Coming Home: The Woody Guthrie Center Opens In Tulsa | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio
Filed Under:

Coming Home: The Woody Guthrie Center Opens In Tulsa

Play associated audio

Woody Guthrie's relationship with his home state has always been complicated. The singer-songwriter left Oklahoma and traveled the nation, composing some of the best-known songs of his time and ours. But to many in the state, his progressive political views did not fit with a strong conservative streak during the Cold War period. His reputation there is now closer to a full restoration as Oklahoma opens his archives.

The Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa owes its existence to the rediscovery of a grave. Several years ago, out of the blue, his daughter, Nora Guthrie, received a telephone call from a nurse who had worked at the State Hospital for the Insane in Norman, Okla., where Woody Guthrie's mother spent the last three years of her life. The nurse told Nora where to find the plot.

"It was a very moving experience for me," Nora Guthrie says. "I was able to call my aunt, Mary Jo, who lives here in Oklahoma — Woody's little sister — and they were able to have a formal service at her grave site."

Culturally Communist

Nora had overseen her father's collection in Mount Kisco, N.Y., since before the archives opened in the 1990s. More than 10,000 items — including typed song lyrics, scribbled notes, illustrations for children's songs, recordings, photos and sketches that he used in his autobiography, Bound for Glory -- are all now housed at the new center in Tulsa.

Tiffany Colannino is an archivist for the Woody Guthrie Foundation. She stands near a curved wall of etched 8-by-10 metal plates containing some of Guthrie's drawings.

"And if we look at one or two in particular, we see off the bat a lot of artwork from Bound for Glory. But we also see some political cartoons," Colannino says, pointing. " 'I'm too sober to foreclose on a widow' — cartoons that appeared in the '30s in LA when he was a journalist writing for Los Angeles newspapers."

Woody Guthrie's support for the downtrodden in his songs, along with his regular column in the Communist newspaper The Daily Worker, did not endear him to many back home. But the Oklahoma Historical Society's Bob Blackburn downplays Guthrie's leftist leanings.

"Well, a lot of people identified him with the Communist movement of the 1950s ... yet he was on the fringe of the cultural part of it, but never on the political side," Blackburn says.

Recognizing The Roots

It wasn't until the 1990s that his hometown of Okemah fully embraced its most famous son with a folk festival on his birthday. Then, in 2011, Oklahoma's George Kaiser Family Foundation, as part of its efforts to bring the state's history back home, purchased the archives.

"My mom had preserved everything and packed everything up in boxes when my dad died," Nora Guthrie says. "And she had always had this dream of, wouldn't it be nice if there was a place. ... I mean, she didn't dream it would be like this, 'cause this is pretty classy, you know, high-techy stuff."

The 12,000-square-foot facility sits on a corner of an arts district in an area of Tulsa that itself was disparaged but is now experiencing its own renaissance. The centerpiece inside the Woody Guthrie Center is a special glass case holding the handwritten version of "This Land Is Your Land," which up until now was generally unavailable for public view. A few steps away, a concrete-walled room contains the material Nora Guthrie had supervised in New York, all carefully cataloged and preserved.

It's surprising that recorded works make up only a small part of the collection. More than 5,000 pages of unpublished Woody Guthrie manuscript material sits on the gray shelves, with his painted and decorated notebooks, in which typed lyrics are pasted on the pages. For Nora Guthrie, the return of these significant works by her father to his home state is more than a restoration of Woody Guthrie's reputation in Oklahoma. It's recognition of his roots.

"It's just kind of like a pebble that goes and the ripples just keep going out and out and out as he traveled around," Nora Guthrie says. "But the actual foundation of who he is and what he cared about began here in Oklahoma, and I think that says a lot about the state itself. "

Oklahomans can now make up their own minds about their feelings toward the worker's friend who spent his life chronicling theirs.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

'Little House,' Big Demand: Never Underestimate Laura Ingalls Wilder

Wilder's memoir reveals that she witnessed more violence than you'd ever know from her children's books. The South Dakota State Historical Society can barely keep up with demand for the autobiography.
NPR

Coffee Horror: Parody Pokes At Environmental Absurdity Of K-Cups

The market for single-serving coffee pods is dominated by Keurig's K-Cups. But they aren't recyclable, and critics say that's making a monster of an environmental mess. Meet the K-Cup Godzilla.
NPR

Insurance Choices Dwindle In Rural California As Blue Shield Pulls Back

When Blue Shield Of California stopped selling individual health policies in many zip codes in 2014, even insurance agents were surprised. Blue Shield says it dropped out to keep premiums low.
NPR

Charles Townes, Laser Inventor, Black Hole Discoverer, Dies At 99

Physicist Charles Townes died Tuesday. He was a key inventor of the laser and won the Nobel Prize for his discovery in 1964. But his career didn't end there.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.