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Greater Tulsa Reporter

This Festival is Your Festival: Woodyfest in Okemah

BOUND FOR GLORY: Native American sculptor Dan Brook cast this bronze statue of Guthrie and his guitar which stands in a small park in the heart of downtown Okemah, Guthrie’s home town. The Woody Guthrie Coalition commissioned the statue for the first Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in 1998. This year, the festival, which is now better known as Woodyfest, is expected to draw more than 10,000 people and features more than 90 acts across four venues July 11-15.

Courtesy photo

“Hey, Woody Guthrie, where are ya? We could sure use you once more. Hey, Woody Guthrie, where are ya? The big dogs are back at the door.”
– From “Woody Guthrie” by Leftover Salmon

The relevance of that song will never diminish. There will never come a time when we couldn’t use a guy who says things like, “One true love commander can turn the universes of hate into heavenroads and byways of love, love, love.”

It’s a bit out of character for me to begin a column quoting a non-local band, but the subject matter of the Leftover Salmon song, written by Vince Herman, is my justification. Woody Guthrie is, without question, the most famous and influential musician/songwriter Oklahoma has ever produced. And we could sure use him once more.

An advocate for fairness, outspoken against political corruption and fascism, it was Woody Guthrie, along with Pete Seeger, Millard Lampell, Lee Hays and a handful of loosely-knit musicians known as the Almanac Singers, who established folk music as a commercially viable genre in the early 1940s.

Guthrie’s influence is international and genre defying. Musicians from Bruce Springsteen to Chinese Punk rockers PK14 have praised Guthrie as an inspiration. Bob Dylan once said, “You can listen to Woody Guthrie songs and actually learn how to live.” He has been credited with more than 1,000 songs spanning four decades. lists 98 bands and musicians that have recently recorded Guthrie songs, and the list is far from comprehensive.

Guthrie passed away in 1967, so “Hey Woody Guthrie, where are ya?” is obviously not literal. It’s questioning the whereabouts of the spirit and philosophy of the folk hero, and the best answer to that question is Okemah, Oklahoma, July 11-15.

The Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, better known as Woodyfest, is a three-day celebration of Guthrie’s music and philosophy in his home town of Okemah, about 65 miles southwest of Tulsa. The festival, which began in 1997 and coincides as closely as possibly with Guthrie’s July 14 birthday, will feature more than 90 acts this year.

A grant from the Oklahoma Arts Council allowed the festival to fulfill the wish of the Guthrie family by making the festival free for the first 17 years. In 2015, financial struggles made it necessary to charge admission at two of the four venues, while still providing free music at the other two. Musicians donate their time and are only compensated for travel and lodging expenses.

To help keep attendance fees at a minimum, the festival begins with a Wednesday night fundraising concert benefitting the Woody Guthrie Coalition and its “efforts to preserve Guthrie’s legacy and to bring the best music to WoodyFest.”

This year, Joel Rafael with John Trudell’s Bad Dog start things off Wednesday, July 11 at The Crystal Theatre from 8 – 10 p.m. Jacob Tovar is playing the post show, a free concert from 10 p.m. – 1 a.m.

Beginning Thursday, July 12 at 11 a.m., it’s wall to wall music for three days featuring Turnpike Troubadours, Red Dirt Rangers, John Fullbright, Randy Crouch, Sam Baker, Chris Blevins, and about 85 more. Check out for all the who and when.

Guthrie believed passionately in inclusiveness and making music accessible to all. In that spirit, several festival performers gather each year and visit local retirement community centers, bringing music to the people in a way that would certainly make Okemah’s native son proud. Last year, artists performed to roughly 130 in-bound Okemah community members, and there are plans to expand that effort this year.

In addition to music, the festival features poetry reading, songwriting workshops, open mic opportunities, a pancake breakfast, and several activities for kids, including a harmonica class and songwriting competition.

Despite the July heat in central Oklahoma, the festival is expected to draw more than 10,000 people from across the country and as far away as Scotland and Denmark. So, what is it exactly that makes Okemah a destination for so many even in the oppressive heat of July? Maybe the words of Woody Guthrie can explain it:

“Music is a tone of voice, the sound life uses to keep the living alive. They call us back many times a day from the brinks of torture – the holes of superstition. There never was a sound that was not music – there’s no real trick of creating words to set to music – once you realize that the word is the music and the people are the song.”

Well said, Woody. Come be part of the song at Woodyfest this year and find that sound life uses to keep us alive: the sound that inspires us to keep searching, keep listening.

Updated 06-21-2018

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