I hope all Oklahomans realize they have a treasure in their midst: the Woody Guthrie Free Folk Music Festival in Okemah, just 70 miles east of Oklahoma City on I-40. Oklahomans and all lovers of folk music should make it a point to attend at least one day of this nearly week-long annual celebration of the music and spirit of Woody Guthrie, an icon in the folk music world and internationally famed for his legacy of songs (over a thousand!). American folk music involves a mixture of social commentary with storytelling and simple melodies. Most Americans will find themselves at home in this musical genre because it has permeated American society without a lot of fanfare or notoriety. Americans know the songs without even realizing their source (e.g., "This Land is Your Land"). The music and the musicians often invite audience participation (clapping, singing, dancing), lwhich makes folk festivals a lot of fun.
This is my second year, and the third year of the festival. I only made it for one day last year as well, but I had such a great time, I just had to be at the festival again. Last year I was tickled to see The Kingston Trio, "Country Joe" MacDonald, Ellis Paul, and Arlo Guthrie (Pete Seeger also made a surprise appearance) indoors at a benefit concert that rocked the house in the Okemah's Crystal Theater on July 14th. This year, we happened to have some friends from England staying with us (Michael and Sharon Smith, from Burnley), so I made it a point to bring them along to see and experience this uniquely American program. They thoroughly enjoyed it (albeit suffering from the heat), and so did I.
We arrived shortly after the gates opened and, by being among the early arrivals, managed to get a front row parking spot. The concert was free, with only a $5 parking fee. The early arrivals like us were few in number but very enthusiastic. Under the brutal July Oklahoma sun, the temperature was near 100 degrees but sun screen, hats, and lots of fluids helped. Some folks loaned my English visitors umbrellas for shade and I chatted from time to time with a man who brought his large but well-behaved, friendly dog - great examples of Okie warmth, generosity, and hospitality.
To my surprise, the generous cups of iced, cold lemonade were on sale for only a dollar - not the usual "we've got you trapped" gouge prices! After about two hours we got used to the heat, so by 5 pm, things had become quite bearable. If you come to this day-long part of the free festival, be sure to bring a lawn chair (or a blanket) and something to shade you from the sun. Drink lots of fluids and be prepared for a loong jam: it started promply at 4 pm and lasted until nearly 1 am. The crowd grew as the evening wore on, and it was pretty large by dark ... the Porta-Potties had long lines during the breaks
The sound system required constant tinkering to satisfy the individual performers and to fix the typical glitches that occur in outdoor performances. Overall, the sound team did an excellent job and I was happy that most of the musicians took time to thank them for their help.
I note that none of the performers on Saturday were paid for their appearances at the festival. Woody Guthrie was a champion of the working people of the nation (at a time when it was dangerous politics to be such a person). Having the festival be free is part of that philosophy, so the performers obviously participate in the same spirit. The artists are glad to be associated with the festival and we listeners are glad they share their music with us. Of course, their CDs were on sale in the merchandise tent, and I was happy to buy some (signed by the performers!) to support the artists.
Okie Jam - Bob Childers, Brandon Jenkins, and Don White
An improvised cycle of tunes done separately by each performer, with the others chiming in as best they could. All three were superb. Brandon Jenkins has a strong voice that sounds like he's born to C&W music, and his pieces all had a strong C&W flavor, but the lyrics were not the usual whiny C&W fare (I'm not a fan of most C&W music). My favorite was Don White, mainly because he did one very bluesy number, and I'm tilted toward the blues. He also can play a mean slide guitar. The three of them obviously were having fun together just jammin' and it spilled easily into the sparse early crowd.
Kevin Bowe and the Okemah Prophets
This group is from Minneapolis, and was clearly honored to be invited to this festival. Although the group is called the Okemah Prophets, they apparently had never been to Okemah! They played well together and the musicians are quite versatile; Andy Dee is (in my opinion) the best musician in the group and plays, among other instruments, a lap steel slide guitar with superb skill when he's playing a feature part in a bridge, definitely getting my blood going with his riffs on slide. Marv Gohman was excellent on the mandolin and fiddle, as well. These guys leaned toward the rock side of folk. They enjoyed kidding about life in Minneapolis and seemed to bask in the Okemah sun and friendliness.
