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The Road Back

Sooner or later, the Sooner State had to mend fences with one of its most famous sons, Woody Guthrie. On the occasion of Guthrie's induction into the state's portrait gallery, a wannabe Oklahoman comes back to see the great state again

By Richard von Busack

ONE SUMMER NIGHT in 1974, he was sitting feet up on the La-Z-Boy, the swamp cooler blowing full blast. He was drinking his Falstaff from a can, while his parrot sidestepped back and forth on the towel folded on the back of the chair. I asked him where he'd like to live if he had his choice of any place in the world.

Seminole, Oklahoma.

Even if he could live in France or right on the beach?

Seminole, Oklahoma.

I asked him again, incredulous.

My grandfather Jack Murphy didn't get annoyed that I was pestering him, as he did when I'd show him an article in the Seminole Producer without bringing him his glasses first so he could read it. The question about Seminole didn't fluster him. He'd given the matter thought.

It wasn't until I got back from a trip to Oklahoma this July and looked at the map that I saw something I'd missed. Seminole is almost directly in middle of the state, more so than that hellmouth known as Oklahoma City. And Oklahoma is almost in the direct middle of the United States. The man was centered.

Fifty years ago, in the summer of 1954, 42-year-old folk singer and agitator Woody Guthrie went for a last trip around the country. In the spring of that year, he had finished his last tentative recording sessions in New York City.

You can imagine him walking past your office window or heading down your sidewalk. He was unwashed, sockless, a serious drinker, a thin, shabby figure, already ticcing from the effects of the Huntington's disease that would destroy his body. With his gait, stream-of-consciousness speech and burn scars from a cookout fire, Guthrie would have been indistinguishable from any of the dark figures haunting the alleys or the underpasses of freeways.

 

July 14, 2004

Sunrise Donuts in Seminole, several blocks from my great-grandparents' now-battered four-room house on Russell Street. The cashier was telling me the good things about Seminole, a good hospital, a first-rate high school, a state college about three miles from downtown.

I could see that many of the houses were well kept, and I knew there was fishing and swimming nearby. For all the things you needed from a city, Oklahoma City was less than an hour's drive away. On the back roads, the people waved when you drove by. My grandfather had to teach me to do that.

"But it's awfully quiet. How many people are living here now?" I asked the cashier.

Her eyes flicked a little downward as she replied, "6,500." I did the math. Half as many as when I'd visited last, in 1974.

The next day was a Thursday. White-hot clouds scudded across the unphotographably vast sky over Oklahoma City. A small crowd gathered under the Italianate dome of the capitol building, a dome the state built after decades of fretting about whether it wanted to pay for a dome or not.

Woody Guthrie's well-known son Arlo showed up. Next to him stood his Aunt Mary Jo Egmond of Seminole, Guthrie's 81-year-old sister. According to the Associated Press, Mrs. Egmond told reporters that her brother had always wanted the word "Okie" to be his epitaph.

News cameras snapped Woody Guthrie's portrait, painted by Charles Banks Wilson, titled This Land Is Made for You and Me. Guthrie was in the Okie Pantheon for good, dwelling in pink marble halls next to Will Rogers, Olympic champ Jim Thorpe and Senator and Kerr-McGee founder Robert S. Kerr.

There's Woody's picture on the wall, cig in mouth, blue skies, heroic cumuli and the rolling Oklahoma terrain behind him. He cradles his guitar in his right arm, while he holds his left hand at a familiar bent angle: a possible swipe from the picture of Adam in the Michelangelo fresco, where the First Man has his arm outstretched, waiting to bump fingers with God.

One time, Grandpa Jack invited me nicely not to mention Guthrie's name around local people I didn't know. So I was as aware as anybody of the significance of Guthrie getting into the capitol building next to Bob Kerr.

Jack was in the Navy, an electrician who made CPO and retired after 20 years. He spent his last years in the service as a Navy recruiter in Shawnee. There aren't many Navy jobs in Oklahoma, but Jack got one of them. He was not immensely strong. He was a Depression child. I ended up towering over him. Balding, but he had red hair. Smoked filterless Camels. Had tattoos: a pair of swallows on each side of his chest, holding a clothesline in their beaks. Every shirt on the line represented a Pacific crossing.

