Woody Guthrie's home town is divided on paying him homage

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Okemah, Okla.
December 14, 1972

Out on the eastern edge of this little farming and ranching town, where the streets run to yellow clay and the yards are littered with broken-down cars on cinder blocks, there is a crumbling hillside shack with a high porch that commands the best view in Okemah.
A person can stand on this porch and take in a lot of what Oklahoma is all about -- oil pumps rhythmically nodding like so many giant praying mantises, fat Black Angus cattle grazing in a pasture of frost-crumpled prairie grass, and wind, always the wind, rattling willows down in the bottom, flapping blue denim overalls on a galvanized line, kicking up a puff of dust on a distant tabletop butte.

Inside the old shack, there are four dank and empty rooms. The light is bad, but even in the semidarkness, the graffiti can be read:

"Hey, hey, Woody Guthrie, I wrote on your wall."
"... and Woody, no one even cared."

Not until recently, anyway.

Now, however, five years after he died at the age of 55 and his ashes were scattered over the Atlantic, Woody Guthrie is suddenly the talk of Okemah (pronounced Oh-KEE-Muh).

Some of the town's 3000 residents have decided it is time to honor him as a native son who became the balladeer of the Depression and Dust Bowl by writing 1000 heartfelt American folk songs, among them "This Land Is Your Land" and "So Long, It's Been Good To Know You."

Other residents are opposed to granting any honors because they remember Woody Guthrie as a left-winger who betrayed the conservatism of rural, east-central Oklahoma and wrote a newspaper column for the American Communist party.

Thus far, supporters of the dusty-voiced singer have managed to get "Home of Woody Guthrie" painted on one of the town's water tanks. They also have persuaded the local library to accept a collection of his records and books.

But the town is still holding out on the ultimate Guthrie honor -- an annual Woody Guthrie day.

"Commemoration just isn't justified because of Guthrie's Communist affiliation, whether he was active or duped," says Allison Kelly, a banker.

"Commemoration is justified because Woody was a great musician and a great individualist who nobody ever proved was a Communist," counters Earl Walker, a petroleum company owner who recently bought the old Guthrie house from another family for $7000 and hopes to turn it into a "living memorial" run by a nonprofit foundation.

Such give-and-take has caused memories of Woody to flood back in Okemah.
Suddenly, those who knew him and those who did not seem to remember the wiry, curly-haired boy who "blew out" of here at the age of 15, memories of the panoramic view from that high porch imbedded deeply in his psyche, battered guitar slung across his back, "bound for glory, bound to win," as he put it.
Suddenly everyone seems to recall how Woody used to swing up on red-balling freights to escape railroad yard "bulls," how he joined with other Dust Bowl migrants to pick the grapes of wrath in California, how he used to sing out for the laboring man to "take it easy, but take it."

And of course everyone suddenly remembers that he wrote that column after his surfeit of social impatience boiled over.

Were it not for Earl Walker, the memories might have lain dormant.
But Mr. Walker is a staunch Guthrie fan, and he has pushed repeatedly for some sort of recognition.
For instance, he led the drive to have the water tank painted. (The two other towers already were labeled "hot" and "cold;" an indication that the water board does not always toe the conservative line that cuts through rural Oklahoma.)

Already some people are speaking out against the new paint job, done in black against a bright yellow background. Says a service station operator: "Woody was no good. About half the town feels that way. I knew him, went to school with him, used to whup him. He doesn't deserve to have his name up there."

Before persuading the water board to act, Mr. Walker joined with some of Woody's second cousins -- the only kin left here -- and led the fight that forced the local library to accept the collection of Guthrie records and books.
Initially the library board flatly refused, relenting only in the face of Mr. Walker's pressure and when Woody's widow, Marjorie, and his son, Arlo, also a folk singer, showed up in Okemah to hand over the gift in person.

Mr. Walker and his followers are now pushing for a Woody Guthrie Day.
"We'll get something through sooner or later, but there's no question that some people still don't fully accept Woody," says J. O. Smith, a hardware store owner.
One of those people is Mr. Smith's son, Mac, owner of a variety store. He says:
"We can honor him in some manner, O. K. But he did have that affiliation and we ought not to go hog-wild by painting his name all over the place."
Mr. Smith, who sells records, says he has never had a request for anything by Woody Guthrie despite the current furor over the singer.

The older folks around here are still trying to forget many of the things he sang about -- the Depression and the Dust Bowl days, when half the town left, not bound for glory but simply searching for a place where there was money and topsoil.

Okemah's youngsters prefer to listen to the Top 40 out of Tulsa and Oklahoma City, where the disk jockeys play the Three Dog Night, the Rolling Stones, and, of course, Merle Haggard, a country and Western singer who put nearby Muskogee on the musical map by celebrating its supposedly upright Oklahoma ways in song.

"I know people around here say Woody Guthrie did some bad things, but about all I know about his songs is that he wrote 'This Land Is Your Land,'" says 14-year-old Marilyn Jones. She is standing in front of Powers TV on Broadway, staring at a display of guitars.

There are, nevertheless, usually a few youngsters in town who know all about Woody's songs.
They come by foot, by car, and by motorbike, one and two at a time, packs and guitars on their backs.
Somehow, they always find their way to the old Guthrie house, though they seldom ask directions from the local populace.
Then, they climb the rickety stairs, take in the view from the high porch, perhaps smoke a little grass, leave their respects on a wall and depart.

"Jai B" dropped by on 5/19/72. He wrote:

Going down that hot dusty road
Okie wind was ablowin'.
I passed your only childhood home
And Woody, I'm aknowin'.
Well, Woody, I finally made it.
Woody, I'm finally here.
Woody, I finally made it.
And Woody, no one even cared.

NEW YORK TIMES, Dec 14, 1972; reprinted in Gene Roberts & David R. Jones (eds.), Assignment America, New York, NY, 1974, pp. 124-126.


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