OKEMAH — Woody Guthrie expert and historian Barry Ollman noticed something different about this year’s Woody Guthrie Folk Festival as he sat in the corner of the Crystal Theatre between performances on Thursday afternoon.
“Maybe it’s the sensory deprivation of the last 18 months, but I don’t remember being so moved by the live music here as I have been all day long today,” Ollman said.
A frequent host, panel moderator and performing songwriter himself, Ollman is no stranger to WoodyFest. His life-long study of Guthrie has led him to collect a major archive of the legendary songwriter’s letters and papers, something Ollman talked about during a panel discussion at this year’s festival.
He said this year’s slate of Guthrie tunes evoked a visceral reaction among both the artists and the music fans. Others shared the sentiment.
“The songs this year were more reflective of Woody’s music and more about the feelings we’ve had from the pandemic,” said singer-songwriter Robert Williams, a Norman native and WoodyFest regular who splits time between Chicago and Berlin and travels the world to entertain folk music fans.
Guthrie’s songs — which tell the stories of regular folks dealing with seemingly insurmountable problems, like health care or living conditions — seemed to carry extra weight.
“The last year has brought a lot of pent-up emotion, and you see that emotion coming through in the music of the artists this year,” said Mark McClellan, a stagehand volunteer for the WoodyFest organization. “I’ve attended many festivals. But this one, I find myself tearing up.”
‘Putting other people first’
The pandemic limited last year’s festival to an online event, and when the live festival returned this year, it featured changes. Only three venues were used, masks were encouraged for those not vaccinated and seating at the indoor venue was limited. As a consequence, turnout was lower than normal, but those in attendance soaked in the sentimentality.
The festival began Wednesday night at the Crystal Theatre, a 100-year-old movie house-turned music hall on Okemah’s Main Street. For the next three days the festival continued there and on the back patio of Okemah’s Rocky Road Tavern, and with nighttime concerts at a six-acre patch of grass in the town’s industrial park where the main Pastures of Plenty stage was located.
The festival concluded Sunday afternoon with the “Hoot for Huntingtons” show, a fundraiser for the Oklahoma branch of the Huntington’s Disease Society of America, an organization that fights the disease that struck Guthrie in his early 40s.
Beyond Oklahoma, attendees arrived from Virginia, Wisconsin, Colorado, Kansas and Texas. What they found was more than music.
Folk music festivals have a history of being venues for political discussion, and in today’s politically-charged environment one might expect that here.
Although there was no Republican vs. Democrat talk in Okemah, the hot topic of COVID-19 vaccination — a political divide between those who see vaccinations as a community responsibility versus those who fear an attack on individual liberty — became a frequent subject for the musicians to discuss.
Several musical artists used their platform to encourage those in attendance to get vaccinated.
“It does take doing some things, like putting other people first,” Austin singer-songwriter Betty Soo said between songs.
Checotah singer-songwriter and retired high school history teacher Greg Jacobs chimed in on the need for vaccinations.
“I’m going back for seconds when they offer it,” he said. “I kind of believe in science.”
WoodyFest organizers gave red wristbands with the word “VACCINATED” on them to those who had been immunized against COVID-19.
Judging from the number of wristbands in the audience, the musicians pleading for vaccinations were preaching to the choir.
But, just in case, the Oklahoma State Department of Health staffed a vaccination tent during the festival.
Stories of struggle
Like with many of Guthrie’s folk songs, the tunes written by artists at the festival told stories about hardship.
Jacobs is considered one of the great musical storytellers in Oklahoma, and his knowledge of history serves him in that role. He also remembers the stories of three generations of his own family in eastern Oklahoma, drawing from them to write songs like Farmer’s Luck, a story of the government taking his family’s land to build Lake Eufaula in the 1960s.
He said family stories didn’t mean much when he was young, but then he served in the U.S. Air Force in southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. When he returned, he started writing music.
“Those stories all then took on an important meaning to me when I started writing songs,” Jacobs said.
And meaning is what Woody Guthrie’s own songs are about.
Guthrie can be described as a musical social activist. During his active career (1930-1956), his songs ranged from hard luck stories of Hispanic immigrants (Deportee), to inequities in housing for the poor (Old Man Trump) to racial injustice (Don’t Kill My Baby and My Son, a song written about a lynching in Guthrie’s home town in 1911).
Evelyn McGirk, of Denison, Texas, has traveled to Okemah for the last decade to hear the festival’s music. McGirk said she prefers the Woody Guthrie songs, and there was notable increase this year of artists performing their renditions of Guthrie’s work.
“The first night they did it, and it was wonderful. They’ve been playing them a lot (this year), and that makes me happy,”McGirk said. “I’ve always been appreciative of this festival. This is something special.”
Past WoodyFests have more directly touched on politics. Most recently, Red Dirt Rangers guitarist Brad Piccolo wore a “RESIST” t-shirt during the band’s Red State Blues performance on the main stage in 2018.
And the political leanings of most of the audience were clear on the opening night of the festival when Oklahoma City singer-songwriter Peggy Johnson, a retired mail carrier, brought the Crystal Theatre audience to its feet with a rousing rendition of Guthrie’s song Union Maid.
“I’m sticking to the union until the day I die!” Johnson sang.
Educators also got their due.
Konrad Wert, a teacher from Kerrville, Texas, brought to WoodyFest his unorthodox musical show dubbed Possessed by Paul James in a style that might be described as a mix of bluegrass and rap, with a touch of gospel that Wert said stemmed from his upbringing as a Mennonite in the swamplands of Florida.
But first, Wert praised Oklahoma teachers for “leading the front line” during their 2018 teacher walkout.
“The theme here is how to feed 10,000 people with a Tic Tac,” Wort said of one of his songs. “And that’s how it feels today in public education.”
‘Hope is the only note that can help us’
Mostly, the festival’s messages were more personal than political.
“Be kind to everyone. Everyone,” said Terlingua, Texas, singer-songwriter Butch Hancock, making an apparent reference to the Red State vs. Blue State political discord that has engulfed the country and pitted neighbor against neighbor.
This year, the festival’s headline performer was singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier. Her recent album, Rifles & Rosary Beads, a collection of songs written with wounded veterans, was nominated for a Grammy award for Best Folk Album and for Best Record of the Year by the American Music Association.
At a festival panel discussion about the healing power of music, Gauthier explained her recent book, Saved by a Song, which details her musical work with families of veterans agonizing over loss and post traumatic stress.
During her headlining performance Saturday, she read a passage and quoted Woody Guthrie.
“He said, ‘The note of hope is the only note that can help us, or save us, from falling to the bottom of the heap of evolution. Because, largely all a human being is anyway is a hoping machine.'”
Gauthier said songs can create empathy and change a person’s heart.
“A change of heart has the power to change a mind. And when a mind changes a person changes,” she said. “When people change, the world changes. One song. One heart. One mind. One person at a time.”