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.
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.