OKEMAH — As Saturday night ended with the traditional singing of Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land, audience members observed a distinct passing of the torch as the 25th annual music festival that bears the legendary folk singer’s name came to a close.
The absence of notable songwriter Arlo Guthrie from the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, which honors the life and music of his Okemah-born father, was evident. Arlo Guthrie retired from touring and stage shows in 2020 owing to health concerns, but a family of grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the historic Oklahoma figure — rich with their own musical talent — seemed almost omnipresent during this year’s four-day festival.
Arlo’s daughters, Sarah Lee and Cathy — performing as a duo called the Guthrie Girls — closed out the last full day of performances on Saturday night. Both said the absence of their father from the festival meant the work fell to them to carry on the event’s tradition.
“I hope we can go another 25 years. We’ll bring the kids and keep this going,” Sara Lee Guthrie told the crowd of music fans whose lawn chairs dotted the open space next to Okemah’s industrial park and city golf course. (The area is known as the Pastures of Plenty, a reference to one of Woody Guthrie’s songs).
‘How valuable people are in the world’
Festival organizers honored those who had performed at every WoodyFest since the beginning in 1998. Prominent among those was singer-songwriter Joel Rafael, whose songs mirror the stories of working class laborers, migrants and the under privileged that marked the songs of Woody Guthrie.
“I love coming to the Woody Guthrie Festival because it celebrates and expresses how valuable people are in the world,” Rafael said.
Folk music icon Tom Paxton, a Bristow native whose songs have been recorded by the legendary Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, drew a large crowd to the Crystal Theater in downtown Okemah.
Although the event is considered a “folk” festival, the musical variations performed by the more than 60 bands and singers ranged from red dirt, bluegrass and country swing to hip hop.
Some traveled far to play or hear this year’s performers. A mural on one of downtown Okemah’s sandstone rock buildings depicted a U.S. map dotted with locations in dozens of states from which this year’s festival goers traveled.
‘In the tradition’ of Woody Guthrie
Folk musician Tom Breiding made his fifth trip from his West Virginia home to WoodyFest. Much of his music is in support of the United Mine Workers and their plea for better working conditions and health care.
“It is an honor to be at the festival because of my work with the mine workers. You could say my music is ‘in the tradition’ (of Guthrie),” Breiding said. “It is important to me.”
In keeping with that tradition, Sarah Lee and Cathy Guthrie were joined by other family members to sing Woody Guthrie’s song Union Maid on the main stage of the festival.
In addition to the sisters, Guthrie family members taking part in the 25th anniversary festival included their other sister, Annie, Woody’s grandson, Cole Quest Rotante (who brought his bluegrass band Cole Quest and the City Pickers from New York) and great-grandchildren Serena and Krishna Guthrie, whose songs reflect the story-telling nature of Woody Guthrie.
The next generation
Each time a Guthrie family member took to one of the four stages, kin gathered in the audience to show support.
The youngest, Serena Guthrie, first performed on a WoodyFest stage in 2014. She said the festival is the one time each year when her family gathers to share their own music.
To her the event is personal, although she recognizes the festival happens in honor of her great-grandfather and in recognition of broader messages against social injustice.
“It is something that we’ve always done as a family,” Serena Guthrie said. “We’ve come here every year. And we are so thankful to Okemah for having it.”