Woody Guthrie Center

Posted on September 12, 2016

The Woody Guthrie Center, Tulsa Oklahoma

By Rob Dickens

The Woody Guthrie Centre in Downtown Tulsa Oklahoma preserves Guthrie’s body of work and the continuation of his legacy.  It opened in 2013, and is housed in a purpose-built facility of over 1,000 sq. meters in a former paper warehouse.  

The Centre also has live events in its 60-seat auditorium – a concert series, film screenings and is a discussion/workshop hub.  Here, there is a strong teaching and engagement focus which is why it is called a Centre and not a Museum.  Particularly, its mission is to educate a new generation about Guthrie’s important role in American history and music.

The day before my visit was, in fact, the announcement that Woody Guthrie will be the recipient of an Americana Music Association President’s Award this year and Executive Director of the facility, Deana McCloud was thrilled that this is another important step to continue to promote his work.

Now, Woody was a prolific writer – over 3,000 songs – and housed here are over 100 of his notebooks preserved in the Archive, in a controlled, stable environment 5 degrees colder than the air-conditioned rest of the Centre.

p1000391woodysguitarThe Centre has a warm and open design with plenty of space and modern exhibits, including:

• An introductory short film

• The Woody Guthrie Archives and research area

• ‘Woody’s Footsteps’ exhibit following his travels from Okemah (Oklahoma) to Pampa (Texas), then to Los Angeles, and New York

• ‘The Dust Bowl’ section where patrons can learn more about the era, view an excerpt from Ken Burn’s riveting documentary, and listen to Woody’s Dust Bowl Ballads

• ‘Woody’s America’ interactive map that allows the user to learn more about Woody’s biography, music history, as well as Oklahoma and the US

• The wonderful ‘Music Bar’ for sitting and listening to Woody’s recorded songs

• A ‘Lyric Journal’ of Woody’s lyrics according to selected topics which can filtered by word

dsc00685orginal-lyricsthisland• A ‘Lyric writing station’ where visitors can compose an original verse to a song and submit it to the Centre’s database

• A wall dedicated to his drawings and humour

• Exhibits and videos of artists who continue Woody’s tradition of writing what they see

• The original, hand-written lyrics of “This Land is Your Land” and videos of others’ renditions of the song

• Woody’s fiddle, guitar, and mandolin

• Other instruments, such as a Pete Seeger banjo

• A special exhibit gallery featuring traveling exhibits (Diana Ross and The Supremes were on display when I was there)

A key observation moving through the building is the respect that other performers clearly have for Woody.  It starts with an impressive painting in the entry lobby by John Mellencamp.  There are quotes and film appearances by Steve Earle, Bruce Springsteen, Seeger, Ketch Secor (Old Crow Medicine Show), Jimmy LaFave, Tom Morello, Jeff Tweedy and Billy Bragg, to name a few.  Hearing many other versions of his songs here clearly demonstrate the importance of Guthrie’s legacy.  Just three days before, I had witnessed Old Crow perform a beautiful tribute of ‘This Land Is Your Land’ in Fayetteville Arkansas.

This brilliant facility is a good example of the urban renewal that is taking place in Tulsa.  It is a city that, thankfully, has retained much of its older, iconic architecture. Building sites are common. There are many inner-city sections that are art, food and music hubs.  

dsc00686woodysfiddleThe Woody Guthrie Centre is located in Tulsa’s vibrant Brady District and is right across from the open community area known as Guthrie Green.  (Just on the other side of The Green is a nice lunch/coffee hang-out – The Gypsy Coffee House and Cyber Café to add even more to your visit here).

The Woody Guthrie Centre is a fascinating insight into the man, his fearless and prolific song-writing, the tough environment to which he was a witness: he observed the Great Depression, the horrific Dust Bowl, World War II (as an active serviceman), racism and economic inequality.  Here is where you get a clear understanding of the impact that all this had on his political and social views and, of course, his songs.

Guthrie became more unpredictable during his later road trips and was hospitalised several times. Mistakenly diagnosed, he was treated for everything from alcoholism to schizophrenia, but his symptoms kept worsening and his physical condition deteriorated.  Picked up for “vagrancy” in 1954 at the age of only forty two, he was admitted and finally diagnosed with what is now known as Huntington’s Disease.  He was hospitalised for many years and during that time was visited by the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs and others as his status started to grow.  Guthrie died of complications of Huntington’s in 1967. 

Woody Guthrie’s music is timeless.  Folk songs, protest music, song-writing about tough times and injustice would not be the same without his influence and courage. 

The Woody Guthrie Center is a beautiful, inspiring and loving tribute to the man.

About Brian Wise