They say that you should never follow a girl, but I did. I followed an Oklahoma peach to Oklahoma. She lured me out of the Great White North with smiles and curly hair, yodeling verses from Annie Get Your Gun and Oklahoma!. She could do the best “Yeeow! Ayipioeeay!” I ever heard. So I married her and moved to Tulsa.
Which is where I discovered Woody Guthrie, browsing at a Best Buy. Flipping through the bins, I found Dust Bowl Ballads, with a yellow sticker on the front saying that the album had inspired Bruce Springsteen. Being from Nebraska, and believing Springsteen’s Nebraska to be his best album ever, I bought it.
Maybe it was the flawed logic, but I was disappointed. I was fully expecting a deep, dusty, crusty voice singing about the perils of the 1930s. Instead, someone who sounded like Kermit the Frog rambled on about old jalopies and the Do Re Mi.
But I kept listening … to the words.
A few months later I went back to Best Buy. This time I picked up ’Til We Outnumber ’Em, a compilation of performances at Woody’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. The album was full of the Guthrie-inspired—Springsteen, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Billy Bragg, Indigo Girls, Ani DiFranco, and Woody’s son, Arlo. The album made me jump inside. Again, it was the words.
Apparently every child in Oklahoma learns the song “This Land Is Your Land” in grade school. I learned it at age 26. Instead of singing it in kindergarten circles, I sang it to the windshield on road trips to Pawhuska to see the buffalo roam. It’s the kind of music that sticks to your ribs.
A year or so later, I read about the annual Free Folk Festival, held every year in Guthrie’s hometown of Okemah. Once my finger found it on the map, I committed to making the trip, the pull of spontaneity tugging at me.
There are a couple of ways to get to Okemah from Tulsa. Using the turnpike, you’re there in an hour and fifteen and the world goes by in a flash. Pass the popcorn. But the Free Folk Festival celebrates a rambler, a wanderer, a traveler, so I opted for the back roads.
County-road-this and gravel-road-that will get you there all the same, but with scenery to chew. Rolling fields of high grass turn to scrub oaks and backwater creeks. I zoomed past a whitewashed church compound with barefoot kids and a hand written “REVIVAL” sign and an arrow pointing the way. The kind of place where Steinbeck’s Jim Casy might have preached.
Over the miles, gray concrete and highway stripes gave way to unmarked faded blacktop. Up and around and over the contours of these Oklahoma hills where he was born. I forded a bridge over the reddest river I’d ever seen. I pulled over and stopped the engine and listened, instead, to the thrum of locusts and cicadas, their wings throbbing like twin propellers. I walked the bridge under a blazing sun and watched snapping turtles wade in while moccasins slid out and across the hard red banks. The entire place breathed quietly.
The Oklahoma countryside can be as distant as New Delhi. If you miss your turn off you could end up at an illegal cockfight, a hand-fishin’ competition, or in a black rodeo town where cowboys go flying off bulls and flop onto hot dirt. I was discovering what it meant to wander.
After all of that, Okemah was a let down, the sun-baked streets and neon Sonic signs blurring my focus.
A coat of fresh paint wouldn’t have done any good. This town, home of the world’s greatest hobo, was a dud. But, I quickly learned, the festival is about folks, not façades.
Over the next few days, I sat in those basement bars and in the tent city campground at night and became inspired by the spirit of the place. I am not a musician, but I shared in the celebration of one. The singing, the playing, the sweat and the smiles, all in harmony.
I’d never witnessed a hootenanny, and Sunday morning was as good an initiation as any. The rickety Crystal Theater, circa 1917, ushered in a bleary-eyed crowd. The bands belted out union songs and folk ballads and we all cheered for more. Church never sounded so redeeming.
In San Francisco Bay, where I currently reside, churches have been replaced by vegan, soul-food Sunday brunches. We have the grand old theaters with their requisite revelry, but we fill them up with flying hermaphrodites and DJ tables. Our most popular bluegrass band is called Sexfist. The hipsters tell us what is hella cool and what is hella sketch. Mark Twain and Jack London would have thought they had landed on Mars.
Whatever folk spirit San Franciso had has flown. The wanderers and ramblers who flooded this bay in the Fifties and Sixties have turned into Berkeley elites and thought police. Rich kids from Marin County come down to Haight-Ashbury to beg and sleep on the streets for jollies. Woody sang about real life, hard life, not the fabricated kind. I can only imagine the song he would write about 21st- century California.
Before I left Tulsa, I paid homage to Woody. I was at a Brookside house party, drinking ale with corporate 30-somethings. As the party roared on, I grabbed a guitar idling in a corner of the room. Woody made it easy for folks by using folk chords—G, D, A7, G, D, A7—and I began to strum and sing the chorus to “This Land Is Your Land.” The room joined in, glasses raised. I strummed, we sang, the magic happened. The classroom classic had transcended the ages and the urban pursuits. They sang the words—the familiar first chorus, anyway—maybe oblivious to the Okie who’d written it.