trying to be honest and real and talk about what's important."
Like most of today's folk musicians, Paul came to Guthrie's music by way of Bob Dylan. However, where others peered into Woody's music from Dylan's stateroom, Paul wound up leaving Dylan behind and embracing Guthrie completely.
"For me, what happened is that Woody became more important than Dylan or anybody," Paul said. "It was someone giving me the Joe Klein book (a Guthrie biography) -- that changed my life. Philosophically, he was doing something very risky, and his life story is so tied into 20th century history. He came out of the Depression, went with the migrant workers, served in a world war, fought fascism and he had so much to do with what happened in the '60s.
"Here I am in the '90s doing my music and being hit by the tragedy of his story -- the fires, the marriages, the disease -- and the fact that he wrote 5,000 songs. It was a ridiculous amount of creativity. Plus, he had that overall philosophy that songs are supposed to be something more than just entertainment. They're supposed to be informational and change the people who hear them. I was overwhelmed by him, and changed, and I'm still in awe."
Country Joe asks, Where's the social reflection?
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
The music of Country Joe and the Fish is inextricable from the public protests of the Vietnam War. Thirty years after Joe McDonald and his psychedelic San Francisco band set the tone for the Woodstock festival, that war is still very much on McDonald's mind.
We had the opportunity to pick Country Joe's brain this week, prior to his solo appearances at this week's Woody Guthrie Free Folk Festival in Okemah -- including his headlining show on Sunday -- and here are some of his notorious notions:
On the new, "improved" 30th anniversary Woodstock concert: "It's kind of a shame that they're choosing not to address the Vietnam War. That war was connected to Woodstock. It's probably the reason for it ... There's no effort at all toward social reflection. They're just still trying to make money off it."
On how radical the original Woodstock really was: "The right wing and the left wing hated us. Our lifestyles themselves were a threat to the status quo. Just the fact that we were trying to have fun was a threat to both sides. Young people today don't realize that ... We were politicized as much as anybody, but we tried to have fun at the same time. That itself was very political, and it scared the hell out of people."
On the legacy of the Vietnam War: "The war is what did it. We were raised to blindly believe that America and our leaders were always right, then they sent us off to a war that shouldn't have been fought and we were just slaughtered. We did what they asked us to do, and we were disrespected and spit on. We were hated 'cause we fought and hated 'cause we didn't fight. We're still hated. The whole Monica (Lewinsky) thing -- that was the last go-round for the conservative '50s generation that absolutely hated the changes of the '60s."
On what his Oklahoma roots taught him about life: "My father was born in Sallisaw. His dad had a ministry and three farms in Sallisaw. So I'm having a little family reunion on this visit ... Dad grew up on that farm, and my grandfather was a Presbyterian minister of the reformed school that believed children were not born into sin. He was an agrarian reformer, too, who built dams and worked to reclaim the soil. Dad then taught me how to farm in California. We broke horses together when I was a kid. He had a lot of Oklahoma sensibility about him, and taught me a lot. I live in the city now. City folks don't know how to dig a hole or anything. They hire someone to do a research study on hole digging, then get a big-time university project to walk the dog. They're totally mystified by dirt and critters. I mean, they buy these big plastic compost bins. My dad taught me to dig a hole in the ground, put in the compost, cover it with dirt. That's a compost pile."
On how he wound up at a Woody Guthrie festival: "I grew up with his music, on 78s, along with rhythm and blues and lots of leftist union music in the house. My parents were leftist and admired working people, and my music tries to reflect the value of working people and respect their struggle for wages and justice -- which is still an enormous problem, now on a global perspective. Woody did the same thing -- and how."
On an old album: "I recorded a record called `Thinking of Woody Guthrie' for the Vanguard label, did it in Nashville with Nashville musicians back in 1970. It's all Woody songs. It's on CD now, and I'll have some with me at the show."
On a new album: "I bumped into a guy with an English rock band called the Bevis Frond. We made a live record of Country Joe and the Fish music called `Eat Flowers and Kiss Babies.' It's an electric tribute to some of the old music, 10 classic songs. It's on vinyl and CD, and you can get it on my website, countryjoe.com."
