Gregg Standridge was a teen high school dropout in south Oklahoma City when he “borrowed” a Woody Guthrie songbook from the public library.
He learned the chords and the songs on his guitar — and he never took the book back.
Now, more than 40 years later, the prominent Norman singer-songwriter and guitarist is taking another page from the Woody Guthrie playbook. He is joining other Oklahoma musicians in writing songs that carry political messages, namely taking stands against what they perceive as emerging fascism from President Donald Trump’s White House.
After all, it was Oklahoma’s Woody Guthrie whose guitar had the words emblazoned on it: “This machine kills fascists.”
The recent Trump administration policy separating immigrant children from their families on the border angered Standridge, along with seeing Facebook posts from Trump supporters critical of immigrants.
“I was sitting at home, glued to Facebook and reading all that crap. I just couldn’t process what was going on. It was unbelievable that could happen,” he said. “It’s disgusting to me when I hear people say these things about these folks.”
So he and musician buddy Terry “Buffalo” Ware wrote a song called America is Waiting (below) containing lyrics about an immigrant family hoping their trek to America brings safety and peace only to find something ominously different.
“You just get so hurt inside yourself and you have to get it out. Writing it out was a way of doing that,” Standridge said. “I sat at the table – knocked out a rough of that song in about 45 minutes.”
Standridge will perform the song as part of the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival’s Hoot for Huntingtons All-Star Jam at noon on Sunday in Okemah. More than 100 musicians will perform at WoodyFest, which began Wednesday night and will continue through Sunday afternoon.
Progressive musicians face challenges in Oklahoma
Many WoodyFest performers are following in the political activism footsteps of their idols: Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and, of course, Guthrie. Ironically, a good number are home-grown Okies who find themselves expressing progressive political views in songs played to audiences in a politically red state, which Trump overwhelmingly carried in the 2016 election.
As such, progressive music from red dirt Okie musicians isn’t always received with enthusiasm.
Ware, with whom Standridge collaborated on America is Waiting, had written a song titled Can’t Stand Still as a call to action for liberals in the wake of Trump’s election. He said sometimes activist songs are not well-received in Oklahoma. He remembered an anti-war song performed during the Iraq War that was met with an audience glaring at the band.
“It didn’t go over very well,” Ware remembered. “But, it’s part of the job.”
And it’s a job other Oklahoma musicians like the Red Dirt Rangers, Greg Jacobs and Larry Spears are also taking on because of their opposition to racist groups, nationalism and anti-immigrant propaganda.
Spears, who will perform at WoodyFest’s Rocky Road Tavern at 6 p.m. tonight, said musicians have a responsibility to be a voice for those who cannot speak loud enough or are in fear of the government.
“In good times or bad, somebody needs to have their backs. I’m a damn loud yeller,” he said.
Songwriter Brad Piccolo: ‘I’m not going to sit back any more’
Brad Piccolo, a key vocalist and songwriter for the Red Dirt Rangers – one of the most high-profile bands on the red dirt music scene – said he has been threatened with beer bottles thrown at him on stage when expressing political messages in their songs, most notably a song called Red State Blues.
Piccolo said he wrote it thinking, “What would Woody write?” in this political climate. He eventually came up with the following:
I’ve got the Red State Blues
I’m payin’ my dues in Oklahoma
If they find out you’re a liberal
They’ll try to put you in a coma
Rednecks wavin’ rebel flags
KKK and the Nazis in drag,
I’ve got the Red State Blues
I’m payin’ my dues in Oklahoma
“A lot of our themes are not pointedly political songs,” Piccolo said. “They are about love and struggle and peace. But, I’ve become more outspoken. I’ve been doing this so long, I feel like by now I have the right to speak my mind and let the chips fall where they may. Enough is enough. Full-speed ahead.
“I’m not going to sit back any more. As songwriters we have the power to speak to issues that are important to us. Sometimes I hear some say, ‘Just shut up and sing.’ But I’m not going to back down. Not now. My answer to them is ‘to hell with it.'”
He said the current wave of progressive messages among Oklahoma musicians really isn’t about Republican versus Democrats.
“A lot of what people think of as being political messages is just saying what is right and what is wrong,” Piccolo said. “Like, separating children from parents and putting them in cages is just wrong. It’s just a question of common sense.”
Piccolo also said he’s seeing in the eyes of their audience that even some conservative Oklahomans are wondering what they’ve gotten into with the Trump administration.
“We have been getting really good response to [Red State Blues]. I can see people in the audience looking at each other and smiling. It’s easy to tell what they are thinking,” he said.
The Red Dirt Rangers will perform on the WoodyFest Pastures of Plenty main stage at 7:30 tonight.
