OKEMAH — I came to Okemah to find a folk music festival.
I found that. But I also found a family reunion.
More than 100 singer-songwriters and bands were there to perform at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival (“WoodyFest”) here last week.
For many, it concluded another year of singing the ribbons of highway, circling back to the roots of American folk in the birthplace of the festival namesake.
Yes, the Woody Guthrie family was well represented. His grandson, Cole Quest, brought his City Pickers bluegrass band all the way from New York to perform. Granddaughter Annie Guthrie brought her acoustic guitar and honest lyrics. Grandson-in-law John Irion took the main stage at the Pastures of Plenty — a grassy expanse on the town’s eastern edge — to sing to more than 1,000 listeners.
But in one sense, all the musicians who play this festival are Guthrie “family” members, even if not by blood or marriage.
It is kind of what my Okie family would call a “get together.”
Paying tribute to musical kin
This 21st annual festival was four days of musical styles that ventured beyond any Joan Baez or Pete Seeger 1960s folk genre. The music was a journey led by the the meditative voice of Sam Baker, the indescribable range of vocalist Seth Glier to the foot-stomping Okie music of the Red Dirt Rangers — all with a common voice of Guthrie’s common-man messages.
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You can see the kinship from the musicians, such as when they gather to hear each other play at Okemah’s Crystal Theatre on Main Street, sometimes with the old timers cheering the loudest for the teen and 20-something-aged singers and songwriters perched at the beginnings of their musical career.
You can see it when they get called out of the audience to pick with longtime friends on the little backyard patio stage of the Rocky Road Tavern, shaded from the blistering July sun by the parachute awning and an oak tree.
Or paying tribute to their musical kin who have passed: Jimmy LaFave, Bob Childers or Tom Skinner.
As one performer said on stage, “This really is a family reunion.”
If you’ve never been to Woodyfest, then I strongly suggest you circle mid-July on your 2019 calendar.
It is like attending 20 Blue Door concerts in the span of a couple of days. It is like nirvana for the musicophile. The sounds baked from a recipe of country, and blues, and rock and roll all mixed into one or many melodies. Everything that is American.
There was something special watching these extraordinarily creative people create. When guitarist Don Conoscenti locked eyes with his friend Terry “Buffalo” Ware on the stage at the Brick Street basement bar you could see the message of, hey let’s do this. They then began a guitar duet that was like watching improvisational actors taking the scene wherever it will go. And it went to a beautiful place.
There is always a worry that a festival like this won’t survive the test of time in a small town like Okemah. The cost of running the event is a yearly struggle, so much so that organizers recently had to begin charging a modest $30 for a daily ticket to the once free festival (although no admission fee is charged at three of the performance venues).
Festival marketing chair Maddie Gregory said a final assessment of the financials hasn’t been made yet, but the 2018 version of WoodyFest is already deemed a success.
“When the Guthrie family members say they think this is a great lineup, as they did this year, then this is a success,” she said.
‘Wherever you go, you can always come home’
Of course, organizing the lineup is helped when great musicians get a taste of WoodyFest and want to return, like San Diego’s folk music legend Joel Rafael has been doing for more than two decades now.
This year, Rafael brought along his friend, pop-star Jason Mraz, who recalled being an unknown 22-year-old guy with a guitar stopping on I-40 near Okemah on his drive from his Virginia home to California in 1999, hoping to find himself and a music career.
“It was about here (near Okemah) I stopped and wondered what I was doing. I was scared to death (on the road),” Mraz said.
But in very Woody Guthrie-esque fashion, Mraz pressed on and continued across the land to the West Coast.
Mraz performed his inspiring “93 Million Miles” at WoodyFest, singing its message from a mom seeing her son embark on that journey: “Just know, wherever you go, you can always come home.”
WoodyFest concluded on Sunday with the Hoot for Huntington’s jam session, a benefit for the Huntington’s Disease Society of America. Guthrie died of that crippling disease and his wife Marjorie established the organization to promote research for a cure. No, this event isn’t just about jamming to music.
A friend of mine who has frequented many of these get-togethers in Okemah said if I ever got the “full treatment” of WoodyFest (I’m thinking watching 28 different singers or bands this past weekend was close to it) that I would be hooked.
She was right.
I have decided I must be a Guthrie cousin.