By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
The Woody Guthrie Archives isn't anything fancy, which
is in keeping with the lifestyle of the archives' namesake.
The collection is not under heavy guard, under glass or
even — thanks to Nora Guthrie's efforts — under wraps. The
archives is really just a bunch of filing cabinets in a
cramped, stuffy two-room office in midtown Manhattan, open
for public perusal as long as you make an appointment.
Nora Guthrie, Woody's daughter, runs the place, and
she's not too fancy, either. She's about as open and honest
and casual a professional as you can find. Of course, there
again the terminology doesn't do the situation justice.
Nora doesn't run anything at all — she inspires, enthralls,
educates, grounds and delights all visitors and staff
members. A remarkably engaging, uplifting woman, she
oversees the use of Guthrie's backlog of songs, poetry and
prose. Those cabinets are stuffed to overflowing with
pages of Woody's work — some of it intended for public
consumption, a lot of it scribbled down just to get it out
of his ever-bubbling brain. Nora already has guided British
folk-rocker Billy Bragg and American roots band Wilco
through the stacks; the results were the two "Mermaid Avenue"
albums, featuring tuneless, old Woody lyrics with new
music. Many more such projects are in the pipeline.
The exhibition that soon will be showing at the Oklahoma
Historical Society in Oklahoma City, "This Land Is Your
Land: The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie," was culled from
this resource. The show has been touring museums across the
country for more than two years; its Oklahoma stop — in
Guthrie's home state — is likely its last.
Bringing the show here was a challenge, though. I talked
with Nora last week about the exhibit, its challenges, and
why Oklahoma has been so resistant for so long to welcoming
home its most talented native son:
Let me start with my basic question right now: was Woody
With an accent like that — are you kidding?
What's always fascinated me about Woody is that he left
the state as a teenager, yet everything he wrote, said and
sang for the rest of his life was clearly influenced by his
That's always interested me, too. To be honest, I've
always felt like we were his step-family, in a way — that we
were kind of holding onto him until Oklahoma finally takes
Everything he did and fought for had to do with the
basic values he learned in Oklahoma. When I lecture in
Oklahoma, I tell people, "You think he's talking about other
people's rights and other people's problems, but he was
talking about your grandfather" — and I point at them — "and
your aunt and your cousin." These were his people.
"Everything he wrote, especially the early songs, was about
your family." He wasn't that expanded back then. What did he
know from America? All he knew was that someone's
grandmother lost the farm or someone's cousin was done
wrong. Everything he cared about came from his love for
Oklahoma and then became explained and justified by the
rest of his life.
When he finally traveled to other places, he found that
they were having the same problems, so he could become this
spokesperson for America — the people, not the land or the
Why did he return home so rarely?
Well, there were family and political problems that were
a big part of that, but the biggest part was the
Huntington's disease. There was this cosmic understanding
that took place between him and my mother (Marjorie
Guthrie) that she was his caretaker because he couldn't go
He was in exile.
I don't think he ever used that word, but there was
definitely an emotional exile that he felt — and was
bewildered by, to be quite honest. He was always from
Oklahoma and always wrote about it and put it in context.
When he wrote about New York, it was in the context of "look
at me, I'm a big hick, and I'm getting on this crazy
underground train." He always contextualized himself. But he
couldn't go home.
Until now. The annual folk festival in Okemah has
welcomed his spirit home, and perhaps the exhibition will,
It almost didn't happen, though. It was my wish that
this touring show open in Oklahoma two years ago. When I
first put it together, that was the only thought I ever
I was innocent and naive, I'm confessing, but I thought,
"Great, we'll have this show, and it'll open in Oklahoma." I
mean, where else would you open it? This is the place.
If Walt Whitman or any other major American figure had a
major exhibit, wouldn't you think it would be welcomed in
their hometown? Isn't that why Salinas (Calif.) has that
huge thing for Steinbeck? Everyone wants to cheer their
homeboy. But not in Oklahoma, not for a long time, anyway.
So what went wrong?
We had it booked in the Cowboy Hall of Fame (in Oklahoma
City). We were planning things — a big concert, some other
events. It was going to have this kind of reborn feeling,
like he's back and let's finally give birth to Woody in
Oklahoma and say, "Yes, he's from here."
A couple of months before it was supposed to open, we
got a call from the museum backing out. They gave some
vague reasons about scheduling conflicts and then about
funding, but I didn't even listen to it because I knew it
was politics. I just thought, gosh, I'm fiftysomething now,
hasn't anything changed out there in all this time? Isn't
there a new generation there who can stand up and recognize
that this guy was from Oklahoma and he doesn't have to be
the star of the state, but you could at least say, "I might
not like his politics, but what a great writer"?
Where did the exhibition open?
In California, at the Steinbeck museum. And it turned
out to be really special there, after all. Lefty Lou
(Crisman, Woody's former radio show partner) came, and she
said to me, "How did you know to open it in L.A.?" I didn't
understand her, and she told me this story. She said, "When
we had the radio show at KFVD, every afternoon for lunch
Woody and I would come out to that rock over there" — we were
standing outside the Steinbeck center — "and eat. We would
hike up there every single day for lunch, walk around the
hills, then go back and do the afternoon show." So the
exhibition opened on that site where they spent so many
afternoons, and she thought I'd done that on purpose. It
wound up having its own significance.
Still, I always hoped it would make it to Oklahoma. Like
most of Woody's stuff, this exhibition has been a sleeper.
We had trouble getting it started, and we had to put up the
money ourselves to get it into New York. It turned out to
be such a huge success there that the director of the
museum came up to me one evening and said, "Nora, I was so
skeptical. I didn't think this show was going to be that
good. That's why we didn't push to raise the funds for it.
But the public response has been so amazing, we've had more
attendance for this than anything else this year. If I
could do it again, I'd double-book it. I just didn't get
You know, these people study charts and financial
reports, and they don't get the people. They're not
connected, and this was maybe a good lesson in that
What turned the tide to allow the show to come here?
Once it caught on elsewhere, we found some friends in
the Oklahoma Historical Society and the state arts council
there. It just took a couple of years. It was about that
amount of time that the festival in Okemah really took off,
too, so I guess it just takes time.
It' so typical of Woody's personality, you know. He was
always a sleeper. He'd slip into a room and say something,
and two people would pay attention, then a few more, then a
few more, until he had the whole place in the palm of his
Woody Guthrie exhibit to open Friday
The Smithsonian Institution's acclaimed exhibition, "This
Land Is Your Land: The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie,"
opens Friday at the Oklahoma Museum of History in Oklahoma
The exhibit explores the life of the native Oklahoman
songwriter, author of such well-known tunes as "Union Maid,"
"So Long, It's Been Good to Know You" and "This Land Is Your
Land." The show offers material from the Woody Guthrie
Archives and the Smithsonian Institution, including
original manuscripts, drawings, sound recordings and some
The show — organized by Nora Guthrie, his daughter and
executive director of the archives, and the Smithsonian
Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) — has been
ramblin' round the country for two years. This stop in
Guthrie's home state will be its last. Guthrie was born
in the town of Okemah in 1912. He traveled the country
writing songs much of his life, many of those journeys with
dispossessed Okies in the 1930s. He lived in New York City
in the last years of his life, many of which were in
hospitals before he died in 1967 of complications from
Huntington's disease. He wrote thousands of songs before he
died, most of which remain collected in the Woody Guthrie
The exhibit will remain on view through May 4. The
museum is located in the Wiley Post Building, just SE of
the state capitol at 2100 N. Lincoln Boulevard in Oklahoma
For more information, contact the museum at (405)
522-5248 or email email@example.com.
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.