Larry Long and ___?
This was a solid performance, but I just don't remember that much about it; perhaps I was a bit out of it from the heat at that time? He was accompanied by an excellent violinist, whose name I don't recall, sadly. Larry accompanies his numbers with an upright bass, so the instrumentation here was somewhat unusual, but I thought it worked very well.
Emily Kaitz and Susan Shore
These two were helped out by a guitarist from the Still on the Hill Band (Kelly Mulhollan), but they mostly did individual numbers. Susan Shore is in the classic folk tradition, has a wonderful voice, and is a solid guitarist. She clearly loves the music and sang along (without using the mike, so we could only see she was doing it, but not hear her) with Emily on most of Emily's numbers. Her songs were in the storytelling mode and quite nice. Emily Kaitz, my favorite of the two, is just a super performer, with a biting wit and, at the same time, doesn't take herself at all seriously. All her numbers had a humorous edge and managed to be funny without having anything but fun as the object. Well ... perhaps there was a bit of social commentary mixed in. She also accompanied Susan on some numbers with an upright bass.
Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer
Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer are two clearly professional musicians, in the best sense of the word "professional". Their vocal harmonies are outstanding and they play so well together as a team, it's easy to see why they're in such demand at folk festivals. Their music is in the classic folk idiom of storytelling. I must say that while I was impressed with the quality of the performance, I just didn't click with them in the way I did with some of the others ... perhaps it's just me. I enjoyed their rendition of the Woody Guthrie classic "Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key" a lot, however, because their harmony is so outstanding.
A single singer on stage accompanying himself can be superb or awful. Chuck Brodsky is an excellent guitarist and his songs involved a lot of social commentary, in the spirit of Woody Guthrie. He's from North Carolina and was also quite obviously excited to be invited to this festival. I enjoyed his performance a lot and found myself in sympathy with his commentary, as well. His humorous number "I Got Nothing for Christmas" ... Chuck is Jewish ... was fun. Chuck's another very "professional" musician.
The Joel Rafael Band
What a pleasant surprise this band was. It's clear that eight years of performance have honed them into an excellent team and their sound was very tight. When they reprised Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer's selection of Woody Guthrie's "Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key" it was another riveting performance. Of course, it may just be that I really like that song! Joel's daughter, Jamaica, did harmonizing vocals and played an excellent fiddle. The added touch of a percussionist (Jeff Berkley) was very nice. Percussionists often overpower the other musicians, but Jeff's playing was complementary, not dominating, and was a worthwhile addition to an outstanding band. The numbers they did were mostly storytelling and were obviously selected to honor the spirit ofWoody Guthrie.
Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger (and family)
This team, including Arlo's daughter, Sarah Lee, and Pete's grandson, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, was just dynamite. Seeing Pete Seeger do his stuff to create audience participation was great and I feel delighted to have been at a live performance by this legend of American folk music. His voice is not what it once was, but he made up for most of that deficiency by sharing his continuing enjoyment of music. Arlo Guthrie always is a knockout performer. I can't get enough of his homespun philosophy and his joy with the music; there can be no doubt he enjoys sharing classic American songs with the audience. I was gratified Arlo did "City of New Orleans" ... it's one of my personal favorites of his. Sarah Lee has a voice that seems made for C&W and she did two superb songs on her own, as well as harmonizing vocals. Tao did percussion, 12-string guitar, vocals, and helped his granddad with the audience participation numbers.
The team's last two songs, under the glow of the full moon, with the participation of all the day's performers who remained, were "You've Got to Walk It on Your Own" [I'm not sure this is the right title!] and an encore performance of "Will the Circle be Unbroken?" ... two American classics that had everyone on their feet, singing along. A great finish to a superb concert!