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100 years after singer Woody Guthrie's birth, this land is his

Arlo Guthrie stands outside Okemah's refurbished movie theater that hosts Woodyfest, the annual folk festival that honors his father, Woody Guthrie in Okemah, Okla.
Arlo Guthrie stands outside Okemah's refurbished movie theater that hosts Woodyfest, the annual folk festival that honors his father, Woody Guthrie in Okemah, Okla.Steve Olafson / REUTERS

For a man who has been dead since 1967, it has been a good year for folk singer Woody Guthrie, who would have turned 100 on Saturday.

New books on Guthrie have been published, more Guthrie songs have been released and in the small Oklahoma town of Okemah, where he was born, nobody wants to burn him in effigy for his politics.

"It's a new world," said Arlo Guthrie, 65, standing outside the town's refurbished movie theater that hosts Woodyfest, the annual folk festival that honors his father. It continues through Sunday.

This year, from California and New York to Germany and Italy, the man dubbed the "Dust Bowl troubadour" is being analyzed and fondly remembered at Guthrie centennial gatherings great and small.

Not bad for a singer and songwriter who was a commercial flop, despite writing the iconic American song "This Land is Your Land."

Guthrie first caught the public's attention for his songs about the 1930s Dust Bowl and the migration west of a half-million out-of-work poor folk. In California, and later in New York City, he became an advocate for migrant farm workers and the trade union movement, a promoter and fund-raiser for socialist causes and a columnist for a communist newspaper.

He sang and joked and philosophized on major network radio shows that commanded a huge audience, but his commercial career was short-lived. He died of the degenerative nervous system disorder Huntington's Disease after spending most of his last 15 years in a hospital.

Guthrie, not formally educated but a well-read bookworm, used a hillbilly sense of humor patterned after a fellow Oklahoman he admired, said Guy Logsdon, who began researching Guthrie in 1957.

"He used extremely poor grammar deliberately," said Logsdon, a retired University of Tulsa professor. "He wanted to communicate with the common person the same way Will Rogers did," he said of the great humorist of the 1920s and '30s.

In a span of about 15 years, Guthrie wrote more than 3,000 songs, essays and stories, Logsdon said.

"I know of no one in this nation who has even come close to that type of production," he said.

Guthrie was, by all accounts, a peripatetic wanderer who hitchhiked and hopped freight trains even after he became well-known.

Arlo Guthrie said he figured out quickly that his dad was "not normal" about things like money.


"If you gave him some new clothes or something, as soon as it got warm he'd take ‘em off and give it to somebody," Arlo Guthrie said. "He didn't collect things. That's kinda rare."

He said he remembered coming home once and seeing his father sleeping on the floor and asking him why he wasn't in a bed.

"He said, 'Cause the bed will make me soft and if I get soft, I won't be able to sleep outdoors anymore,'" Arlo Guthrie said. "So I began to get an inkling of what he was about. He didn't want to get so comfortable that he couldn't be himself. He wanted to be able to leave on a whim, on a moment's notice and be free that way."

For years, Okemah and much of Oklahoma were appalled at Woody Guthrie's politics.

When Logsdon first began going to Okemah for research, few people would talk to him.

"There was a great deal of anger and in some cases hatred toward Woody Guthrie," Logsdon said. "But that's all changed."

In time, Okemah put his name on a water tower, named a street after him and placed his statue in a downtown park.

Thousands come to the town's annual folk music festival, now in its 15th year.

Gerry Mochan has been traveling there for 12 years from Scotland. "It's just the music," he explained of his yearly pilgrimage.

The majority of Woody Guthrie's songs were never recorded, and his daughter Nora Guthrie began sorting through his letters, journals and artwork in 1992.

She unearthed some surprises. Her father wrote songs about flying saucers and Albert Einstein during his New York years, she said.

"It was so stunning to me," Nora Guthrie said. "I was in the same box everybody else was - `Oh, yeah, he wrote about the Dust Bowl.'"

She has worked with 75 different recording artists, allowing them to create melodies to the words her father left behind, since he could neither write nor read music.

"We didn't know whether people would throw rocks at us or not," she said of the first collection, a collaborative effort between the American band Wilco and the British singer Billy Bragg.

The George Kaiser Family Foundation, based in Tulsa, bought the archives and is building a museum there to house them.

The decision made sense to Nora Guthrie, a lifelong New Yorker who said she has always wanted to return her father to "his people."

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