Woody Guthrie’s relationship with his home state has always been complicated. The singer-songwriter left dust bowl 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, but his reputation is now closer to a full restoration as Tulsa prepares to host his archives.
“A lot of people identified him with the Communist movement of the 1950s, when yet, he was on the fringe of the cultural part of it, but never on the political side,” according to Dr. Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society.
The re-connection between Guthrie and his home state came from a telephone call Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter, received from a nurse in Norman, Okla. who worked at the hospital where her grandmother died.
“We had never known all these years where her gravesite was,” Nora said. “So it was kind of through all of this stuff that happened with Woody that I was able to locate my grandmother’s grave.”
Nora is the also the president of The Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives in New York. She said her visit to Oklahoma to find her grandmother’s grave eventually helped lead to the acquisition of Woody’s archives by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, and the creation of a new home for her father’s work.
“My mom had preserved everything and packed everything up in boxes when my dad died,” Nora said. “And she had always had this dream of wouldn’t 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 Woody Guthrie Center
The Woody Guthrie Center’s 12,000-square-foot facility features high-tech, interactive exhibits on the life, music and art of the troubadour of America during the 1930s into the ‘60s.
The centerpiece of the facility is dedicated to the handwritten version of the song “This Land Is Your Land,” which up until now was generally unavailable for public view.
Surrounding the display of the landmark song is a curved wall covered with metal plates etched with a drawing or lyric by the artist.
Many of the drawings are art from Guthrie’s Bound for Glory, but there are also illustrations for his children’s songs and political cartoons. And there are hand written lyrics of his songs.
The original drawings and thousands of pages of unpublished Woody Guthrie material, along with other archives, are housed in a special archive space in the center.
The concrete-walled room has 15-foot ceilings and rows of 9-foot tall movable shelves, loaded with more than 10,000 items of primary and secondary source materials.
When Woody Guthrie Foundation archivist Tiffany Colannino pulls one of Guthrie’s original notebooks out of a protective box, its creativity leaps from the pages.
“There is a real intensity to it,” Ken Levit, executive director of the George Kaiser Family Foundation, said. “It just kind of screams out at you with color and thoughts and complexity… it’s very striking.”
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 affect on the world and 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 said. “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. ”
More Than Artifacts
The Woody Guthrie Center also has an area on the Dust Bowl, believed to be the only permanent exhibit dedicated to the environmental disaster in Oklahoma.
“This is more than just a collection of Woody Guthrie memorabilia,” said executive director Deanna McCloud. “It’s an educational center that will serve as an inspiration for visitors and a venue through which to share his legacy with the world,” said executive director Deanna McCloud.
The Woody Guthrie Archives along with the Los Angeles-based GRAMMY Museum will help operate the center.
In 2012, The GRAMMY Museum and Woody Guthrie Publications hosted one of the largest centennial celebrations ever for an American music icon, The Woody Guthrie Centennial Celebration.