This weekend is the 20th annual Woody Guthrie Festival in his hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma. It’s a shoestring affair that’s held together solely by the fans and artists who worship him.
A handful of performances stand out from my four or five trips to there over the years: a late-night, outdoor version of “California Stars” by the Red Dirt Rangers after the first Wilco and Billy Bragg collection was released; countless soulful numbers by the late Jimmy LaFave, the festival’s primary artistic caregiver; and Sam Baker, his guitar and a lone accordian player inside a packed Crystal Theatre one hot Saturday afternoon.
Several high-profile disciples carry Woody’s torch, including Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez, Jackson Browne and John Mellencamp. Probably none are as politically and socially outspoken as the great Steve Earle. When I saw him perform the festival in about 2002, he told the audience he’d been wanting to play this song there ever since he wrote it.
“Come back Woody Guthrie, come back to us now. Tear your eyes from paradise and rise again somehow.”
Happy birthday, Woody.