BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
The first words displayed at the trailhead of "This Land
Is Your Land: The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie," the
Smithsonian Institution's traveling exhibit on the
Oklahoman songwriter's life and work, are, "I don't know how
far I'm going to have to go to see my own self or to hear
my own voice."
In Guthrie's life, which ended in 1967 from
complication's of Huntington's disease, that route was a
long one. Guthrie was a virtual vagabond, criss-crossing
the country in search of that voice — an echo of his own, a
metaphor of the American commoner — and transcribing that
voice into thousands of songs, some of which made him
famous. In the exhibit, fortunately, the curious have a
shorter road to travel, simply the length of one small
showroom in which is neatly encapsulated the life of one of
America's greatest artists.
I will call him an artist, too, instead of the more
specific word by which he is usually referred — songwriter.
"This Land Is Your Land" is the physical history of an
artist, a novelist, a painter, a tunesmith and a
philosopher (which has a substantial footing in art,
surely). If this exhibit does nothing else, it broadens our
understanding of Guthrie, not only of his biographical
details and overall social significance but of his creative
mind and the multitudes of outlets he found for his ideas --
In addition to the requisite manuscripts, the exhibit
hall is a riot of scrawls, photos, sketches, artifacts,
drawings and paintings. What's astonishing — and empowering --
is the unity of expression throughout every medium. It's
all the same voice, speaking different languages.
The unifying text in the display is Guthrie's landmark
poem, "Voice," from which those initial lines come from. It's
a poem in which Guthrie explores America's cultural
diversity and lays claim to the unspoken threads tying
together our expression. At the end of the poem, it boils
down to a more nebulous sensory assurance — the "voice" has
become a "feeling." The Smithsonian show, designed by Jim
Simms, re-creates that sense of commonality in all the
blurts of Guthrie's artistic voice.
Even on opening day, visitors voiced their surprise at
the volume of imagery in the show. They had come to see the
works of an old-timey wordsmith — and there are many
examples of his writing — and were confronted with the less
frequently discussed and surprisingly colorful visual
aspect of Guthrie's expression. Watching his visual art
develop as one winds through the snaking canyons of the
display is interesting, too. We start with the simple,
comic cartoon "Boom Town," a pen-and-ink depiction of
rollicking Okemah, the central Oklahoma oil boom town where
Guthrie grew up. Next, we move with Guthrie to Pampa,
Texas, where his first solitary wages were earned as a sign
painter. On display in the exhibit is Guthrie's 1937 oil
portrait of Abraham Lincoln, a simple copy of a picture but
one that already illustrates a distinct style — bold curves
and an overtly geometric understanding of form.
Jump to 1942 — another line drawing, cartoonish, of an
Okie grabbing the rails of a passing truck, entitled "Move."
That same year, though, Guthrie drew "Rounded Up in Tracy,
California," a depiction of Okies fleeing bullish cops in
the misadvertised "garden of Eden." The clear, simple lines
of the police car in the background give way to a more
fluid foreground — a nebulous crowd dominated by one man
silhouetted in the police headlights, the only details
being the buttons and collar of his work shirt and his
white, angelic hands.
From this point on, the crisp lines of Guthrie's
drawings bleed into wider, bolder strokes of ink and paint,
and the forms of his subjects relax into more nebulous,
ghostly figures. "Starvation Disease," undated, features a
face — barely — in muted watercolors and only three lines of
facial features to communicate an oceanic depth of
melancholy. Along one wall is a series of half a dozen
prints from April 1946, each panel a depiction of a woman
from behind in different modes of physical labor. She is
faceless each time, allowing the viewer to more easily
enter the scene and feel her weary but unyielding
"Hootenanny," from the same month, is a virtual stick
figure, a curly-headed guitar player assembled completely
from lines and circles. It looks like the kind of image
that accompanied ancient Oriental calligraphy — few strokes,
but big, sweeping ones — or the work of a more carefree (or
harried) Leroy Neiman. "Figures in Embrace" is a swirl of
only 17 strokes, but they're in there, that couple --
hugging, maybe even dancing.