John Wesley Harding: Folks are beginning to talk
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
John Wesley Harding doesn't confine his wordplay to his
witty and acerbic lyrics. He's a right clever
Early in his career -- back when he suffered barbs for
sounding too much like Elvis Costello, as if that's a bad
thing -- Harding called his particular brand of folk-rock
"power folk." It didn't catch on. Then he called it "folk
noir." No bumper stickers followed. Nowadays, he calls his
music "gangsta folk," and this label may stick.
"The term 'gangsta folk' got a little foothold in
American culture," said Harding, a native Brit now living in
Seattle, during a conversation last week. "For a phrase I
entirely made up, there's a sticker on the Smithsonian
Folkways box set that says, `This is real gangsta folk,'
implying that there's something else out there, which must
be me. It's like Burroughs made up the phrase `heavy
metal.' So I thought, well, I'll be in the dictionary now.
" 'Gangsta folk' simply reflects what I do as opposed to
what other singer-songwriters do. I'm not a sensitive
singer-songwriter. Ellis Paul (Boston singer, who appeared
at the Guthrie festival earlier this week) and I decided I
was an insensitive singer-songwriter. Any way you can
position yourself, you know?"
Harding, a featured act on Friday's bill at the Woody
Guthrie Free Folk Festival in Okemah, has made a career of
being dodgy -- dodging critical whines, dodging record label
failures, dodging the lassos that would rope him into
various consuming classifications. Always, he has dodged
what was expected of him.
For instance, he followed up the acoustic concerts that
gave him his start with a cover of Madonna's "Like a Prayer"
and then two slickly produced albums that had more to do
with power pop than power folk. Just as everyone had
written him off as a Costello clone, he turned in the 1992
album "Why We Fight," a preview of the more deeply rooted
folk pioneering to come and including a pre-O.J. indictment
of American justice, "Where the Bodies Are." When we expected
a real folk record, he gave us the '70s orchestrations of
"John Wesley Harding's New Deal," and when we expected an
innovative new musical direction, he gave us his latest
record, this year's "Trad Arr Jones," an entire record of Nic
Jones songs. Jones is a folk music legend in Britain and
has not performed in public since a car accident in 1982.
The origins of gangsta folk? You guessed it. Harding
said it's Woody Guthrie, pure and simple.
"Without a doubt, he started gangsta folk," Harding said.
"The lineage of gangsta folk runs from Woody through Dylan
to Springsteen's 'Nebraska' album. Those are the high-water
marks. Its real origins are the old murder ballads. It's
music with a lot of dead bodies, no flinching in talking
about sex and reality, with freedom to write from your
imagination. That's especially important. People don't make
things up anymore. Everyone writes about themselves and
their own lives. That started with the '70s
singer-songwritery stuff. I guess, people were doing enough
drugs that they thought their private lives were incredibly
interesting. It's not easy to make that stand up, though.
Someone like Loudon Wainwright does it and it's
Guthrie-esque in its honesty, humor and brilliance. Now
it's all mixed in with a kind of therapy-speak that's
Harding found Woody Guthrie the same way nearly every
folk songwriter has: through Bob Dylan. Dylan's emphasis on
Guthrie's importance led legions of aspiring troubadours to
check out Joe Klein's Guthrie biography from their local
libraries. Harding watched the film biopic "Bound for Glory,"
which he said he "didn't much like," but something in the
life story of Guthrie kept pulling Harding in until a
larger sense of the singer's struggle emerged.
Other artists showed Harding the way to Guthrie's
experience. He first heard "Do Re Mi" played by Ry Cooder,
and numerous Guthrie songs Harding first heard performed by
"I'm a huge Woody Guthrie fan, but I don't put on Woody
Guthrie albums. I have the Woody Guthrie greatest hits, and
I don't think he's even on that record," Harding laughed.
"Woody's very important. He and Hank Williams are very
similar in their influence in that you don't need to own a
record by them to know that you love them. Their influence
is that pervasive in everyone's music. You can't even say
that about Bob Dylan. Many people don't know any Jimmie
Rodgers or Hank Williams or Woody Guthrie albums, but they
already love their music. That makes them more like Mozart
than pop songers -- someone whose music is everywhere and in
the minds of everyone, regardless of who's playing it."
