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.
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.