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Oklahoma Horizon TV Show 1533

This week on Oklahoma Horizon, we look at the life of Woody Guthrie, a man whose legacy was often overlooked because of his socialist leanings.
Oklahoma Horizon TV Show 1533

Oklahoma Horizon TV Show 1533

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Woody Guthrie Festival

AFR Insurance

Oklahoma Historical Society

City of Okemah

Show Details

Show 1533: Oklahoma Horizon TV
Air Date: August 16, 2015

 

Transcript

Rob McClendon: This week on “Oklahoma Horizon,” well, Oklahoma Republicans proudly proclaim the state as the reddest in the nation. In fact, during the last presidential election, not a single county voted Democratic, and Republicans made a clean sweep of statewide offices. So it may come as a bit of a surprise that Oklahoma has been a hot bed of socialism.

Kela Kelln gets all folksy on us and travels to the hometown of a man whose legacy was often overlooked due to his socialist leanings, but today is widely regarded as an Oklahoma treasure.

Terry Ware: Because everybody who comes here knows what a seminal figure he was as American music; he’s as important as anybody ever has been.

Rob: I’ll examine why things may have changed politically in the state, but they’ve also stayed the same.

But it’s my belief that agrarian conservative populism is a part of Oklahoma’s DNA and will be part of that forever.

Rob: And Lis Exon shows us why Okemah residents are warming up to their iconic hot and cold water towers. Stay with us for “Oklahoma Horizon.”

Male announcer: “Oklahoma Horizon” is made possible by the Oklahoma Department of Career and Technology Education.

Female announcer: Oklahoma’s investment in CareerTech provides more than nationally recognized technology education and training, it produces solid financial returns for the state’s economic future; Oklahoma CareerTech, elevating our economy.

Male announcer: And the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, helping good people grow good things. And now, from the CareerTech studios in Stillwater, here’s your host, Rob McClendon.

Rob McClendon: “This land is your land, this land is my land, this land was made for you and me,” words straight out of the beloved Woody Guthrie song that some have even suggested would be an appropriate, and easier sung, national anthem. Now, what is amazing about that song is that in reality it’s a protest song, written in reaction to the Great Depression when folks were unable to find work and were even going hungry. Now, in it, Woody Guthrie starts off by painting a pleasant picture about the United States of America as the land of opportunity, but towards the end of the song he starts to address real social issues. And it was this pointed political criticism that for decades had many people hold Woody Guthrie’s music at arm’s length, even his own hometown. Joining me now is our own Kela Kelln.

Kela Kelln: Well, Rob, today Okemah, Okla., has embraced Woody Guthrie as a favorite son, not always for his politics, but certainly for his music, which brings folk music enthusiasts from around the world to the small town each summer.

[music].

It’s a sound that Woody Guthrie would be proud of.

[music].

From a son paying tribute to his father.

[music].

To musicians of all generations and genres.

[music].

Every July, Okemah becomes a hotbed of folk music.

Phillip reeves: Okemah is everybody’s hometown. It’s just a really nice community with really wonderful people here, a lot of hardworking people, successful people.

Kay Reeves: Woody Guthrie kind of people.

Phillip: Woody Guthrie kind of people.

[music].

Phillip: Well, of course, uh, Woody was, uh, a child of, uh, the Oklahoma Dust Bowl and the Oklahoma, uh, the nationwide depression. And, uh, he was, uh, you’d have to say he was from the poor side of the tracks.

Kay: And so were we [laughs].

Phillip: And so were we [laughs]. And Woody made the, uh, uh, uh, the “Grapes of Wrath” trips, uh, out to California. And I listened to my father talk back in those years, you, you begin to realize that “The Grapes of Wrath” wasn’t one, uh, migration. It was, uh, something that people did almost every year or every couple years. Uh, they’d go out to California and make enough money and come back and live here till the money was gone, and then they’d go back and make some more money.

[music by Woody Guthrie].

Kela: And in doing so, the young Woody Guthrie became the voice of those less fortunate cast to the fringes of society.

[music by Woody Guthrie].

Phillip: Now, Woody, uh, was on the side of the working people. And of course, the ‘30s and ‘40s, uh, was a real, uh, conflict time between the unions and the, and the industrialized society and the big money people, and Woody was never on the big money side. He was on the poor guy’s side.

[music].

Kela: Guthrie’s birth is celebrated in his hometown of Okemah, where each summer families and entertainers gather together for events that help to keep the memory and traditions of the folk legend alive.

[music].

David Amran traveled from new York.

