The hot humid days of July annually in Okemah rallies around their hometown socialist, Woody Guthrie. Okemah, a rural town of about 3000 citizens in northeastern Oklahoma. July 10-14, 2019 the 22nd Woody Fest celebrated, remembered, cried, and rallied behind the songs of the working class. Songs were written over 80 years ago of the working class, unions, and immigration is just as relevant today as it was then.
Woodrow Wilson (Woody) Guthrie was born to Charley and Nora Belle Guthrie in Okemah, Oklahoma on July 14, 1912. Woody’s parents, who were staunch Democrats, named their son after the man who had been elected President that year.
In the 1930s, Woody joined thousands of others who migrated to California during the Dust Bowl Era, becoming known as the Dust Bowl Troubadour. He hitchhiked across America, singing about what he saw and experienced, describing the lives of migrant workers, encouraging labor unions, and drawing attention to social injustices. His songs were often a rallying cry to action, giving voice to the common man. Eventually Woody ended up in New York City where he met Pete Seeger and started touring as a member of Seeger’s Almanac Singers. As a consummate diarist, Woody was continually writing. His many writings include his biography, Bound for Glory, published in 1943, and the best-known song in America, “This Land is Your Land”. His more than 3,000 song lyrics provide striking glimpses of his life and his view of the world around him.
Interesting to note that Okemah, Oklahoma even had a Socialist newspaper called The Sledge Hammer back in the early 1900’s. “The threat of socialism seeped even to Okemah when the Sledge Hammer opened offices in town. Each week, that avowedly Socialist paper published the Rev. B. F. McClanahan’s fierce arguments linking Christianity and socialism. “Under socialism,” he argued, “you might find it much easier to put your religious beliefs into practice.” Unwavering Democrat that he was, Charley (Woody’s father) watched the rise of the Socialist Party in Oklahoma with concern. The Socialist vote had steadily grown until Oklahoma had the largest membership of any state in the union. In Okfuskee County, the socialists had skimmed off 15 percent of the votes in the 1908 presidential election.”
In 1952 Woody was diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease. Although he died of the disease in 1967, his words and music live on through the many musicians inspired to follow in his footsteps, recording and performing his songs, and continuing his legacy. Woody’s awards and achievements are numerous, including being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 and being awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000. In 2001 “Oklahoma Hills” was chosen as the State Folk Song of Oklahoma. In 2007, The Live Wire: Woody Guthrie in Performance 1949 was released and won a 2008 Grammy Award in the Best Historical Album category.
Many of the folk social justice musicians were born in the early to late 60’s. They are the second wave of folk musicians that grew out of angry working class artists seeking a more socialist America. Over 69 artists play during 3 day festival of which are true troubadours in the like of Woody himself. These artists are the dying embers of protest music left in America. They come together every year at the Woody Fest. Leaving behind a torch for socialism for a new generation.
Tom Breiding’s instrumental part in the United Mine Workers (UMW) was a huge win in 2013. As musician-in-residence for the United Mine Workers of America, Tom’s songs were instrumental in winning back the pensions and health benefits of 18,000 retired coal miners in 2013. Tom crafted songs that reflected the struggles of these retirees and traveled and performed for tens of thousands across the U.S. at their Fairness at Patriot rallies. Tom’s newest release River, Rails or Road includes many of these songs and includes a film documenting Tom’s humble beginnings in West Virginia.
Tom Breiding’s songs have found their power. Serving as a musician in residence for the United Mine Workers union, his anthems were instrumental in preserving the health care & pensions for tens of thousands of retirees & their families. His passion & his work with the UMWA & for Wheeling’s Appalachian Institute have led him, guitar in tow, into the coal towns & back roads of his home state of West Virginia where seeds of the labor movement & Mother Jones resonate today. Breiding, a former Music Row staff-writer, delivers well-crafted ballads that echo the stories of people he has known, reflect the lives of those whose work built & powered our nation’s progress & expansion for more than a century, & capture a life well lived through hard work, family, and honest living. Tom’s music makes apparent a distinction between the distant idealization of the working man and the real life of the working man; the distinction between country - & coal country.
“Music has been the one true, soul-uplifting, joyful constant in my lifetime,” Breiding states. “Everything I am and everything I have accomplished in my life I owe to music. I have shared my music and the history it reflects with thousands of school-age children; I have documented the struggles of American coal miners and their contribution to the American work climate we all are a product of; I have helped secure the health and benefits of 18,000 retirees; and I leave behind hundreds of songs on more than a dozen album releases that have touched the hearts of thousands.”
“The music of the 60’s resonated with me which was protest music and activism,” Breiding states. “This was the earliest seeds of my activism I identify with my music.” “Artistically to document the West Virginia coal miners and the union, I was telling a story of 2 in the same one.” The UMW retirees were losing their pensions when Tom began to document their story. The coal miners had worked for the company their entire lives. The miners were promised a pension and healthcare which Peabody Coal was trying to take away.
It is not the first time in American capitalist society where the fat cat CEO’s do not want a union. Yet the working class is scraping upwards towards a middle class sustenance all the time. Basically, Peabody Coal started a new company, transferred all the pensioners over to this new company. Then deliberately bankrupted the company so that the retirees would lose their benefits.
This is one of many reasons Woody Fest is so vital to the realization of a socialist country. We must be the voice of the voiceless through art, music, and journalism. Woody Fest performers keep the message of Woody Guthrie alive, and instills a new generation with the tools to keep a progressive voice alive in America.
