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