Woody Guthrie Folk Festival
David Amram first met Woody Guthrie in 1956.
Now a legendary classical composer, Amram was just a 26-year-old jazz musician who, when a friend asked, “Do you want to meet Woody?” Amram assumed his pal meant jazz great Woody Herman.
“He was this little guy with dusty boots. How he ever got dusty boots in New York City, I’ll never know,” Amram said. “And he was just sitting at a table.”
Guthrie spent the day sharing stories of his travels and his thoughts on music, politics and art.
“He was an incredible person with such a huge wealth of knowledge about so many things, with a classic Okemah accent,” Amram said.
This weekend, about 8,000 visitors are expected to flood into Okemah to celebrate the life and music of the folk icon Amram shared an evening with more than 50 years ago. Dubbed by Amram as “the premiere folk festival,” the 13th annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival opens today and runs through Sunday, with more than 30 performers.
Making his first appearance since 2007, Woody’s son Arlo plays a benefit show at 8 p.m. tonight at Okemah’s Crystal Theatre. Tickets are $30.
For the rest of the fest, all of the musicians will play for free. What would compel them to do so, traveling to Okemah, in the heat of July?
One word: Woody.
Sound and spiritBy all accounts, there’s something special about WoodyFest, but no one can quite nail down what that uniqueness is. It’s a feeling, an atmosphere ” a vibe. It’s hard to define, but those who know it call it the “spirit of Woody Guthrie.”
Festival spokeswoman Karen Zundel said a lot of the energy comes from Okemah itself.
“We’re honoring this person and we’re there in his hometown, walking the streets he walked,” she said. “I think that his spirit is definitely just there.”
Because the focus is on the legacy of one man, performers take the backseat.
“People check their egos at the door,” said Shari Parks, Woody Guthrie Coalition president. “Everyone’s here to enjoy each other.”
Performers are paid for travel expenses, providing the feel of a paid vacation, Amram said. But the event is about Woody, and everyone there bears that in mind.
“We reimburse them for their travel and lodging at the luxurious Days Inn in downtown Okemah. Really luxurious digs, let me tell you,” Zundel said. “They want to come back. There’s just good vibes there.”
Because it’s Okemah, there’s not a lot of room to hide. Performers and fans mingle, and that’s the way everyone likes it. A bond forms when musicians wander to the campgrounds to jam with fans or spend time swapping stories and melodies with fellow performers.
“They’re not there for the big payday,” said John Cooper, vocalist and guitarist for Red Dirt Rangers. “They’re there to celebrate the music of Woody and the friendships.”
Woody’s legacy“Woody had some great ideas about community,” said Annie Guthrie, Woody’s granddaughter. His ideals of a global community are timeless, she said, and so are most of the values he espoused. That’s why, 43 years after his death, his music is still relevant, and more than 5,000 people brave the heat to enjoy his musical legacy.
Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter, heads the Woody Guthrie Archives, and she commissioned Amram to compose a symphonic piece to honor Woody and “This Land Is Your Land.” The result was “Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie,” which chronologically traces Woody’s travels, from an Oklahoma stomp dance to the streets of Brooklyn, N.Y.
But his greatest musical legacy is perhaps that of his own family. Three generations of Guthries recently wrapped the “Guthrie Family Rides Again” tour. Annie and her siblings never met Woody, who died in 1967 of complications from Huntington’s disease, but it remained a stirring experience to hear the entire family sing the words he wrote. That musical connection to her grandfather is all the more important because she never had a personal relationship, Annie said. And that’s part of the reason why she loves the festival.
“Meeting other fans and musicians and just being at WoodyFest, I think I learn something every time we’re there,” she said.
She fondly recalls visits from Woody’s manager, Harold Leventhal, as a child. Every time, he’d ask, “Have you read ‘Bound for Glory’ yet?”
“We were, like, 5,” she said with a laugh.
Now, however, she and thousands of others get to know the man and his beliefs more personally in Okemah each July. And Parks said what people should take with them is simple.
“One of the things (Woody) really wanted was for people to feel good about themselves and to have a good time, and to believe they can do whatever it is they want to do,” Parks said.
That feeling will be alive and well, despite the sweltering heat, this weekend. After 13 years, people keep coming back for more.
For that, Zundel has a simple explanation: “It’s just something in that red dirt.” “Nicole Hill