David Amran: He was always conscious of people who were hurting. Some of his great songs and a lot of his activity was to try to help out people who had no voice, who were in need, who were hurting. But not at the expense of demonizing those who had something, but rather celebrating all of us being together; when he said, “This land is your land, it was meant for you and me,” he meant that literally, that all of us should be a part of the blessings that we have here in this beautiful place of ours.

[music].

Terry Ware: The love of music, that’s why everybody comes here.

[music].

And it is, you know, and it’s the love of music and, and the love of Woody Guthrie, you know. Because everybody that comes here knows what a seminal figure he was as American music. He’s as important as anybody ever has been.

[music].

Kela: And for these musicians it’s not just the music that sounds familiar, it’s the message of their songs that would make Woody Guthrie proud. Terry Ware is from Norman, Okla.

Terry: I mean there’s still people that are hungry, there’s still people that are exploited, you know, workers that are exploited or taken advantage of or are not represented like they deserve to be represented, you know. Uh, because, uh, well, there’s greed still around, so [laughs] as long as there’s greed in the world there’s gonna be, those issues are gonna exist. And there’s always gonna be people like, you know, I think that write songs about it.

[music].

Kela: Arlo Guthrie, son of Woody Guthrie, comes each year to help celebrate and show respect to his father’s legacy.

[music].

An event that honors not only a life and legend, but most importantly strives to keep the music playing.

[music / applause].

This is the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie’s birth, and town folk in Okemah expect their largest crowd ever for the festival that runs from July 11 through the 15th.

Rob: Now, I think before anyone gets to critical of Woody’s leftist leanings, you have to consider that we we’re in the height of the Depression in the 1930s in this country. And then in Europe, the Spanish Civil War going on where the fascists were literally killing millions of people, not to mention, Hitler was making rise in Germany with his own brand of fascism, and we all know what that led to.

Kela: Right. Well, Woody Guthrie was certainly a man of his times, and I think his music speaks for that.

Rob: All right. Well, thank you so much. That was a nice piece. I appreciate it, Kela. When we come back, we dig a little deeper to see where Guthrie may have learned some of those Marxist leanings.

Male announcer: You’re watching “Oklahoma Horizon,” featuring some of the good things that are happening in the great state of Oklahoma.

Rob McClendon: Well, it comes as something of a surprise for most Oklahomans that the state with a history of the strongest socialist movement was not on either coast, but in rural Oklahoma. It was here in the first two decades of the 20th century a unique movement emerged that successfully elected Socialists to a myriad of state and local offices. And for a brief and singular moment in our state’s history, political leaders in Oklahoma confronted the prospect of sharing power with the Socialist Party. With its stone facade in downtown Oklahoma City, American Farmers and Ranchers looks like a pillar of capitalism. So this is the museum.

Paul Jackson: Yes.

Rob: But inside this insurance company, you find quite a different story; Paul Jackson is the company’s historian.

Jackson: We have a lot of the objects here that have occurred over the, the 100 years of our history.

Rob: Started before statehood, this company was first a political movement that began in an effort to help early Oklahoma farmers. Is it fair to say that these hardscrabble farmers probably didn’t feel very much in control of their lives?

Jackson: Absolutely. They did not feel in control of their lives. It was very difficult times, drought, low crop prices, monopolistic practices, all those things contributed to a very dismal outlook for producers.

Rob: So beginning in Texas and then spreading into Oklahoma, farmers began to band together to establish a farmers union, a movement that began to grow across the nation.

Jackson: People in the South, and farmers and tenants were charged higher interest rates than everyone else. And so they were really just being hit from all angles, not only from the private sector, if you will, by charging all these really huge prices, but also they were hit by drought and couldn’t produce the crops. So it was kind of a little bit of everything. And then they wanted to be in control of, of their commodities that they produced; they wanted to be able to sell them at a higher price. And so that’s when this whole cooperative movement began to form. You began to see just a really rapid increase of membership, almost like a prairie fire.

Rob: And the organized labor movement that swept across the industrialized east began to move westward, Oklahoma History Center’s Bob Blackburn.

Bob Blackburn: Well, out here in the West we have a similar reaction, but here it’s agrarian-based. So many things can go wrong with agriculture. And as the cost of planting and producing and marketing your crops goes up because of mechanization of the cost transportation by rail, the fact that the market for the agricultural products are a long way off, which means it’s gonna cost a lot of money to get it there. Well, it’s squeezing small farmers by the turn of the century. And as the small farmers are losing their land, being squeezed, and their quality of life is going down, they react politically when they start electing officials who will do what they say they need. They want protection from bankers. They want protection from the railroads. They want to bring control back to the local community. And, they want to take the big land holders and break up the land and make sure it’s available to these families. On top of that, they want to do some, what they consider the Christian thing, let’s work together, let’s follow the teachings of Jesus and let’s, let’s do what’s good for everybody, let’s be good neighbors, let’s share, let’s not exploit, let’s not make winners and losers out of the system, which is the basis of the free-enterprise system. Let’s take that out of the scenario of our economy, and let’s base it on this Christian concept of cooperation, socialism.