It's no coincidence that Guthrie's visual art became
more pliable — and more prolific — as he grew older. The
immovable convictions of his younger days and older songs
softened in a broader understanding of the world. More
significantly, the onset of Huntington's disease began
making detail work more difficult. With shaky hands, he
could more easily sweep a fat brush across a large sketch
pad than trace the intricate lines of a wooden Okemah
sidewalk with a fine-pointed pen.
It's also no coincidence that the panel in this
exhibition depicting Guthrie's deteriorated state prior to
entering the hospital in the early '50s returns again to
the words of "Voice." Over an enlarged photo of a bedraggled,
bearded, hollow-eyed Guthrie playing guitar in New York's
Washington Square Park, we read, "And I thought as I saw a
drunken streetwalking man mutter and spit and curse into
the wind out of the cafe's plate glass, that maybe, if I
looked close enough, I might hear some more of my voice." At
this stage, Guthrie was that drunken streetwalking man,
finishing his interminable expedition for that common
sound, that absolute feeling, that universal voice.
It's too bad that a couple of things inhibit our
reception of Guthrie's voice throughout the exhibit. A show
that's designed to be displayed in 3,400 square feet has
been crammed into about 1,300. In several places, the
lighting has all the candlepower of a dashboard, which
makes reading Guthrie's all-important words especially
trying. Noisy humidifiers rage throughout the tour, too,
drowning out many of the speakers broadcasting various
snippets of Guthrie's singing and speaking voice. It's
annoying, but Guthrie's signal still gets through.
The show also features numerous interesting tidbits
beyond the visual aspect focused here: these include his
copy of Omar Khayyam's "Rubaiyat," several of Guthrie's
notebooks and datebooks open to interesting pages, his
shipboard fiddle (which also had carved upon it the slogan
"This Machine Kills Fascists"), a few watermark original song
lyrics, one of his business cards from KFVD in Los Angeles,
his address book (open to Pete Seeger's address and phone
number in Greenwich Village) and the "yes" and "no" cards with
which he communicated in the hospital once his voice was
At the end of the show, we are left with the ultimate
Guthrie send-off. From his bed in the Brooklyn State
Hospital, Guthrie scrawled with a brush the chorus of his
signature tune, "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You." Each
panel advances the line a few words, with a little doodle
in that broad-brush style to accompany it. It's the
convergence of his languages, visual and written
expressions coming together in a more refined voice, a
voice still echoing from the redwood forests to the
The exhibit continues at the Oklahoma Museum of History,
2100 N. Lincoln Boulevard in Oklahoma City, near the state
Capitol. For information, call (405) 522-5248.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
There's been a lot of ink poured around the Tulsa World,
trying to define and describe Red Dirt music, the elusive
mix of country, rock, blues and folk native to Oklahoma and
centered around Stillwater. It's like nailing smoke to a
wall. You can see it, you can smell it, but how do you grab
hold of it?
In all the interviews with musicians classified as Red
Dirt players, a lot of names come up as influences. A lot
of folks hearken back to the Tulsa Sound days of Leon
Russell and J.J. Cale. Some trace their sound back to Merle
Haggard, others tell stories about Garth Brooks' days in
the Stillwater bars. Songwriter Bob Childers is pretty
universally hailed as the genre's godfather.
But one name comes up more than all the others. In a
recent search of the Tulsa World's electronic archives
(stories back to 1989), 176 stories mentioned Red Dirt
music, and 143 of those mentioned Woody Guthrie.
If Red Dirt is the great consolidation of American
music, especially south of the Mason-Dixon, then surely its
crucible can be found in the tangled woods around Guthrie's
old Okemah home site. Guthrie was famous for a certain
slice of his music — frank, topical folk songs — but he wrote
and performed every conceivable genre of music in the
decades he wandered this land with his guitar slung over
his shoulder on a rope.