Blue Door to host Democratic rally
The Red Dirt Rangers will join other Oklahoma musicians at an old-fashioned political rally for progressive-liberal causes and Democratic candidates at the Blue Door music venue in Oklahoma City on Aug. 5. It will include appearances by Democratic Party candidates.
The Blue Door’s outspoken owner Greg Johnson, whose red dirt music radio show, For the Sake of the Song, was canceled from public radio station KOSU FM in 2017 for criticizing Donald Trump, said the uptick in progressive messages on the Oklahoma music scene is a welcome trend.
“People are waking up to realize that fascism is here. The musicians are realizing that and they are speaking up,” Johnson said.
A Woody Guthrie poem-turned-song, Old Man Trump, was performed by Tulsa red dirt musician Wink Burcham at the Blue Door’s Tribute to Woody Guthrie last December. The handwritten poem uncovered by researchers from the Woody Guthrie archives in Tulsa was recently set to music. The poem is about Guthrie’s landlord Fred Trump, Donald J. Trump’s father, at the Blue Haven apartment complex in New York in 1950. The elder Trump was later sued by the Justice Department for discriminating against minorities. From Old Man Trump:
I suppose that Old Man Trump knows just how much racial hate
He stirred up in that bloodpot of human hearts
When he drawed that color line
Here at his Beach Haven family project
Beach Haven is Trump’s Tower
Where no black folks come to roam,
No, no, Old Man Trump!
Old Beach Haven ain’t my home!
Johnson said the Old Man Trump song proves where President Trump got his racial prejudices: from his dad.
“It was great they uncovered that poem. Woody knew that Trump’s dad was an asshole, and his son is just like that,” Johnson said. “People are starting to write about this and speaking out about it. They are getting to understand that if fascism is allowed to grow in America, it will take away from all the great things we have, like equal rights. We must speak out.”
Singer-songwriter Joe Baxter: ‘It’s up to us to speak up’
The Trump administration’s policies have also ignited some Okie musicians to speak out when they had long ago vowed to avoid political messages in their songs, such as Midwest City singer-songwriter Joe Baxter.
“I made the decision early on in my songwriting career to avoid politics and protest songs — probably a result of the over saturation of these songs toward the end of the social revolution of the ’60s,” said Baxter.
But that has changed.
“I made the decision to bring my political activism to the stage. I know lots of songs, and many lend themselves well to carrying the message of freedom and social justice,” he said. “My fellow Okie musicians and songwriters are stepping up their efforts to utilize our art to bring awareness and raise funds for resistance and opposition.”
He said he made his first performance at a political rally recently and played 50-year-old social-message songs written by country and folk singer-songwriter John Prine.
“It is up to those of us with both social conscience and a soapbox to speak up,” he said.
Baxter and his band, the Regular Joes, will be performing at Woody Fest at the Rocky Road Tavern in Okemah at 3 p.m. today.
The story behind America is Waiting
Standridge said he is looking forward to this week’s live performance of America is Waiting, wondering how it will be received in Guthrie’s hometown of Okemah. He joins Ware, who leads the WoodyFest All-Star House Band, at noon Sunday at the Crystal Theatre stage in a benefit to for the Huntington’s Disease Society of America.
As he watched news about the current immigration controversy, Standridge remembered his teenage friend and roommate Juan Garcia, one of his fellow cooks at a local Furr’s Cafeteria.
“They played Mexican rock music, and we played American FM radio music, and we all got along great. I can still see Juan in there with his uncle singing harmony in the kitchen together. He was a wonderful guy,” Standridge said.
Then, one day, Garcia wrecked his car and took off running from the scene of the accident.
“I was saying, ‘Dude, don’t run, don’t run!’ He came back and said, ‘I’m going to be sent back to Mexico.’ I said, ‘Man, you got to do the things the right way.’ That’s what I was trying to tell him. That’s what I believed. He was just shaking his head. And then he got taken back.”
That memory prompted Standridge to write the lyrics telling the story of a Juan Garcia and his niece, coming back to hoped-for freedom in America.
The debut of America is Waiting was June 30, when Standridge and Ware performed it at a jam session at Norman’s Midway Deli, the epicenter of a blue dot in an otherwise sea of red on Oklahoma’s political map.
It was a Monday night when Standridge emailed Ware with his lyrics and chords to America is Waiting, asking for some edits or comments. After a few suggestions and minor changes, the song was good to go.
“I was like, ‘We’ve got to do this now. We need to record this song today and get it out, blast it out on social media tonight’,” Ware remembers saying. “We were getting chills recording this. And getting fired up.”
Within a day, American is Waiting was playing to the world.
“You know, I really wish we didn’t have to write this song or songs like it,” Ware said. “But you do it because you have to. You do it because you are compelled to.”
Meanwhile, Standridge remembers that Woody Guthrie songbook he never returned in the 1970s and how it has served him well since.
“My fines are probably about $2,000 now.”