By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Woody Guthrie, despite his aw-shucks Okie persona, was no fool. He knew how the fame game worked — it hasn't changed much, even since his 1940s folksinging heyday — and he seemed to know exactly what would happen to his own musical legacy.
"The hungrier you get up here in New York, the more they run your picture," Guthrie wrote to his younger sister in 1949, inserting a photo of himself from The New York Times. "After you starve clean to the rim of death they call you a professional, and after you die off they call you a great genius."
He continued, foreshadowing the collection of his notebooks, lyrics and artwork that now constitutes the Woody Guthrie Archives: "And when somebody steps in and buys up all of your diaries and scribblings and songs and poems they call you the greatest feller which ever lived, so's your debtors and loaners can get rich off the stink of your dead bones and yaller pages of ideas."
Guthrie himself certainly never got rich off his music, and I don't think anyone else has, either. But as Nora Guthrie, Woody's daughter and the overseer of the Archives, told me earlier this year, "The influence of my father's music lives today, and will live throughout the 21st century."
That would have been clear this year — even without a string of celebrations marking Guthrie's 100th birthday.
In a post-Occupy landscape, Guthrie's topical, rabble-rousing spirit seems infused into everything from the street-marching "guitararmy" in New York City and elsewhere, often led by Chicago-area native Tom Morello, to the latest output from Bruce Springsteen (his new album, his SXSW keynote speech).
The varied Woody100 centennial events this year featured many posthumously hailing Guthrie, indeed, as a "great genius." They included six academic conferences (I spoke at one in March in my and Guthrie's home state), folk concerts big (a Los Angeles hoedown in April featuring Graham Nash, John Doe, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Kris Kristopherson and more) and small (Chicago's own tribute show in May), plus exhibits, plays and more. A few more national concerts are on tap — Sept. 22 in Brooklyn (with Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Billy Bragg, Steve Earle and more) and Oct. 14 at D.C.'s Kennedy Center (with Arlo Guthrie, John Mellencamp, Jackson Browne, Donovan, Lucinda Williams and more) — before wrapping the centennial and moving the Archives from New York to its new home in Tulsa, Okla.
Chicagoans can catch one last centennial event — a good one — during the next few weeks.
"Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie," a stage musical presenting just that, opens Sept. 21 and runs through Oct. 21 at Northlight Theatre, inside the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd. in Skokie.
Guthrie and Broadway? Have no fear. "Woody Sez" is a low-key, high-spirited celebration of Guthrie's music, featuring 30 folk songs (Guthrie's and other traditional tunes). It's far less jukebox musical than a kind of down-home playlist — a splendid swirl of tunes coming and going, each telling and supporting the story.
The Northlight production — featuring the show's creators, Nick Corley (director) and David M. Lutken (starring as Guthrie) — features a simple stage littered with musical instruments: four guitars, mandolin, upright bass, autoharp, dobro, three fiddles, banjo, dulcimer and a harmonica. In an hour and a half, the four actor-musicians keep snatching them up for a verse here, a chorus there, a full song or a reprise. This is how Guthrie lived — applying bits of songs to aid both speech and memory — and it's not so different a method from our own YouTube samples and iPod shuffles. Guthrie just happened to be a walking folk-music Google.
Lutken is great, warmly telling Guthrie's story and differing from his source material only in ways that aren't exactly complaints (unlike Guthrie, Lutken is a tall drink of water and sings beautifully). The cast also features David Finch, the delightful Helen Jean Russell and Austin musician (and formidable "Jill of all trades") Darcie Deaville. They act, they sing, they juggle, they tell bipartisan political jokes.
(There might even be an unintentional gay-marriage laugh in the show. "I married a girl," Lutken narrates as Guthrie, then continues after a slight but significant beat, "Most of us did in those days" — likely an innocent Guthrieism that the Sept. 14 audience reacted to with a slow wave of winking chuckles. Ever-adaptable, that Woody.)
Knitted together by verses from Guthrie's "The Ballad of Tom Joad," "Woody Sez" hopscotches through the folksinger's biography (in fact, taking giant leaps through his later years), ably chronicling what happens when a man with a singular voice not only finds it but figures out what to do with it. "I began to see the difference," Lutken says as Guthrie, "between wanting something to stop — and wanting to stop it."
Guthrie's legacy remains a bottomless well of inspiration for like-minded souls, and these centennial celebrations hopefully seeded more to come.
Deep down, though, Guthrie knew something else about celebrity, and — despite his pure and sainted status — he was happy for the attention. Perhaps channeling Oscar Wilde, he closed a 1948 manuscript with these lines: "I don't care / What you say about me / Just so you say it."
'WOODY SEZ; THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF WOODY GUTHRIE'
• Sept. 21-Oct. 21
• Northlight Theatre, inside the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd. in Skokie.
• Tickets: $25-$72; (847) 673-6300; northlight.org
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual conference and festival ...
© Chicago Sun-Times
This SXSW post is not brought to you by an Austin homeless person
By Thomas Conner on March 13, 2012 6:09 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Perhaps you've heard that the zeitgeist at the annual South by Southwest culturefest is now located in the Interactive segment, rather than the conference's original Music portion. Must be true — the first real controversy of SXSW 2012 occurred before many music critics had landed in the Texas capital.
SXSW is now a 10-day event encompassing rollouts of films, digital ventures and new music. The movies and online jibber-jabber started March 9; the music blares on through March 18.
But it's a crowded event, with celebrities, journalists and industry types jamming the Austin Convention Center and venues throughout downtown. Last year, nearly 20,000 registrants attended the Interactive portion — which wraps up today, just as the Music showcases begin tonight. As you might imagine, mobile bandwidth comes at a premium.
So BBH Labs, the techie division of the marketing agency BBH, tried a little experiment.
They gathered 13 people from a local homeless shelter, gave them mobile 4G Wi-Fi devices and sent them into the throng. Each volunteer wore a T-shirt saying, "I'm [Homeless Person's Name], a 4G Hotspot."
Many have found the campaign insensitive. Wired.com wrote that it "sounds like something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia." Technology blog ReadWriteWeb called it a "blunt display of unselfconscious gall." In an online op-ed, The Washington Post wondered "Have we lost our humanity?"
The company paid the homeless workers $20 up front and a minimum of $50 a day for about six hours work, said Emma Cookson, chairwoman of BBH New York. They also were able to keep whatever customers donated in exchange for the wireless service.
When you log on to one of the Homeless Hot Spots sites, customers are introduced to the person providing the connection and are invited to make a donation. A statement on the page reads: "Homeless Hotspots is a charitable innovation initiative by BBH New York. It attempts to modernize the Street Newspaper model employed to support homeless populations."
Saneel Radia, the BBH Labs director who oversaw the project, told the New York Times the company was not taking advantage of the homeless volunteers.
Other might want to get in on the action, though. My cab driver from the airport said, "Hell, they can load up my cab and I'll drive around with a hundred hotspots, long as I can keep the meter running."
SXSW dials down the digital, cranks up the music
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2012 9:00 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — Let the music begin. For days here in the Texas capital, tastemakers from digital ventures and the film industry have been unveiling their wares at the South by Southwest culture conference. Tuesday night, however, the programming shifted back to what built SXSW a quarter century ago: music.
More than 2,000 bands will roll their gear into Austin during the next few days, performing on more than 90 official stages. Last year, more than 16,000 registrants attended the music portion of the festival, including artists, publicists, industry scouts and a lot of media.
Music is a hot topic among digital pioneers, of course, so concert stages were under way earlier in the week. Hip-hop titan Jay-Z performed Monday night for an invitation crowd.
Tuesday night, as the Interactive sessions died down, the music showcases revved up. Last year was the first time music showcases started backing into the Tuesday of SXSW week, and there were more this year.
Chief among them was the return of Philly singer-rapper Santigold, acclaimed upon her 2008 debut and not heard from much since. Now she's out hyping her upcoming sophomore set, "Master of My Make-Believe," due May 1.
This being Austin, there was also a crowded fete for the loveable and quirky Daniel Johnston, a beloved area singer-songwriter.
The music programming starts in earnest today and continues through the weekend, with Bruce Springsteen giving the keynote address midday Thursday and performing later that night with the E Street Band, which launches its next tour this weekend.
Got a SiriusXM radio or a friend who does? The SiriusXMU channel is airing SXSW broadcasts all week, including the Friday night outdoor concert by the Shins.
SXSW: Alabama Shakes deserves the hype
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2012 5:06 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Buzz bands at the annual South by Southwest music conference have a lot in common with those who win best new artist at the Grammys. You tend to not hear much from them afterward. (Last year, conference attendees and wristband fans clawed over each other to get into showcases by London fuzz-rock band Yuck. Who? Exactly.)
Possibly the buzziest of the buzz bands at this year's SXSW (so far) is Alabama Shakes — but this is a band you're going to hear much more from.
Fresh out of the piney woods just an hour downriver from the legendary soul studios at Muscle Shoals — and with only a couple of EPs to their credit thus far — Alabama Shakes is a fiery quintet of youngsters playing country-soul that both Skynyrd and Otis could love.
The anticipation generated one of the largest crowds ever for a daytime showcase at the Austin Convention Center, with several hundred filling a ballroom for the group's Wednesday afternoon performance. The band just played a sold-out gig last weekend at Chicago's Lincoln Hall.
For the most part, the hype is deserved. Lead singer Brittany Howard is a cool storm, one of those young singers exuding confidence beyond her years and presence possibly beyond this earthly realm. She pulls her accent back, often singing through rounded cheeks that add an extra dimension to her growls and wails. Her voice isn't a wide-ranging beast (her high notes are thin), but it's a beast nonetheless, purring like Macy Gray or exploding in very occasional fits of Janis Joplin.
The band supports her with remarkably restrained backing, controlling the dynamics of every song — slowing down when it wants to get fast, and vice versa — like making great love. Each player keeps things tuneful but spare — leaving huge spaces for Howard to snake through, then unleashing rare bursts of carefully timed fury. In that respect, they could use a songwriting mentor; at least half the set features rocking soul numbers that develop the same way, always ending with the band grinding hard while Howard wails something appropriately animalistic and urgent over and over ("Feels good!" or "Yes, he did!!" or "Well, all right!!!"). The band's ninth and final song, the dramatic groove of "You Ain't Alone," followed that template and resulted in their second standing ovation of the set.
SXSW: Little Steven on TV, Broadway, Springsteen tour
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2012 8:00 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Little Steven Van Zandt had a good chuckle about an alleged rumor reported this week during South by Southwest.
A writer at Magnet music magazine claimed he'd heard that, for their anticipated Thursday night performance during the annual music festival, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band would be performing a version of the Broadway musical "The Music Man." (The writer later confessed, not surprisingly, "I made it up.")
"You never know, though," Van Zandt said during a chat Wednesday with the Sun-Times, laughing heartily at the idea. "[Springsteen] might have some Broadway up his sleeve."
Van Zandt is in Austin this week for a couple of reasons. In addition to the Thursday night show, he's also promoting something SXSW hardly deals with it all: a TV show.
Following his turn as a gangster in the HBO series "The Sopranos," Van Zandt is again playing a mobster -- this time in a series produced for Norwegian television, "Lilyhammer." The show was recently picked up by Netflix as the streaming service's first original programming.
"I was in Norway producing one of my bands there, the Cocktail Slippers [an all-girl rock band from Oslo]," Van Zandt said, "and these writers came and pitched this to me. I wasn't planning on playing a mobster again, but it's such a great idea. ... The Norwegians have gone crazy for it because they love America and rock and roll. They love the spirit of individualism, which is a bit of a contradiction for them and their community-based government. My character is someone who doesn't follow the rules, and they're very used to following the rules. Someone like me being a little naughty is exotic to them."
After the SXSW show, the E Street Band kicks off its tour this weekend. The band performed last Friday at New York's Apollo Theater, debuting the five-man horn section that replaces late saxophone legend Clarence Clemons on tour.
"We'll be featuring our soul music roots more on this tour," Van Zandt said. "And, you know, this year is a celebration of Woody Guthrie [the centennial of his birth]. Quite a bit of Bruce's music is a tribute to Woody Guthrie. ... It just never ceases to amaze me how Bruce continues to write in a way that is vital and very much of the moment. It always keeps us from even thinking about becoming a nostalgia band, because every tour is a whole new everything."
Springsteen is delivering the SXSW keynote address Thursday at noon. His latest solo album, "Wrecking Ball," was just released, and it debuted at No. 1 this week.
SXSW: John Fullbright comes of age
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2012 11:48 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Let me tell you my quick John Fullbright story before I go on about how mesmerizing and moving his Wednesday evening South by Southwest showcase was.
When I was writing about music in Oklahoma, I covered the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival each July in Guthrie's hometown of Okemah. Okemah has one motel, which is taken over by the artists and production crews during the festival. Folk singers, in my experience, don't sleep much, and every night after the shows wrapped up in town most of them would drag chairs into the motel parking lot and swap songs till dawn.
Every now and then, wide-eyed young buskers would stroll up and try to measure up. Few did — until, several years ago, a teenaged Johnny Fullbright strode into to the circle with a banjo over his shoulder. Tipping his cap, the Okemah native offered to play a couple of his own songs. Soon, Arlo Guthrie's eyebrows raised and he sat forward in his lawn chair, and we all knew we were hearing something special.