The comprehensive four-CD, boxed set from Smithsonian
Folkways Records, "The Asch Recordings," covers most of this --
his cowboy music, his Tex-Mex, his kids songs, his blues.
Guthrie respected differences in people and in music.
"The unifying theme in Woody's music is that he wrote
about the land he loved," says Tulsa scholar Guy Logsdon. "He
played the melodies and music that came from the land he
loved, from Oklahoma, one of the most culturally diverse
places in America. Let's also say he modified it. He used
the music he heard as a foundation and built upon it.
"That's what these Red Dirt guys are doing. The Garth
Brookses and Jimmy LaFaves and Tom Skinners and there's a
guy in Bristow named Brett Graham — they use their heritage
as a foundation and build their own sound on top of it. It
just happens to be a very broad foundation," Logsdon said.
LaFave, who grew up in Stillwater but relocated to
Austin to make his career, is considered one of the
principal standard-bearers of the Red Dirt ideal. He cites
Guthrie's influence consistently and has become a pillar of
the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah.
Another expatriate Stillwater son, Bruce Henderson now
in New York City, cites Guthrie among the lathes that
shaped his easy-going, country-rock songwriting. Regional
singer-songwriter Brandon Jenkins said in a '98 interview,
"I've been real involved with Woody Guthrie music lately,
and it got me back to writing music for my own reasons, not
to have a hit."
"It's about finding your identity," Logsdon said. "Often we
search for ourselves and discover we're part of something
greater." "Where is Woody Guthrie in Red Dirt music? In
the truth," said John Cooper of the Red Dirt Rangers this
week. The Rangers are probably the ultimate example of Red
Dirt's nebulous but potent mixture of styles.
"It's in the lyrics, in trying to tell the absolute truth
as you see it. Woody said you can only write what you know
about, and it's true," Cooper said.
The Rangers themselves have struggled throughout their
11-year existence to explain to folks what they do, what
their music is. Someone once called them "Woody Guthrie gone
In '95, Cooper told the Tulsa World, "A lot of people
think we're a country band, which is true, but we do a lot
more than that. It shows in the kinds of gigs we do. We've
done kids shows, bluegrass festivals, rock 'n' roll events,
city festivals, prison shows and private parties."
The broad base of their sound and influences allows them
to be that versatile. But it's that element of truth that
separates them from most style classifications based purely
on musical form. It's almost like Christian music, a
musical category containing every possible style of music
but segregated purely because of its message. Red Dirt
places a higher importance on truth in the lyrics than most
other genres, certainly pure country.
"Like a song on our upcoming record, ‘Leave This World a
Better Place.' I'm serious about that," Cooper said this
week. "I didn't write that just to be catchy. I want people
to hear that and believe as much as I do that that's what
we should do."
That does not imply that Red Dirt music is protest
"It's not necessarily political like Woody got sometimes
and like he's so well-known for being. You can't take the
politics away from Woody, and really from us either, but
we're more about the politics of love, if that's not too
"Our connection to Woody is through that desire to tell
the truth and to lift people up no matter what kind of
stories you're telling them," Cooper said.
"Woody was the voice of all people who struggle," added
Ranger singer Brad Piccolo, "but people struggle in many
different ways, not just political stuff. There has to be
honesty in every area of playing music, because people come
to music for a lot of different reasons."
Even Guthrie himself didn't know what to call his music.
In 1940, a reviewer included a discussion of Guthrie's "Dust
Bowl Ballads" under the heading "Americana." In his scrapbook,
Guthrie scribbled his response: "Americana is a new one on
me, but when these fellers hire out to write a column every
day they ain't no telling what kinds of words they'll fall
back on to make a living."
Guilty as charged.
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.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
"This Land Is Your Land: The Life and Legacy of Woody
What: The Smithsonian Institution's traveling exhibit.