With "Trad Arr Jones," Harding tried to do for Nic Jones
what Dylan did for Guthrie. Jones -- who Harding said
"certainly would have been influenced by Woody" -- inspired
Harding's own work, and he said he wanted to share the
discovery with his fans.
"It's music that really moved me that's not available
now, and I thought it deserved to be done. It's my covers
album, it's just that I decided to do covers by all the
same guy. His influence on my music is massive, namely in
the narrative tradition," Harding said.
The label that issued "Trad Arr Jones," Zero Hour Records,
has folded, but the CD is still widely available. Harding
said he'll also have some for sale with him at the festival
Review: This folk festival is bound for glory
BY THOMAS CONNER
Arlo Guthrie paused during his encore of "Goodnight Irene"
to tell us what a wonderful festival this was. Four hours
into the evening, we already knew that. Then he reminded us
of something else, something we needed reminding of.
"You know, it's only in the last 50 to 100 years that
we've let other people do our singing for us," Guthrie said,
strumming his guitar. "We used to sit around the fire,
whatever kind of fire, and sing these old songs together.
These are our songs. It feels good to sing them. It makes
us feel more like human beings."
So we sang, helped ol' Arlo and his kids -- Abe on piano,
Sarah Lee on second guitar -- finish out the song and end
another goosebumpy kick-off to the Woody Guthrie Free Folk
Festival. He was right, it did feel good to sing aloud.
Grandparents harmonized. College kids clapped. Mothers with
sleepy babies on their shoulders swayed back and forth. For
a minute or two, the faceless caution of the Internet and
the pigeonholes of cultural classification all melted away,
and we indeed felt like human beings again.
Arlo, son of the festival's late honoree, wrapped up
Wednesday night's Birthday Hootenanny concert at Okemah's
Crystal Theater with trademark grace and aplomb. Tossing
out songs -- a few of his own, a few of his dad's -- and
stories, the trio rambled through an engaging set of humor
and humanism. He played "City of New Orleans" (with a story
about forgetting the words during a performance at, of all
things, a Steve Goodman tribute show), "The Motorcycle Song"
("I can't believe I wrote this stupid song and made a living
singing it -- for decades! I love America!") and "This Land Is
The next generation of Guthries heightened the evening's
musicianship and all-important sense of tradition. Abe
received a well-deserved whoop of applause for a gritty
solo during "Walking Blues" and his crucial support during
Arlo's fresh take on "House of the Rising Sun." Sarah Lee had
one song in the spotlight, singing Gillian Welch's "Orphan
Girl" with a chiming, crystal-clear voice. Arlo and Abe
backed her up with soothing harmonies; they came in
one-by-one, singing the chorus of "No mother, no father, no
sister, no brother," creating a great irony -- a wrenching
song about a girl who knows no family sung here by a girl
whose family legacy will live on for generations.
Wednesday's concert also featured the commercially
legendary Kingston Trio. Still able to sell huge volumes of
tickets, the Kingston Trio -- consisting of one original
member, Bob Shane -- is an anachronism of the highest order.
In their prime, they were a nostalgia act, white-washing
traditional folk songs for a homogenous late-'50s
audiences, and now they're nostalgic about their own
nostalgia. Granted, there is a generation or two between
this group's mystique and my understanding, but their bar
jokes and impassable distance between their own experience
and the songs they were singing made a great bathroom
Really, these three soft, old white guys in crisp
Hawaiian shirts -- like a cast of a gay "Bonanza" -- have never
done any "Hard Travelin' " or they wouldn't be so lively and
jovial when singing about it. George Grove, while a
studiously talented player, looks positively goofy singing
a song in the persona of a lovelorn Mexican servant.
Shane's solo reading of "Scotch and Soda" was the one sublime
moment in the trio's set -- a smooth, lush song anyway, and
one in which Shane clearly had an emotional investment. The
rest of the bright, cheery songs about subway fares and
serial killers are better left to Branson stages with the
stench of breakfast buffets wafting through the aisles.