Since then, Fullbright has shared stages with Joe Ely and fellow Okie songwriter Jimmy Webb, among others, and he recorded a live album. "From the Ground Up," though, will be his studio debut, due May 8 (Blue Dirt/Thirty Tigers).
Fullbright's SXSW showcase — the first of eight gigs he has here this week — was as perfect as if it were a Jonathan Demme concert film. Taking the stage at St. David's Episcopal Church in downtown Austin, the unassuming young singer stepped to the mike with his guitar and harmonica rack. He appears meek and milquetoast in his flesh-colored collared shirt and flat, parted hair, but — sorta like Kelly Joe Phelps — the square look is deceiving. He started plucking and blowing and wailing a first-person account of God setting up humans for their inevitable fall, and suddenly another crowd knew it was going to hear something special.
Fullbright synthesizes the best songcraft from his home state — Webb, Leon Russell and, by default, Merle Haggard. Just in his 20s, he mournfully considers how "all my life I've tested truth / but truth's not always sound." I'll give him credit for the double entendre in that last line, because the caliber of the rest of his songwriting is so good. He's got a tune called "Forgotten Flower," a thoughtful country lament, that Tom Waits and Randy Newman could fight over.
Possibly unintentionally, Fullbright filled his set on that church chancel with familiar subjects. He opened with "God Above," a searing blues. He sang, "Glory, glory, hallelujah," then played "Satan and St. Paul" and "Jericho."
The last three songs were plunked out on an upright piano, swinging from his own slow ballad "Nowhere to Be Found" to the dancing blues of "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do." The versatility was natural, authentic, untrained. Webb's oft-repeated endorsement predicts "that in a very short time John Fullbright will be a household name in American music." It may not be hyperbole.
SXSW: Ezra Furman, Sharon Van Etten, Mr. Muthaf---in' eXquire, the great R. Stevie Moore
By Thomas Conner on March 15, 2012 9:33 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — "Is that a dude in his underwear, just playing?" asked a guy who wandered into The Jr bar just off Sixth Street on Wednesday night. Why, yes, yes it is.
Ezra Furman, the mad Evanstonian who recently relocated to the Bay Area, stepped onto the bare stage for his SXSW 2012 showcase nearly bare-assed, wearing only socks and boxer briefs. The rest of him was just the same — wild eyes, spasmodic poses, a spitting earnestness so unnerving you pray he doesn't make eye contact.
Hurling a mixture of songs from his new solo album, "The Year of No Returning," and gems from "Mysterious Power" and his Chicago tenure with the Harpoons, the skinny folk-punk wunderkind bared his soul, as well, in songs alternating between naked desperation ("Bloodsucking Whore") and mournful reverie (a cover of Tom Waits' "Bottom of the World"). In a new song, "Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde," he summed up his SXSW moment, singing, "I was hideous and handsome."
"I was supposed to be a wide-eyed sort of singer-songwriter, but I don't feel like that anymore," he said from the stage. "Too bad, marketing team."
• • •
Acclaimed singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten played a demure set Wednesday night at Stubb's. Getting off to a late start, Van Etten plodded through several songs from her attention-getting 2010 debut, "Epic," and her new follow-up, "Tramp." I still don't quite get the slobbering reverence for her work. No doubt, it's encouraging to hear someone with a voice this lovely treading the well-worn road of dissonant strumming and oblique, soul-bearing poetry blazed by fellow New Jersey-raised Patti Smith. Most of the songs merely wear that path down deeper, though, warbling over organ and cymbal-shy drums until they reach big crescendos that stumble to clumsy halts. They're awfully passionate dirges for someone who seems so chipper and cheery during her brief stage banter.
• • •
Mr. Muthaf---in' eXquire and his red-hot New York rap crew continued their SXSW gigs Wednesday night at MI Annex on Sixth Street, and the crowd didn't want them to leave. "eXquire! eXquire!" they chanted, begging for one more freestyle, to no avail. MMeX is a weird, Wu-Tang-like mob of half a dozen rappers, and the group's namesake is a hulking, slurring nutjob with percolating flow. Wednesday night, he was spewing syllables so fast and without stopping that he began to slouch and collapse. At the climactic moment, he shot up as his mates punctuated the verse, shouting, "Breathe!" Huzzah!
• • •
Since the early 1970s, "singer"-songwriter R. Stevie Moore has been producing song after song after song — countless hours of tape — documenting the weird and wonderful corners of his mind. As the Trouser Press record guides have stated for years, "'Unsung hero' only touches on the injustice of obscurity for this wry, heartfelt artist whose limber genius." But he meandered into the SXSW spotlight this week for a few showcases, including a typically bewildering set of songs Wednesday afternoon in the middle of the SXSW trade show.
"Why would anyone come to South by Southwest to see Lionel Richie?" Moore sang in a seemingly off-the-cuff ditty about the preponderance of big-name bookings at this year's festival, which was born in the late '80s as a haven for spotlighting up-and-coming talent. "If I had to choose between Lionel Richie and Sufjan Stevens, it would be a dead heat."
A large fella, in shades and with a wild Santa Claus-white beard and hair fluttering every which way, Moore plunked out his crafty lyrics and bent tunes on acoustic guitar. From his bottomless repository of material, he plucked a remarkable cache of quirky love songs, such as "Traded My Heart for Your Parts" and, uh, "I Wanna Hit You" (which he punctuated with, "Pow! To the moon, Alice!"). Looking at him, a deranged Wilford Brimley gargling his notes and strumming herky-jerky chords, the song "Goodbye Piano" took on new resonance: "You're so out of tune / I assume you're dead."
SXSW keynote: Bruce Springsteen gives musical history lesson, celebrates Woody Guthrie centennial
By Thomas Conner on March 15, 2012 3:22 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Marveling at the breadth of contemporary pop music, Bruce Springsteen name-checked his own lengthy list of milestone influences during a funny and enlightening keynote address Thursday at the South by Southwest music conference.
The king of this particular musical Mardi Gras, Springsteen hit town Wednesday night and showed up to jam with Joe Ely and Alejandro Escovedo at the Austin Music Awards. In addition to his keynote speech, the Springsteen blitz continues tonight in concert with the E Street Band, a preview of the tour kicking off this weekend. His latest album, "Wrecking Ball," was released last week and debuted at No. 1 in 14 countries.
"No one hardly agrees on anything in pop anymore," Springsteen said in his opening remarks. He expressed awe at the number of bands booked at SXSW.
"There are so many subgenres and factions," he continued — and then amused the standing-room crowd by listing as many as he could name, dozens of hyphenated musical classifications and creations, from melodic death metal and sadcore to rap-rock and Nintendocore. He ended the list with a slight slump, saying, "And folk music."
"This is all going on in this town right now," he said.
Citing rock critic Lester Bangs' assertion that Elvis Presley was the last thing Americans would agree on, Springsteen said each of the thousands of bands booked during SXSW "has the belief to turn Bangs' prophecy around.
"The one thing that's been consistent over the years is the genesis and the power of creativity. It's all about how you're putting what you do together. The elements you're using don't matter. It's not confined to guitars, tubes, turntables or microchips. There's no right way, no pure way of doing it — there's just doing it."
Springsteen then took the rapt audience on a tour through his own musical upbringing, noting each notable inspiration that molded him — from Presley's appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1956 through poetic descriptions of the power he felt coming from doo-wop, Roy Obison, Phil Spector, British Invasion bands, the Beatles, country, soul, Stax, Motown and Dylan.
He spent extra time on the Animals. "For me, the Animals were a revelation," he said. "That was the first full-blown class-consciousness I'd ever heard."
He sang and strummed most of "We Gotta Get Out of This Place," a song the Animals made famous, and declared, "That's every song I've ever written! That's all of them, I'm not kidding. That's 'Born to Run,' 'Born in the U.S.A.,' even the new ones." He played the riff from "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," then the riff from his own "Badlands": "Same f---ing riff, man."
Acknowledging that this is the centennial year of Woody Guthrie's birth, Springsteen concluded with how he's been inspired by the American folk legend to keep his own lyrical focus on the issues of working people. He was also honest about their differences.
"I knew I was never going to be Woody Guthrie. I liked the pink Cadillac too much. I liked the luxuries and comforts of being a star. I'd already gone a long way down a pretty different road," Springsteen said.
In the end, Springsteen tried to bring it back to music's colorful mass, the overwhelming amount of it, the dizzying scope of its styles as evidenced in SXSW itself. The thread fans and artists must needle out of the experience, he said, has always been the same no matter how many subgenres there are.
"Here we are in this town celebrating a sense of freedom that was Woody's legacy," Springsteen said. "We live in a post-authentic world. Authenticity today is just a house of mirrors. It's all about what you're bringing when the lights go down. At the end of the day, it's power and purpose that matters."
• • •
The Woody Guthrie connection bookended Springsteen's keynote.
Immediately before the speech on the same stage, American singer-songwriters Jimmy LaFave and Eliza Gilkyson strummed Guthrie songs, such as "Oklahoma Hills," "I Ain't Got No Home in This World" and "Deportee." Colombia's Juanes played a couple of his own songs, spirited tunes in Spanish he said were inspired by Guthrie. All three lead the sleepy SXSW crowd in a singalong of "This Land Is Your Land."
A panel session followed the keynote, titled "Woody at 100." Moderated by Bob Santelli, executive director at the Grammy Museum and a Guthrie scholar himself, the panel featured journalist Dave Marsh, scholar Doug Brinkley, songwriters LaFave and Joel Rafael, and two of Guthrie's children: singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie and head of the Woody Guthrie Foundation & Archives, Nora Guthrie.
Nora discussed the pending move of her father's archives — thousands of original lyrics, poems, notebooks, journals, artwork and more — from its current New York home to a new facility in Tulsa, Okla. She also highlighted a theme from Springsteen's keynote about music's many styles, noting that Woody wrote all kinds of music, including love songs and Jewish music.
Arlo made some important distinctions about his dad's legacy amid all the discussion of it in this centennial year.
"There are a lot of different Woodys," he said. "Even having known him along with my sister, I don't know that anybody has the capacity to have fully understand anyone. ... He really had the ability to distill all of us and put it into a way so that we recognize our own voice coming back to us. He said, 'Let me be known as a man who told you something you already knew.' ... Everybody in this room has a little voice they count on that they recognize as being them. My father recognized that voice in him and reflected it back on you so you recognize something that rings true to you. I don't think we're actually celebrating Woody — we're celebrating us. That's the genius of the man."
For a complete list of the numerous Guthrie centennial events around the country, see woody100.com.
Power pop @ SXSW: Big Star tribute, dB's reunion
By Thomas Conner on March 16, 2012 10:32 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — At the 2010 South by Southwest music conference, critics and fans were eager for a scheduled celebration of the '70s band Big Star. The influential pop-rock band was at the height of a popular resurgence, fueled in part by a stellar box set ("Keep an Eye on the Sky") released the previous year. A panel session was planned, a hotly anticipated concert, too. But on the first day of the festival, bandleader and power-pop icon Alex Chilton died.
The pieces of those plans were reassembled in earnest Thursday night at SXSW 2012. In a star-studded concert — featuring a pantheon of alt-rock greats including R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, Wilco's Pat Sansone, Tommy Stinson, Peter Case, Chris Stamey, Ken Stringfellow, Jon Auer, M. Ward and many more, plus Big Star's lone survivor, drummer Jody Stephens — musicians inspired by the band, complete with a 12-piece orchestra, performed the whole of Big Star's "Third," their emotionally tangled and rightly acclaimed album recorded in 1974 and released by 1978.
Stamey — also appearing several times at SXSW this week with the reunited dB's (see below) — has made these "Third" gigs into something of a pet project, performing them a few times ahead of the festival. But Thursday's gig, back in something of an emotional center for the band and its fans, resonated with obvious love from the musicians, especially a smiling Stamey, who never sang but acted as bandleader.
Mixing up the album's various sequences, the show opened with M. Ward on piano meandering through Eden Ahbez's "Nature Boy," an outtake from "Third." Players and singers then started cycling behind the microphone. British pub band the Dunwells delivered "Take Care" with Irish balladry and an accordion. The Mayflies' Matt McMichaels lead a steady "Jesus Christ." Auer, who had joined a revived lineup of Big Star, drove slowly through "Black Car," fueled by the string quartet.
Standouts included Stinson, formerly of the Replacements, redeeming himself with a solid version of "Nightime." Watching him in his skinny plaid suit and hipster hat, one could almost forget he now slums in the reconstituted Guns N' Roses. Peter Case, once a svelte New Wave rocker in the Plimsouls, appeared shaggy and bearded and did his best Van Morrison impression through "Stroke It Noel" (Stamey's smile was a thousand watts through that one). Sansone's "You Can't Have Me" was powerful even without the wailing saxophone and the two drum solos from Stephens.
Stephens himself stepped out from behind the kit to sang a couple of songs, including a string-laden "Blue Moon" beautifully arranged with a Pachelbel's Canon sway.
R.E.M.'s Mike Mills originally was scheduled to be on stage for the show, but he canceled due to illness. The former band's guitarist, Buck, appeared instead. He merely lurked in the background for two songs, the cover of the Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale" and "You Can't Have Me."