Rob: And by the time of statehood, socialism became a major force in Oklahoma politics. Well, it certainly sounds like there was a fair amount of idealism going on. What happened from there?

Blackburn: Well, the idealism turned into real action in Oklahoma, probably one of the top three states in the entire union. Here we’re the 46th state, and we’re one of the top three in turning socialist policy into action. Because the constitutional convention in 1906 and 1907 happened just as the socialist movement was really gaining some traction, this very conservative, Christian-based populism, you see it in the eight-hour work day, at the constitutional convention, prohibition of child labor, creating a Department of Cherokees and Corrections to help people. You get a very strong Corporation Commission to limit the power of big business, a very anti-corporate atmosphere within the state. You have an Oklahoma bank guarantee law protecting small depositors and banks from bankers who’ll come in and take depositors and go bankrupt and then leave town, and so you have these guarantee laws. You see very much this agrarian conservative populism showing up in our form of government.

Rob: So today our government works very different than this. What happened?

Blackburn: Well, what happened is that the actions peaked in 1914. In 1914, 20 percent of the statewide vote went for the Socialist candidate for governor. There are 175 local government positions filled by members of the Socialist Party. They are promoting suffrage for women. They are fighting the Jim Crow laws that are trying to disenfranchise African Americans in the state. They are proposing that we stay out of World War I because they see that as this fight of these imperialist probusiness interests trying to control the world and so it’s, they stay out of the war. Well, we eventually enter the war in 1917, and there’s a backlash of patriotism, the councils of defense.

Rob: Which ultimately led to the American Socialism Party’s demise. As America entered into World War I in 1917, those that opposed it were trampled by the rush to arms.

Blackburn: These vigilante groups go out, and anybody they deem not patriotic enough, they might whip, they might drive out of town, and in a couple of cases, they lynch people.

Rob: And while the Socialist Party died in Oklahoma, many of their ideals did not.

Blackburn: The people who would have supported the Socialists become more agrarian, Democrats, during the 1930s. Alfalfa Bill Murray, who would have been an agrarian populist, an idealist who wanted to go back to the ways of Thomas Jefferson, becomes governor. And he is leading the state back towards let’s support small farmers, let’s limit government, let’s keep the federal government out of the state. He opposes the New Deal; he says let’s not bring the New Deal because we don’t want those guys in Washington, D.C., telling us how to live our lives out here on these farms.

Rob: Progressive groups like the Farmers Union began to diversify their focus, and membership continued to grow.

Jackson: The 20’s and 30’s became involved in all kinds of initiatives, starting rural electrification, soil conservation programs. The very first soil survey project was done within 40 miles of Tishomingo, Oklahoma, as a result of the farmers union asking for that.

Rob: And just like most things political, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Jackson: If you look today how much similarities there might be between the two-party movement and the populist movement, uh, sometimes history, it’s, it’s you look back over a hundred and something years, it’s amazing how players switch positions on, on issues. And so I think, you know, you might think populists is very far from a two-party person, but in many respects they might be very closely aligned today.

Blackburn: Even today you see parts of this, this belief. We are still a state built on this agrarian conservative rural populism. You see it in the tea party today, a fear of centralized government, a fear of big business, an attempt to get control back to the local level. You see a very strong Christian theme running through it. And so, Alfalfa Bill Murray would have been very popular among the tea party of modern day Oklahoma. And just as that’s changed its form over the last 100 years, it will continue to change, but it’s my belief that agrarian conservative populism is a part of Oklahoma’s DNA and will be part of that forever.

Rob: So why was the Sooner State, of all places, more hospitable to Marxian socialism than any other state in America? Well, economic reasons are an indisputable factor, but the movement was also rooted in the state’s strong traditions of the American revolution and in Christianity. And while today socialism is often used in the same context by some as being unAmerican, early Oklahomans felt much differently, and their beliefs still resonate today, in everything from the cooperatives that now dot our state to the laws that govern us in our constitution.

Male announcer: “Oklahoma Horizon” is now portable. Just subscribe to our weekly podcast. Visit iTunes.com, where you can download our show for your listening or viewing convenience.

