Every year, around mid July (Woody Guthrie’s birthday is on July 14), we make a pilgrimage to Okemah, Oklahoma, where Woody was born. It is the annual Woody Guthrie Festival celebration, dubbed WoodyFest, and it has been part of our family’s life for a very long time; about a quarter of my life, and most of my childrens’ lives. Through a lot of ups and downs, and many moves, it has been the one constant since we have started going.
We have only missed 2 festivals since our first trip in 2006, when we stayed out in a borrowed tens and were subject to the torrential rain that so often happens around that time of summer. We slept half the night in our old Suburban, and dried our clothes at the only laundromat in town, basically a couple of machines in the room of an old decrepit motel.
The key to it all was Mary Jo Edgmon, whom I had met in Pampa, Texas the year prior, and who was part of my first audience. At the conclusion of the festival, she gave me her card and encouraged us to go to Okemah. We didn’t have any money, nor did we have a tent, and the neighbors said we could borrow theirs.
Mary Jo passed a few months ago, but she was, essentially, a part of my beginning as a folk musician. Her positive spirit and amazing optimism taught me a lot about living, and has, literally, changed my worldview over time. And so, of course, we had to make it to her funeral.
I arrived at the festival with a mostly written song based on the words she gave me in our final, brief conversation: “Every day’s a good day. If it ain’t, I make it good”. While I have been doing well health wise, I’ve been in a bit of a creative funk, and so I went down to the Woody Guthrie statue looking for inspiration to finish the lyrics, as I hoped to get the song to the family before the festival week concluded.
It was, appropriately, a homeless (or, at least, near homeless) woman that broke the funk. As I finished writing the words, she came up to the statue. I began talking with her, and picked up something I’ve learned from the great David Amram: for that brief moment, she became the center of my universe. I straightened out my back, pulled up my guitar, and played some old familiar standards. That moment unlocked something that had been put away for a moment: I remembered who I am and what my gift is to the world.
That is part of the WoodyFest magic. We find nuggets and gems where we never expect to find them.
I decided I was going to try to pick up the vibe around town, and scheduled gigs all over. A coffeeshop here, a flea market there, busking in front of the dispensary, and an impromptu version of “The Unwelcome Guest” for a fellow who asked me as I was walking by to play him a song. I’d like to think that over the week I delivered my own small chunk of that Woodyfest magic.
I had an unlock moment as a songwriter as I was trying to assemble some words and realized it would take me too long to get to the chorus. I had a brilliant rhyme I didn’t want to throw away, and on the advice of another song writer, decided to dig up the meaning of the word I was using (a great word for a song, by the way). When I came out of it, I realized I had to write songs, and the second song would be the key to compressing the first. Because the meaning of the word was too big to throw away.
That’s been the magic of this commitment: I am finding more inspiration than ever, mainly because I am looking it. Much as I watched a scissortail flycatcher (Oklahoma’s state bird) flit around the entrance gate to the campground, I am seeing trails and nuggets that I never saw before, wondering how I missed them.
It was a terrific festival, with terrific friends, and it was a welcome (and much needed) pause from the busyness that has consumed me lately.