The show closed with "Thank You Friends," featuring most of the cast back on stage, like a traditional "This Land Is Your Land" folk finale.
The Big Star concert followed a screening of a documentary, still in progress, called "Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me" from director Drew DeNicola.
• • •
Stamey's a busy boy at SXSW 2012. In addition to corralling that large cast of players for the Big Star tribute, he's got his own showcase on Saturday, plus he and the reunited dB's are scheduled six times here this week.
Wednesday afternoon was their first showcase, on the Dogwood patio on West Sixth Street. Featuring originals Stamey, singer-guitarist Peter Holsapple and drummer Will Rigby, plus acclaimed Southern producer and artist Mitch Easter on bass, this latest revival of the beloved '80s power-pop group is hawking a new album, "Falling Off the Sky," due in June.
They utilized their showcase to show off many of the new tracks — as jangly and tuneful as ever. Holsapple insists the new album is "a great summertime record," and as he sang the new "World to Cry," a wind-blown tree in the courtyard approved by showering the tightly packed audience with new buds.
It's not all sunshine and tanlines. Another new song jangled over a martial rhythm and lyrics of lament and paralysis. Stamey remarked, "On my tombstone, I want, 'He wrote one great riff.'" Then he added, "Plus a lot of depressing songs." He then ripped a scary, dissonant solo from the heart of "Happenstance," which the band balanced with the gentle waves of melody in "Love Is for Lovers."
Their official showcase is tonight.
• • •
Fast forward to the 21st century: Power-pop rocker Brendan Benson was back on stage as a solo act Thursday night. Jack White's partner in the Raconteurs, Benson funnels most of his melodic talents into his solo albums. He has yet to make a bad one, and his next, "What Kind of World," is due in April on his new independent label Readymade.
His Thursday showcase wasn't as flawless as his records. Stringy-haired and a little adrift, Benson charged gamely through some new songs, though one had to be abandoned after the first verse; he tried to restart it, but flubbed something again and moved on into a duo of the Raconteurs' "Hands" and his own "Cold Hands (Warm Heart)" (in which he laments, "Why does it always happen...?").
SXSW: Fiona Apple's splendid case of nerves
By Thomas Conner on March 16, 2012 12:05 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Alabama Shakes might be one of the buzziest new bands at this year's South by Southwest music conference, but Fiona Apple is the one of the hottest returning-act tickets. After not having been seen outside of Los Angeles in years, and with her last record of emotionally taut pop-cabaret released in 2005, two lines for her second showcase Thursday night snaked around the block in different directions.
Performing in a Presbyterian church, Apple strode purposefully onto a candlelit stage with a four-piece band and launched into "Fast as You Can." Still a frenetic ball of anxiety, when Apple stands at a microphone without a piano to occupy her hands her nervous energy nearly flings her limbs apart. Thursday night she wore a white shawl over her shoulders, which she immediately took to flipping and waving about like a manic Stevie Nicks. Banging fists against her body, flailing her arms, pounding the piano — one senses that without the music to focus her energy she'd go utterly mad. Then again, she can rein herself and become the perfect picture of Marlene Dietrich smolder, as she did during "Paper Bag."
Apple's voice is not a smooth or delicate instrument. It's guttural and trembling and sounds ravaged by a prior hour of sobbing; midway through her Thursday concert, she made a brief show of spraying some salve into the back of her throat. The songs fit the sound — lyric after lyric of man after man who doesn't understand her (the dolt who won't even kiss her in the right place in the new "Anything We Want") and heaps of self-doubt ("I'm gonna f--- it up" from "Mistake"). "Not that I go to church or anything," Apple said, gazing up at the shadowy altar, "but I'd like to apologize to the building itself for my cursing."
The band supports the crackling tension with herky-jerky soul-jazz phrases, as if Elvis Costello's "Spike" is drowning his sorrows at L.A.'s Largo club (home of the acclaimed residencies curated by Apple producer and compatriot Jon Brion). Prone to lengthy vamps and calliope-like refrains, the music's drunken gentility was often pierced by tinny, edgy solos from her guitarist. Every song was a suspense thriller, and as Woody Allen said, "I hope it lasts."
Briefly, anyway — her SXSW showcases kick off a tiny tour, just a few dates including two sold-out shows Sunday and Monday at Chicago's Lincoln Hall.
Apple's new album returns to her penchant for lengthy titles — (inhale) it's "The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do" — is scheduled for a June release.
SXSW hip-hop fusion: K. Flay, Idle Warship, Robert Glasper
By Thomas Conner on March 16, 2012 5:51 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Kristine Flaherty grew up in Wilmette. She went to Stanford. She's also a helluva rapper.
With frenetic flow and live-wire, chicken-dance moves, K. Flay barreled through a Friday showcase at Austin's Red Eyed Fly, crumpling labels and defying genres. Backed by an excellent live drummer, Nicholas Suhr, she crafted loops and samples with real finesse, utilizing grinding guitar sounds and squawky electronic noises for melody and music more than mere beats and punctuation. "We're going to go to a fun place in our minds," she said by way of introducing one song. It was less invitation than advisory — she picked up drumsticks and attacked her own percussion pad, and she and Suhr lost themselves momentarily in a rhythmic freakout of ecstatic proportions.
K. Flay's sharpest weapon, though, is her fast-talking tongue. Her words-per-minute reached the red line almost every time. One song began with a slow, easygoing beat (no drummer), as she started rapping along. The beat kept modulating, faster and faster, and for three or four minutes she kept slinging syllables without a single flub or nonsense gibberish. Who knows what she wound up saying? But given the rest of her wisecracking, hard-hearted material -- all that's out thus far is an EP, "Eyes Shut," available free on her web site -- it's worth hearing at any speed.
• • •
Idle Warship — a new collaboration between acclaimed rapper Talib Kweli and Philly soul singer Res — released an album last fall that was mostly great, a fizzy mix of hip-hop, R&B and rock with just the right balance between all three. The group's SXSW showcases were highly anticipated — but, alas, their Friday afternoon show was ho-hum.
Backed by a live quartet, Kweli and Res ping-ponged their vocal duties and spent an inordinate amount of time asking the crowd for cheers instead of earning them. Kweli turned the word "soul" in one song into a falsetto, drawn-out "Soul Train" nod, but the music, which is buoyant and bouncy on record, lurched and lagged live. Even the synth underpinning of Corey Hart's "Sunglasses at Night" in the song "Steady," which eventually morphed into the whole band singing the Eurhythmics' "Sweet Dreams," failed to brighten the desperate energy on stage. The term "rap-rock" has certain negative connotations; this isn't really rap-rock, but it's close. A 21st-century Digable Planets, unfortunately, they ain't.
• • •
In one sense, I'd like to thank the sound engineers who had difficulty getting things in gear for the Robert Glasper Experiment showcase late Thursday night at the Elephant Room. Without their delay, some room in the tiny, dank club might not have opened up and I'd have missed the whole show standing on queue. The sound was substandard even when the show got under way, but those who made it in heard enough to justify the hype that brought us there.
Glasper is a hip-hop wunderkind. Glasper is a jazz juggernaut. A pianist, a Texas native, he seems to be knitting a new kind of fusion. A set that opens with Coltrane (sax player Casey Benjamin is pretty wicked, see video below) and nearly winds up with Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" might only turn the head of zeitgeist interpreters like Brad Mehldau, but Glasper's quartet followed their open-minded explorations through the jazz tones, hip-hop beats and raucous rock with more ferocity than irony. His latest album, "Black Radio" (Blue Note), does the same thing and features guests like Mos Def and Chicago's Lupe Fiasco.
Occupy SXSW: Tom Morello carries Woody Guthrie torch through protest showcase, street party
By Thomas Conner on March 17, 2012 10:20 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — During his keynote speech at this year's South by Southwest music conference, Bruce Springsteen referred to folksinger Woody Guthrie as "a ghost in the machine." In the centennial year of his birth, Guthrie has certainly haunted SXSW 2012. Springsteen and many others have sung his songs. "Woody at 100," a panel session featuring his children, Nora and Arlo Guthrie, considered his legacy.
Then Friday night, Chicago-area native Tom Morello capped off his showcase in the middle of the street, leading a throng of Occupy Austin demonstrators in a sing-along of "This Land Is Your Land."
"I am the Nightwatchman and this is a one man revolution!" said Morello (who performs solo under the moniker The Nightwatchman) at the beginning of his SXSW showcase, scheduled inside the Swan Dive bar near Sixth Street and Red River in downtown Austin.
But days earlier, Morello began reorganizing what the festival had programmed for him. His showcase, he declared, would become Occupy SXSW — all 99 percenters welcome. "SXSW has a lot of specialty shows — record companies, vodka companies, promoters and things like that," he told Rolling Stone on Tuesday. "I thought it was important that at a music gathering of that size, to have a place where the rebels, revolutionaries, rockers, rappers and the 99 percent could gather and have a mighty SXSW throw down."
Via social media and online networks, Occupy Austin spread the word and gathered Friday at the state capitol three hours before Morello's midnight showcase. The group of nearly 100 began marching toward the downtown streets already crowded with SXSW registrants and hopeful music fans.
How do you get a mob to move through a mob? By dancing. The benevolent Occupiers rolled a sound system with them, blaring mostly disco and dance tunes but also raising a ruckus with "Killing in the Name" by Rage Against the Machine, Morello's former hard rock band. About every block, they'd stop and dance, as well as wave some signs and hand out fliers. At Sixth and Brazos, the assembly inadvertently blocked traffic, which laid on the horns. The honking, however, simply raised more cheers and whoops.
Slowly, the demonstrators made their way down Sixth Street toward Morello's venue. One large banner reading "F--- the Police" was its own crowd control issue, because gawking passers-by insisted the bearers stop -- so they could take their picture with it. Irony of ironies: Midway down the street the group had to detour slightly after being blocked by a drum circle.
Morello started his official showcase about half an hour late, playing a few songs by himself before bringing on his latest band, the Freedom Fighter Orchestra — and, later, special guest Wayne Kramer from Detroit punk legend the MC5 — to tear through typically fiery Nightwatchman songs, including "Save the Hammer for the Man" and "Union Town," as well as Rage's "Bulls on Parade." The previous night, Morello had joined Springsteen on stage during his SXSW concert; Friday, Morello played Springsteen's "The Ghost of Tom Joad," dedicating it to "the only Boss worth listening to."
As his official timeslot ended, Morello told the crowd — primarily SXSW badge-holders inside — to follow him outside. There, the largely uncredentialed Occupy crowd had been watching the showcase on a video projected on the wall. Morello proceeded to start a second showcase in the middle of the street, which he called "the people's venue" — carrying his acoustic guitar, which has "Whatever It Takes" scrawled on it (Guthrie's guitar famously sported the slogan "This Machine Kills Fascists") — and leading the crowd in a rollicking sing-along of "This Land."
Lack of a PA didn't stop him — not when you have the "human microphone."
"Mic check!" Morello called, and the crowd began repeating him. In a very Obama-like delivery, he went on: "They can turn off the PA, but they can't shut this party down!"
He told a tale about guitar factory workers in South Korea who were fired because they formed a union. Using the human mic, he taught the crowd the chorus to his "World Wide Rebel Songs" and lead another sing-along.
He then ended the event with yet another Guthrie quip: "Take it easy," he shouted, "but take it!"
Catch Morello when he leads a Woody Guthrie tribute concert May 19 at Chicago's Metro, featuring Holly Near, the Klezmatics, Jon Langford, Bucky Halker and more.
SXSW: Hospitality, Ava Luna, Joe Pug
By Thomas Conner on March 17, 2012 11:55 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — There's buzz, and there's buzz. When people insist you see a band at South by Southwest, it's usually dicey. When people recommend a band like this — "Aw, Hospitality. They're really good. I'd like to see them again" — that you take a little more seriously.
The buzzy Brooklyn band's Friday night showcase at Frank was definitely worth the recommendations, and then some. Unassuming and sometimes unobtrusive, Hospitality segued from sound check to set without any fanfare or introduction; the snugly packed crowd in the small bar simply enjoyed the revelation that, hey, that beautiful music is the room's centerpiece now.
Hospitality, like its namesake, creeps up like that, anyway.
Creating a sound way bigger than the sum of its basic quartet lineup, this is indie-pop with bright colors, effervescent arrangements and, most importantly, real swing. Underneath the big, fat, chiming guitar chords and singer-guitarist Amber Papini's conversational patter is usually a firm beat, certainly a supple groove thanks to left-handed bassist Brian Betancourt. They could probably go toe-to-toe with most dance-rockers from the first wave (Franz Ferdinand, etc.), but they'd also have a calming effect on them. "The Right Profession," from this year's self-titled debut, certainly moves, and "Friends of Friends" enjoys a groovy dance break, but other songs sometimes noodle, sometimes vamp, sometimes slip into a positively Pink Floyd reverie.
• • •
If Steely Dan worked to sound like the actual future, rather than Donald Fagen's nostalgic 1950s Worlds Fair perspective on it, they might sound something like Brooklyn's Ava Luna. A thrilling, lurching, bewildering, surprising frenzy of genre-splicing, this sextet's Friday night return to SXSW at the Iron Bear club rocked and grooved and glitched.
