Folk singer and native Oklahoman Woody Guthrie was “probably not one of the favorite sons” when he was alive, a state senator said. But Guthrie’s legacy has inspired a celebration in honor of his 100th birthday this Sunday at the annual festival in his hometown of Okemah.
Guthrie, perhaps best known for his song “This Land is Your Land,” was hotly political, speaking out against fascism and aligning himself with working class, influenced by his time in the Dust Bowl. Guthrie had a silly side, too, in ditties such as “Car Song.” And his seemingly simple songwriting inspired countless musicians, among them Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger.
Guthrie’s son, singer Arlo Guthrie, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Friday that he believes his father would find humor in the fact that his life and music are being celebrated as part of the 15th annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, referred to by fans as WoodyFest.
“We’re living in a very divided time (politically), I think everyone would agree with that,” Guthrie said from his home in Massachusetts. “I think he would have had some fun with that. His hero was Will Rogers, who was able to traverse between political ideologues and he did it very deftly and everybody liked him.
“And I think that’s what my dad tried without surrendering his own ideals,” Guthrie said.
He performed Wednesday during the opening night of the festival, which runs through Sunday and also features singer-songwriter Judy Collins and British folk singer Billy Bragg, who set three albums’ worth of Woody Guthrie’s lyrics to music with Wilco in the late 1990s.
State Sen. Roger Ballenger, whose district includes Okemah, said Guthrie “tended to be a little bit abrasive and straightforward” with his beliefs and in talking about what he saw happening to those who were struggling.
“His popularity rose, as many do, after he passed away,” said Ballenger, D-Okmulgee, noting that the Okemah festival began in 1998, 31 years after Guthrie’s death in 1967.
Guthrie would probably still be a polarizing figure in Oklahoma, Ballenger said.
“He would be seen as an extreme left political thinker, I’m sure. I’m not sure how political he was, he just had a passion for people that were struggling and he called it like he saw it and that came out in his music.”
Rep. Steve Kouplin, D-Beggs, whose district also includes Okemah, also noted that Guthrie wasn’t a favorite of Oklahomans.
“A lot of people thought he was Communist-influenced. Time has changed all that, he’s proven to be one of the folk heroes of his generation,” Kouplin said.
Sarah Lee Guthrie, Arlo Guthrie’s daughter, said she thinks Oklahoma has seemingly embraced her grandfather.
“I think Oklahoma, in a sense, has finally come around,” she said. “I can imagine he’d have a blast down there playing with all those folks. It’s probably way more than his Oklahoma self could have imagined.”
Arlo Guthrie spoke to his father’s lasting effects on Okemah and the state.
“The controversy about him in Oklahoma I have always thought of, as mentioned elsewhere, no one is a prophet in his own country, and they’ve found a way to make him profitable,” said Guthrie, who called the festival a family reunion of sorts.
“I get to see all my aunties and cousins, so that’s an annual pilgrimage if we can make it,” Guthrie said.
Many musical tributes have come out this year in honor of Woody Guthrie’s July 14, 1912, birth date. Among them will be the release of the Guthrie-penned 1947 song, “My New York City,” as recorded by folk music duo Mike + Ruthy, aka Mike Merenda and his wife, Ruthy Ungar.
Merenda and Ungar are longtime friends of Sarah Lee Guthrie’s and their old band toured with Arlo Guthrie. The Guthrie family provided the unrecorded song to the duo, and were told, “Do something beautiful with this,” Merenda said.
“It has not been recorded. We got to make the premier recording,” Merenda said. “It’s been getting an overwhelming response in our live concerts.”
Arlo Guthrie said he believes his father would approach what he called the “venom” of today’s political climate with an attitude of compromise.
“Let’s all get together” and discuss our differences, Guthrie said.