Woody Guthrie was a masterful writer, a talented musician and a brilliant visionary. For many, like performer Jimmy LaFave, it’s a shame he’s not always remembered as such.
“There’s a real treasure here,” said LaFave, who performs Friday at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, which runs today through Sunday. “There’s been a real injustice done to this guy’s memory, and we’ve got to correct that. We should embrace this man’s legacy. We can learn a lot from him.”
Now in its thirteenth year, the festival has gathered fervent fans and major musicians under the unyielding heat of Guthrie’s native Okemah to celebrate his life and influence. It’s a can’t-miss event for a particular populace that continues to marvel and adore him so much.
“It’s a reunion for us musicians,” said Slaid Cleaves, taking the stage on Thursday. “It’s special to be where Woody grew up. Echoes of those memories still linger.”
It’s a sort of magical summer camp for these performers, many of whom return year after year, and all of whom play for free. They reminisce over their first encounters with Guthrie’s music — nearly always singing along with “This Land Is Your Land” in elementary school — and then discovering the importance of his work after their lives lead toward the path of music.
“Most music was made just as pure entertainment,” said Gretchen Peters, who plays Friday and has written hits for the likes of George Strait and Neil Diamond. “His led to the dawning — in my mind — that music could be about more than ‘I love you, baby’ sort of stuff.”
Nearly all studied his songs tirelessly, yearning to capture the substance and weight he managed to convey through his plain, folksy (but endlessly clever) demeanor and writing style. “The simplicity and power of his songwriting served as a guidepost for my early writing. It’s a good yardstick to put your songs up against,” Cleaves said. “It’s hard to measure up, though.”
Peters agreed. “He took the specific and made it universal,” she said. “That’s the most important thing you can do as a songwriter. If you are going to involve people emotionally, if you are going to get them where they live, you have to tell stories that they can believe and invest themselves in. Woody was a master of that.”
Much of that talent got lost in politics. Muckraking tarnished his legacy in the minds of some. He was labeled a radical leftie and a communist, but continued to brandish his guitar to fight injustices until Huntington’s disease stole his health and ability to create.
Luckily, time didn’t forget Guthrie; folk, rock, punk and even political figureheads continually cite the importance of his work. Now, he’s assuming a spot alongside Will Rogers as one of the state’s most beloved figures. In many minds, that’s taken far too long.
“The state is slowly, thank goodness, coming to terms with the impact of Woody Guthrie,” LaFave said. “He’s finally getting his due, being celebrated as one of the great native sons of Oklahoma. He’s the most famous Oklahoman in the world, an anomaly of a human being … people like him don’t come along too often.”