My grandfather and grandmother raised a few head of cattle on a few acres near Varnum High School. The cattle were in between pets and meat. They weren't crazy about being petted except when we fed them big coffee cans full of grain that smelled sweetly of molasses. Then my brothers and my sister could scratch their shaggy burr-ridden heads.

My grandmother gardened in a little patch fenced away from the grazing. It was great watermelon country. We ate watermelon, watermelon, watermelon at the long close of the 90-degree days. The rinds went into a plastic bucket, and we fed them by hand to the thick-lipped, square-toothed steers, who poked their muzzles between the cables of the fence.

Eventually, we'd ship the steers off to a small cinderblock slaughterhouse not bigger than a 7-Eleven out near Bowlegs; they'd come back as several box loads of freezer-wrapped meat. Steers don't have much personality, and what personality they manifest is usually orneriness. And children love meat.

 

'Bred on the North Side of the Red'

While the crowd sang "This Land Is Your Land" to Woody's painting in the capitol building, I was in Okemah, some 70 miles away, in the basement of the Brick Street Cafe, watching Mike Carter, a singer/songwriter from Little, Okla., nine miles up the road from Seminole.

The second morning of the Seventh Annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, Carter was playing for several dozen people. The heat stole in, impeded by the air conditioning and the four ceiling fans. Carter wore spectacles, a straw hat and one of the swirly red T-shirts that were handed out as souvenirs for Friends of the Festival.

He was playing an acoustic guitar with accompaniment from his friend John, a young banjo picker wearing an Okemah High School Panthers T-shirt and a red bandana on his head. The crowd drank fruit jars full of iced sweet tea. There's a common kind of face between the Rockies and the Appalachians. The men grow thick in the jowls and red in the neck; by some trick of physics, the summer sun out here gets you in the back of the neck even when it's directly in front of you. By contrast, the women have the small, fine features, tiny noses and tinier mouths, like the kind you see in old Tudor paintings. A few Willie Nelson-style country hippies with long gray ponytails leaned on the stone walls.

"Humidity is a wonderful thing," Carter said as he adjusted his guitar, struck out of tune by the air conditioning. He started up a tune about the Texas/Oklahoma rivalry: "Born and bred on the north side of the Red ..."

Not knowing what Carter's music would be like, I came out to see if he'd be a protest singer in the Guthrie vein. Not a bit of it. After the show, Carter told me he'd only lived on the outskirts of Seminole for 10 years or so, so he hadn't seen it in the old days. Where he lives, the price of land is going up. He owns 23 acres. No steers yet, because he's waiting for the price to go down.

Carter is married to an English teacher and school librarian. And like any sensible musician, he maintains a website (thelostokie.com). He has even persuaded his children, Zeke and Zoe, to play music. They accompanied him on his best number, about his uncle who took up monkey ranching. Apparently, monkeys are delicious barbecued, but hard to herd.

Carter had worked on four or five of the Woody Guthrie memorial festivals before he got a shot at the stage. "We need a few more festivals like this, but they're not in Oklahoma. For some reason, they can do them in Texas, but not here," he told me.

As for Guthrie himself, Carter was all for him: "I was playing Woody Guthrie's songs before I even knew who he was." Carter meant he sympathized with that the feeling of Guthrie's music—the generosity of spirit, the humor, the longing for a place in this world.

On his last ramble in 1954, the great folk singer didn't revisit his hometown in Okemah, where today the heights are crowned with a turnip-shaped water tower reading, "Home of Woody Guthrie."

According to his biographer Joe Klein, Guthrie paid one final visit to Okemah in April 1952. The singer paid for a month in advance at the long-gone Broadway Hotel. He left after a few days.

In Guthrie's autobiography, Bound for Glory, the singer described Okemah as the hell-raisingest town in Oklahoma. Again you can imagine him trying to recall the days when he and his small gang of friends roamed and loafed and scavenged. All that really remained was a one-street small town going about its business.

