Nora Guthrie believes the spirit of her father, Woody Guthrie, sometimes
lets his presence be known. Her proof is in the multiple times
electricity has failed or lights have flickered when she's attending
events honoring him.
A few years ago, she attended a Bruce Springsteen show in Germany. Just as The Boss was set to sing a Woody Guthrie song, the stadium lost all power. She said she believes this was her dad’s mischievous way of letting her know that he was there.
So, when a nearby hospital’s generator exploded as she was leaving a meeting in Tulsa with the George Kaiser Family Foundation, Nora took it as a sign: Woody wanted to come home.
In December, The Kaiser Foundation purchased the Woody Guthrie archives, giving hundreds of his notebooks, audio recordings and photographs a permanent home in Tulsa’s Brady District.
“Oklahoma meant everything to Woody,” Nora Guthrie said. “This is where he learned compassion and empathy. This is where he learned music and politics.”
But the state’s political climate has changed significantly since the socialist-heavy times of the folksinger’s upbringing, and many Oklahomans haven't been receptive to his words throughout the years. It wasn't until 1998 that his hometown of Okemah recognized him, with the inaugural Woody Guthrie Folk Festival.
“Some people say he's the greatest American patriot and other people say he's the greatest American something else,” Nora Guthrie said. “He just went by what he felt was the right thing to do for his people.”Bound for glory
Woody Guthrie spoke for the downtrodden and sang about injustices. He focused on the divide between the rich and poor, and wrote anti-fascist songs to rally World War II troops while he served in the U.S. Merchant Marine and the U.S. Army.
The federal government valued his ability to get a message across in song, hiring him countless times as a songwriter. In 1966, he received the Department of the Interior Award for his work with the Bonneville Power Administration, writing 26 songs in 26 days in 1941.
So much material is housed in the archives that even after almost two decades of poring over material, Nora Guthrie admitted she is still finding lyrics and songs she's never seen or heard before. Nearly 3,000 lyrics have attracted the likes of Billy Bragg, Wilco, Jackson Browne and Lou Reed to the archives to compose music to Woody's words.
The purchase of the archives aligns with the Woody Guthrie Centennial Celebration’s yearlong commemoration of his 100th birthday.
On Saturday, the University of Tulsa will hold a conference exploring Guthrie's roots, legacy and the political and cultural environment of his time. That night, the Brady Theater stages the This Land Is Your Land tribute concert, with performances by John Mellencamp, Jackson Browne, Arlo Guthrie and Rosanne Cash, as well as Oklahoma artists The Flaming Lips, Hanson and Jimmy LaFave.What are we waiting on?
The breadth of Woody Guthrie’s influence is hard to grasp, playing a big role in the development of many musicians, including Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and The Clash’s Joe Strummer.
“My dad was heavily influenced by Woody Guthrie and Jimmie Rodgers. They were tremendously important to him,” Rosanne Cash said of The Man in Black. “The simplicity of the guitar playing, the simplicity of the approach — all of that is very similar.”
With her own late father’s 80th birthday last month, Cash understands what the Guthries are going through as they celebrate Woody's birthday and give up some control over his belongings.right Rosanne Cash
“There is a responsibility to honoring the legacy,” Cash said. “You take not only the burden of taking care of these things, but also sharing them with people.”
On Feb. 5, Tulsa’s Gilcrease Museum debuted the exhibit Woody at One Hundred, giving the public a sneak peek at some of the archives, including the original handwritten copy of “This Land Is Your Land.” The exhibit remains on display through April 29.
This weekend's events not only act as a tribute to Woody Guthrie, but also as a “thank you” to the dedication of Oklahomans who fought to make it possible.
And, if there's a power failure on Saturday, attendees need not fear. It's just Woody, saying howdy.