WoodyFest 2021
Okemah native and Grammy nominated John Fullbright on the Woodyfest stage on Thursday, July 11, 2019.(Michael Duncan)

When the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival fires up its stages for five days next week, the music performed in honor of Okemah’s favorite son will reignite an annual attraction that was lost to last year’s pandemic-related hiatus.

Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Patty Griffin will make her “WoodyFest” debut, and Grammy-nominated Mary Gauthier will take the Pastures of Plenty stage. 

The July 14-18 festival in Okemah will also see the return of veteran WoodyFest performers Joel Rafael, Ellis Paul, David Amram, and Oklahoma favorites John Fullbright, Travis Linville, Randy Crouch and the Red Dirt Rangers, among others.  

“A lot of us enjoy the life and works of Woody Guthrie and the interpretation of modern artists, and then seeing them here they become family to most of us — people like Joel (Rafeal) and David (Amram), who come every year,” said Gary Hart, festival vice president and Okemah resident. “And of course the festival is a bright spot and an economic impact on our town that you can’t dismiss.”

A full line up of musicians and stage schedules can be found on the festival website.

But there will be more than music at the 24th annual WoodyFest. (The 2020 festival was held only online.)

Organizers of the festival have added panel discussions in recent years, often to explore the nature of folk music’s development and Guthrie’s role in it. 

This year, a panel will explore the ugly history of racial prejudice that stained the Okemah community and later left a mark on Guthrie’s own social activism. The panel participants, led by Langston University professor Benjamin Bates, will discuss the lynching of Laura Nelson, a Black mother, and her 16-year-old son, L.D., from a river bridge outside of town on May 24, 1911.

“The spirit that Woody espoused when he was living would be in favor of this (discussion),” Bates said of the panel, scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Friday, July 16, at Okemah’s Crystal Theatre. 

The Nelson family was jailed and accused of shooting a deputy sheriff investigating the theft of livestock. A white mob, which historians believe may have included Guthrie’s own father, Charles, grabbed Nelson, her teenager and her baby from the county jail and hanged the boy and his mother from the North Canadian River bridge south of town, leaving the baby by the roadside.

‘What was relevant to Woody’

Music at dusk on the Pastures of Plenty venue during the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival. Friday, July 13, 2018. (Michael Duncan)

Diving into the topic of racial injustice at the Woody Guthrie Festival is in keeping with Guthrie’s own history of social issue advocacy.

Guthrie wrote two songs about the lynching: Don’t Kill My Baby and My Son and High Balladree.

“We’ve been working to find educational discussions that connect the past to now — and what was relevant to Woody and what he was passionate about,” said Maddie Gregory, the festival’s marketing director. “We found this was totally relevant to today. (…) I am definitely interested in what happens. It is obviously about a tragic event, but I am definitely intrigued about the panel discussion.”

Gregory is a part of a team of board members and volunteers who have spent the past eight to nine months working on the return of the festival. 

Their work has included connecting with, coordinating the schedules of and arranging lodging for the 48 musicians selected to appear. 

Board members also coordinated with Okemah city officials for water and refuse services, arranged for security and placed the fencing and final touches to the open-air Pastures of Plenty venue that will see headliners perform under July night skies on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings of the festival.

Organizers are also selling advance tickets, which is especially important this year because the indoor Crystal Theatre venue will be limited to half capacity to allow for pandemic-related social distancing. Tickets will continue to be sold at each venue, but festival officials encourage advance ticket sales so persons who travel to Okemah without tickets are not caught facing a sold-out event. 

Hart, the festival board vice president who lives in Okemah, said he is finalizing COVID-19 protocols with the State Department of Health this week to value the safety of artists, attendees and the townspeople of Okemah.

He said the six-acre Pastures of Plenty stage site provides plenty of room for festival goers to spread their lawn chairs out for the evening performances, but attendees are still encouraged to practice six-foot social distancing at concession stand lines or at vendor tables.

Hart said the festival is also implementing a vaccination promotion campaign. Ticket holders who present proof of vaccination will receive a special armband they may wear to signify their status and encourage others to become vaccinated.

‘A little musical mecca in Oklahoma’

The musician has the power
Jaimee Harris performs at WoodyFest 2019 in Okemah, Oklahoma. (Michael Duncan)

The musicians who return to Okemah each year for Woodyfest have described the festival as a family reunion of sorts — an opportunity to jam with old friends, former band members and new found talent.

“Okemah becomes kind of like a little musical mecca in Oklahoma,” Gregory said. 

She said some musicians can be found in impromptu jam sessions in the parking lot of their Okemah motel in late night hours after the scheduled stage performances have concluded and the crowds have gone home.

“They are just in their element. Someone will start playing a song and others will join in,” she said. “They don’t know what song they are going to play. Everyone joins in. There could be a fiddle and 16 guitars and banjo and an upright bass. There has been a tuba there before. All kinds of people just playing music because they want to do it.”

And while the official name of the festival is the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, the palette of music is much broader than the tunes of Pete Seeger or Joan Baez. 

For example, the energetic R&B, funk and soul artist Branjae is set to return to the festival in 2021. And many of the songs of festival favorite (and Okemah native) John Fullbright carry a distinctively Delta blues tenor to them.

“We want to include and incorporate jazz, blues and rock-a-billy into the festival lineup,” Gregory said. “Certainly people have a definition of what they think ‘folk’ is.  But folk is for the people — it is music written by and for the people.”

She said the future of the festival will be about introducing the music to more generations.

“It is all about getting people in touch with it — getting it to new people, whether that’s different age groups, or those who just haven’t heard of it,” Gregory said. “There are people who say they have lived in Oklahoma their whole life and say they didn’t even know this existed, but now they definitely want to come check it out.”

Additional WoodyFest 2021 details

The musician has the power
Tulsa band Count Tutu and lead singer Branjae Jackson wowed the crowd at WoodyFest 2019 in Okemah, Oklahoma. (Michael Duncan)

The festival also includes a family-friendly children’s festival, including a harmonica class hosted by John Williams and Joe Baxter, a ukulele class hosted by the Okfuskee County Ukuladies, and a children’s concert. 

Long-time festival artist Ellis Paul will host his sixth Woodyfest Songwriting Workshop for aspiring songwriters 14 years and older.

In addition to the Laura Nelson panel discussion by Dr. Bates, the festival will hold educational panels that include:

  • a conversation with composer David Amram
  • collecting Woody Guthrie items, by collector Barry Ollman
  • Appalachia to Oklahoma, hosted by Tom Breiding and Larry O’Dell
  • Saved by a Song with Mary Gauthier
  • Native Music of Oklahoma with Sterlin Harjo and Hugh Foley
  • Songs of Conscience, Sounds of Freedom with Woody Guthrie Center director Deana McCloud
  • a recorded panel discussion available for streaming on Making Music that Matters with Ollman, Jaimee Harris and Glen Hansard.
Red Dirt Rangers icon Randy Crouch plays the fiddle at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival on Thursday, July 11, 2019.(Michael Duncan)