Rob McClendon: Well, just like Woody Guthrie, Okemah’s hot and cold water towers are synonymous with the small town, but these landmarks are needing a little help to keep standing. OETA’s Lis Exon has the story.

Woody Guthrie: [singing: This land is your land, this land is my land, from California to the New York island].

Lis: When Woody Guthrie recorded “This Land Is Your Land,” he was 32 years old and already famous. He left his birthplace of Okemah in his late teens. He traveled from Oklahoma to California with migrant workers, writing ballads about their hardships during the Dust Bowl.

Woody Guthrie: [music: She rose from her blanket, a battle to fight].

Lis: Despite Guthrie’s success as a folk hero, he never forgot his roots.

[radio interview excerpt].

Radio host: Woody, how long was it ago that you were born in Okemah?

Woody Guthrie: 28 years, you pert near guessed it. I was born there in July the 14, 1912. All up and down the whole country there they got oil, got some pretty nice oilfields around Okemah there.

Radio host: Did any of the oil come in your family?

Woody: No, nope. We got the grease [laugh].

Lis: Okemah has never forgotten Woody Guthrie. A street is named after him, a park pays tribute to him and so does one of the town’s water towers. The bulb water tower, with “The Home of Woody Guthrie” written on it, was built in 1972. It’s adjacent to two antiquated water towers labeled hot and cold lettering; hot came first in 1910, cold in the 1920s. Both of them were here when Guthrie roamed the streets of his town as a boy. And for the last several decades the water towers have been national icons; their images make up the town’s seal. Okemans say the towers are part of their identity.

Rex Hefner : You can talk to people from out of town, and they don’t know where Okemah is, but they recognize the, uh, the water towers that you see, the hot and cold and “The Home of Woody Guthrie” and they go, oh yeah we know where that is, you know.

Lis: The older towers used to be the target of high schoolers who painted school graffiti on them. That was until 1968 when a utility board member asked whether the kids would stop their antics if the water towers were painted with the school colors; they agreed. Kay Watson works for the newspaper in Okemah. She picks up the story from there.

Kay Watson: John E. Landers who was on the board thought it would be really funny to put hot and cold on ’em, and no, there is no hot and cold water [laugh]. Well, it may all be cold, but there’s no hot water. Then in 1972 when they put up the bulb water tower, they did kind of a drive in the newspaper on what to put on it and lukewarm tap water, stuff like that, was, was suggested. But Earl walker, who was also on the board, thought “Home of Woody Guthrie” would be really nice. And during that time there was still a lot of tension about Woody and his ties to Communists, if he was, if he wasn’t, so it was actually a pretty big deal that we put “Home of Woody Guthrie” on there.

Lis: Watson says the hot tower hasn’t worked in several years. The cold is in desperate need of repair. And both are in danger of being demolished because Okemah can’t afford an estimated $400,000 dollars to restore them. Now, a campaign is underway to save the towers; the campaign even has a Facebook page.

Kay: It is our goal as Save The Water Tower Committee to help, either through private donations or historical grants or, you know, just grants in general, to raise the money to actually, to save the water towers and to rehab them. And if we got enough money, we would even go as far as to make the hot work as a water tower once again.

Lis: Okemah residents say it’s important to save the hot and cold water towers.

Dee Jones: Many of our patrons that come to this festival, it’s more or less a religious experience for ’em. And this, I’m not a-kiddin’, this is true, they come back each year, it’s a pilgrimage for them.

Lis: Those making the journey to Okemah expect to see the water towers when they arrive to celebrate the life and work of a man they feel they know, but never met.

Woody Guthrie: [music: So long its been good to know ya; so long it’s been good to know ya; so long it’s been good to know ya, this dusty old dust isn’t rollin’ me home, gotta be driftin’ along].

Male announcer: If you’re interested in Oklahoma culture, you can keep up with us throughout the week on the Red Dirt Chronicles blog. Look for our On the Horizon postings on Tuesdays and Fridays and tell us what you think.

Rob McClendon: Next time on “Oklahoma Horizon,” we see how STEM education is turning into STEAM education to help fill today’s job demands.

Student: The hands-on aspect of everything you do allows us to learn so much more than just a lecture at the front of the room and us taking notes or something. You know, whenever we’re there, whenever we’re teaching each other, learning together, I think it’s just so much more powerful.

Rob: STEAM education, on Oklahoma’s show for the heartland, “Oklahoma Horizon.”

Well, we are out of time. I’m Rob McClendon. Thanks for watching. See you back here next week.

Male announcer: Thank you for watching “Oklahoma Horizon.”