Driven by rhythms that stutter and fray, Ava Luna's 21st-century rock 'n' soul is humanized by no-nonsense vocals. Becca Kauffman and Felicia Douglass bring seriousness and sass, when called for, but it's singer-guitarist Carlos Hernandez that embodies the band's schizophrenic joy. Playing with an ADD tic justifying lyrics like, "If I could focus," Hernandez sings like a less-somnambulant James Blake — all heady methol and melancholy. It's headbanging dubstep, it's postmodern soul, full of sound and fury, and when some feedback began ebbing and flowing between songs — hey, some of us thought it was just part of the band's space-age sound.
• • •
Chicago's Joe Pug sounds like a native down here in Texas. Biting his lip, chewing his accent, flashing his winsome smile or sometimes wincing with emotion, Pug is the picture of down-home earnestness.
Squeezing in just five songs for the Folk Alliance showcase on Saturday at Threadgill's, Pug played a handful of thoughtful country-folk tunes from his second album, "The Great Despiser," due next month. That's after he broke a guitar string — on the first strum of the first chord in the first song -- which was surprising given how tender and delicate most of the material is, augmented here with only an occasional electric guitarist and a stand-up bassist. But the new album features guests such as the Hold Steady's Craig Finn, so it's gonna roll. To close, Pug was joined by Austin music legend Harvey Thomas Young for his song, previously covered by Pug, "Start Again."
SXSW: Don Cornelius, 'Soul Train' celebrated
By Thomas Conner on March 17, 2012 4:54 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — "Soul Train" creator and host Don Cornelius was left out of the Grammys' "in memorium" slide show last month, barely two weeks after the Chicago television pioneer was found dead of an apparent suicide, but he was celebrated Saturday at the annual South by Southwest music conference in the Texas capital.
At an event called "'Soul Train' Tribute to Don Cornelius," NPR's Dan Charnas conducted an amiable onstage chat with Don's son Tony Cornelius about the TV music show's history and legacy.
"If he'd come back here and see the love from those who miss him so much, I wonder, would he decide to stay?" Tony Cornelius asked during the session. "He had so much love to live for. It hurts me that he's not here."
"Soul Train" was one of TV's longest-running syndicated shows, airing for 36 years. Launched at Chicago's WCIU in 1970, the music performance and dance program went national the following year and was crucial in showcasing black soul and R&B artists to a wider audience, including Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin and Michael Jackson.
"Dad talked about that quite often," Cornelius said. "He found a need, and he served it. There was a need to allow not only the music of black Americans but kids an opportunity to express themselves."
Charnas showed numerous video clips -- "Soul Train" performances, dancers, pivotal moments, Afro Sheen commercials (the sponsorship of Chicago-based Johnson Products was important to the show's early survival) -- and Cornelius commented.
"When I watch these clips, what comes to mind that people don't understand is these performances were about relationships. It wasn't, 'I want to do "Soul Train,"' it was friendships that developed over time," Cornelius said.
Many of those relationships began early in Chicago, where Don Cornelius negotiated complete ownership of "Soul Train" at WCIU because "no one believed" in the show, Tony Cornelius said.
Tony Cornelius was around age 12 when "Soul Train" premiered. He worked as a runner, cable mover, lighting operator and more throughout the years, eventually becoming an executive producer. From the start, he recalled, "Soul Train" was a family affair.
"My most vivid memory is my mother writing out cards of all the kids who wanted to dance on the show from high schools around the area," he said.
"The groundswell in Chicago was so exciting that [Don] decided Los Angeles would be the place to take it. That's where the stars were, where the acts were."
He took one thing with him, though: the Scramble Board.
Members of the audience were often selected for the Scramble Board, where they would reorder a jumbled set of letters to spell the name of a prominent black American. Don Cornelius later admitted that the gimmick was always fixed.
"It's funny, but it's true," Tony Cornelius said. "It's something he felt extremely strong about. We were speaking to the world, not just the dancers, and informing anyone who didn't know Stevie Wonder's name or Thurgood Marshall's name how to spell it and who they were."
Cornelius said years later he suggested to his father that they update the Scramble Board to something digital or more contemporary. Don refused, saying he wanted to maintain that set piece — the one piece of the Chicago set that traveled to L.A.
In honor of his father, Cornelius said the family has created the Don Cornelius Foundation to raise awareness, prevention and support for those contemplating suicide and aid for its survivors.
SXSW global: K-pop, Juanes, Bensh, Noa Margalit
By Thomas Conner on March 18, 2012 12:14 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — This year's South by Southwest features music acts from every continent except Antarctica (those penguins aren't as musical as you've been lead to believe). Here's some of the international flavor I sampled this week:
• • •
The panel session at SXSW 2012 was titled with a question — "Do Music Moguls Know a Secret About K-Pop?" — but the non-insider query is simpler: Do you know what K-pop is?
It's a genre of hyper-produced, often sugary sweet pop music mostly out of South Korea. It's got its own Billboard chart, and in December launched its own festival (K-Pop World, Dec. 7 in Seoul). According to the moderator of this industry panel, it's "a huge thing across Asia and other parts of the world," and it's about to invade the states.
Earlier in the year, I suggested 2012 might have a more worldly sound, including more K-pop. Already in the United States, South Korean idol Kim Hyun-a has attracted media attention, and when K-pop acts tour this country it's not just their music that turns American heads.
"People often are stopping because of how many people show up" to these concerts, said Flowsion Shekar, founder of Koreaboo, a Korean news blog.
David Zedeck, a booking agent at Creative Artists Agency, said he's selling out 1,700 to 2,500-capacity venues with K-pop, even in interior cities like Atlanta, Kansas City and Denver. The group Girls Generation announced via Twitter that they would premiering a new video at a New York Best Buy. "We had 1,500 kids show up on a school day — from a tweet," he marveled. "This is bigger than anyone thinks it is."
Other prominent K-pop acts include Bigbang, JYP, the Wonder Girls and SMTown.
"Even though it comes from Korea, it's not of or for Korea anymore," said Jeff Yang, the Tao Jones columnist for the Wall Street Journal ("It wasn't my idea," he said sheepishly of his column's name). "It's become a world music. There are more people who don't understand Korean listening to K-pop than in Korea."
Yang predicted K-pop could develop in America one of two ways: It could become like Latin music, a cultural identifier for Asian-American communities, or it could establish itself as a platform like hip-hop, inviting collaboration and eventual evolution into something larger.
Some of the latter already is happening. Kanye West previously worked with the trio JYJ (rapping on the single "Ayyy Girl") and has said he plans to do more with the group. Snoop Dogg recently appeared on a track by Girls Generation, and DJ Swizz Beatz says he's hoping to help bring K-pop acts like Bigbang (currently atop the K-pop charts, No. 1 and 2) to America.
• • •
In addition to performing his own and Woody Guthrie's song immediately before Bruce Springsteen's keynote address at SXSW 2012 — one of his first English-language performances — Colombian singer Juanes has been making multiple appearances at the festival all week. He discussed his upcoming May album, "Juanes MTV Unplugged," during a Friday panel session, then performed during the Latin rock showcase later that night.
In an AP interview, he celebrated the cultural smorgasbord that is SXSW: "It's such a great opportunity to interact together and exchange culture. I just feel the world now and the world is absolutely sick, you know, so I just see music and culture and art in general as a great idea to change at least our own environment and just connect people to the music. You can just go and walk around the street and you can see bands from I don't know, wherever, and they can sing in Chinese if you want. You just have the opportunity to connect with somebody else you didn't know, and that's good."
• • •
The sheer volume of music at SXSW makes random discoveries possible, probable and the payoff is often good. Thursday night I stopped for stir-fry at one of Austin's better food trucks downtown near Fifth and Brazos. On the corner a trio of Austrian vagabonds was playing to anyone who'd stop and listen. They're called Bensh, and they don't sound like a sidewalk band. Good-spirited pop with flourishes of electronics and gypsy bounce, Bensh's fluid, well-crafted pop caused me to scribble a seemingly bizarre list of comparisons in my notebook: Luka Bloom, Deathray, Syd Barrett, Animal Collective, the Monochrome Set. Much spunkier live than on record, Bensh still made a great impulse download that was perfectly dreamy in the earbuds during a pedicab ride home.
• • •
A showcase of musicians from Israel, sponsored by the Israeli Consul, ran all day Friday in a downtown park. I caught an acoustic set by Noa Margalit, from the rock band the Car Sitters. Listening to her stoic personal songs, you'd never guess how energetic the Car Sitters usually are. Tel Aviv's Margalit — breathy, barefoot, bar-chording the heck out of her guitar — played things close to the vest, at least sonically. Lyrically, she was raging about politics and quality of life, lamenting (or marveling?) that "it doesn't take much to survive."
Later, J. Viewz, aka Grammy-nominated and Brooklyn-based producer Jonathan Dagan, let loose some throbbing beats with a soulful vocalist and great live drums.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Perhaps it's not easy to imagine Woody Guthrie, dusty poet of Okies and union workers everywhere, scarfing down a bagel in a boxcar. Or saying prayers during Rosh Hashana (which begins at sundown Friday). Or managing to secure a flimsy yarmulke to the untamed, wiry shrub that was his hair.
But in the latest project to emerge from the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives, now in its 10th year of maintaining and redeploying the late folk singer's immense body of work, we are reminded that the man we think of as the quintessential Okie actually spent the bulk of his life based and living in New York City — specifically out on Coney Island with his wife, Marjorie, and their three children, Nora, Arlo and Joady. It was there the insatiably curious songwriter hung out with the community's immigrant Jews and spent Fridays eating Sabbath dinners at the home of his mother-in-law, renowned Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt.
As a result, among the piles and boxes of scrawled and typed lyrics in the Guthrie archives are numerous ruminations on Jewish life, namely a carefree bunch of Hanukkah songs — "Honeyky Hanuka," "(Do the) Latke Flip-Flip," "Spin Dreydl Spin," among others — and other observations. The song "Mermaid's Avenue," a possessive spin on the Coney Island street where the Guthries lived, describes the spot as "where the lox and bagels meet / where the halvah meets the pickle / where the sour meets the sweet."
And just as the "Mermaid Avenue" albums in the late '90s by British folk-rocker Billy Bragg and the now Chicago-based band Wilco reinvigorated two batches of lost, tuneless Guthrie lyrics, these Jewish-inspired songs now find new tunes and new life on another two records by a single band: "Wonder Wheel" and "Happy Joyous Hanukkah" by the Klezmatics, America's premier klezmer group, both released this month.
What is the common reaction to news that the latest Woody Guthrie record is a set of klezmer music? Nora Guthrie, who runs the Archives, says she gets a lot of, "Oy vey! Vat are you, meshuganah?!"
Keep in mind, Woody — raised in Protestant Oklahoma, self-taught the works of Kalil Gibran and the sayings of Buddah, then plopped down in a fiercely Jewish neighborhood in New York — was a catholic (lowercase, not uppercase) believer. In the '30s and '40s, paperwork at hospitals and in the armed services still had blanks where one filled in one's particular religion; Woody, ever the populist, inevitably wrote down, "All or none."
"So, in this sense," Nora wrote, in an e-mail exchange last week from Germany, where she's touring with Arlo, "this is just another soundtrack to 'growing up Guthrie.' We also lived down the block from the Gotti family in Howard Beach, as well, where Sammy the Bull and Louie the Beard were regulars on the block. Victoria, too! So we probably could have included a little 'Return to Sorrento,' as well, ha ha. OK, for my next album: ' "The Sopranos" Sing Woody Guthrie.' "
She jokes, but this has been Nora's serious mission with the archives. She seeks not to obliterate the primary cultural image of her father, but simply to broaden it, deepen it, color it.
Klezmatics singer Lorin Sklamberg, himself a sound archivist at New York's Yivo Institute for Jewish Research, said in a phone interview last week, "Most people think he's the Dust Bowl balladeer, and his songs have this color associated with them — everything in sepia. It makes me think of how Jews have been represented in films. From 'Yentl' to 'A Stranger Among Us' and 'The Chosen,' Jews are always lit with this eerie, brownish, golden glow. A friend of mine talked about how every time she opens a book [in 'Yentl'] 10,000 watts of light comes out. ... These songs of Woody's are more technicolor."
On a full stomach
Life in the '40s among the immigrants on Coney Island was naturally colorful. As Vivien Goldman writes in the liner notes to "Wonder Wheel," Woody would take Nora on "morning walks down the boardwalk to have breakfast at Nathan's with her father, who usually wore his favorite white T-shirt. The affable fruit peddler tossed her a plum as she passed, and greetings were exchanged with the owner of the corner store, whose phone was used by the whole neighborhood. It was all enchanting to Woody — the old men playing chess and arguing in Yiddish, the Jewish meydeles splashing in the chilly waves."
The song "Mermaid's Avenue," the lead track on "Wonder Wheel," celebrates the joyous, carnival-like atmosphere of Coney Island, describing people eating German, Jewish and American food all along the historic boardwalk.
The culinary focus is key for Nora's memories of the Jewish side of her upbringing.