On the eve of the weekend ICE raids to round up more hispanic latino youths and place them in concentration camps, the venues in Okemah were listening to various singers sing Woody’s song Deportee. The chorus of the song is:
Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita, Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria; You won't have your names when you ride the big airplane, All they will call you will be "deportees"
Chris Buhalis does a live version of Deportee on Youtube. America again is rising up against the imperialistic fascist trend which denies human rights to immigrants. The songs of Woody Guthrie opens up to more socialist mindset. This music is so much needed in our society today.
During the festival, there are always breakout sessions and educational opportunities. One such session this year was from author Daniel Wolff and musician Chris Buhalis. Daniel Wolff and Chris Buhalis presented a talk and musical exploration of Wolff’s award-winning book Grown-Up Anger: The Connected Mysteries of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and the Calumet Massacre of 1913. Grown-Up Anger braids together biographies of Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie with a labor strike in the Keweenaw to create an alternative history of 20th century America. The program will range from turn-of-the-century politics through the Great Depression and the 60’s civil rights movement to today.
“All songs (of Woody’s) are written with socialism in mind,” Wolff stated. “He took on the ship as a Merchant Marine 3 books of which one was by Karl Marx.”
Woody Fest also helps educate, train, and instill the ideals Guthrie sang about. This opens the door for a fresh new generation of social justice artists. The Woody Fest website states, “In the spirit of wonder and discovery, simplicity and charm, Woody Guthrie’s emphasis on children’s music gives the impression that he truly understood the mind of a child. Join several songwriters as they invite families and children to participate in lively, interactive music showcases, meant to inspire and entertain!” Education runs the gamut with guitar, harmonica, songwriting, violin, workshops for the youngsters. All the while initiating them into the message of unions, working class rights, immigration issues that Woody wrote about.
Larry Long a troubadour for years and a kindred spirit unto Woody Guthrie. Larry in the early days of the festival made sure to include kids in programming at the festival. The first hometown tribute for Woody Guthrie was recorded live at the Crystal Theatre in Okemah, Oklahoma, on December 1, 1988. This recording was released on Flying Fish Records, entitled It Takes a Lot of People, Larry Long and the Children of Oklahoma. Organized by Larry Long with the help and guidance of the people and children of Okemah, it was the culmination of a three-year residency.
Woody was and is a consternation to some folks in Okemah, Oklahoma. Myself, upon arrival asked what I presumed to be a liberal librarian, as most are, but she quickly tired to set me straight. “Woody is not at all liked in this town by over half the population,” the librarian stated. “He was a communist and that goes against the grain to these town folks.” In fact, one of the early organizers said in passing, when the festival first started, many local businesses had signs that said Woody Guthrie musicians not welcomed! As was back then as it is now, most Americans do not fully understand what socialism is.
Socialism is also called, police departments, rural volunteer fire departments, public roads, libraries, parks, etc. All these things are part of what socialism embraces in our society.
So it is to many of the festival goers. They come each year, get recharged with the true socialist spirit of Woody Guthrie, and go back to their communities to do good work. Thats what Woody was all about. Woody says, “I ain't a Communist necessarily, but I been in the red all my life ”
Long spent those years working with the children to bring back the heart and soul of Woody Guthrie by introducing them to Guthrie's songs and the music that inspired him. The work that Long did with the Okemah community grew into the annual Woody Guthrie festival, still held every year on Woody's birthday.
So many of the artists that have played Woody Fest are long time social protesters. One such alumnus is David Amram. Eighty-eight year-old David Amram still comes to Woody Fest out of respect for Woody. Amram is an accomplished composer, conductor and jazz fusion artist who weaves folk tales into symphonies. He’s had a 70-year career playing with Woody, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie and many others.
You can hear my interview with him here.
Amram said Seeger’s intention was a peaceful protest. That is the spirit of Woody and why 22 years later Woody Fest is a still an essential destination.
Butch Hancock has been a stable participant of Woody Fest for years. His style of playing and words mimic the simplicity of Woody’s message. His 20-year-old son, Rory Hancock, literally grew up coming to Woody Fest each year. Now Rory is a performer himself and may appear shy, but his virtuoso guitar playing is phenomenal. His mother says Rory plays under the main performer never to upstage them but can play so much more than he shows.
Rory Hancock talked exclusively to this author: “I grew up in Terlingua, Texas. I imagine my family brought me here as a child, but I am more aware of being here for the past ten years,” Rory said. “I grew up with what my dad was playing and the other musicians that hung around.”
“The late night jams are very important to me and being a part of other artists jamming. The piano was my first instrument, and dad had me perform with him about seven years ago. Performing with my dad has given me an edge to stage time,” Rory said.
“Woody’s vocabulary influenced me a lot. Woody in a way may seem quick, rapid, but there is something inspirational. A simple man with his guitar playing songs from his soul,” Rory stated.
The Woody Fest has some regular volunteers who serve unselfishly in true Woody fashion. Two such persons are Will & Nate, two brothers. “I enjoy the music but I also learn about the message of Woody,” Will said. Will plays drums and comes from a musical family as well in Hughes County in Oklahoma. “The people, and the artists are so respectful.”
Any socialist minded person or family should make the trek to Okemah, OK for the 23rd Woody Fest. It will be July 15-19, 2020. Especially with the election year, finding your socialist voice is easy just come to Okemah!
Photo Credits: (1) Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, Okemah, Oklahoma (unknown/website); (2) Woody Guthrie singing aboard a New York City subway train (Eric Schaal/Life Pictures/Getty Images); (3) Tom Breiding playing at the Okemah Historical Society, during 2019 Woody Fest, (4) Daniel Wolff and Chris Buhalis at the Okemah Historical Society, (5) Rory Hancock and Butch Hancock at the Crystal Theatre, WoodyFest 2019, (6)-(7) Nate and Will, Woody Fest 2017 and 2019 (by Mark Maxey).