The site of the Broadway Hotel is not one of the spots marked on the map the Woody Guthrie festival made to show fans the singer's Okemah. There is an out-of-business florist's shop, whose roof is beginning to bow down under a ton of honeysuckle. On the sidewalk, framed in a square of bricks, visitors see an weathered, indecipherable squiggle where Guthrie scrawled his name in the wet cement as a child.

 

Twice a month, Grandpa Jack took me on road trips, riding to all of the post offices in Seminole, Lincoln and Pottawatomie counties, stuffing the racks with Navy recruiting pamphlets. We drove through all of the towns there: Agra, Maud, Sparks, Chandler. I read the wanted posters carefully while Jack chatted with the postmasters.

A billowing cloud of red dust spiraled behind the truck we drove on the county roads. Some of the local churches took severed car hoods, salvaged from wrecks, and painted scripture verses on them and fastened them to the roadside trees.

We'd pass the ranch houses of gentleman farmers, with their idealized fiberglass statues of bulls next to the mailboxes. The lawns were barbered short by rider mowers, all the way up to the edge of storm channels, unconquered jungles in which stinging insects buzzed and rattled like power tools.

Opinions on Oklahoma vary depending on how you approach it. Come from the lusher East Coast, and Oklahoma looks sandy and plain. Approach it from Los Angeles, where the hills are bald, the sky is brown and the rivers are locked in concrete drainage ditches, and Oklahoma looks like the country primeval.

The west part of the state is flat prairie, exactly what you'd think of when you'd think of Oklahoma. East of Oklahoma City, the land starts to roll. The roads undulate up rounded hills all the way to the Ozarks. There is a hidden reason why the official state song as of 2001 is "Oklahoma Hills," a catchy tune attributed variously to either Woody or his cowboy-singer cousin Jack Guthrie.

The state wants you to you to know it has plenty of hills. A quarter of Oklahoma is lush with woods. Circuses spend the winter in Hugo, down in the south of the state near the Red River. In 1972, a couple of elephants got loose; the countryside is so wild, it took two weeks to find them.

Even today, there's ranch land in these valleys that made me drool. Years of inexplicable drought had been broken by a month of inexplicable rain. I saw huge black Anguses, up to their fetlocks in undulating, fat-leafed grass. Each steer had its own broad shade tree, ponds scattered hither and yonder.

The tree branches were glossy with cobwebby orbs woven by parasitic bagworms. The stands of blackjack trees where robbers used to hide were so thick, some people say the word "hijack" originated in this part of the state.

July 14, 2004

Seminole. A cluster of red-brick buildings on the crest of a Canadian River Valley hill. Two main business streets, two main side streets, like a tic-tac-toe grid. To the east are streets of frame houses, and the small cemetery, a few blocks up from the closed Gibson's store.

Seminole dreams of its past as a serious boomtown, as the center of what was the world's most capacious oil field in 1926. One year there were 700 people, the next 30,000—527,000 barrels of crude were pumped out during the course of a day.

The oil rush brought in thousands of speculators, gamblers and roughnecks. The street signs bear images of little oil derricks; the annual festival is called "Gusher Days." By 1950, they'd shipped out a billion barrels, and there are still a few active oil wells around, pumping up what's left.

The slope of Milt Philips Boulevard dead-ends into the Chicago Rock Island and Pacific Railroad station; the Rock Island Line's station is a Mexican restaurant now. The Arrow Pump and Pipe shop still flourishes, facing T.J.'s odds-and-ends store.

T.J., an old bantam, shuffled around amid racks of tool handles, ceramic gewgaws and vintage soft-drink bottles. The basement, full of books, was dark and sweltering. His radio station was turned to sugar-sweet oldies on the Shawnee station.

T.J. wouldn't talk.

"Have you been in Seminole a long time?"

"Long time," T.J. echoed.

Up the block, the only two shops open were a Salvation Army and Walls; the latter is part of a local chain of discount stores strategically positioned between Big Lots! and a thrift shop. Once, Seminole was so abreast of the times that it even boasted a tiny headshop, with incense and leather. The town has a Curves now and, across the street and up a few doors, the Coffee Barn, a nouveau kind of coffee shop, in a location Starbucks hasn't found out about yet. A poster of Gustav Klimt's famous The Kiss hangs on the cafe's wall, and a coffee table is painted to resemble an immense book titled Design and Culture in the 17th Century.