"Jewish [to us] meant eating!" Nora wrote. "Friday night, Sabbath, home-cooked dinners at Bubbie's [their nickname for grandma Greenblatt], with blintzes, latkes, sweet and sour meatballs, herring, matzah ... So we knew about the food, the holidays. We celebrated Hanukkah with the 'Hanukkah fairy,' which my parents made up. She went around with Santa delivering the presents. We would leave a large plate of cookies and milk for Santa, and a teeny-tiny little plate with a cookie for the Hanukkah fairy ... and we had a Hanukkah Tree, a k a, a Christmas tree."
The seed for this surprising collaboration germinated after Nora met the Klezmatics at the Tanglewood music festival in Boston.
"The way I remember it," Sklamberg said, "we were playing at Tanglewood with Itzhak Perlman about seven years ago. Afterwards, I recognized Nora in the crowd and introduced myself. I said, 'We play one of your grandmother's songs,' and she didn't know that. I asked her if she'd like to meet Itzhak, and she came onto the stage and I introduced them. I said, 'She's the granddaughter of Aliza Greenblatt' — which she found funny because all her life she's been Arlo's sister or Woody's daughter."
Nora mentioned that, while organizing Woody's papers for what was then the new archives, she'd discovered several Jewish songs. Later, she sent some to the Klezmatics to review.
"She sent us not just Hanukkah songs but songs about the cultural life in Coney Island, anti-fascism things, other stuff she thought would be good match for us," Sklamberg said. "One song I was interested in was called 'Headdy Down,' a lullaby for Arlo and [the other brother] Joady. It has these Yiddishisms in the song that are really cool. You don't expect to see Yiddishized words in a Woody Guthrie song, but there they were."
He means taking the name Joady and making it "Jodulah," as Woody did in these lyrics. "Joady, lay your head down," the song goes, "Keppy down, Kepula." "All these Yiddish diminutives — the only way he would have known them is from Marjorie's mother," he said.
"He turned one version of the Christmas song 'Children Go Where I Send Thee' into 'Happy Joyous Hanuka,' taking all these characters from the Bible — some having to do with Hanukkah, others having absolutely nothing to do with it — and he puts them all into this song. 'One for Moses on the Mount,' he wrote, which has nothing to do with Hanukkah. ... It's this funny, endearing kind of outsider's attempt at making a Jewish song."
With La Mar Enfortuna
When: 7:30 tonight
Where: Park West, 322 W. Armitage
Call: (312) 559-1212
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
The Guthrie Family, John Flynn, Cyril Neville, Kevn Kinney, Ramsay Midwood and the Burns Sisters
At the Vic Theatre
A pundit on a Sunday TV news program recently quoted a woman in a northeastern state who asked, "Why should I pay to rebuild New Orleans?" This was cited as an example of the disconnect felt by Americans outside the Deep South as to the relative importance of aiding in the reconstruction of a sacked American city. The program's panel offered several studious answers to her question — jazz heritage, oil flow, even the Louisiana Purchase was invoked — but no one got beyond business and politics. No one ever answered, "Because, ma'am, if you'd lost your home, I'd help you."
Most of the bandwagon benefit CDs, songs and concerts during the past three months have avoided that golden measure, as well. It's all for Mardi Gras, y'all! But leave it to the Guthrie family to gather together and remind us — by example — that family is a concept transcending bloodlines and borders.
If you think that's dreamy-eyed hippie idealism, fine. But truth be told, the heart of folk music beats underneath an old bumper sticker slogan: think globally, act locally. Don't try to save the whole world. Just do what you can where you are, or where you can go.
Arlo's latest such effort is the Ridin' on the City of New Orleans tour, which kicked off with Monday night's concert. For the next two weeks, Arlo and his "family" — actual offspring, such as son Abe and daughter Sarah Lee, plus numerous friends — will travel south from Chicago to New Orleans on the fabled train heralded in Chicagoan Steve Goodman's song (and Arlo's biggest hit) "The City of New Orleans." They'll be playing concerts along the way, raising money for musicians and music venues in the Crescent City.
Arlo threw together this tour, and Monday night's premiere — the costs of which, Arlo announced, were underwritten by comedian and Illinois native Richard Pryor — certainly appeared thrown together. The spirit was willing (and thrilling), but attendance was weak. It's starting just like a train, slow and clunky, but it shows every sign it'll roar into Memphis and New Orleans as a polished, shiny package.
Arlo's extended family on this night included John Flynn, singing shrill but amusing topical songs; Kevn Kinney of the Atlanta band Drivin' n' Cryin', turning in some intriguing, wide-open blues smoked by his hoarse, Jimmy LaFave wheeze; woozy, enigmatic Texas troubadour Ramsay Midwood, and the Burns Sisters, who awkwardly added harmonies to other acts' choruses throughout the night before delivering two a cappella numbers that elicited cheers and whoops from the pensive crowd.
Abe Guthrie's band Xavier performed its usual set of mediocre jam-band noodling (oy, the guitar solos). And though Sarah Lee Guthrie's set, with husband Johnny Irion, wasn't her best, her belting alt-country twang still shone as the most interesting new talent in Woody Guthrie's family.
Arlo emceed more than he performed, lending the headline spotlight to Cyril Neville, youngest of the Neville Brothers. After seven folk and blues acts, Neville strutted onstage in his black hat with red sequins and feather and presented a lively, albeit slightly rote, set of the rhythm and blues nurtured in the New Orleans venues Arlo's trying to save.
"There's no logic to it," Arlo had said earlier of the eclectic bill, and Neville's deep grooves clearly bewildered the timid folk support players — but people finally started dancing and clapping and getting their blood flowing. Neville climbed behind the drum kit for two songs, including an extended final jam, a tribute to New Orleans. "The storm ain't over, y'all," Neville reminded us.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Woody Guthrie: ART WORKS
Edited by Steven Brower and Nora guthrie
Rizzoli. 300 pages. $45.
In her management of the Woody Guthrie Archives, Nora Guthrie has seemed determined to make a Renaissance man out of her famous folksinger father. On paper, the projects that have come out of the archives during the last decade are often head-scratchers (Woody Guthrie's klezmer music?). But each one has proven not merely illuminating but also wholly inspiring in subtle, powerful ways. By lighting the shadowy corners of her dad's life, she not only broadens his legacy — she widens the scope of human possibility. Woody, it seems, could and did do anything, not because he had inherent skills but because he was possessed with an unshakable "Why not?" kind of confidence. Such examples fill us ordinary folks with hope and that, more than anything he ever specifically sang about, was Woody's persistent goal.
The best thing to emerge from the archives is the handsome Woody Guthrie: Art Works (Rizzoli, $45). It's an exploration of Guthrie's visual art, most of which has been unpublished and unseen for decades. In light of his status as a musical icon ("This Land Is Your Land," etc.) and the fountainhead of Bob Dylan, this thorough visual examination is worthwhile because of the startling fact on which it's founded: Woody almost didn't become a songwriter at all.
"Contrary to popular mythology, it was with paintbrushes in hand, not a guitar, that Woody Guthrie hit the road for California," Nora Guthrie writes in her introduction. She then recounts an episode from that first westward journey from Oklahoma that, she argues, decided exactly which legacy he would leave.
Woody was hitchhiking with several other young men when the car ran out of gas. Woody headed into town to drum up food and gas money by painting signs, as he'd done for years in Pampa, Texas. He was successful, but when he went back to the car to retrieve his supplies — the guys, the car and his brushes were gone. That week, he discovered he could feed himself much better by playing old folk tunes for misty-eyed migrants.
"Had fortune and destiny worked a slight shift of the hand," Nora writes, "it's very possible that Woody Guthrie might have become a visual artist. And this book might just as easily have been an episode uncovering the unknown songs of Woody Guthrie, rather than his unknown art."
As such, this dignified romp through Woody's sketches, cartoons, paintings and illustrations (alas, the signs throughout the Southwest are long gone) is interesting to Guthrie acolytes and tone-deaf art lovers alike. Steven Brower's insightful — and, thankfully, concise — analysis of the works provides both historical and biographical context for each phase of Woody's expression, from the early line drawings (most of which are infinitely more inventive than, say, John Lennon's) to later abstract swaths and dabs (often smeared right over typed lyrics).
Brower even notes the slight importance of Woody's visit to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1944 as contributing to his knowledge of art history. The day after that visit, Woody wrote home to his wife of the whirlwind experience and how it reminded him of his first passion (in a letter from my own research at the archives, not from the book): "We saw the original of the Guitar Player [by Picasso] you liked so well. ... It was in the same room as Van Gogh, Cezanne, and some others. I always feel like a painter when I come out of a gallery. When I'm inside one, I feel like a sniffing dog."
Aside from the esthetic of its subject, the book itself is beautiful. The reproductions are excellent — worthy of note, given that most of these "works" are doodles from daily calendar books and personal journals (one of Woody's pocket notebooks is cleverly re-created, actual size, in the back pages) — and the design is clever.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Woody Guthrie & Lead Belly
"Folkways: The Original Vision — Songs of Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly"
In several years of studying the life and legacy of American folk troubadour Woody Guthrie, I've learned one nearly constant truth: Hardly anyone first hears Woody from Woody. They hear his songs performed by Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, The Clash, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Bragg, Wilco, etc. — and then they go hunting the Guthrie greatest-hits for a taste of the headwaters.
Same with Lead Belly, a Guthrie peer who also suffers from lack of name recognition despite the number of artists who have reinterpreted his music. That's why this expanded reissue of this 17-year old collection of both folk songwriters' "hits" is refreshing at this juncture. Not only has Guthrie's cachet increased in the last decade (the founding of the Woody Guthrie Archives, the annual hootenanny of the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, etc.) but the six extra songs added to this edition remind us of the solidity of Lead Belly's influence of blues and rock, as well. New to this set is his "Gallis Pole," made famous by Led Zeppelin, and "In the Pines," covered by Nirvana.
The punk, the blues, some of the rock and a lot of the country out there today — much of it started with these two brave friends. The history is always worth hearing. And wouldn't it be cool to have some scratchy old 78s on your iPod?
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion
Is Lucinda Williams a tad too Texas for you? Do you quickly weary of Gillian Welch's dour, morphine-soaked songbook? Has Natalie Merchant gone a bit too far "out there" for your taste? Bring it on home with Sarah Lee Guthrie and her husband, Johnny Irion. On their latest and best collaboration, the duo sews up pop, protest, folk and fun into neat little packages that are AAA — Americana, alt-country, aw-shucks — without suffering authenticity or intellect.
With this couple's pedigree, there's no need for posing: Sarah Lee is the granddaughter of Woody Guthrie (by way of daddy Arlo); Irion counts John Steinbeck among his ancestors. You couldn't arrange a more dynastic pairing than that, and you could almost forgive someone with those bloodlines for resting on laurels. Both of these singer-songwriters, however, have shown dogged determination to craft their own identifiable personalities. Together they are an arresting harmony — sometimes delicate, sometimes raucous, always purposeful and focused.
On "Exploration" (deftly produced by Jayhawk Gary Louris), Sarah Lee effortlessly saunters through songs of love, personal convictions and reverence for nature. She harmonizes with a knowing lilt through Irion's golly-gee love ballad "In Lieu of Flowers" and warbles defiantly through her own well-armed "Cease Fire." Her voice is strong and piercing without being harsh, as if she were Victoria Williams reined-in and trained. She has the urge to ramble and take it easy ("Mornin's Over," "Holdin' Back"); Irion has the urge to cut loose and rock ("Gervais"). When they come together on a cover of Pete Seeger's "Dr. King," they make a serious subject even more profound by making it a knee-slapper.
It's a wonderful mixture of social awareness and rollicking fun — tailor-made for a "Sesame Street" appearance (Woody would be so proud) and indicative of their combustible chemistry together. Proof that the occasional alt-country combo can "keep it real," too.
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
Sarah Lee Guthrie
"Sarah Lee Guthrie"
(Rising Son Records)
(Rising Son Records)
Pedigrees can be impediments. With so much riding on a
famous family legacy, many genetically enhanced artists
collapse under the weight of the expectations and hype.
Sarah Lee Guthrie, daughter of Arlo and granddaughter of
Woody, and her husband Johnny Irion, grandson of "Oklahoma!"
star Fred Knight and grand-nephew of John Steinbeck,
certainly have sturdy laurels upon which they could
recline. Guthrie's surname alone would be a marquee draw,
even if she stunk.
But she doesn't stink. In fact, she's the most
intriguing new female voice in Americana music since the
discovery of Gillian Welch.
Guthrie's self-titled debut — arriving after years of
performing with her father, including two appearances at
the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah — moseys with an
welcoming gait. Not another Emmylou Harris wanna-be is she,
although this album smiles and moves with the same measured
No, Guthrie is an original talent, coloring outside the
lines of the basic Americana patterns (dig the drunken Kurt
Weill surf music of the instrumental "Tarantula," or the
chuggin' blues of "World Turns in G") and sings strongly
through the jangle and jazzy bluegrass. Her rounded notes
sound like Linda Ronstadt in the '70s, her sustained verses
like Nanci Griffith in the '80s. The Guthrie genes are
gifted ones, no doubt.
Irion's debut is somewhere between Neil Young's "Comes a
Time" and "Old Ways" albums. The song "Think Tank," especially --
it's loping rhythm and mopey whining about "the city of
angels" rings of all that southern California country-rock
from similarly exiled and flighty Southerners, from the
Byrds to the Eagles.
