There’s a few things you can count on in central Oklahoma this time of year. The temperatures are going to be hot, the weather is going to be unpredictable and a small town east of Oklahoma City is going to increase it’s population exponentially. Every year since 1997, the town of Okemah has played host to some of the world’s finest singer-songwriters gathered to celebrate the life and music of Woody Guthrie. The Woody Guthrie Folk Festival happens every year on the weekend closest to Guthrie’s birthday here in his birthplace. Last year’s festival was my first time attending, and one of my favorite music experiences to date. It’s a special event in every sense of the word, and one I was eagerly anticipating this year. Well, as we all know, 2020 has certainly wreaked its havoc on the live music world, and the 23rd annual WoodyFest was unfortunately not immune. Faced with the uncertainties brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Woody Guthrie Coalition made the wise decision to present the 2020 WoodyFest virtually and free for all.
Things kicked off this past Tuesday July 14th, which would have been Woody’s 108th birthday, and what a celebration it was. The Woody Guthrie Coalition President Randy Norman opened things from the historic Crystal Theatre in downtown Okemah. Norman spoke of the tough decisions that led to the virtual fest out of concern for the community, artists and ultimately the fans. The evening’s host was none other than Woody’s granddaughter Sarah Lee Guthrie, and featured a mix of performances pre-recorded specifically for the event, as well as festival archival footage. With the evening’s first song, Guthrie introduced “Covid Refugee” an updated version of Woody’s song “Dustbowl Refugee,” co-written with Mike Merenda of the Hudson Valley band, The Mammals. Next, from the deserts of Terlingua, TX, we had the incomparable Butch Hancock, followed by the poetic Austin songwriter Sam Baker. Okemah native John Fullbright followed with a stunning rendition of “Stars” from last year’s festival.
My favorite discovery of 2019’s festival, Radoslav Lorkovic was up next on the piano with “Tallest Tree” dedicated to the one and only Bob Childers, and followed by a beautiful new song. It seems I’m going to be impressed by Lorkovic each and every time. Woody’s daughter Nora followed with warm greetings and setting the stage for Woody’s great-grandaughter Serena Guthrie and her enchanting song “Day By Day,” which was one of my favorite songs of the night. The Burns Sisters were up next with a 2019 festival performance from the Crystal Theatre, followed by a fiery pair of songs from none other than inaugural festival veterans The Red Dirt Rangers. Keeping with the Guthrie theme, Annie Guthrie was next with “Something On My Mind,” followed by a Randy Crouch performance and another from original festival alum, Ellis Paul. Woody’s grandson, Krishna and The Krishna Guthrie Band kicked things up a bit with their eclectic electric jamming, with songs from the unparalleled Terry ‘Buffalo” Ware and TZ Wright following.
Monica Taylor and Travis Fite came up next with Billy Bragg/Woody Guthrie song “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key” and a great new song, “Rescues,” from Taylor’s new album due this fall. Folk Uke, featuring Cathy Guthrie and Amy Nelson were represented with with a stunning version of “California Stars” from the 2017 fest. Any celebration of Guthrie would somehow feel incomplete without maestro David Amram. With greetings and performing, a jazzy rendition of Guthrie’s “Pastures Of Plenty,” Amram provided another memorable highlight. Woody’s grandson, Cole Quest and the City Pickers delivered a lively and timely rendition of John Prine’s “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” followed by the Brazilian bossa nova sounds of “When It Happens” from OKC’s Miss Brown to You featuring Mary Reynolds and Louise Goldberg. Another inaugural festival performer, Joel Rafael was next with “A Rambling Reckless Hobo” which Guthrie wrote lyrics for, and Rafael composed the music. Rafael’s next song, Guthrie’s “Love Thy Self” was dedicated to the hard working festival volunteers. As the evening’s entertainment came near it’s end, there was a lovely tribute to Mary Jo Guthrie-Edgmon, Woody’s sister, who passed prior to the 2019 festival and was followed by Billy Bragg/Woody Guthrie’s “Birds and Ships” lovingly performed by Sarah Lee Guthrie. Finally, Arlo Guthrie’s performance of “Los Angeles” and the final group sing-a-long of “This Land Is Your Land” from last year’s festival.
The 2020 Woody Guthrie Festival continues its virtual celebration this Saturday, July 18th at 2pm with workshops and panels followed by music starting at 7pm hosted by Jaimee Harris featuring Graham Nash, BJ Barham, Carter Sampson and many more. Sunday will close out this year’s festival, beginning at 2pm and hosted by Terry “Buffalo” Ware and featuring The Red Dirt Rangers, Joel Rafael, Jacob Tovar, Peggy Johnson, Ali Harter) and many, many more. The Festival will be accepting donations via a virtual tip jar with a portion going to Red Dirt Relief Fund and The Huntington’s Disease Society of America.
Visit the official Woody Guthrie Festival website for schedules, options to stream, merchandise and more information here: https://www.woodyfest.com/
A replay of this first night can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G8P2ZoMCZ-I