Here was a fresh salad bar, even in the buckle on the beef belt. The cafe had sponsored a poetry reading a few weeks back; from the number of people who signed the guest book it didn't look like it had been a huge hit. The owner, Kathy, figured to try again in the fall when Seminole State College was in session.

Kathy had known Grandpa Jack slightly.

"He was a good electrician," Kathy recalled. "He did some work for me." She remembered him and his second wife.

"Both of them smokers. That wasn't good," she said.

Here was an example of a turn of speech called the "Oklahoma Indirect" at work. Woody Guthrie was a master of it. I knew from the Producer obituary off the Internet that lung cancer had killed Jack on Jan. 24, 1998.

"Has it been that long?" she said. "I thought it was only a couple of years."

She used to see him and his wife at the steakhouse down the street, which closed after the owner had a heart attack.

Kathy had stuff to take care of, so she introduced me to someone to talk about Seminole. He was from Grass Valley—mid-40s, hair cut short, a few tattoos on his arm blurring and blue from exposure to sun.

He didn't even have to get into the story of why he had left California. Woody Guthrie's "Do Re Mi" ought to be the California anthem: "California's a garden of Eden/ A paradise to live in or see/ But believe it or not/ You won't find it so hot/ If you ain't got that Do Re Mi." Woody was writing about the 1930s, when a drought and dust storms sent Midwesterners by the thousands to California in hope of farm work. The connection between the two states hasn't been broken. Three separate times back there, I heard the following sentence, in variations: "Oh, we lived out in California for 20 years, when my husband was in the Navy."

Strangely, the terrain of the two states wasn't all that different; those Oklahoma hills look something like the foothills outside of Sacramento. As in Gold Country, Oklahoma offers plentiful of Indian gaming and a couple of new wineries. Let no man say Oklahoma is not meeting visitors halfway.

Still, this transplant was having trouble adjusting. He had the feeling that the area was still checking him out. Three times he'd been approved for a mortgage; three times they said yes on Friday and no on Monday. And like Hawaii, where he'd lived once upon a time, there was a different schedule of prices for locals and outsiders.

"They smile in your face out here, and then they stab you in the back," he said, twisting an imaginary screwdriver in his large freckled hands.

 

Pink Slips

The Curator mentioned Wal-Mart first; I didn't. I don't think she would thank me for mentioning her name. She was tending a small historical museum at the edge of one of Oklahoma's oil boomtowns, and she knew Seminole.

The Curator displayed the logo of a booster's organization on the windbreaker she wore against the chill of the air conditioning. She was about 55, with the stiffly curled hairstyle that may seem characteristic of small-town ladies--an honorable gesture of defiance against the God of Humidity.

The oil scene locally was getting better, with the prices rising. The Curator said she was starting to get royalty checks on a handful of wells she owned a share in.

Seminole had some hopes, too, pinned on the possibility of a Blue Wave sporting equipment factory locating there. Seminole County's unemployment rate is 8.6 percent, according to the last Oklahoma Department of Commerce report. (The figure is actually higher, as it doesn't include those who have been out of work so long they've given up looking.) As always, the townspeople have their fingers crossed; they had survived a Depression and an oil bust, in the 1980s, and now they were in another crisis they hoped to weather. They are hard workers, and they aren't poormouths.

Some 250-300 locals still work at the biggest local employer, the Wrangler distribution center on Wrangler Boulevard. Wrangler cultivates its Western image. It sponsors rodeos and NASCAR. Tour any Western-wear store, and you'll see that even the most arch-American clothes manufacturers go along with the conditions that prevail. The walls of the store will be decorated with coiled lariats, mounted barbwire and pictures of John Wayne, but the clothes will be sewn in Vietnam, Pakistan and China.

