Larry Long on Bringing Woody Guthrie Home
Through activism and song, Larry Long has fought for social justice and environmental preservation his entire adult life. He has also spent his life focusing on the culture and history of the people and places he sings about.
Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) spoke with Long about three significant projects he created during his career as an activist and a musician. Part one of our conversation discussed his work with the Mississippi River Revival. Today, we look at how he brought long-overdue honor to fellow folksinger Woody Guthrie, in Guthrie’s hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma. Guthrie is best known for his folksong, “This Land Is Your Land.”
Guthrie’s liberal political leanings did not always make him welcome in his hometown. In fact two water towers stand in Okemah, advertising both Hot and Cold attitudes toward being the birthplace of Woody Guthrie. Two decades after Guthrie’s death — thanks largely to Long’s important community work — the people of Okemah finally welcomed Woody Guthrie home.
This is part two of a three-part conversation with Larry Long, whom writer Studs Terkel once called, “a true American troubadour.” You can listen to some of Larry Long’s music on his website. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
BPGL: Where did you turn your attention once you left the Mississippi River Revival?
LONG: At the end of the 1980s, I got invited to sing and travel on the Delta Queen from St. Paul to New Orleans down the length of the Mississippi River and on the Makim-Gorky along the Volga River. These were the first-ever Soviet-American Peace Cruises. In fact this was the largest contingent of Soviets and Americans to travel together in either country.
When we came into Iowa, thousands of people greeted us with community choirs, including all of my dear friends from the Mississippi River Revival chapters in Dubuque and Bellevue. In many ways, this form of citizen diplomacy helped put an end to the Cold War. It’s important to note that through Pete Seeger’s good word I was able to travel on those cruises. All of this interconnects with bringing Woody Guthrie home.
BPGL: Tell us about your work honoring Woody Guthrie.
LONG: After performing at the Tulsa Mayfest in Oklahoma, the Harwelden Artist Institute and the Oklahoma State Arts Board put me on the road throughout Oklahoma teaching children in schools about Woody Guthrie. I worked in dozens of communities along the “Dust Bowl Highway” on out toward the Texas Panhandle.
One of my dreams was to work in Okemah, Oklahoma, where Woody was born. That dream came true.
After several years of working on and off in Oklahoma, I met the principal at the Okemah High School, Dr. Larry McKinney, who thought it would be a good idea to bring Woody home.
Dr. McKinney brought me into the Okemah schools, and I had the children go out and talk to their parents and grandparents, interview them, bring their life’s histories into the classroom. (This was the birthing of the work I do today, which is called Elders’ Wisdom, Children’s Song.)
We wrote new lyrics to several old melodies that Woody borrowed from other places, like “This Land is Your Land,” which comes from a Christian hymn. The Carter Family had recorded that hymn, and Woody had heard it sung in churches all around Okemah. So, in the tradition of Woody, we borrowed those melodies back from him.
I lived and worked with the people of Okemah for three years and fell in love with Okemah. The fruits of that experience not only brought Woody Guthrie back home, but now honor the good folks who nurtured him.
BPGL: When you say, “We brought Woody Guthrie home,” what do you mean by that?
We organized the first hometown tribute for Woody Guthrie and held a festival on December 1, 1988. Again, it’s important to note that we weren’t simply honoring Woody but also the community that nurtured Woody Guthrie. Bringing Woody Home became a bridge and a metaphor for that.
There’s a live recording of the celebration called It Takes a Lot of People, which was released by Flying Fish Records and is now distributed through Rounder Records. On the recording, you’ll hear Scottish- and Irish-American kids singing with African American children, plus the First Nation Seminole and Creek languages spoken throughout. It was truly a multilingual, multicultural celebration of Woody, which is reflective of Okemah not only today, but when Woody grew up also.
The event was featured on NBC Today. The Wall Street Journal hailed it as the signal event of the end of the Cold War in America. Portions of it were broadcast all over the world, because Woody was and still is such an internationally beloved figure.
BPGL: Was this a one-time event, or does Okemah still have celebrations for Woody Guthrie?
LONG: It helped to spawn WoodyFest, a free Woody Guthrie festival held every year on Woody’s birthday in July, Bastille Day. It’s a huge celebration that brings thousands of people into Okemah and helps the local economy. Woody’s son, Arlo, has had a lot to do with its success, plus a trainload of volunteers who come every year to help out. Quite amazing, really.
In 2009, we had a 20th anniversary reunion celebration at WoodyFest with the kids who helped to bring Woody home. The kids who performed 20 years ago now have kids of their own, who are the same age as they were when we brought Woody Guthrie home. If you go to BringingWoodyHome.org, you’ll see photographs of the kids then and how they look now.
All of this is now archived in the Okemah Historical Society. It was a very difficult project. It’s hard to imagine now, but back then, I had some moments that were rather frightening. There were several people who were very angry.
BPGL: Why were they angry?
LONG: In the 1980s, when Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union, the Cold War was still on. Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger were seen by the religious right and the very conservative, xenophobic people as “Communists.” A few people in Okemah — a banker and a mortician — were some of those who kept the good town of Okemah, Oklahoma from honoring Woody.
I would be amiss if I didn’t acknowledge, Olen Edwards, retired Pentacostal preacher, who is now in a Veterans Home outside of Okemah. Olen Edwards, sang and performed This Train Is Bound For Glory, on It Takes a Lot of People. He risked his ministerial position by engaging himself in this secular pursuit of bringing Woody home. Olen simply felt it was about time that Okemah begin to honor their own. My friend, Fiddlin’ Pete and I, performed at his church not only throughout the time I lived in Okemah, but for decades after, whenever we rolled through town.
In the spirit of the American Constitution, inalienable rights are those rights bestowed upon you by God, or a Divine Creator. They can neither be neglected, nor taken away by any government, authoritative regime, or institution.
But those days are long gone. Woody was finally brought back home. And through it all, the thread that brings it all together is Pete Seeger!
This is the end of part two of a three-part conversation with folksinger and activist, Larry Long.
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Part Two: Larry Long on Bringing Woody Home (Top of Page)