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."
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.