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.'
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.