When: Opens Friday, runs through May 4 Where: The Oklahoma
Museum of History, Wiley Post Building, southeast of the
state Capitol at 2100 N. Lincoln Blvd., Oklahoma City.
Woody Guthrie wrote a lot of songs about rambling
He literally could not sit still. He had a natural
restlessness and a fierce wanderlust, and he died of a
nervous disease that made him shake. He was on the move all
the time — hopping freights across the Midwest, riding
sagging jalopies with Okies through the Southwest, touring
with his singing group in the Northeast, writing songs
about the Grand Coulee Dam in the Northwest, hiding out in
a swamp in the Southeast.
He touched every point of the compass — N, E, W, S — and
then he wrote songs that reported the news of the places
and people he'd seen. His songs were, for the most part,
journalism — with a large literary license. He happened to
be conducting his field reporting during this country's
hardest times, starting in the 1930s, so he met a lot of
homeless people, drifters, the dispossessed. The Okies.
Guthrie's own home back in Oklahoma had disintegrated,
partly because of the hard times and partly because of
family turmoil. Guthrie, a teenager, was left behind in the
decaying boom town of Okemah. His ties broken, he finished
his junior year of high school and stuck his thumb in the
wind. He left Oklahoma at age 17 and, except for a few
brief visits, he never came back.
Strange then that this rascally, clever songwriter --
famed for spirited songs as widely sung as "This Land Is
Your Land" — should be considered a native son of our state.
Strange then the fuss over Okemah's long-overdue embracing
of its late hometown boy and the fanfare of its annual
summer folk festival in his name. Strange the effort of
officials at the Smithsonian Institution and the Woody
Guthrie Archives to make sure the museum's current
traveling exhibition of Guthrie's life and work actually
opens in Oklahoma this week.
Or maybe not so strange. When you hear Guthrie's songs,
when you read his prose, when you study his life, it's
clear that Woody left Oklahoma but Oklahoma never left
The value of land
Oklahoma is restless land. Its
history is a pile of pulled-up stakes. Countless Indians of
every stripe were dumped here
— because the land wasn't valued. Only after the rest of the
continent had begun filling up did the government open
these lands to white settlers — because the land wasn't
valued. Oil companies jumped in, sucked the marrow out of
the earth and left as fast as they'd come — because the land
was no longer valuable. Thousands upon thousands of those
same white settlers were evicted from those same land
claims years later when severe drought turned them to dust --
and the land wasn't valuable. Migration, resettlement,
migration again. On and on.
But the land had value to those who planted it, hunted
on it, were born on it and buried their parents in it.
Those hard-working Okies probably had more sentimental
value for land than any category of Americans, and one wiry
little fellow watched all those land lovers come and go,
seizing and releasing the fields around his hometown. As a
boy growing up in Okemah, Guthrie met Indians, farmers,
ranchers and oil men. As he began traveling the plains
roads, he met countless farmers and ranchers who'd been
thrown off their land.
As he roamed to California and back with the
dispossessed, Guthrie learned about the value of home.
Thomas Wolfe had just informed the world that none of us
can truly go home again, but Guthrie discovered that, no
matter where someone hangs his or her head, home can be
rebuilt in an instant simply by strumming a few chords and
singing the old songs.
Joe Klein, in his 1980 biography, Woody Guthrie: A Life,
wrote of Guthrie's discovery on the road with the Okies:
"They always wanted to hear the old tunes — there weren't
many requests for fox trots in the boxcars — and Woody was
amazed by the impact the songs had. . . . The whiny old
ballads his mother had taught him were a bond that all
country people shared; and now, for the migrants, the songs
were all that was left of the land . . . It wasn't just
entertainment; he was performing their past. They listened
closely, almost reverently, to the words. In turn, he
listened to their life stories, and felt their pain and
anger. An odd thing began to percolate. He was one of
So Guthrie learned those songs — "The Boll Weevil," "The
Farmer Is the Man," "The Buffalo Skinners," "A Picture From
Life's Other Side." The ones that made him famous, though,
were the ones he wrote about the land and people's tenuous
relation to it in the 1930s.
