The day was gray and chilly but the crowd was warm and enthusiastic. It was April 27, opening day of the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa’s Brady District. Tulsa’s Mayor Dewey Bartlett spoke; Ken Levit, executive director of the George Kaiser Family Foundation (a major contributor to the project) spoke; Bob Santelli, executive director of the Los Angeles-based GRAMMY Museum spoke. But it was the tiny figure of Woody’s daughter Nora that brought the crowd to its feet.
“It was my mothers’ dream that Woody’s music would be collected in one place,” she told the audience. Nora has been instrumental in preserving the preponderance of manuscripts, drawings and artifacts that are now housed in the combination museum/archives.
Born in Okemah in 1912, Woody was a travelin’ man — seeing the country from coast to coast and parts of Europe as he served his country in World War II. On this day, Nora passed Woody’s legacy to the Woody Guthrie Center and executive director Deana McCloud, saying, “Here we are. Here he is — back with you. I’ve been a foster parent for a long time and now it’s time for him to come home.” Turning to Deana, she added, “Good luck with the guy — he’s a handful!”
The museum is not large but it is packed with information. Using the latest technology, exhibits have layers upon layers of material.
The first display is an interactive map of the United States. Touching one of the moving icons pulled up a photo and information on a location and its importance in Woody’s travels. Tabs on the item allows the visitor to access information under “Trail of the Times” and “Musical Markers.” For example, one touch brought me to “Columbia River — Portland, Ore.”
The time was 1941. The Grand Coulee Dam was under construction. Begun in 1933, it was close to completion. A film was being made documenting the building of what was then the largest hydroelectric power station in the United States. Woody, under contract to the Bonneville Power Administration, wrote a collection of 26 songs — Columbia River Songs — commemorating and celebrating this achievement.
Touching the Trail of the Times tab, I accessed information about the Dust Bowl that had affected the Midwest in the decade of the 1930s. The “Musical Markers” introduced me to Cisco Houston, a close friend who performed with Woody on many occasions. And that was just one icon. There are many on the map.
A number of listening stations are scattered throughout the museum. My hour-and-a-half visit was cursory — to really do the museum and Woody justice, plan to spend several hours.
Another section of the museum is devoted to the Dust Bowl. From 1929 until 1937, Woody lived in Pampa, Texas, in the heart of the hard-hit area. Exhibits in this section include clips from the PBS mini-series “The Dust Bowl.”
Traveling to California, penniless, Woody hitch-hiked, hopped trains and walked. Along the way, he picked up small change painting signs or playing his guitar in bars.
In California, he managed to land a job at a radio station singing “old-time” songs and some original music. He attracted a large following from the Dust Bowl refugee population and often visited the migrant worker camps. He added social commentary to his program, speaking out against economic injustice and corporate greed and for human dignity, immigration reform, union rights and the preservation of natural resources. This was the start of his eminence as a voice for the voiceless.
Other displays include a timeline of Woody’s life and his legacy. A video, “Following in Woody’s Footsteps,” highlights musicians and groups influenced by Guthrie.
The premier exhibit in the museum is the original manuscript of “This Land Is Your Land.” The first thing that struck me was Woody’s beautiful penmanship. The lyrics were Woody’s — he set his words to an existing tune. This original manuscript also contains verses that are almost never heard.
In this area, too, is a video with clips of more than two dozen artists singing this song, which many think should be our national anthem. In addition to singers like Glen Campbell, Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen and Andy Williams, there are several renditions by artists from other countries including one in German.
Woody’s mandolin and the fiddle he carried with him during World War II are on display. Around the walls are examples of his artwork ranging from political cartoons to a portrait of Abraham Lincoln.
Guthrie died too young, a victim of Huntington’s disease, which also had claimed his mother. He was a prophet of his times — and of ours. John Steinbeck once wrote, “… there is nothing sweet about Woody and there is nothing sweet about the songs he sings. But there is something important for those who still listen. There is the will of a people to endure and fight against oppression. I think we call this the American spirit.”
The Woody Guthrie Center is open Tuesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and is open until 9 p.m. on the first Friday of the month. Admission is $8 for adults with reductions for seniors, college students with ID and military personnel. Children under 5 are admitted free. The museum is at 102 E. Brady, across the street from Guthrie Green.
ELAINE WARNER is a travel writer from Edmond.