Country Joe McDonald started the show with a
cantankerous kick. Still as feisty as he was when he played
Woodstock 30 years ago next month, McDonald exhibited what
30 years of playing the guitar can teach a man. Not only
were his lyrics riotously funny and biting (especially his
"no-nukes `Yankee Doodle' "), the music he pulled out of a
weathered acoustic guitar was rich and full -- sloppy here
and there, but only sloppy in the sense of an intrepid
player refusing to keep to the well-traveled path. "Janis,"
written years ago for Janis Joplin, rings with gorgeous
chords and tender sentiment, and a slide instrumental,
"Thinking About John Fahey," helped the concert live up to
its title as a hootenanny. McDonald is scheduled to
headline the festival's outdoor show on Sunday evening.
Wednesday's show was emceed by Boston singer-songwriter --
and honorary citizen of Okemah -- Ellis Paul. He introduced
the acts, shared stories about his and others' pilgrimages
to Woody's birthplace and sang a few of his own immensely
pretty songs. While the three headlining acts were
well-established, Paul impressed the standing-room-
only crowd, earning the most comments like, "Hey, he's good.
I gotta get that CD." It's highly deserved recognition for
an artist of broad beauty and depth.
Another link in this chain
Of the many lessons to be learned during the Thursday
night concert at the Woody Guthrie Free Folk Festival,
there are two important ones. First, Woody Guthrie's music,
life and philosophies are loaded with timeless moral
lessons for everyone. Secondly, out of organizational chaos
can come performances of soul-shaking excitement.
Thursday night's free show in Okemah's Crystal Theater
followed a day of events related to Huntington's Disease,
the nervous disorder to which Guthrie succumbed in 1967.
The concert re-created and amended a series of all-star
tribute shows performed in New York and California after
What began as a confusing, impersonal concert eventually
warmed into a right cozy hoe-down. By the show's end, it
was a hot time in the ol' hometown.
About 30 musicians, ranging in origin from just south of
London to just east of Tulsa, took turns on stage --
frequently backing each other -- singing unique arrangements
of Woody Guthrie songs. In between performances, Pryor
school teacher Bill McCloud read from Guthrie's writings --
observations on life, death and all the uplifting fuss
It was an odd and thrilling evening. The artists had
received their song assignments sometimes hours before
showtime. Austin songwriter Slaid Cleaves managed to learn
all 10 verses of "1913 Massacre," and performed it with the
necessary chill. Local songwriter Bob Childers had no idea
what the words were to "Biggest Thing a Man Has Ever Done"
and didn't have his glasses to see the music stand. In a
flurry of high comedy, Red Dirt Rangers singer Brad Piccolo
tried to feed him the lines, a tactic which produced lots
of laughter but little music until festival organizer David
Gustafson brought out Childers' glasses.
When good musicians aren't quite sure what's going on
but find themselves onstage anyway, marvelous things can
happen. Such inspired moments came frequently from Jimmy
Lafave's band, which backed numerous singers, and the
Rangers, who were responsible for breaking the ice with
their unaffected stage presence. Incredibly solid
performances came from John Wesley Harding (a rocking "Dear
Mrs. Roosevelt"), Tom Skinner (a heartfelt "Jesus Christ") and
Joel Rafael ("Deportee" with more conviction than I've ever
seen it performed).
Twenty songs later, the entire group of performers
crowded onstage and led the crowd in a religious, 15-minute
"This land Is Your Land." Everyone was on their feet,
clapping and singing, and the singers took turns on the
verses, shouting and laughing and yipee-yi-yo-ing.
Suddenly, another lesson from the festival was clear: Woody
is alive and well, and as long as these songs survive,
humanity's hope will never die.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
I'll be at a party somewhere in 10 years, and the
discussion inevitably will turn to concerts we've seen.
We'll be swapping takes on Lollas and Liliths, and somehow
I'll mention that I saw Billy Bragg perform his Woody
Guthrie songs in Woody's hometown of Okemah back in the
summer of '98.
The faces around me will tighten — brows raised, cheeks
drawn, lips pursed. There will be a beat of silent,
palpable awe. Someone will say, "Wow, you were there?"
