Woody’s Birthday Party: 50 Years Ago

by arupa freeman

I found out about Woody Guthrie in the early sixties when I moved to Norman, Okla., to go to college. Someone invited me to an annual event in Norman, Woody Guthrie’s birthday party. I don’t know who organized it or how many years it had been going on, but it was an established tradition. It was always well-attended, but received no press coverage and, amazingly enough, was attended by no police officers (which was all for the best). Hundreds of people gathered in a field known as the Duck Pond. A small stream with ducks ran through it and – best of all – it had trees. Oklahomans have done a lot of reforestation since the 1960s, but back then an area with honest-to-God trees was special.

Hundreds of people, many of them students, gathered in the late afternoon, braving the blinding July heat. A sizable contingent were men in overalls and straw hats, with about three or four teeth each, who were carrying guitars and banjos. The party always started in the same way, with Woody’s sister, from Gotebo, Okla., standing up in front and making a few opening remarks. She was a country woman in a cotton house dress, her hair pulled back into a bun, and she’d have an old black purse clasped to her side. She spoke in a thick rural Okie twang: “I’m Woody’s sister, and I want to thank all you folks for coming to celebrate Woody’s birthday. The main thing I want you to know is Woody was a good boy, and he weren’t no Communist. Now y’all have a good time!”

The men in overalls were Woody’s old friends from all over the Oklahoma panhandle and adjoining parts of Arkansas. After Woody’s sister spoke, they would start playing and they would play into the wee small hours of the morning – bluegrass and country so fine one would have to die and go to Hillbilly Heaven to hear anything like it. They are still the finest concerts I have ever attended. When the sun started to go down, they would go to their trucks and get jugs of moonshine, take long draws, and then hand them over to the audience, where they would start circulating from mouth to mouth. I knew what moonshine was but, as a little country girl from Vermont, did not have the courage to try it. When the sun went down a little further, doobies would start circulating. Pot grew wild in the Oklahoma Panhandle and was an old tradition itself.

As the night wore on, the music would get louder and wilder and more improvisational, and the crowd would become less inhibited, but never to the point of any real trouble. It was all about joy – the vast Oklahoma sky with purple clouds drifting through fields of star, the night-air the temperature of bath water and, most of all, the music.

These memories came back to me when I read in the Iguana that there is going to be a celebration of Woody’s 100th birthday this July 14. I look forward to it. I know the music will be wonderful –how could it not be? It would be nice, though, to have it opened by an old lady with an old black purse who would welcome the crowd and tell them, “Woody was a good boy, and he weren’t no Communist” (even if he was). If Woody is up in hillbilly heaven, he would like that.

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