In the songbook of folk favorites Guthrie and Pete
Seeger compiled in 1940 (which wasn't published until
1967), Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People, there's a
chapter called "The Okie Section." Each of the baker's dozen
of songs is by Guthrie — "I'm Goin' Down That Road Feeling
Bad," "Dust Can't Kill Me," "Dust Bowl Refugee," "You Okies and
Arkies," "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You," "If You Ain't
Got the Do Re Mi," "Tom Joad," and more. They're all songs
about Okies — about people who'd been cut loose from their
homes and homesteads.
It wasn't just Okies out there on the road, heading to
California. In his introduction to "The Okie Section,"
Guthrie explains that by 1940 he'd come to a realization --
that the plight of the Okies is mirrored in the
workingman's struggle in every state.
"It looks like this Okie section ought to be my pet
section — but it ain't," he wrote. "When I first commenced a
working on this book, I thought myself it would be. And
then I took a looking tour through about 20 of the other
states — and everything was just about as hungry, and in
some spots hungrier. Virginia, Tennessee, Pennsylvania,
Kentucky, Ohio, New York and back to Oklahoma and Texas
again. One is about as naked as the other."
He was learning that the common man's struggle he
witnessed in Oklahoma was hardly different from the same
struggle in any other state or any other country. He was
becoming a citizen of the world.
Taking Oklahoma's message tothe world: But he was still
a gosh-dern Okie. Not long after arriving in New York City
in '40 — after years on the radio in L.A. as "Oklahoma Woody" --
Guthrie wrote a song called "Down in Oklayhoma," in which he
was still reflecting on the gulf between the state's
abundant natural riches and the workingman's poverty:
Just dig a little hole, you'll find soft coal
Some lead or zinc, just dig a little hole;
Everybody I know goes in the hole
Down in Oklayhoma
Other songs followed — "Hooversville," about a squalid
homeless camp in Oklahoma City; "The Dalton Boys" about the
famous gangsters and their Green Country hideout; "Verdigris
Headrise" about a young Will Rogers; "Okleye Homeye Home," in
which he begs the listener to "take me back to my
He dressed like an Okie. He often smelled like one, too.
More importantly, he spoke like an Okie, which means he
wrote and sang in the same way. "I'm Goin' Down the Road
Feeling Bad" is built around a chorus that declares, "I ain't
gonna be treated this-a way," and his songs were heavily
spiced with this down-home dialect. Guthrie's
autobiographical novel, "Bound for Glory," was described by
the New York World-Telegram as being written "largely in
Even as Oklahomans forgot Guthrie, Guthrie never forgot
his home state. Even when his politics got mixed up and out
of context over time — he supported unions and even
communists, because, as he wrote, "Nobody cared — except the
Union Boys. They was the onliest ones that was on our side
through thick and thin" — Oklahomans eventually shunned him,
but he never brushed the red dirt off his soles in protest.
He took the message of Oklahoma to the world, and it's just
now beginning to echo back.
Oklahoma Folklife Center plans to protect folkways for the future
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
In 1941, Woody Guthrie was involved in a theatrical
production in New York, a revue of sorts led by Earl
Robinson. The show involved a skit in which a group of
stalwart, American singers, featuring Guthrie, were set
upon by an unscrupulous music publisher hoping to buy them
off and water down their music. The script called for
Guthrie to stomp and cry out in outrage, but when he
performed the lines his laid-back, Okie drawl sounded
Robinson, according to Guthrie biographer Joe Klein,
said, "Woody, for Chrissake, don't you ever get angry at
people in Oklahoma?"
Guthrie leaned back and, slower than ever, replied, "Yup.
We get angry. But when we get angry, we just give 'em a
long, hard stare."
