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."
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.