Vanity Fair Company, usually called VFC, is the world's largest apparel manufacturer, licensing lines as diverse as North Face and Tommy Hilfiger. On July 29, 2003, in the same month that VFC made a successful $586 million buyout offer for Nautica leisure wear, the conglomerate's subsidiary Wrangler announced the layoff of 650 employees at two Seminole facilities. Between 1991 and 1994, Wrangler pink-slipped a total of 1,300 Oklahomans, including hundreds at the nearby Okemah facility.

And now there was the fear of more bad news. Wal-Mart, a local employer of about 100, was rumored to be contemplating its own move. When a Wal-Mart outgrows its facility, it closes down and builds a newer superstore a few towns down the line, leaving behind its empty shell, like a cicada. Also left behind are the empty small-town shops, undersold into bankruptcy by Wal-Mart.

The Curator said there has been talk of a Wal-Mart superstore going up in Shawnee, a bigger, more bustling small town about 14 miles away from Seminole. "If the Wal-Mart goes, the town goes."

One possible future for Seminole involves a long-delayed widening of the north-south U.S. Highway 377, which could shave a few hours off the Dallas-to-Tulsa truck route. Some of the highway roadside along Seminole could be used for truck stops—for instance, the strip on 377, previously anchored by a long-abandoned, early-stage Wal-Mart that is about the size of a discount shoe store. They should keep it as a historical monument, really.

"I think they should be renting out the downtown Seminole offices to lawyers and CPAs and trying to keep up the buildings. But I guess Seminole could end up a highway strip town, like Chickasha," the Curator sighed. "Not what I would have wanted, but they didn't listen to me."

 

Truth Vacuum

"In the truth-vacuum that corporate capitalism has made of political discourse, a Guthrie revival is shaping itself out of a strange mix of nostalgia and revisionism," wrote Robert Cantwell, in an essay collected in the book Hard Travellin', a series of writings on the importance of Woody Guthrie.

In such a "truth vacuum," anything that feels like authenticity pours in like water from a burst dam. Guthrie liked to work his Okieness during his many years in New York and Los Angeles; he cultivated the image of an easygoing but shrewd Western man. Privately, he was flamboyant, his journals crammed with mad purple love letters. He served six months in jail for obscenity because of letters he wrote to a widow. Guthrie loved Shakespeare, swooned over Khalil Gibran and even studied Rosicrucianism during his years in Texas.

Guthrie, so open about his faults, makes a difficult target for debunkers. They try, though. Reviewing Ramblin' Man, the new Guthrie biography by Ed Cray, New Yorker writer David Hadju comments, "After all, he [Guthrie] did not call his biography Bound for Obscurity." But according to Joe Klein, Woody complained about the title Bound for Glory after his editor Joy Doerflinger suggested it: "It sounds like I personally am bound for glory ... but it really is the common people who are."

Again, the common people. Who is really common, who really considers himself common, a real little guy—not the hero of his own life, but a pawn.

 

A stranger walks around a small town, brushing past the webs of memory to see what's really there. The memories insist the town was friendly, kindly, orderly, with good music in the air, as opposed to what it is today: rather tense, rather watchful, rather too quiet.

About the worst-off person I saw in Oklahoma was a cashier at the convenience store across the parking lot from the Days Inn. She had a self-inflicted Bic-pen tattoo on her ham-sized upper arm. She couldn't even draw a broken heart.

Later that night in the motel, I reached for the Gideon's Bible out of 4am insomnia, thinking if the Good Book wouldn't put me to sleep, what would? By happenstance, I opened it to the one and only Bible verse Jack explained to me: Job 5:7. "Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward." My grandfather, who knew how to weld, explained: sparks always go up in the air; man can depend on turbulence.

 

Oklahoma may be as Republican as Republican can be. But someone had plastered Kucinich stickers on the traffic sign in front of the Wal-Mart in Seminole; someone else flew the supposedly despised French tricolor in front of their house in Okemah on Bastille Day, July 14. Once upon a time, there were so many socialists in the state that Guthrie's father wrote newspaper editorials denouncing them.

Woody was himself at times a dedicated Communist, in the sense that he was dedicated to pretty much anything that sounded like fun. He waffled a little: "I ain't a Communist necessarily, but I been in the red all my life."

