Woody Guthrie festival to feature big names

Wednesday, July 12th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

EDITOR'S NOTE: KOTV Channel 6 and kotv.com are proud sponsors of this year's Woody Guthrie Free Folk Music Festival. For a complete festival schedule, CLICK HERE.

OKEMAH, Okla. (AP) -- Not long ago, a festival celebrating the legacy of Woody Guthrie in the folk singer's home state would not have garnered much attention. But organizers and performers in the third annual Woody Guthrie Free Folk Festival believe the event is proof that Oklahoma now embraces Guthrie.

This year's festival begins Wednesday with a special fund-raising concert by singer Jackson Browne in Okemah's Crystal Theater. Another fund-raising performance in the theater is planned Sunday and will feature Guthrie's friend and fellow folk legend, Pete Seeger. It has taken years for Oklahomans to openly accept Guthrie, who was well-known for his leftist political beliefs. "There was a vocal group against Woody and what they felt like he believed in," said Randy Norman, president of the Woody Guthrie Coalition. "They were never the majority. Woody was controversial, we understood that. My thinking is if I lived in the 1920s and 1930s, how do we know what we would've stood for at that time?"

Born Woodrow Wilson Guthrie in 1912, Guthrie grew up in Okemah during the years of the soup lines and massive unemployment of the Great Depression. Guthrie's songs like "Dust Bowl Blues," "The Ballad of Tom Joad" and "Pastures of Plenty" mirrored the populist beliefs of the times. But his pro-union, pro-working class leanings soon earned him a communist label that even his classic "This Land is Your Land," could not make him palatable to many Americans.

With the passage of time, his admirers came to outnumber the "anti-Woody Guthrie people," said Bill McCloud, president of the Orphanage Society, a Pryor organization that produces the festival. "They are literally dying off," McCloud said. "We're no happy about that. But it's the older generation that feels that way (about Guthrie)."

To Seeger, Guthrie was "one of the most extraordinary Americans of the 20th century." Both revered for their contributions to modern American folk music, Seeger and Guthrie spent part of their youth building a body of work that would later influence performers such as Bob Dylan ,Joan Baez and Bruce Springsteen. Seeger said. "Any damn fool can get complicated, but he had the genius of simplicity."

Others, like Norman, wanted to remember Guthrie's contributions and their efforts resulted in the first Woody Guthrie Free Folk Festival in 1998. This year, the festival has added children's activities in the park and other outdoor performances at the "Pastures of Plenty" Amphitheater and campground. Between 3,000 and 4,000 people are expected. Browne's concert sold out in a matter of days, McCloud said .Organizers kept the appearance low-key so that those who wanted to attend the festival because of Guthrie could get first crack at th etickets, he said. "It also gave people around the country the same opportunity to get the tickets," McCloud said. The tickets were only announced on the group's Web site, he said.

On Thursday, at least eight groups are slated to perform at the amphitheater, including the Red Dirt Rangers, Barton & Sweeney and Michael Fracasso. DoublnotSpyz, Tom Skinner and Ellis Paul are among those performing Friday. Seeger and his grandson, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, will join Arlo Guthrie on Saturday. Seeger and his grandson will perform at the special benefit concert Sunday to raise money for the Oklahoma chapter of the Huntington Disease Society of America.

KOTV Channel 6 is a proud sponsor of the festival. For more information, go to the Woody Guthrie Free Folk Festival web site for a complete schedule.