Woody Guthrie to be honored by hometown after decades as black sheep


Ash Grove List Woody Guthrie to be honored by hometown after decades as black sheep

On Behalf Of Rick Kissell Sent: Monday, September 16, 2013 10:04 AM http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/14/woody-guthrie-home-rebuilt-oklahoma/print

Woody Guthrie to be honored by hometown after decades as black sheep Plans to rebuild folk singer’s home under way as part of tourism push by Okemah, Oklahoma. When Woody Guthrie’s dilapidated boyhood home was ordered torn down in the late 1970s, the demolition reflected the strained relationship between conservative Oklahoma and the native son who became famous for his folk singing and leftist politics.

Those tensions persisted for more than a generation, but attitudes about Guthrie have slowly softened. Now developers, working with the blessing of Guthrie’s relatives, have announced plans to rebuild his 1860s-era boyhood home in Okemah, a time-worn town of 3,300 people that is desperately seeking tourism dollars.

“If you were to put a Mount Rushmore of American music here in the midwest, the first two artists on it would be Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie,” said Johnny Buschardt, a spokesman for the project. “Without Woody, there wouldn’t be a Bob Dylan or a Bruce Springsteen.” Best known for the song This Land is Your Land, Guthrie came of age during the Great Depression and later embraced left-wing politics, including some tenets of communism. By weaving social issues into his music, he reimagined folk songs as platforms for protest, starting a creative tradition carried on by scores of other top artists.

In hundreds of folk songs and ballads, Guthrie’s lyrics celebrated American workers, lamented the woes of the poor and advocated for civil rights. Although revered as one of the best songwriters in American history, he was rarely acknowledged, let alone honored, by his home state, even decades after his death. Some of his early songs, released as the Dust Bowl Ballads, depicted the plight of migrant workers who traveled from Oklahoma to California in the 30s.

Guthrie died in 1967 at age 55 in New York, from complications from Huntington’s disease, a genetic neurological disorder. “When I was going to school, it was almost like his name wasn’t supposed to be mentioned. And when it was brought up in class, the teacher would change the subject,” recalls resident Ric Denney, whose family has roots in the town dating to the 20s.

It took more than 30 years, but Okemah now celebrates Guthrie with an annual music festival that draws thousands of people from around the world. Tributes, such as a mural of Guthrie strumming his guitar on a downtown building, are commonplace. Other parts of Oklahoma are honoring him, too: in April, a 12,000-square-foot museum showcasing his life’s work opened to much fanfare in downtown Tulsa. A community park across the street from the museum is called Guthrie Green.

The estimated $500,000 reconstruction of Guthrie’s childhood home will use original planks salvaged from the run-down property, called London House, which was purchased by a prominent local businessman named Earl Walker in the early 60s. Walker hoped he could eventually win support from town leaders to restore, arguing that it would promote Okemah, which lies about 60 miles south of Tulsa.

Instead, they ordered him to tear it down, declaring the property a public nuisance because it had become a place for teenagers to smoke and winos to pass out.

Walker complied, but he saved the lumber for when his neighbors would recognize Guthrie’s importance to the town. The bundle of preserved wood eventually ended up at the Okfuskee County History Center.

Today, all that remains of London House are a few blocks of sandstone foundation mostly obscured by tall weeds. A faded sign warns visitors against stealing the stones. London House is to be rebuilt on the lot, and project organizers want to make it look as much as possible like it did when Guthrie lived there.

At the historical center, board member Ron Gott is eager for work to finally begin after years of indifference or opposition from town leaders. “In the early 1970s and 80s, Woody was still a bad name among some residents,” Gott said. “You had some old-timers here in Okemah who were just against Woody, but there’s maybe a handful still alive.”

The town is “coming around,” he added. “Most people understand [the home is] a draw, something that is part of history.” Leann Priest, who has lived in Okemah since she was 14 and owns a house near the Guthrie parcel, said the ranks of those who despised the songwriter are thinning dramatically.

“There are still people in town that still believe he was a communist,” said Priest, who grew up listening to her dad and uncle sing Guthrie songs. “I don’t think he was. He was a man who stood up for everybody.” Linda Knebel, who has lived here for 22 years, said Guthrie “did a big thing for Okemah” and openly honoring him is the best way to return the favor.

“It was the old codgers who said that” about Guthrie, Knebel said. “I’m glad those thoughts are going away.” Organizers hope to raise money through donations and an October benefit concert in Tulsa, by singer Kris Kristofferson, among other events.

Construction is scheduled to end in May. Kansas-based project coordinator Dan Riedemann, who owns a company that restores celebrity properties, said the undertaking will preserve Oklahoma’s music royalty for future generations. “He’s their Elvis Presley, and this is their Graceland,” he said in a recent interview. Guthrie’s family members have also praised the plan. His granddaughter, Annie Hays Guthrie, who travels to Okemah every year, said she feels like a part of her has “come home”.