It wasn't scientific study of Hegel that drew Guthrie to Communism in the 1930s, but a natural sympathy for laborers, transients, soldiers, prisoners and farmers. Listen to his old records with that unadorned, wry, Oklahoma-indirect: "They kissed and they hugged in that dusty old dark."

I have deep confidence that Woody Guthrie would have seen through the hard times in America 2004 and would know exactly what was going on; that he would have recognized the culture war as one more rich man's conflict being fought by the poor. He would know what so many of us don't: how to say the right thing.

And at the memorial show on what would have been Guthrie's 92nd birthday at the Crystal Theater in Okemah, I saw an outburst of populism big enough to rattle Berkeley.

One night I was awake, and the last thing I heard was the tiny crackle as my grandfather kissed my grandmother. It was the last sound before the rest of the night sounds descended; the whine of the churning horse-head oil well in the north pasture, the swamp-cooler fan in the hallway that needed to be refilled from a plastic pitcher of water in the middle of the night, the cicadas throbbing.

My brothers and sister were out there in Oklahoma when the marriage fell apart, and when the drinking started before 5 in the afternoon. This is absolutely the most my grandmother ever said about it later: She was cooking me a hamburger one night, in her divorce apartment in North Las Vegas. She stirred the patties in the frying pan. "Jack said I never got the onions right for his hamburger," she commented. "Maybe his waitress can do his onions right."

I never talked to my grandfather again. I got a Christmas card from him, and I didn't answer it. He must have thought I snubbed him, and he never wrote or called again.

I got the Christmas card when I was in college. Students are rarely tolerant, and I was trying to help forge the morality of the future. I could have summed up my new values in a sentence: "If only we could share all our drugs and sleep with everyone on the planet, all would be well."

Of course, those lofty goals wouldn't play in central Oklahoma. Fear of his disapproval may be why I didn't write back to this man who spent more key time with me than my father did. Years later, I got married and so did my friends, and I found out how even the best marriages are closer to divorce than anyone outside them can know. So much for not being able to forgive him for infidelity.

Today, I admire Jack's calm, his courtliness, his way with words. He was always kind to me and never gave me a load of trouble about being a bookworm. He had no hot buttons, no religious mania; he loved Johnny Cash decades before he became cool. He wasn't the one who taught me to put up a wall of foolish prejudice about "flyover country."

It took me years to learn what I lost after I broke the connection.

The Jolly Banker

It would have been worth walking all the way from Seminole to Okemah to see a concert like the one they put on in Woody Guthrie's birthday at the Crystal Theater. Okemah's strained relationship with its most famous son continued through the years. This despite the rise in Guthrie's stock as the writer of a thousand songs and influence on ten thousand musicians, as Dylan's main man, as posthumously elected member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

In 1967, the Okemah branch of the American Legion put a stop to a proposed day honoring Guthrie. This was particularly ironic, considering Woody's war record; he was a Merchant Marine, torpedoed twice, and he was also a draftee in the Army. (An embellished but unputdownable account of Woody's war years can be found in Woody, Cisco & Me by Jim Longhi.)

In 1971, when U.S. Sen. Fred Harris proposed a day honoring Woody, the Okemah Chamber of Commerce voted against the recommendation, 12-0, with six abstaining. And even in 1989, when the first commemorative show of Guthrie's music was held in Okemah, Los Angeles Times reporter Robert Hilburn noted the hubbub over fliers posted downtown reading, "Woody's No Hero."

The change happened slowly, probably because of the end of the Cold War, when Guthrie's heartfelt but never doctrinaire Communism became less relevant. Only 7 years old, the four-day-long annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival becoming an institution, a welcome draw of visitors and families into town.

Even the local banks advertise in the festival's guide. "Let us help you make 'This land your land,'" prompts the Okemah National Bank in an ad on the back page. I stopped to talk to a pair of young girls working at the Paradise Submarine shop on Woody Guthrie Street, to ask them if this folk music was something strictly for the oldsters. They grinned at me as if I'd said, "Ice cream—it's overrated, isn't it?"

