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. A community park across the street from the museum is called Guthrie Green.
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. The bundle of preserved wood eventually ended up at the Okfuskee County History Center.
Today, all that remains of London House are a few blocks of the home’s sandstone foundation — mostly obscured by knee-high weeds. A faded sign on the lot warns visitors against stealing the stones.
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. “You had some old-timers here in Okemah who were just against Woody, but there’s maybe a handful still alive.”
The town is “coming around,” he added. “Most people understand (the home is) a draw, something that is part of history.”
Leann Priest, who has lived in Okemah since she was 14 and owns a house a half-block from the Guthrie parcel, said the ranks of those who despised the songwriter are thinning dramatically.
“There are still people in town that still believe he was a communist,” said Priest, who grew up listening to her dad and uncle singing Guthrie songs. “I don’t think he was. He was a man who stood up for everybody.”
Linda Knebel, who’s lived here for 22 years, said Guthrie “did a big thing for Okemah” and openly honoring him is the best way to return the favor.
“It was the old codgers who said that” about Guthrie, Knebel said. “I’m glad those thoughts are going away.”
Organizers hope to raise money for the project through donations and a benefit concert in Tulsa by singer Kris Kristofferson in mid-October, among other events.
Construction is scheduled for November through May.
Kansas-based project coordinator Dan Riedemann, who owns a company that restores celebrity properties, said the undertaking will preserve Oklahoma’s music royalty for future generations.
“He’s their Elvis Presley, and this is their Graceland,” he said in a recent interview.
Guthrie’s family members have also praised the plan. His granddaughter, Annie Hays Guthrie, who travels to Okemah every year, said she feels like a part of her has “come home.”