Irion is a better player (esp. the dobro) than a singer --
which, of course, never slowed down Young — but the
skinny-boy swagger of "Unity Lodge" will be satisfying to the
men who can't get into Guthrie's music. Irion's easier to
drink beer to, that's for certain, but Guthrie's the one
destined to be the star, even without the family tree to
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.'
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
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
It was the spring of 1940, and Woody Guthrie was
becoming a star — or as close to one as he'd ever let
In May of that year, Woody stood alone in Victor
Records' New Jersey recording studio and sang out some of
his best — and now best-known — songs: "Dust Bowl Refugee," "I
Ain't Got No Home," "Do Re Mi," "So Long, It's Been Good to
Know You" and many more. He was paid $300 for the session,
more money than he'd ever thought a man could be paid for
singing "dusty ol' songs."
Immediately after the session, Woody wrote to his
younger sister Mary Jo back in Oklahoma about his recent
good fortune in New York City. "I just bought a new
Plymouth, and it really splits the breeze," he said. Then he
added, "I'm coming to Oklahoma as soon as I get a check from
Months later, he began that journey back home, and his
traveling companion was fellow folksinger Pete Seeger. It
would be a pivotal journey for Woody's political
motivations and a crystallizing moment in his personal
According to Joe Klein's Woody Guthrie: A Life, the two
young folkies headed south and rolled through the
Appalachian Mountains "carrying on a running conversation
about music and politics."
Along the trip, they stopped briefly in Tennessee to
visit the Highlander Folk School, a training center for
labor organizers. The owners, Myles and Zilphia Horton,
were focusing on the use of music as an organizing tool.
From then on, Woody became preoccupied with writing union
songs, and later in the trip he would pen his ultimate
They traveled through Arkansas into Oklahoma, stopping
in Konawa to visit Woody's family. It was a tense reunion.
The Guthries had been split up years before after Woody's
mother Nora went to the mental hospital in Norman. After
that, Mary Jo was sent to a relative's in Pampa, Texas, and
Woody's father, Charley, moved to Oklahoma City. Woody and
his older brother were left behind in Okemah to fend for
themselves. Woody's inherent restlessness got the better of
him, and he left soon after high school.
Charley was in Konawa during this visit, but as Klein
wrote, there was "a real tension between them, and the visit
lasted only a few hours."
They pressed on to Oklahoma City, where they spent a
night with local Communist Party organizers Bob and Ina
Wood. The Woods put Guthrie and Seeger to work, singing for
the poor people in the Hooverville shantytown on the banks
of the Canadian River. It was during this stay that Woody
wrote one of his most recognizable songs, "Union Maid."
Later in his life, Woody wrote that the song was
inspired by the story of a southern Tenant Farmers' Union
organizer who was badly beaten, but in a recent interview
with the Tulsa World Seeger recalled the more direct
inspiration for the song.
"We were in the (Woods') office, and Ina said, ‘Woody,
all these union songs are about brothers this and brothers
that. How about writing songs about union women?' " Seeger
said. "Well, it was true. The (union) meeting that night
might have been broken up had it not been for the women and
children singing songs and keeping it peaceful."
"Union Maid" — with its chorus, "Oh you can't scare me, I'm
stickin' to the union" — was written that night as a parody
of an older song called "Redwing." At first, Seeger thought
Woody's song was silly, but he said its simplicity and
directness soon won him over.
"His words now are much better than the ‘Redwing' words,"
he said. "Who would think that ‘stickin' to the' would be
such a fun line to sing?"
The rest of the trip was personally difficult. Woody and
Pete continued to Pampa, where Woody had left behind his
first wife and children. That reunion also was tense.
Seeger didn't stay long, opting to continue travelling west
after a few days. Woody left soon after that, leaving his
wife the $300. He headed back through Oklahoma City and
picked up Bob Wood, taking him back to New York City for a
huge Communist Party convention at Madison Square Garden.
When the convention was done, Woody gave Wood the
Plymouth so he could get home. It was the official car of
the Oklahoma Communist Party for several years after that.
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
" 'Til We Outnumber 'Em"
(Righteous Babe Records)
This long-delayed recording of an all-star 1996 Woody
Guthrie tribute concert at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
(which celebrated the opening of the Woody Guthrie
Archives) is as uneven, prickly and poignant as Guthrie's
own life and legacy. Sketchy performances of brilliant
songs, jaw-dropping renderings of mediocre movements, oddly
edited bits of readings from Guthrie's writings — "'Til We
Outnumber 'Em" is a joyous jumble, a striking collage
artwork showing how many colors, styles and genres of music
make up the current ideal of Woody's vision. Aside from the
jerky sequencing and a few hard travelin' renditions, there
are some crystalline moments: Ani DiFranco's spare,
sweeping shattering of the preciousness built up around "Do
Re Mi," Billy Bragg's rascally cooing through "Against th'
Law" (tuneless lyrics to which Bragg wrote new music), Bruce
Springsteen — the king of car songs — sputtering and vrooming
through "Riding in My Car" and the full-cast, full-on, fully
transcendent "Hard Travelin' Hootenanny," featuring everyone
from Billy Bragg to Arlo Guthrie. Alternately frustrating
and fascinating, just like the man in question.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
Billy Bragg & Wilco
"Mermaid Avenue, Vol. 2"
The first round of this unique collaboration — British
folk-rocker Billy Bragg, American roots-rock band Wilco and
various friends interpretting previously unrecorded lyrics
by songwriting icon and Oklahoma native Woody Guthrie --
simply begged for a sequel. In fact, according to Bragg and
members of Wilco, the first Grammy-nominated "Mermaid Avenue"
album, released two years ago, was created with this
follow-up in mind.
"We knew we'd need another shake when we put the tracks
together for 'Mermaid Avenue,'" said Wilco's Jay Bennett,
guitarist and co-author of some of the music here. "We even
chose songs for the first record based on that. The first
album gave a broad view of Woody. It was intended to draw
people in. This album is less folky."
Less folky, indeed, but much more expansive, ambitious
and eclectic. "Volume 2" builds on the pleasant, accessible
(and historically important) introduction of the first
outing by stretching Woody's ideas through a constantly
changing landscape of musical styles, from ramblin' country
blues to '60s folk-rock to rollicking roadhouse protest
punk. The result, though, is still somehow cohesive.
Instead of flying apart in a whorl of splattered Jackson
Pollock mess, "Volume 2" holds together like a pointillized
Seurat painting — a million separate moments of color that
unite to create a single image or impression. Even
lyrically, they are disparate subjects, from flying saucers
and airplane rides through heaven to Stetson Kennedy and
What unites these songs is difficult to describe. It has
to do with attitude, spirit and what Tom Wolfe once called
the Unspoken Thing, but mostly it's the fact that the
musicians assembled here understand and transmit the
optimism and humility of the man in question.
It's important, too, that this record is such a tangled
collaboration. Were it simply Bragg's solo tribute to the
late Guthrie, the inevitable tunnel vision would exclude
the multiple opportunities available in these lyrics. A
solo effort also would focus the attention selfishly on one
performer — an approach not at all suitable to the legacy of
the ultimate Everyman. In addition to Bragg and Wilco
(sometimes together, sometimes backing each other up,
sometimes completely separate), Natalie Merchant — a guest
on the first "Mermaid" — turns in one song, the child-like "I
Was Born," and deliberately anachronistic young blues singer
Corey Harris takes the lead on "Against th' Law." The
constant mix scatters any professional egos that might
otherwise spoil such a project and therefore keeps us
listening to the songs themselves — their humor, their
poignancy, their simple and direct expressions of both
trivial and earth-shattering themes. It's about the music,
not the messengers.
This was the case on "Volume 1," but it's almost more
successful here largely because of the musical integrity of
Wilco's input. Bragg is still at top form, bouncing
cheerily through "My Flying Saucer" and spitting out "All You
Fascists" as if it were one of his own anti-fascist rants,
but Wilco's alternative innovative and derivative
fashioning of music for these lost lyrics makes this volume
of "Mermaid" a richer, more compelling experience. Bennett
and singer Jeff Tweedy fashion "Airline to Heaven," a
light-hearted daydream about soaring through heaven on the
wings of a prayer, into a stomping, kinetic flight, Tweedy
singing through his nose like Dylan the whole time. "Feed of
Man" is a socially urgent lyric, and Wilco's bluesy, British
Invasion stroll helps the words to grab the listener by the
collar, with Tweedy this time spitting out his lines in
about two notes as if he were the Animals' Eric Burdon.
"Secret of the Sea" rings like the Byrds, and "Blood of the
Lamb," a nakedly religious hymn, wobbles along on a woozy
Farfisa and Hammond organ like it's being delivered by a
These new sounds, these old shades — once again this is
the testament to Woody's immeasurable importance as a
songwriter. Strangers and stragglers still find redemption
in these old lyrics, and musicians continue to turn
half-century-old songs into brand-new, brilliant creatures.
In an era of quick-burn stars, it's almost difficult to
comprehend the impact a man could still make 33 years after
his death. But here's another example of Woody's continuing
imprint — long may it last.
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual conference and festival ...
© Tulsa World
Tulsa band Fanzine gets a chance to shine at SXSW showcase
By Thomas Conner 03/19/2000
AUSTIN, Texas — The sound man at Opal Divine's Firehouse
was filling the pre-show dead time with his own selection
of classic-rock greatest hits: a couple of cuts from the
Eagles' "Long Run" album, a smattering of Zeppelin, a lot of
Journey. A few minutes before showtime, he played Cheap
Trick's live cover of "Ain't That a Shame," and Fanzine
drummer Don Jameson started air-drumming.
"Oh, yes!" he said, tapping into the song's lengthy
introductory groove. "This is what it's about, right here.
It's not, 'Won't you step back from that ledge, my friend' "
— making a face, making fun of the Third Eye Blind hit
"Jumper" — "It's about the shaking of the booty. It's about
being larger than life . . . There isn't an arena big
enough to hold us."
This weekend it wasn't arenas, just a small club patio
on the edge of Austin's hottest nightclub scene and in the
middle of its yearly music-industry lottery.
On Wednesday night, Jameson and his Tulsa-based rock
band, Fanzine, kicked off the South by Southwest music
festival, an annual congregation of music-business talent
scouts and international media all searching for the Next
Big Thing. Nearly 1,000 bands — a record — from around the
world were scheduled to play hourlong sets in clubs
throughout Austin this weekend, and Fanzine had the
daunting task of playing in the first showcase slot on the
first night of the festival. In just a few hours, and
certainly over the four days of the festival, these four
players would learn what, indeed, it was all about.
It's all about the gig
South by Southwest is basically a live-music mall.
"Buyers" from record labels, management companies and music
magazines stroll up and down Austin's nightclub-lined Sixth
Street and shop for the hottest new fashions in pop music.
So when your band is fortunate enough to land a showcase
here, you want everything to be perfect. For Fanzine,
it very nearly was.
"How lucky are we to be playing right before the
Mayflies?" Jameson asked when the band finished sound check.
The Mayflies, an up-and-coming pop band from Chapel Hill,
N.C., were listed by many SXSW forecasters as one of the
most interesting acts to see this year. They would thus be
drawing a crowd of scouts and record company reps, and many
of them would come early — and hear Fanzine.
"We're blessed tonight. This feels good," Fanzine singer
Adam said before the show.
The band arrived in Austin on Tuesday and immediately
went to work with staple guns and smiles, tacking up
posters advertising the Wednesday night gig and thrusting
handbills into the palms of any passers-by.
"We came all this way, I just want someone to see us,"
Jameson said. "Tonight's all about being seen — eyes on us."
And, of course, ears.
It's not about the gig
Still, Jameson and the other Fanzine players weren't
expecting miracles. Their set coincided with the Austin
Music Awards — a ceremony honoring the best of local talent,
much like Tulsa's Spotniks — the big event of Wednesday
night. The band's 24 hours in town wasn't a lot of time to
spread the word about its showcase. Most music reps and
media don't arrive until late Wednesday or Thursday,
anyway. "I really expect very little tonight," Jameson
said. "It's the first night, and this club's off the beaten
path, but this sure is great to put (in the press kit). It
means we've been chosen among some kind of selected upper
The World Wide Web was certainly an aid in advance
promotion. Word of the showcase spread quickly on, oddly
enough, Web sites and newsgroups for fans of the Toadies.
Plus, Tulsa radio music directors e-mailed their record
company contacts en masse, advising them of the Fanzine
One of them, KMYZ 104.5-FM music director Ray Seggern,
attended Wednesday's show. Seggern is an Austin native,
having worked with the city's popular modern rock station
for several years. He knows people, and he dragged as many
as he could with him to see the Tulsa band.
But even Seggern was realistic.
"It's not about the gig," he said. "The gig is the least
important part. (What's important) is the networking, the
experience, the mindset. Just being here and wearing a
badge is important."
Case in point: Hanson. The young Tulsa trio spent
several days at SXSW early in the '90s. Too young to even
play in the local bars, they strolled the streets and
softball-park bleachers, singing for anyone who would
listen. An astute music manager did, and the rest is
It's about support
For Fanzine's show, though, Opal Divine's was packed.
