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This museum kills fascists

With a collection numbering 10,000 the Woody Guthrie Center opens in Tulsa.

Kelley Chambers May 1st, 2013

For much of her life, what Nora Guthrie knew about her father, Woody Guthrie, came from his body of work, a smattering of memories and the recollections of the folk stars who admired and learned from him.

But when she began to explore boxes and boxes of materials from the family’s home in Coney Island, N.Y., — writings, drawings and song compositions — she got a whole new picture of her dad and his lasting legacy.

“The boxes were all over our house on bookshelves and desks, kitchen drawers, just everywhere,” she said.

Their contents — along with musical instruments, photographs and the lyrics to thousands of unrecorded songs — have found a permanent home at the Woody Guthrie Center, which opened April 27 in Tulsa.

The facility celebrates the life of the Okemah native and provides intimate access to the musician, writer and artist, whose life was claimed by Huntington’s disease in 1967 when he was 55.

Although much of his best-known work focused on the struggles of the poor and disenfranchised during the Great Depression, Nora Guthrie, who was 17 when her father died, believes he would be pleased with the gleaming new center in the Brady Arts District.

“He would get such a kick out of this,” she said. “He was a very funny guy, and he had a great sense of humor.”

The archive was purchased by the George Kaiser Family Foundation in 2011. Stanton Doyle, the foundation’s program officer, said the effort was intended to devote a program to an influential Oklahoman and to create an amenity to bring visitors to Tulsa.

“It was really about how to bring Woody to Tulsa,” he said. “Eventually we met with the Guthrie family and the idea of moving the archive to Tulsa was generated from those conversations.”

Woody Guthrie sang about a disdain for bankers, his daughter said, but she doesn’t think he’d have any gripe with George Kaiser, the philanthropic, billionaire banker in Tulsa.

Nora Guthrie with her father's guitar
Photo: Kelley Chambers
More than a collection
The exhibits include a guitar and fiddle that Guthrie burned his name into, along with some of his paintings. Listening stations trace his life geographically and chronologically, while the centerpiece is his handwritten lyrics for “This Land Is Your Land.”

Robert Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, also played a critical role in the center coming to Tulsa. A Guthrie scholar and admirer, he said only a few of the singer-songwriter’s instruments are in the collection because many were lost or given away.

“He really didn’t take care of them, or keep them in a case,” he said. “He would just sling his guitar over his shoulder and go.”

A famous photo showed Guthrie with a guitar that had a handwritten slip of paper attached that read, “This Machine Kills Fascists.” Santelli said that guitar has never surfaced, and is likely lost forever.

Nevertheless, many unique items are among the 10,000 in the collection, including one of his red flannel shirts, paintings and instruments he gave others. Among the artifacts is a Gibson guitar he gave to son Arlo Guthrie.

“This is more than just a collection of Woody Guthrie memorablia,” said Deana McCloud, the center’s executive director. “It’s an educational center that will serve as an inspiration for visitors and a venue through which to share his legacy with the world.”

Nora Guthrie started going through those boxes in the early 1990s. She continues to find new treasures, such as House of Earth, a long-lost novel her father wrote in 1940s and was published this year. She said those sorts of finds help her further connect with a man she mostly knew as sick and feeble.

“After he died, my experience was totally with the healthy man,” she said. “That’s what’s in here, when he’s in his prime.”

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