story by Daniel Maher
OKEMAH, Okla. — One hundred years ago this week, Woody Guthrie, the folk music icon that gave us songs inlcuding “This Land is Your Land,” “So Long it’s Been Good to Know Yuh,” and “900 Miles,” was born here on July 14, 1912.
On this centennial of his birth, the Woody Guthrie Coalition Inc. is staging its 15th annual WoodyFest, Wednesday through Sunday (July 11-15) in Guthrie’s hometown, just a two-hour drive from the Arkansas border. The show kicks off Wednesday with a performance by Arlo Guthrie, Woody Guthrie oldest son and caretaker of his father’s legacy.
Woody Guthrie’s music embodies the struggle of the working poor, of migrant “Okies” during the Depression and dust bowl era and exposed the paradox of inequality just as did John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. In “Pastures of Plenty,” Guthrie sings: California, Arizona, I harvest your crops/Well its North to Oregon to gather your hops/Dig the beets from your ground, cut the grapes from your vine/To set on your table your light sparkling wine.
The first festival in 1997 was organized by the late Sharon Jones. She was pegged for the job because she has just pulled off a successful family reunion.
“Her friends all said to her ‘If you can do that for family, why not organize a festival for Woody?’” said Kay Watson, an active member of the Woody Guthrie Coalition. Since Jones’ passing, her husband Dwight stepped up to help.
Even on a light year, the festival crowd is larger than the town’s population of 3,000. Some 5,000 are expected to attend this year.
Who might you expect to see? Thursday’s lineup includes Nancy Apple, Monica Taylor, Susan Herndon, Larry Long, Red Dirt Rangers, and Billy Bragg. Music is continuous from 11 a.m. till past 11 p.m. For the complete list, visit the Woody Fest website.
The festival is free, except for the tickets to Arlo’s show, and parking is $15. Gretchen Peters will open for Arlo Wednesday night; tickets are $25-$55.
“The rest of the festival is free — it’s always been free and is very intentionally a free music festival. Woody was all about the common man and equal access for all. Entertainers are helped with their travel expenses but they are not paid for their performances,” according to Watson.
On Friday, music is again cued up for a 12-hour stretch with two stages running from 11 a.m. till 6 p.m. with groups such as 3 Penny Acre, Burns Sisters, Ronny Cox, and Carolyn Hester. Then on one stage from 7:30-11:30 p.m., you can hear are John Fulbright, John McCutcheon, Joel Rafael, and Jimmy LaFave closing out the night.
Saturday opens with a pancake breakfast and the music gets underway on two stages again from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. with the likes of Happenstance, Grant Peeples, Randy Couch, Ronny Elliott, Sam Baker, and David Amram. The evening closes strong with Terri Hendrix with Lloyd Maines, Ellis Paul, Melanie, and finally Judy Collins taking the stage at 10:30 p.m., Collins has had two Top 10 hits: “Send in the Clowns” and “Both Sides Now.”
Guthrie died of Huntington’s disease in 1967. The festival ends with a show on Sunday where donations will be taken for the Huntington’s Disease Society.
In addition to the music there is a host of complementary events from screenings of the films 1913 Massacre and Woody’s Children at the Crystal Theatre; a guitar workshop; a children’s concert; and poetry readings.
“Woody embodies what it means to be a ‘folk artist‘ — not only through music and lyrics but also poems, paintings, drawings, columns, etc. This is why we also have poetry readings, etc. at the festival and not just musicians,” said Watson.
Pets and coolers are not allowed so plan accordingly. Camping is available on a first come, first serve basis. With both indoor and outdoor stages there will be a venue suitable to everyone’s taste.