The Oklahoma Daily: National, Local Artists Pay Tribute To Woody Guthrie At Tulsa Show

Westlee Parsons - The Oklahoma Daily

Walking through a dreary Brady Arts District in Tulsa transported me back to another time, and when I entered the theater, I was in an old opry that was filled to the brim with fans waiting patiently for a spectacular night to begin. There was no dress code. People were in their Sunday bests, torn up blue jeans and cowboy hats with starched Wranglers.

The audience was mostly made up of older folks, with a few college-age people scattered throughout the historical Brady Theater. There was not an empty seat in the house. To me, these people represented the people I grew up around: the people of Oklahoma. And they were ready to pay tribute to one of the state’s greatest artists, Woody Guthrie.

Ron Wallace, an Oklahoma poet, started the evening off by reading some of Guthrie’s own words. The reading set the red-dirt-Oklahoma-folk tone that would carry the audience through the rest of the evening.

Woody Guthrie’s son, Arlo Guthrie, kicked off the show with “Talking Dust Bowl Blues,” and everyone cheered and sang a long. Guthrie explained how his father would sing his songs sometimes by talking at you.

He then welcomed Old Crow Medicine Show to the stage. The band played their cover of Woody Guthrie’s “Union Maid,” which appears on its album “Big Iron World.” The big bluegrass band’s performance was a great rendition and energized the crowd.

Tim O’Brien, a country and bluegrass singer-songwriter from West Virginia joined the Old Crows on stage for Woody Guthrie’s “The Sun Jumped Up.”

The show continued on with Arlo Guthrie harmonizing with Hanson, the boy band behind songs such as “Mmmbop.” Jimmy LaFave and Rosanne Cash, Johnny Cash’s daughter, also took to the stage to pay homage to Woody Guthrie.

“Some rob you with six guns and some with fountain pens,” resonated throughout the theater while the crowd shouted amen to “Pretty Boy Floyd” lyrics.

With every act, I felt an overwhelming sense of pride that brought a smile to my face. Each act was a great tribute, and the crowds increasing applause confirmed they thought so too.

Jackson Browne and Tim O’Brien with The Del McCoury Band finished off the first half of the tribute to Guthrie and after a brief intermission, the second half began again with Wallace. This time the poet dedicated a plaque from The Grammy Museum to Guthrie’s hometown, Okemah. Every year this small Oklahoma town hosts the Annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival around Guthrie’s birthday in July.

Guthrie’s little sister, Mary Jo Guthrie Edgmon, came out on stage for the latter half of the dedication. She was beautifully adorned in a sparkling pink dress.

“I’m just breathless, and when I have nothing to say you better watch out,” she joked. Then in a poignant moment she said, “I probably know each one of you all indirectly.” It was the more moving part of the dedication.

The Flaming Lips took the stage after that for the worst performance of the evening. Four people with what seemed to be iPads accompanied Wayne Coyne as they played two Guthrie songs with reverberated microphones. This seemed a rude disturbance in the earthy, acoustic mood the tribute had.

Then, they played “Do You Realize,” and everyone under the age of forty swayed and hollered for it. It became the Flaming Lips show for 20 minutes with no tribute to Guthrie other than two distorted songs that were so abstract no one could tell what Guthrie songs they were.

Arlo Guthrie and his two sons took the stage to play a Leadbelly song, Leadbelly was a longtime friend to Guthrie. Arlo Guthrie then shared stories of his father. One of my favorite stories told how Guthrie wrote a song after reading “The Grapes of Wrath.” Soon after the song came out, he received a letter from John Steinbeck saying, “You little bastard, it took you 12 verses to say what took me an entire novel.” The audience roared in laughter.

John Mellencamp entered the stage, and the crowd went wild. He started off with “Oklahoma Hills,” which is my personal favorite.

Mellencamp told the crowd that creation is when something is taken from two or more sources and combined to make a song.

“I stole this one from Woody,” he said, and he then played the introduction for his song “Pink Houses,” which is a nod to Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”

There was no more space on the Brady Theater’s stage for the closing act, as every performer of the night came out to sing “This Land is Your Land.” Not a person in the audience was sitting down for this final number.

Guthrie’s legacy still is alive and well and has continued to inspire musicians. The Oklahoma native has touched all the people who took the stage in his honor. I walked out of the theater into the warm rain so full of pride.