Woody Guthrie’s Disciples

by This Land


Jimmy LaFave discovered Woody Guthrie in high school—around the time he picked up his first pair of drumsticks (which he later traded for an acoustic guitar). He learned that the folk singer who inspired Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger, and whose “This Land is Your Land” had been implanted in him in elementary school, was from Okemah, only 70 or so miles from his Stillwater home. And so he started studying Guthrie’s words and music, making pilgrimages to Okemah, taking his place in the queue of Guthrie disciples that includes Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp, Bob Childers and Jeff Tweedy.

“I think any singer-songwriter is a disciple of Woody Guthrie,” LaFave said. “He was one of the first to write and sing his own songs.”

LaFave lived in Stillwater at a time when the place was something of a melting pot of American music — partly because students from all over the world were convening at Oklahoma State University and bringing their instruments with them. It was in this place, with artists like Childers, John Cooper, Brad Piccolo, Ben Han, and Tom Skinner, LaFave helped establish a new brand of music — Red Dirt, a combination of blues, folk, and rock ’n’ roll.

LaFave said Guthrie’s influence on the genre can be heard in the “three-chords-and-the-truth type of songwriters” like the Red Dirt Rangers, John Moreland, and Parker Millsap. “It comes out in their authenticity,” LaFave said. “They seem to stay in touch with the common man. They never seem to forget their roots. Woody never forgot about Oklahoma; he talked fondly about it.”

The other aspect of Guthrie’s life that appeals to LaFave is his wont to ramble.

“A lot of it is what also sparked my interest in Beat Generation — that sense of rambling around the USA, that sense of travel, of taking your guitar and traveling the rails,” he said. But LaFave always comes back to Oklahoma, at least once a year.

LaFave has been a mainstay at the annual Woody Guthrie Free Folk Festival in Okemah since he was invited to play that first event 17 years ago. Back then the entire festival could be contained in one or two rooms, but it’s grown to accommodate thousands of attendees — disciples of Woody Guthrie who convene in his hometown every year on or around the day of his birth, braving the July heat to celebrate and pay respects to the man and his music.

LaFave talked to This Land Editor Michael Mason last year about Woody Guthrie, the life of a modern-day troubadour, and that time he hitchhiked to Arkansas when he was 11.

Jimmy LaFave: I live in Austin, Texas, now, but I grew up in Oklahoma pretty much. I consider it my spiritual homeland here. I think everybody in my family pretty much still lives here but me.

Listen to this interview in its entirety and hear Jimmy sing a couple of tunes.

This Land: Any chance you’ll come back and call it home someday?

JL: I don’t know, but I’ve always been very attracted to Tulsa and moving back here. You know, I had a friend move back here a few years ago because we always would talk about it. It was kind of a bummer because she was always living my dream. I said, “Yeah, Tulsa. That would be a great place to live — we’re going to do it.” So, her and her husband packed up and did it, and then within a year they were like, “I moved back here because,” she goes, “the politics. I couldn’t deal with the red state politics.”

TL: There’s definitely that spirit of independence here in Oklahoma. Do you think that plays a factor in the kind of musical roots that we have here in Oklahoma?

JL: I think so. I think it’s just a great melting pot. Even geographically you get a lot of different music styles that converge here. I think part of the sad fact is that when people think of Oklahoma music, they think of Garth Brooks and, you know, Toby Keith. They don’t really think, well Leo Kottke was from Muskogee, and here’s Chet Baker, Woody Guthrie, and J.J. Cale — the people I think of (when I think of) Okie music — Jimmy Webb. In popular culture it’s just too much Brooks and Dunn, Toby Keith, Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire — you know, commercial country music.

TL: I publish a magazine called This Land, loosely derived from Woody Guthrie’s song “This Land is Your Land.” You have a song called “This Land” as well. Is that song your response to Woody Guthrie’s song?

JL: No, it’s more kind of inspired by Woody Guthrie. I think part of my attraction to Woody Guthrie is just all the places he went, the way he got the scope of the whole country, and just the traveling around and rambling around. He was always constantly on the move. That’s real common with all the musicians I admire. They had that sense of rambling.

TL: You suggest that travel is good for the soul. When did you start traveling?

JL: Pretty young. I mean, even when I lived in Dallas, I think I ran away from home when I was about 11 and hitchhiked to Arkansas.

TL: You what? At 11, you say?

JL: When I think about it now, it horrifies me to think my kid would, you know — not even that hitchhiking was that safe back then. I remember just hitchhiking to Little Rock and by then the police had been notified. And then I called home and I promised my dad I’d come home, but only if I could just hitchhike back home.

TL: I want to get this on the record. You’re an 11-year-old boy in Dallas? Is that what you said?

JL: It was me and my cousin. There were these girls that we kind of had our first crush on, and they had moved to Little Rock. I don’t even remember their names now, but we knew their address, so we thought we would just hitchhike and go up there and surprise them. It was in the summer. I had tied a string to my finger and kind of put the string out my window for my cousin to wake me up, and then I escaped out the window.

I remember the first ride was in this kind of Winnebago with these real hippies at that time. That was the first time I’d ever saw anyone smoke dope because they were all smoking dope. There was this other woman in there that was kind of a free love chick — she was up in that little loft up above — and for some reason two of the hippie guys got in an argument over her, and I don’t remember. I just remember they let us off at this interchange kind of in downtown Little Rock.

TL: So there are these two 11- to 12-year-old boys in the Texas night air, sticking their thumbs up by the side of the road, hitching a ride to Arkansas to find a couple of girls, right?

JL: When we got there, I think we actually ended up at their house and surprised them. I think it’s their parents (who) freaked. I just remember we kind of left the neighborhood and went to a pay phone.

TL: Is that America, where an 11-year-old boy could hitch hike to Arkansas, the one that you were singing about?

JL: Well, it was kind of a different America back then. I think every generation, you kind of long for just the simplicity. It seemed so much simpler then.

TL: I’m kind of curious about the working life of a musician. I was wondering if you could take us into kind of like a day in your life? What is the first thing that you do when you wake up in the morning?

JL: Well, like to come up to Tulsa and do a show like this — you know, you wake up and drive about eight hours. A lot of us always joke we do the gigs for free and we kind of get paid to travel. At this level, being a wandering troubadour, it’s just a lot of travel. It’s not the glamorous rock-and-roll lifestyle.

TL: Are you satisfied with the musician’s life?

JL: I love it. It’s just something that I would not ever quit. You know, it’s the story where the guy’s passing the circus and this guy’s shoveling the elephant dung. He’s, like, a local business owner, and after three or four days he sees the guy really is always just enjoying doing that. He goes, “Hey, you know, I own a drugstore and I can get you out of this shoveling elephant dung for the circus. You can come work at my drugstore and I can start you out in the stock room. You can work your way up and I’ll teach you how to be a pharmacist. Would you like to do that, young man?” And, he goes, ”What? And quit show business?!” That’s kind of amusing. So, it’s like when people think, really, you’re going to drive all the way St. Louis today? And then, it’s like, yeah. I love all of it.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed. Michael Mason conducted the interview. Elliot Rambach edited the audio version.

Originally published in This Land Vol. 5, Issue 13, July 1, 2014.