OKEMAH, Okla. – When Woody Guthrie’s dilapidated boyhood home was ordered torn down in the late 1970s, the demolition reflected the strained relationship between conservative Oklahoma and the native son famous for his folk singing and progressive politics.
Those tensions persisted for more than a generation, but attitudes about Guthrie have slowly softened. Now developers working with the blessing of Guthrie’s relatives have announced plans to rebuild his 1860s-era boyhood home in Okemah, a time-worn town of 3,300 people desperately seeking tourism dollars.
“If you were to put a Mount Rushmore of American music here in the Midwest, the first two artists on it would be Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie,” said Johnny Buschardt, a spokesman for the project. “Without Woody, there wouldn’t be a Bob Dylan or a Bruce Springsteen.”
Best known for the song “This Land is Your Land,” Guthrie came of age during the Great Depression and later embraced left-wing politics, including for a time some tenets of communism. By weaving social issues into his music, he reimagined folk songs as platforms for protest, starting a creative tradition carried on by scores of other top artists.
In hundreds of folk songs and ballads, Guthrie’s lyrics celebrated American workers, lamented the woes of the poor and advocated for civil rights. Although revered as one of the best songwriters in American history, he was rarely acknowledged, let alone honored, by his home state, even for decades after his death in 1967.
“When I was going to school (in the 1960s), it was almost like his name wasn’t supposed to be mentioned. And when it was brought up in class, the teacher would change the subject,” recalls resident Ric Denney, whose family has roots in town dating to the 1920s.
It took more than 30 years, but Okemah now celebrates Guthrie with an annual music festival that draws thousands of people from around the world. Tributes such as the mural of Guthrie strumming his guitar on the side of a downtown building are commonplace these days.
Other parts of Oklahoma are honoring him, too, in a big way. In April, a 12,000-square-foot museum showcasing his life’s work opened to much fanfare in downtown Tulsa.
The estimated $500,000 rebuild of Guthrie’s childhood home will use original planks salvaged from the run-down property called London House, which was purchased by prominent local businessman Earl Walker in the early 1960s. Walker hoped he could eventually win support from town leaders to restore it as a way of promoting Okemah, about 60 miles south of Tulsa.
Instead, they ordered him to tear it down, declaring the property a public nuisance because it had become a place for teenagers to smoke and winos to pass out.
Walker complied, but he saved the lumber for the day when his neighbors would recognize Guthrie’s importance to the town and the country.
Today, all that remains of London House are a few blocks of the home’s sandstone foundation – mostly obscured by knee-high weeds.
London House is to be rebuilt on the same lot, and project organizers want to come as close as possible to making it look like it did when Guthrie lived there.
At the history center, board member Ron Gott is eager for work to finally begin after years of indifference and flat-out opposition from town leaders.
“In the early 1970s and ’80s, Woody was still a bad name among some residents,” Gott said.
The town is “coming around,” he added. “Most people understand (the home is) a draw, something that is part of history.”