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We Hear Him Sing
Thanks in part to the enduring impact of the Dust Bowl Troubadour, several talented young Oklahoma singer-songwriters are staking their musical claims here in their home state.
By PRESTON JONES
Published May/June 2012
Is Woody Guthrie still relevant?
It’s a provocative question and one that often elicits a knee-jerk “yes,” if only because the man—born a hundred years ago this July 14—and his songs still influence twenty-first-century culture at home and abroad.
But what about working Oklahoma musicians whose notion of Guthrie is for the most part historic? Do the man and his extensive body of work continue to have a tangible impact on them?
Never mind that Guthrie’s legacy within Oklahoma’s borders is an emotionally charged, complex thing, hidden away for years like an embarrassing family secret. The artist’s embrace of what were then considered fringe political beliefs did not endear him to the establishment at home and elsewhere, which effectively iced any statewide acknowledgement of him and his contributions.
But Oklahoma’s attitude toward the troubadour has thawed in recent decades and accelerated with the approach of his hundredth birthday. In 2004, a portrait by Miami native Charles Banks Wilson was hung in the State Capitol; the Brady Theater in Tulsa hosted a sold-out, star-studded concert in Guthrie’s honor in March; this year marks the fifteenth anniversary of a popular summer festival in his hometown of Okemah; and by the end of January 2013, his personal archives are to be relocated from New York state to Tulsa, where they will be displayed inside a renovated 15,000-square-foot building in the Brady District.
“People are now realizing that many of the things Woody said and did were true,” says Guy Logsdon of Tulsa, a Guthrie scholar. “That makes a big difference.”
Indeed, Logsdon says, several of the causes Guthrie championed—that workers should receive a living wage, be offered the opportunity to form or join a union, and work in safe and healthy conditions, for example—have come to pass over the years.
Even as the state has begun to fully embrace Guthrie, another class of promising young singer-songwriters including John Fullbright, Samantha Crain, J.D. McPherson, and the members of Green Corn Revival has begun to take center stage. Many acknowledge his influence even as they strive to carve out a creative path in the here and now.
Artists no longer engage most listeners with national radio broadcasts; now it’s Twitter feeds, Bandcamp pages, and house concerts that stoke word of mouth. The personal touch, entwined with electronic capabilities, has fueled the careers of a handful of roots-minded Oklahomans. Even with these new tools, the song is still king.
Broken Arrow-based J.D. McPherson, recently named one of five “artists to know” by National Public Radio, says, “As with any good songwriter, being timeless is about writing really good songs.”
Although he’s speaking of Guthrie, McPherson could just as easily be describing his own work and that of his contemporaries. His debut record, Signs & Signifiers, officially released on Rounder Records on April 17 and called “a rockin’, bluesy, forward-thinking album” by Allmusic.com, is rife with modern compositions rooted in song craft first practiced a half-century ago. If it ain’t broke, the saying goes, don’t fix it.
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