That trait, believe it or not — that laid-back approach
or the refusal to show immediate, hot anger — is a folkway,
a characteristic element of a particular group of people
that is learned or handed down from generation to
generation. It's ephemeral, it seems, but it's these little
distinctions that separate an Oklahoman from a New Yorker
or a Tennessean or a Californian.
And it's these folkways — from music to crafts to these
elusive social traits — that the Oklahoma Folklife Center
plans to preserve and to provide opportunities to examine
The Tulsa-based Oklahoma Folklife Center is a new
creation, a satellite of the Smithsonian Institution's
American Folklife Center, and organized under the umbrella
of the Oklahoma Historical Society and funded thus far
through a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the
Arts. So far, the center has one employee, director Guy
It doesn't even have a home yet. The center eventually
will be housed in Tulsa's historic Travis Mansion, 2435 S.
Peoria Ave., undergoing renovation and additions by its new
owner, the Tulsa Historical Society. Until those
improvements are complete, the Oklahoma Folklife Center
will operate out of Logsdon's midtown Tulsa home.
That's fitting, of course, because Logsdon's home is its
own folklife center. For decades, the former University of
Tulsa librarian has compiled his own massive and impressive
collection of Americana and folk music-related research,
and his back room is its own museum — a storehouse of
documents, research and artifacts relating to cowboy
poetry, American folk music and other subjects far and wide
— including recipes, folk art, even the peculiar way some
Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma
Historical Society, has even bigger dreams for the folklife
"I foresee this growing to the point where we need a
physical location for the center itself," Blackburn said
last week, "especially because of the performing arts aspect
of folk arts. It would encourage the performance of music
and the exhibition of more folklife materials, the
demonstration of folkways and apprenticeships."
Blackburn expects the folklife center to catch on
quickly in Oklahoma, largely because of its Tulsa base.
"The Tulsa community has always supported the arts so
well," he said. "I remember attending the Chautauqua event up
there five or six years ago, when Danny Goble portrayed
Huey Long, and it was standing room only. I thought, ‘Boy,
these Tulsans really get into this sort of expression of
our cultural heritage.'
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
We could clear the dictionary of superlatives discussing
the colossal talent of B.B. King and his indelible mark on
blues, rock 'n' roll, even jazz. A singer, a songwriter and
a guitarist beyond compare, King has been a forceful
presence in music for more than half a century, and at 76
years young the old master is still recording, still
touring — despite occasional injuries, like the fractured
leg he suffered two weeks ago falling from his tour bus
steps — even hawking Whoppers in TV commercials, somehow
without sacrificing an ounce of his legendary dignity and
We might also assume that King achieved such legendary
status by learning from the right people. Growing up in
Mississippi, King heard certain blues guitarists who fired
him up, and the excitement encouraged him to step out of
his street-corner gospel quartets and pick up an old
guitar. But even though he has been described by Rolling
Stone magazine as "a great consolidator of styles," King,
with his trademark humility in an interview this week, said
he couldn't then and still can't play as good as his
"I could never play like my idols. I wanted to. But I
couldn't do what they did, so I couldn't really take that
and do something else with it. People say I borrowed this
and I borrowed that and then made it all into my own thing.
All I ever had was my own thing to begin with," King said.
Indeed, in interviewing an artist the most cliched
question to ask is, "Who influenced you?" But when
approaching a legend as large as King, in a career that has
become its own undeniable influence, we couldn't help but
come back to that discussion. Where, indeed, did this
franchise begin, and are these the same roots sprouting
"Well, it wasn't Robert Johnson, let me say," King said. "A
lot of kids think Robert Johnson was the greatest blues
guitarist ever. I don't agree. Lonnie Johnson was much
better. And there was a guy born in Texas, born blind,
called Lemon Jefferson. People called him Blind Lemon
Jefferson. He was another idol. I liked jazz, too. Charlie
Christian — born right there in Oklahoma — he was great,
another favorite. Barney Kessel (another Oklahoman) said he
was the greatest jazz guitarist ever, and I trust him
because he's the greatest ever. I heard a French gypsy named Django
Reinhardt, and then T-Bone Walker playing electric guitar.