"Not much happens in Okemah," the older one claimed. "We love it, seeing all the people playing guitar around town."

The 598-seat Crystal Theater is a still-functioning movie house, a block up the street from the pretty vest-pocket park where a statue of Woody Guthrie stands, leaning back and singing. Woody was supposed to have performed at the Crystal as a kid.

The show couldn't have been less like A Mighty Wind. The performers snuck in topical references: "This train don't carry Halliburton, this train ..." Guthrie's best little-known song, "The Jolly Banker," was retrofitted with a mention of Enron. His tune "Peace, Peace, Peace" had its own timelessness in a town where almost every yard displayed a sign reading "Support Our Troops." Even the nostalgia had a kick to it: a bass, guitar, trumpet and cornet quartet played a Dixieland elegy for Franklin Roosevelt that should have brought FDR right back from the grave.

Guthrie's music is simplicity itself. Many of his songs are in the easy "people's key" of G. They are the first tunes many a guitar student can play. What murdered me was the range of tempos and styles the musicians wrung out of the Guthrie songbook. The tall, grave Audrey Auld, a Tasmanian folk singer now living in Bolinas, imparted all due drama to the tragic "Deportees," about the plane wreck in west Fresno County's Los Gatos Canyon on Jan. 28, 1948. Guthrie had been out in Fresno in the 1930s, leaving a big impression on the young Cesar Chavez. Guthrie hadn't exaggerated the story. Twenty-eight of the 32 killed had been listed in the newspaper accounts as "Mexican laborers," and 12 of them were never identified: "You won't have a name when you ride the big airplane."

Emily Kaitz, a big mama out of Fayetteville, Ark., changed the mood with an a capella version of Guthrie's lullaby "Howdy, Little Newbecome." Later, she changed speeds and turned "Union Maid" into a mad bluegrass breakdown.

Sarah Lee Guthrie, her partner, Johnny Irion, and the Burns Sisters purred out a song that the American Legion would have been right to be worried about: "There Will Be No Church Today," about the unfortunate sexual habits of a small percentage of the clergy. Sarah Lee has her grandfather's face—the slight overbite, the slitty eyes, the tilt of the jaw that in photos makes it hard to tell whether Woody was looking at something with amused contempt or honest good humor. Any artist assigned to draw a picture of Huckleberry Finn need not worry if there's a photo of Woody Guthrie around.

The ensemble gathered at the end—Sarah Lee, carrying Woody's diapered great-grandchild onto stage—and sang "This Land Is Your Land." Guthrie created this answer song to Kate Smith's belted-out radio hit "God Bless America"—a tune that can sometimes seem less like a prayer, more like a command to God to do his patriotic duty.

But even the point of "This Land Is Your Land" has gotten fuzzy over the years. Arlo Guthrie told a Ohio college in 1998: "I remember going down to Disney World one time—it must have been when my kids were young—and I remember seeing Mickey Mouse coming down the main drag, singing 'This Land Is Your Land,' and it wasn't just Mickey either, it was everybody, you know Goofy and Donald and ...I always wondered what my dad would think about that."

The copyright owners of the song (Guthrie specifically wanted it uncopyrighted) just sued the popular JibJab.com animated parody, with Bush and Kerry jabbing at each other. The seemingly all-things-to-all-people tune includes a forgotten last verse about the singer watching a crowd line up for welfare. He wonders if the goodness of America will be shared with those who deserve it. On stage at Okemah, the ensemble sang the final verse: "By the relief office/ I saw my people/ As they stood hungry/ I stood there wondering/ If God blessed America for me."

The danger was that Guthrie and his legacy would get Bransonized, that he'd become a depoliticized tourist item. The Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, like the long-awaited arrival of the Guthrie portrait in the Oklahoma capitol building, symbolizes something they said couldn't happen. It's a gesture of tolerance that no one could have suspected, all the more so because we are always told there are kinds of behavior the people of Middle America will never learn to tolerate. Despite what the polls say and the commentators tell us, seeing and hearing these traces of Guthrie made me think Americans can find their way back to common ground again.


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From the August 18-24, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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