Oklahoma City photographer M. Tim Blake is packing bedding, camera gear and a guitar in his two-man camper trailer for the annual pilgrimage he and hundreds of others will make this week to the small hometown of legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie.
Blake will be attending the gathering of more than 50 folk, red dirt and Americana musicians performing at Okemah’s Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, known affectionally by attendees as “WoodyFest,” running Wednesday through Sunday at four venues in the Okfuskee County town.
Camping at the Okemah Round-Up Club rodeo grounds during the festival opens the door for an even more intimate musical experience, allowing Blake and others to mix with folk music headliners participating in after-hour campground jams.
“WoodyFest has become a singer-songwriter festival,” he said. “I love hearing folks’ original songs. And I love the campground jams. I usually wear out a set of strings.”
The official beginning of the festival will occur at the downtown Crystal Theatre on Wednesday night, with the duo of red dirt music singer-songwriter Mike McClure and Chrislyn Lawrence taking the stage. A full line up of bands and soloists will perform on the multiple daytime stages Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with all nighttime performances at the Pastures of Plenty stage set on the expansive lawn at Okemah’s eastside Industrial Park.
The third and fourth generation of Guthrie-family songwriters — including Annie Guthrie, Cathy Guthrie and Serena Guthrie — will perform along with many other headlining performers, such as John Fullbright, Mary Gauthier, Jaimee Harris, Parker Millsap and Willis Alan Ramsey.
Tickets for the entire July 12-16 festival — or specific days — are available on the festival’s website. Daytime performances on Thursday will offer free admission.
A WoodyFest app is available for download for iPhone and Android cellphones. Maddie Gregory, media coordinator for the festival, said the app was created to make it easier for festival patrons to find information about the musicians and venues, as well as to reduce the environmental impact of print programs.
Data from the app is downloaded to the user’s cell phones, so the are not dependent on their particular service provider’s cell phone connections in Okemah, she said.
“I’m hoping the app allows people to explore more about what the festival offers,” Gregory said.
Face of the festival meets folk icons
A familiar face at WoodyFest 2023 will be stage emcee Roger Osburn, a member of the Woody Guthrie Coalition, the nonprofit organization that works year-round to produce the annual festival. He has introduced the Crystal Theatre and Pastures of Plenty stage performances the past eight years.
“I look forward to it each year probably more than even Christmas,” Osburn said.
Osburn, a former director of the Oklahoma Crop Improvement Association and Oklahoma State University faculty member, said his experience as host has allowed him to meet icons of American music.
“My memorable moments include walking out of the Crystal Theatre and realizing I was beside Pete Seeger, and then meeting Arlo (Guthrie) for the first time,” he said. “Then seeing Graham Nash walking in the back door of the Okemah History Center and having a few minutes of conversation with him before anyone else arrived.”
“I really do love ‘our little festival’ and feel honored to have been a volunteer and coalition member for most of its existence,” Osburn said.
For the musicians, it’s a family reunion
For much of the Oklahoma music scene, the festival is a magnet that draws singers and songwriters to Okfuskee County one week every summer.
“The WoodyFest family, more than anything, is what keeps me going back. It’s all about a kindred spirit and mutual love, not to even mention the great music that you get to experience there,” said Susan Herndon, a Tulsa-native and now San Antonio-area singer-songwriter who will be returning to perform at the festival Thursday.
She said her advice to festivalgoers is to “go with the flow” and sample the different takes on the red dirt, folk and Americana musical genres emanating from the different stages.
“You won’t be disappointed. At every pocket and corner, stage and venue, campground and parking lot — you’ll hear some wonderful music and meet the best people,” she said.
RT Valine, an Allen, Oklahoma-based singer-songwriter set to perform Thursday, said the festival is a celebration of the vast legacy and music of Woody Guthrie. The event enables listeners to hear the best work of musicians in the folk idiom that exists.
One of the festival venues, the backyard patio of the Rocky Road Tavern, will have open mic sessions beginning at 11 a.m. each day of the festival for anyone wanting to become a WoodyFest performer.
“For me personally it means that I have a rare opportunity that other festivals don’t provide, which is the meandering song circles that blur the line between the performers and their audience and the magic this interaction allows,” Valine said.
Musicians travel from throughout the country to play at WoodyFest. But Valine is one of the Oklahoma-based musicians who perform in the festival each year.
“I am always grateful for the chance to participate, and I hold my breath every year until I get the call,” Valine said. “All in all, it’s like a big family reunion, and I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
Another Oklahoman, legendary sideman guitarist Terry “Buffalo” Ware, will lead the WoodyFest 2023 house band once again.
“The thing I always look forward to most is seeing all my friends that I mostly only see once a year, and playing music with them and just hanging out with them,” Ware said. “I’ve made some lifelong friends at the festival — artists and festival goers as well.”
WoodyFest 2023 offers children’s festival, educational programs
Festival organizers say one purpose of the festival is to share Woody Guthrie’s story-telling song-writing with new generations.
On Saturday, a Children’s Festival will be conducted at the Okemah City Park. The free event will feature activities for all ages, including a children’s performing stage, jewelry making, face painting and a giant water slide. The first 200 kids attending will come away with ukeleles, harmonicas and t-shirts.
In addition, educational presentations will be presented during WoodyFest. Among them, singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier will speak on “Finding and Using Your Songwriting Voice” and about her book, Saved by a Song: The Art and Healing Power of Songwriting.
Noted Americana music scene photographer Chad Cochran is also scheduled to speak about his work with musicians experiencing mental health issues in a discussion called “A Conversation Around Mental Health.”
A continued connection to Guthrie
The musicians who perform at WoodyFest are mindful of its namesake’s legacy. For some it is easy because they are his progeny, such as great-granddaughter Serena Guthrie, who will perform Saturday on the Bound for Glory stage.
Also on Saturday, the duo Folk Uke — featuring Guthrie’s granddaughter, Cathy, and Willie Nelson’s daughter, Amy — is set to perform at the Crystal Theatre.
Those who come to listen also understand the folk messages of Guthrie are central to the festival, and that connection can be long lasting.
For Blake, this week’s return to Okemah will mark his 24th festival. He has previously worked as one of the official festival photographers and captured images of iconic folk musician Joel Rafael and legendary composer David Amram.
But his interest in the festival is grounded in his early interest in music and Woody Guthrie himself.
“I started playing the guitar when I was around 15. I loved Bob Dylan and still do. While learning about Dylan, I was led straight to Woody Guthrie,” Blake said. “I loved everything about him — from the hitchhiking to hopping freight trains. And those songs.”