Most importantly, the crowd stayed and stared. Many SXSW
showcase audiences often are indifferent groups of jaded
music-industry mavens concentrating on wheeling and dealing
with other industry folk rather than listening to the
bands. Fanzine's crowd, though, stopped, looked and
listened. The band was on point, too. Tighter than
they've been in many months — and fueled by more adreneline,
no doubt — they tore through 40 minutes of their
groove-stuffed, flashy and unrelenting rock 'n' roll. Adam
threw off his bright orange jacket ("You like me mack?") by
the third song and was soon shaking his tambourine all over
the club's outdoor wooden deck and dancing with Beatle Bob,
an eccentric music-industry analyst who came to the show
and danced his trademark swingin' dance.
Many in Wednesday night's crowd were Tulsans, checking
out their hometown band on Austin's turf. Tim Kassen, a
Williams Company agent who also books bands for Tulsa's
Bourbon Street Cafe on 15th Street, was in town and said he
made a beeline to Fanzine's show. "Nobody performs like
Adam, with all that energy," he said. "Heck, if I had the
money, I'd sign them."
Also looking on were T.J. Green and Angie Devore, the
husband-and-wife team at the helm of new Tulsa band
Ultrafix. They weren't scheduled to play in Austin this
weekend; they came down just to attend the conference and
meet music-business folks and other musicians. They had
planned to arrive in Austin on Thursday but came a day
early to be present for the Fanzine show.
"It's all about support, man," Green said.
By George, we got us a rock show
By Thomas Conner 03/19/2000
AUSTIN, Texas — When South by Southwest occurs each
March, the Texas capital is literally overrun by music
businesspeople and musicians. How invasive is the
conference? Just ask presidential hopeful George W. Bush.
When the Texas governor realized he was going to sweep
Tuesday's second big round of Republican presidential
primaries, his campaign staff decided to book a local
ballroom to host the celebration and inevitable victory
But they couldn't find one. Every ballroom, theater and
public venue in town was booked up with SXSW events. Bush
and his supporters wound up in far northwest Austin,
patting themselves on the back in a gymnasium at the Dell
Jewish Community Campus.
Talk about rocking the vote.
Rangers in command
Storms raked the Texas hill country late Thursday
afternoon. The Ray Price show in the park surely was
doomed, so we headed for indoor shelter. The fact that it
had tortillas, margaritas and the Red Dirt Rangers made it
The Oklahoma roots-music band played the first of its
five SXSW-week gigs ("Six," Ranger John Cooper said later — "We
actually got one that pays!") at Jovita's, an authentic
Mexican restaurant south of downtown Austin.
And I mean authentic. The walls were arrayed with rich,
colorful murals, mostly depicting masked rebels in olive
drab, including a giant portrait of Che Guevera. The tables
were so sticky we had to paper them over with copies from a
stack of someone's Spanish-English poem entitled
"Crossroads." Our waitress had two breathtaking parrots
tattooed on her shoulder blades.
As the storm pelted Jovita's corrugated skylight, the
Rangers blasted through their typically invigorating set of
Okie rock 'n' soul, opening the show with two Woody Guthrie
covers, "Rangers' Command" (the title track to the Rangers'
latest CD, recorded in Austin) and "California Stars" (one of
the Woody lyrics put to music by Billy Bragg and Wilco) — a
nod to Woody's younger sister, Mary Jo Edgmon, sitting in
Also watching the Rangers was fellow Stillwater native,
now Austin-based songwriter Jimmy Lafave. The Rangers also
played his song "Red Dirt Roads," rocking it more than Lafave
probably ever envisioned and using it as a sparring match
between electric guitarist Ben Han and new steel guitarist
Roger Ray, also of Stillwater's Jason Boland and the
Stranglers. Whoops and yelps all around.
This ... is Wanda
Conversation overheard on the sidewalk outside the
Continental Club, Thursday night in the freezing cold,
waiting in vain to get inside and hear Oklahoma City
rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson:
She: "We'll never get in."
He: "They're full? At eight o'clock? Who is this woman?"
She: "I don't know. She looks like Loretta Lynn."
He: "Loretta Lynn never had a stand-up bass player like
She: "Can you see her hair?"
He: "That's all I can see. I could be back at the hotel
and still see that hair."
She: "It's not that big."
She: "Nothing. I was wrong."
Talking 'bout Tulsa
Tulsans protested the derogatory mention of the city in
a recent Best Western ad campaign, but our hometown creeps
into the world's consciousness in strange and mysterious
Take, for example, a song by Astrid, a spunky and
tuneful guitar band from Scotland. Near the end of the
band's hard-hitting showcase, they played a song called
"Cybersex," which the singer was good enough to point out "is
about cybersex." The refrain, from the point of view of the
narrative's libidinous web surfer: "It's 3 p.m. in Idlewild
/ Kansas, Tulsa, Arkansas."
Norman band Starlight Mints were lucky enough to land a
SXSW showcase this year, but it was nearly ruined by
equipment problems that delayed them 20 minutes — nearly
half of their allotted playing time. (And SXSW showcases
begin and end on time, or else.)
Still, the embryonic rock band impressed a capacity
crowd at the intimate Copper Tank North club with its
herky-jerky melodies and noises. My notes include this
absurd but revealing description of the band's music:
"Gordon Gano (Violent Femmes) singing, Thurston Moore (Sonic
Youth) on guitar, chick from the Rentals (Maya Rudolph) on
keys, all aboard a carousel at Wayne Coyne's (Flaming Lips)
For the record
While SXSW takes over Austin with live music, another of
the country's biggest musical events occurs here at the
same time. This one involves recorded music: the annual
Austin Record Convention, the largest new-and-used record
sale in the country.
Hundreds of record dealers from all over the country
huddle over tables in the Palmer Municipal Auditorium and
hawk more than a million CDs, LPs, 45s and even 78s. With
the world's music business leaders in town, these dealers
have to face a particular and knowledgeable clientele.
"This is the reissue, though. See, it's dated '92. You
don't have the '84 original with the six extra versions?"
That's pretty standard discussion fare at the
convention. One dealer from Minnesota boasted a
pristine, still-wrapped copy of former Tulsan Leon
Russell's "The Wedding Album." Asking price: $100.
A C-note? Has he heard it?
"No, but my books tell me that's a steal."
A rose by any other name ...
Part of the fun of perusing the SXSW schedule is the
humor and daring of some of the band names. The chucklers
on this year's list: Alabama Thunder Pussy, ... And You
Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Bastard Sons of Johnny
Cash, Betty Blowtorch, Camaro Hair, Del the Funky
Homosapien, the Dino Martinis, Fatal Flying Guilloteens, I
Am the World Trade Center, Man Scouts of America, Maximum
Coherence During Flying, the Psychedelic Kinky Fellows,
Roar! Lion, Sci-Fi Uterus and the Tremolo Beer Gut.
Food for the soul
If you want music media to come see your band, set up a
free buffet. A table of sumptuous Texas barbecue and an
absence of cash registers filled La Zona Rosa with SXSW
registrants Thursday afternoon to see the Nixons open for
Texas guitar hero Ian Moore. Greasy hands clapped for the
Nixons' timeless (as in, stuck in 1993) grunge rock.
The band sported a new record label (the showcase sponsor,
Koch Records), new songs ("P.O.V." and the wildly cheery
"Blackout") and, well, a new band. Singer Zac Malloy is the
only original Norman-native member left, having jettisoned
the rest of the crew for a new batch of Dallas-based
The Nixons started in Norman as a cover band, scored a
modern rock hit early in the '90s with "Sister" and now are
based in Dallas. A new album is due April 11.
'What about the amps?'
Austin is full of colorful, sometimes downright
eccentric, characters, so when we noticed the guy talking
to himself on Fourth Street, it was no big shock.
He stood in the hot afternoon sun, pacing in circles,
gesturing wildly and talking, talking, talking — by himself.
"What about the amps?" he kept asking. "Where are the amps?" We
skirted him just off the curb, thinking to ourselves, "So
young, and already so nuts." Then we noticed it.
The earpiece, the hidden microphone — a hands-free cell
SXSW snapshots: The high, mighty and downright loony go wild in Austin
By Thomas Conner 03/22/2000
AUSTIN, Texas — More than 30 years after his death,
musicians — and, indeed, Americans — are just now figuring
out what Woody Guthrie was about.
Greg Johnson, owner of Oklahoma City's revered Blue Door
nightclub, summed it up ably during a South by Southwest
panel discussion entitled "Made for You and Me: Woody
Guthrie's Dust Bowl Legacy."
"Woody was about freedom and community," Johnson said. "He
was about propping people up. Bruce Springsteen used to say
it this way: 'Woody was about the next guy in line.' "
Veteran music journalist Dave Marsh led the panel, which
also included Austin-based songwriters Jimmy Lafave and
Michael Fracasso. The star of the panel, though, was
Guthrie's youngest sister, Mary Jo Edgmon, who regaled the
crowd with homespun tales of her proud father, her
misunderstood mother and her iconic older brother. "I
was reared on music all the way up to here," Edgmon said,
pointing over her head. "Woody taught me chords on the
guitar. I got really good at that C chord, I guess it was."
Edgmon spoke proudly of the "1,000 percent turnaround" in
America's perception of Woody, particularly in his Green
Country hometown of Okemah. She said she's thrilled to see
the misunderstandings about Woody's political and spiritual
beliefs clearing up.
"I want the world to understand that the Guthrie family
was not trash, that Woody was as good a man as there is,"
Lafave and Fracasso both punctuated the panel session
with performances. Fracasso sang Guthrie's "1913 Massacre"
and one of his own songs directly inspired by Woody's
songwriting (Fracasso's chorus: "From the mountains to the
valleys / from the prairies to the sea / If you ain't got
love, you ain't got a nickel"). Lafave sang a song about
Woody called "Woody's Road," written by acclaimed Oklahoma
songwriter Bob Childers, and then closed the afternoon
event with a rendition of Guthrie's "Oklahoma Hills," joined
by members of the Red Dirt Rangers and Edgmon herself.
Paint the town Redd
Austin's Top of the Marc is a clean, classy place — not
your usual SXSW mosh pit. The clientele shows the proper
amount of cuff, and the bar has drambuie. Festival
organizers couldn't just stick another all-girl Japanese
punk band in here. They needed class. So they called
upon Charlie Redd and his boys.
Decked out and dynamic, the Full Flava Kings brought
Redd back home in style. "Bring it on home, y'all!" Redd
would shout in a song's closing jam, though it was unclear
which home he was referring to — his native Austin or his
new Tulsa HQ. Either way, his Austin friends and fans saw a
new Redd on Saturday night: more groovy, more gravy and
drizzling a more honeyed baritone over the band's dense
rhythm-and-funk. In addition to charter Kings Dave
Kelly on guitar, Brian Lee on keyboards and Stanley Fary
beating the drums mercilessly, the Full Flava Kings debuted
new guitarist and veteran Tulsa funkmeister Travis Fite
(Phat Thumb) to the Austin crowd.
Their response? Ask the female stranger who tried to
start The Bump with me during the show.
Here come the brides
Tyson Meade, the colorful leader of the Norman-reared
Chainsaw Kittens, used to wear dresses on stage as a rule.
After his Friday night SXSW showcase, he took the fixation
to a bold new level by getting married to another man in
full white-gown fabulousness.
Before the next band (the bizarro but like-minded Frogs)
took the tent stage outside the Gallery Lombardi Lounge,
Meade reappeared in a wedding processional that parted the
crowd. The wedding party included several maids, matrons
and misters of honor in various degrees of Mardi Gras-esque
garb, all of whom surrounded the officiating Hindu priest
for the brief ceremony.
In a flurry of toasts and funny-but-heartfelt vows,
Meade and Skip Handleman Werner — who was always preceded by
the mysterious title "international pop star" — were
pronounced unlawfully married. They smooched, and the
wedding party bunny-hopped from the venue as "Y.M.C.A."
Reports of this high camp should not overshadow news of
the Kittens' triumphant return. Still without a record deal
after the sad demise of the Smashing Pumpkins' Scratchie
Records, the Kittens blasted back into action Friday night
with an explosive set of old and new glam-punk songs.
Meade, juiced by pre-wedding jitters, took the stage in a
royal blue feathery jacket and furiously belted and
screamed his way through the serrated set of Kitty classics
reaching all the way back to the band's debut album,
I can't chaaange
Billy Joe Winghead's lead singer, John Manson, took out
his personal angst about Meade's marriage (he was
distraught over not getting to, um, kiss the bride) through
BJW's two sets of roadhouse rock. The OKC-Tulsa band
blew into Austin late Saturday and played back-to-back
shows at the Hole in the Wall, a University of Texas
hangout, and Cheapo Discs. Shoppers at the latter venue
were typically unfazed by the blaring band over in the
corner — until they played "Free Bird."
A cliche request that normally turns off young rock
audiences always turns heads when its coming from the
five-piece Billy Joe Winghead. Tulsa bassist Steve Jones
sings over the guitar grind while Manson waves out the
melody on his green theremin. Amid the band's repertoire of
songs about rest-stop sex, doomed B-filmstars and car
salesman lingo, "Free Bird" is practically the crown jewel
and always a crowd pleaser.
Hit me with your best shot
Readers of the Austin Chronicle voted David Garza the
city's second-best musician of the '90s. (Ask a blues fan
who was first.) It's not simply because he writes
well-rounded pop songs and executes them gracefully on
record with his band; it's that he really doesn't need his
band at all.
