The Woody Guthrie Center is Made for You and Me

May Bell 1930s guitar owned by Woody Guthrie at the Guthrie Center in Tulsa OK (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Found in a Seattle thrift store, this May Bell 1930s guitar was one of the few proven to be owned by Woody Guthrie. On display at the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa OK (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

The story of singer-songwriter Woodrow Wilson (Woody) Guthrie is such a perfectly American story.

Born in a small town in Oklahoma, wandered west to California, ended up in New York City, befriended people from all walks of life, wrote thousands of iconic American folk songs in plain yet evocative language that brought people together, then left us much too soon as an incurable neurological disease….Huntington’s….slowly took away his bright brain and personality.

When you visit the treasure trove of history and artifacts that fill the Woody Guthrie Center in downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma, I guarantee you’ll say at least once, “Wow, I had no idea.”

Mural and entrance to the Woody Guthrie Center in downtown Tulsa Oklahoma (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Mural and entrance to the Woody Guthrie Center in downtown Tulsa Oklahoma (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

I had heard that in some parts of Oklahoma, given a generally conservative strain of politics, there may have been some reluctance to fully embrace the legacy of this native son. He was a rather radical thinker who rejected racism and was startlingly truthful about inequality and injustice.

You will find no such reluctance at the Woody Guthrie Center, which states clearly on its website,

“The Woody Guthrie Center is dedicated to spreading Woody’s message of diversity, equality, and social justice. In today’s world, where it seems intolerance, bigotry, and violence are on the rise, it’s an honor to share a positive message that uplifts the spirit and creates its own ripples of change in our world.”

In the middle of the Center, preserved behind glass and bathed in low light, are the handwritten lyrics to Woody’s American classic, This Land Is Your Land. He somewhat sarcastically subtitled it God Blessed America for Me because he was tired of hearing Kate Smith’s blaring version of Irving Berlin’s God Bless America on the radio.

Portion of the lyrics to This Land is Your Land song at the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa Oklahoma (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Portion of the lyrics to “This Land Is Your Land” song at the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa Oklahoma (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

A walk through the Center’s interactive exhibits and artifacts will take longer than you’d think, because you’ll keep finding things that make you pause and say, “Well, I’ve got to look at this….or listen to this….”

Listen to Woody Guthrie's music in his own voice at the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa OK (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Listen to Woody Guthrie’s music in his own voice at the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa OK (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

There are archives and a research area for scholars, special traveling exhibits, interactive maps, a Music Bar with recordings, a Dust Bowl section that will give you such an appreciation for that horrific period of history, background information on artists inspired by Woody, and so much more.

Woody Guthrie illustrations for a book of Hanukkah songs for his Jewish mother-in-law (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Woody Guthrie’s doodles & drawings are all over the Center – here are illustrations in India ink for a book of Hanukkah songs & poems owned by his Jewish mother-in-law (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

How about Woody’s personal address book, with two titans of American music stacked right on top of each other?

Woody Guthrie's address book L section had both bluesman Leadbelly and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax (photo taken at the Woody Guthrie Center by Sheila Scarborough)

Woody Guthrie’s address book had both bluesman Huddie Ledbetter aka Lead Belly, and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax in the “L” section (photo taken at the Woody Guthrie Center by Sheila Scarborough)

What really stopped me in my tracks was a chance sighting of the word “Trump” in a lyrics book on display.

Could I have really seen that? I backed up to look.

Yes, there it was.

Woody’s landlord when he lived in Brooklyn’s Beach Haven apartment buildings was none other than Donald Trump’s father, Fred Trump.

Woody did not like him at all; he felt that Trump stirred up racial hatred among tenants and did not rent fairly, regardless of skin color. He said in a poem,

“My worst enemy is my landlord that tries his best to make me and my family to live a life of race hate because he so sickly chose to live his own sad life that way….”

Being Woody, he turned it into a song, Beach Haven Ain’t My Home

Handwritten lyrics to Beach Haven Aint My Home by Woody Guthrie (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Handwritten lyrics to “Beach Haven Ain’t My Home” by Woody Guthrie, with references to his landlord Fred Trump (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

It is indeed a small world, isn’t it?

The story of Woody’s later years and his struggle with Huntington’s is full of poignant moments, as his family (including Alice’s Restaurant‘s Arlo Guthrie, his son, as a child) visited on Sundays to try to bring some normalcy into Woody’s routine.

The sad gray institutional T-shirt on display fits the topic.

T-shirt from where Woody was institutionalized with Huntington's disease shown at the Woody Guthrie Center Tulsa OK (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

T-shirt from hospital where Woody was institutionalized with Huntington’s disease, in what he called “Wardy Forty.” Shirt is on display at the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa OK (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Woody Guthrie’s creativity, artistic talents, and commitment to truth as he saw it have never been more timely.

The words he scratched on his guitar are now a sticker in the Center’s gift shop. Yes, music and the arts can still send clear messages that challenge and destroy authoritarianism, cruelty, and injustice….

This Machine Kills Fascists sticker in honor of the words on Woody Guthrie's guitar (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

“This Machine Kills Fascists” sticker in honor of the same words scratched onto Woody Guthrie’s guitar (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Thank you, Woody Guthrie, for showing that one can love one’s country and be proud of it, but that includes expecting the nation to live up to its own lofty ideals and treat its people humanely and with respect.

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