By then, the Woody Guthrie Free Folk Arts Festival in
Okemah will have surpassed the Philadelphia folk festival
as the country's largest celebration of folk music and all
things acoustically American. Each year, tens of thousands
of folkies will invade Okemah — the once peaceful town few
in the nation had heard of — for the four-day festival
featuring the world's biggest names in folk music, from
Arlo Guthrie to Bruce Springsteen. Jewel will be trying to
mount a comeback, begging the festival organizers for a
spot on the prestigious bill. Congress will have replaced
the national anthem with Woody's "This Land Is Your Land."
These are the images that floated through my mind
Tuesday night as I stood outside Okemah's Crystal Theater
after Billy Bragg's historical performance inside. Surely I
had just witnessed the beginning of something big. Surely
something significant had happened tonight.
Whether the momentum of this week's incredible folk
festival in Okemah — featuring Arlo, Tom Paxton, a host of
talented folkies and Billy Bragg — will carry it far enough
to realize my little daydream remains to be seen (a good
bet, though). Still, something significant certainly
happened Tuesday night. After years of hesitation and doubt
from his home state, Woody was finally welcomed home.
The festival hooted and hollered all weekend, but the
defining performance was Bragg's Tuesday night show.
Himself a union-backing troubadour, Bragg was asked by
Woody's daughter, Nora, to write and record music to
several of the thousands of tuneless manuscripts in the
Woody Guthrie Archives. The results of this collaboration
were released this month as an album, "Mermaid Avenue," and
Bragg opted to perform some of these gems in Woody's
hometown — on a vintage stage where Woody himself once
The evening was electric. The faces of the all-ages,
standing-room-only crowd were bright with anticipation and
thrill. Camera crews from the BBC, CNN and various regional
production groups scurried throughout the theater. Woody's
sister was there. Journalists from France were there
(gloating over their nation's World Cup victory . . . on
Bastille Day, no less). Best of all, no one was protesting
Woody's socialist leanings. Everyone was friendly, and the
show was free. But despite the build-up and the hype
preceding this simple folk concert, Bragg wound up
surpassing it. A veteran British rocker with folk
tendencies and punk roots, Bragg emerged on stage as humble
and personable as ever. He plugged in his lone electric
guitar and began serving up songs and stories. He played a
few of his own tunes — opening with the romantic "A New
England" and closing with an encore of his greatest
political song, "Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards" — but
concentrated on the task at hand: reintroducing us to our
nation's most important songwriter.
The album, as I've already huzzahed in these pages, is a
stellar achievement, but Bragg's performance realized every
hopeful anticipation. That these songs communicate just as
effectively through one man and his guitar (rather than the
full band on most of the record) speaks to the already
established simple genius of Guthrie's writing. That Bragg
revived Woody's spirit with such vitality speaks to the
simple genius of his own talent. This evening in Okemah was
not the knee-slapping nostalgia-fest I partly feared it
might become. Instead, Bragg's sincerity, tenderness and
obvious appreciation for the material and the man fluffed,
buffed and wholly restored the memory and image of Guthrie
in the minds of a curious crowd.
It's like finding out something new about someone you've
known for years — this new light shed on the person's
character shatters your preconceived notions and makes
their personality more tangible. Woody not only was an
earnest, guitar-toting activist; he was a lover, a
worshiper, a voter, a dreamer and a father. Bragg made
sure we saw these sides of Woody. His Christian devotion
rang proudly in Bragg's harsh reading of "Christ for
President." His playfulness bounced through "My Flying
Saucer." His amazingly graceful blend of the personal and
political inspired chills in "She Came Along to Me."
"This is the Woody most people haven't seen — the Woody in
the archives," Bragg said on stage, "and it's just as
important as the Woody we already know."
Why is this important? Ask any of the people there
Tuesday night — the grandparents, the tattooed punks, the
grizzled Okies, the dewey-eyed high schoolers, the
well-starched nine-to-fivers. These disparate groups were
all gathered together peacefully to celebrate a few glories
of living, and Woody's words — thanks in no small part to
Bragg's faithful delivery — spoke to every one of them.
Woody's impact effects more people than Will Rogers, Troy
Aikman or even Garth Brooks, and his legacy has only
Welcome home, Woody.
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.