On the Waterloo Park stage late Saturday afternoon,
Garza held his own with only his pretty red Gibson guitar
to keep him company. Songs that on record seem pieced
together by clever arrangements of drum machines, acoustic
guitar and Garza's versatile voice — like "Discoball World" --
evened out in frenetic and energetic solo jams. Near the
end, he took requests, cheerfully tearing his fingernails
off by barreling through "Take Another Shot."
Thank you, sir, may I have another?
The good, the bad, and the ugly
Rumor of the week: That Neil Young was the mysterious
"special guest" billed immediately before Steve Earle's
Friday night set at Stubb's. Young was in Austin for South
by Southwest, but not the music part. His latest concert
film, "Silver and Gold," was premiering. The special guest
was Whiskeytown singer Ryan Adams.
Patron saint of the festival: Doug Sahm. The drive-train
for the Sir Douglas Quartet may be dead but he hasn't left
Austin. From two star-studded tributes to him — one at
Wednesday night's Austin Music Awards (featuring Shawn and
Shandon Sahm), another Friday at the legendary Antone's
blues club (featuring former bandmate Augie Meyers and,
straight from the where-is-he-now bins, Joe "King" Carassco) --
to posters in Mexican restaurants advertising prints of his
portrait for sale, Sahm has edged out Townes Van Zandt as
the bandwagon who bought the farm.
Best TV footage no one could use: Steve Earle's Thursday
morning keynote address. Earle delivered his words of
wisdom wearing a T-shirt that read, "I'm from f—-ing outer
Comeback of the week: Former Byrds icon Roger McGuinn,
whose Friday night performance brought overplayed standards
back down to earth with grace and style.
Best T-shirt: "My lawyer can kick your lawyer's ass."
Most shameless self-promotion: Dallas rap-rockers
Pimpadelic not only drove around downtown blocks in its
giant tour bus with the band's name emblazoned along the
sides, the band also spent its free time walking around
Austin with dancers it hired from the Yellow Rose strip
club, all of whom, of course, sported tightly cropped
T-shirts bearing the band's name. Watch for the band's
debut on Tommy Boy Records.
Most prominent foreign country: The Netherlands, buoyed
by waning interest in the annual Japan Night and extensive
lobbying by the Dutch Rock and Pop Institute.
Best non-SXSW show: Austin's ear-splitting Hotwheels Jr.
on Friday afternoon in a tiny CD shop way out in north
Austin. They spell it r-a-w-k.
Favorite new discovery: Scotland's newest guitar pop
band Astrid, with a debut album, "Strange Weather Lately,"
out now on Fantastic Plastic Records.
Best diversion on the way to another gig: The strolling
horn band Crawdaddy-O, which braved the frigid cold
Thursday night livening people's steps with funky Dixieland
jams, including — at Adam of Fanzine's request — some
sizzling James Brown.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
"The Asch Recordings, Vols. 1-4"
Like Little Richard was to rock 'n' roll, or Louis
Armstrong was to jazz, Woody Guthrie is to American folk
music — the clearest, deepest source. Humble, frank and
amazingly prolific, Guthrie churned out more music in a
17-year period than some whole subgenres of pop, and the
imprint of these tunes and these lyrics is still being
felt. Smithsonian Folkways continues to enshrine America's
roots music in valuable boxed sets and CD releases, and the
label reaches its apex with this four-CD collection that,
as a whole, sums up Guthrie's entire vibrant statement to
Such a summation is no easy task, but Moses Asch was
destined for it. The idealistic, workaholic record company
owner could usually be found in his small office/studio at
all hours of the day or night, and he had enormous respect
for truly creative artists — whether or not they were
commercially viable. In his lifetime, Asch was responsible
for recording and releasing the songs of more than 2,000
artists, including Guthrie cohorts Leadbelly and Pete
Seeger, as well as singers like Josh White and Burl Ives.
In the spring of 1944, Asch met Guthrie — an Okie who'd
been wandering the country much of his young adulthood — and
was taken by his political convictions and creative spirit.
For the next six years, Asch recorded Woody singing his
songs and those of other songwriters. The sessions that
survive comprise the bulk of Woody's recorded legacy, and
this digitally remastered set may be the definitive Woody
collection. "Oh yes, it's definitely definitive," said
Guy Logsdon, a Tulsa resident and probably the pre-eminent
Guthrie scholar. With sound archivist Jeff Place, Logsdon
compiled and annotated these four discs, which were
released separately in the last few years and are just now
collected in one boxed set.
"I read in a music catalog a while back, someone wrote
about this that 'anyone interested in American music must
have this collection,'" Logsdon said. "That's because Woody
was such an influence — not just on folk but on rock 'n'
roll, pop music, all the way down the line. He gave us
children's songs that people sing and don't even know Woody
wrote them. This is the collection."
Asch became the source of Guthrie recordings because of
his lengthy relationship with him. Guthrie's Library of
Congress recordings were made during a two week period in
1940. After that, he put down the "Dust Bowl Ballads" for
RCA, plus a few records for small labels. He took a hiatus
from recording while he was in the Merchant Marines, and
then began his most productive period with Asch.
Those six years are expertly compiled on this set, each
disc with its own theme. Volume 1, "This Land Is Your Land,"
presents many of Guthrie's best-known and best-loved songs,
from the child-like fun of "Car Song" and "Talking Fishing
Blues" to serious issues tackled in "Do-Re-Mi" and "Jesus
Christ." Volume 2, "Muleskinner Blues," is a selection of the
more traditional folk repertory Guthrie had learned and
adopted as his own throughout his life, from "Stackolee" to
the "Worried Man Blues." Volume 3, "Hard Travelin'," culls
together the best of Guthrie's current-events songs,
swinging between the World War II version of "So Long, It's
Been Good to Know You" and amusing cultural trendspotting
Volume 4, "Buffalo Skinners," looks at a side of Guthrie
many might not have seen before. While compiling a complete
discography of Guthrie's songs during a 1990 post-doctoral
fellowship, Logsdon explored Woody's unheralded cowboy
In Logsdon's extensive liner notes for this set, he
traces the development of Guthrie as a cowboy songwriter,
starting with "Oklahoma Hills." The eventual recording of
that song became a country-and-western hit in 1945, sung by
Woody's cousin, Jack Guthrie. The success of that song
inspired him to write more, and he enjoyed another hit in
1949 when the Maddox Brothers recorded "Philadelphia Lawyer."
"Most people don't associate Woody with cowboy songs,"
Logsdon said. "Woody's father came to the Creek Nation as a
cowboy, though. He worked on a ranch east of Okmulgee. He
and his granddad were ranchers in Texas. In Michael Wallis'
book about the 101 Ranch, he refers to Gid Guthrie, Woody's
great uncle. So this fourth volume may come as a bit of a
surprise to some folks."
Guthrie's body of work is full of surprises. Those of us
who grew up singing "This Land Is Your Land" in grade school
and hearing about Woody the serious, hard travelin' folk
singer are always taken aback by the depths to which his
convictions plumbed, as well as his underappreciated
playful side. Both are on parade throughout "The Asch
Recordings." Guthrie even wrote songs to accompany Omar
Khayyam's ancient "Rubaiyat" poem. Only a few copies of the
recordings exist, and Logsdon said no one's sure yet how to
sequence them. One of these tracks is featured on Volume 3,
and it's a textbook example of Guthrie taking time-worn
philosophies and trying to apply them to the events of his
This set is, indeed, a must-have for anyone with even a
passing interest in American music or American history. No
other artist in the mid-20th century put down the issues,
the angst and the joy more accurately and frankly than
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.
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Last fall, British folk singer Billy Bragg was kicking
around Green Country chasing the ghost of Woody Guthrie.
He'll be back this week — and this time he's bringing his
Bragg will be performing a special kind of Guthrie
tribute. In fact, it's less a tribute than a collaboration
with the late Okemah-native and legendary American folk
singer. At the request of Guthrie's daughter Nora, Bragg
wrote music to several dozen Guthrie lyrics — verses whose
music was stored in Woody's head and died with him in 1967.
With the backing of premier American roots band Wilco, the
results of the collaboration were released a couple of
weeks ago on a CD named for the location of Guthrie's New
York City home, "Mermaid Avenue."
His solo show in Okemah this week — kicking off the first
Woody Guthrie Free Folk Arts Festival — brings full circle
his study of Woody's still-struggling legacy. We caught up
with Bragg again last week to talk about the finished
project, and he tore himself from a televised World Cup
game to talk about the album, his crash course in Oklahoma
history and the irony of the continuing struggle of the
country's greatest songwriter to find acceptance in his
Thomas Conner: Before you started working on this album,
how much of America had you seen?
Billy Bragg: I've seen more of America than most
Americans. I've traveled here two or three times a year
since 1984, and I've been through every state except six. I
don't like to fly, either, so I drive it. You see more that
way, you know? If you just fly over it, how do you know
what's different about it? If I hadn't been looking at a
map and driving, for instance, I wouldn't know that the
Texas panhandle is not really a panhandle at all. It's
Oklahoma that's got the real panhandle.
TC: And how much did you know about Woody before
embarking on this project?
BB: We've driven through Oklahoma before but never
stopped there. When we drove down from Pittsburg last fall,
I read Woody's biography on the way. Before that, I knew as
much as anybody, I guess. I knew he influenced Bob Dylan,
he died of a terrible disease and he wrote "This Land Is
Your Land." I'm used to hearing his music performed by other
artists. I first heard "Pretty Boy Floyd" done by the Byrds,
and I heard "Do Re Mi" done by Ry Cooder. This project is
sort of a continuation of that tradition.
TC: Tell me about some of the experiences you had
exploring Oklahoma last fall.
BB: Well, I'd never been to Tulsa before. When we
visited the Cain's Ballroom — that stuck with me. The whole
idea of Bob Wills and the Sex Pistols all wrapped up in one
place — it really speaks to something ...
TC: What does it speak to?
BB: The — what is it? — the melting pot of America. All
that melting stuff of humanity seems to do its mixing in
the center of America, in Oklahoma. The whole state tends
to stand out, whether it wants to or knows it or not.
Oklahoma doesn't fit easily into the categories of Midwest,
Southwest or the South. It's very much a crossroads.
TC: Indeed, much to the dismay of chambers of commerce
and tourist departments that try to find a marketable
identity for the state.
BB: But they've got it. Woody Guthrie is your Mickey
Mouse. Those chambers of commerce have resisted the man who
wrote "This Land Is Your Land." If the person who wrote the
actual national anthem came from Oklahoma, you'd call
yourselves home of the national anthem. Thirty or forty
years ago, you could have called yourselves the home of
TC: No signs like that in Okemah, eh?
BB: We went to Okemah and walked the streets — some still
sort of brick cobble streets — and walked to the ruin of the
Guthrie house, just getting the vibe for it. It's really
rolling hills around there, not flat as everyone pictures
it from images of the Dust Bowl. My preconceptions about
Oklahoma were about as correct as my preconceptions about
We went to Pampa (Texas), too, which is flat as a
pancake. Looking out my hotel room window on the third or
fourth floor, just before the sun came up, in the distance
I could catch the lights from Calgary or Edmondton ...
TC: What did you learn about Woody that really surprised
BB: I learned that if you think of Woody Guthrie as a
character in a world like the movie version of "The Grapes
of Wrath" you're only getting half the picture. He also
belongs as a background character walking onto subways in
Manhattan, in the background of a movie like "On the
TC: I understand you found a few folks around Okemah who
don't think much of their native son because of his
BB: Yeah, we found some people with
rather strong views about Okemah's favorite son. They're
dying off, though. It's very much a generational thing. If
this project leads to a reassessment of Woody's life and
career, the place it needs that most is in Oklahoma. One
day it may come to pass that people there begin to be
unashamed of him as they are.
TC: How did you approach the writing process — putting
music to words already written, and written by someone you
respect so much?
BB: The process was really very simple for me. When I
write songs, I slave over the lyrics, but the music just
flows. I suppose it's some sort of intuitive thing, and I
just sort of tune into it. I just sat down with these
lyrics and in some ways just felt the tunes. You sit down
and feel what you feel. If there's nothing, you turn a few
pages, and maybe the next one gets you somehow.
TC: Was it your idea to work with Wilco, or was that a
record company strategy?
BB: My idea. When Nora approached me, the deal I made
was that I chose the musicians. She was very concerned that
this not sound like a tribute record. Tributes are nice
ideas, but they're often focused on the personalities of
the people who record them. We wanted to focus on the
TC: So why Wilco?
BB: They sound like the ultimate Midwest Americana
red-dirt band. (Wilco leader) Jeff Tweedy is a marvelous
songwriter, too. He really understood what we were
TC: And why did it take a Brit to get such a firm grip
on Woody's ethos?
BB: Well, there are very few people out there performing
today who talk openly about unions. Maybe that's why they
needed me, a foreigner. There's really nothing we have in
common as artists. But even though the political situation
I went through in Britain in the 1980s was different from
what Woody was experiencing in the '30s, the conclusions we
came to are quite similar.
TC: Will you have another go at this kind of
BB: Well, we recorded 40 tracks, so
there might be another disc. I'd like to think others might
go in there and work with Nora, though. Woody wrote for
everyone, and there's plenty of room for interpretation.
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.