We called what he did single-string. This is the stuff that
made me fall in love with the guitar."
"Lookie here, I've got a lot of these records right here
in my room today."
"I still can't play like any of 'em.
"I wish I could explain it. I wish I could say what they
did that got me. Each one of them had something that seemed
to go through me like a sword. I don't know how to explain
it. It's something that happens and you just know, you know
on some spiritual level, that this was meant for you to
hear. It's like a person telling a story — each one of 'em
had a punch line. You get it or you don't. And I got it. I
A lot of blues players have come along during the 54
years King has been recording and touring, but few of them,
he said, have pierced him the way those original players
did. King's ever-expanding influence has brought many of
them to his throne. He's recorded with countless blues
stars, frequently with his old buddy and current opening
act Bobby "Blue" Bland, and with such figures as John Lee
Hooker, Etta James, Mick Jagger, Robert Cray, Willie
Nelson, Van Morrison, Albert Collins, even rapper Heavy D.
"The young guys don't get me the same way," he said.
"They're always playing something I wish I could play, and
they play things I can't play. I learn from them, but I
don't get that something I got from the other guys."
He speaks wistfully of his collaborations with Eric
Clapton, most recently the "Riding With the King" album. In
fact, that's the only record of King's in the last few
years that gets much airplay.
"Blues isn't on the radio much," King said. "Every city has
some station that plays the blues late at night. I met one
fellow once who said, 'B.B., every Saturday night after 12
we play a whole hour of blues.' And I said, 'Well, what do
you do with the other 23 hours?' ... Most of the time I
hear blues on the radio it's on a college station."
Ironically, maybe the most singular event in King's
development as a guitarist was his landing a job as a disc
jockey in the late '40s at WDIA in Memphis. He'd already
begun to work as a musician — playing at a cafe in West
Memphis, Ark., with the likes of Bobby Bland and pianist
Johnny Ace — so as a DJ he gained a reputation for playing
the hippest records around. As a bonus for listeners, King
sometimes would play along with the records on the air,
publicizing his own personal guitar lessons.
Years later, at the dawn of the '90s, King attached his
name and status to a nightclub on Beale Street in Memphis,
largely as a way to buttress the legacy of Memphis blues
that had set him so firmly on the path to stardom and
"Beale Street was down to nothing, and some people wanted
to help bring it back. I travel around the world, and
people think Chicago is the home of the blues. Now Chicago
did a lot to help blues players — they opened their doors
and hearts to Muddy Waters and many like him — but
personally I think Memphis is the home of the blues and
always was," King said. "Most of the original blues players
were born in Mississippi and moved to Memphis and then went
many different ways. I was one of them. And people had
started to forget."
You wanna talk influence? King's regular gigs in the
late '40s on Beale Street convinced Sam Phillips, then an
engineer at another Memphis radio station and at the
opulent Peabody Hotel, to open his first recording studio.
King was one of his first clients in 1950, recording his
first records. Phillips went on to be the most important
producer in the history of rock and soul, starting Sun
Records and launching Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Roy
The B.B. King Blues Club is now the cornerstone of the
gentrified Beale Street, and the success of the club has
led to three more openings — in New York City; Universal
City, Calif.; and in the Foxwood Indian casino in
Connecticut — with plans to open a total of 10 across the
"If I live long enough, maybe I'll see all 10. I'm really
proud of them," King said. Then he sighed. "I've been pretty
good through the years. I've lived a pretty good life.
Someday they'll be blues without B.B. King around, and I
doubt you'll miss me that much. But I've done OK."
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Brady Theater, 105 W. Brady St.
Admission: Sold Out
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.