Prophets In Their Own Time
Thursday, January 4, 2001
In addition to being artists who worked for social change, there's another similarity shared by John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie: They both had a tough time being accepted by their hometowns. Just as Steinbeck was largely reviled in Salinas during his lifetime, Woody was disliked in Okemah, Oklahoma.
In 1972, The New York Times chronicled the attempts by some citizens to establish an annual Woody Guthrie Day and turn the Guthrie house into a living memorial. Five years after his death, opposition to the left-leaning Guthrie was still so strong that neither goal was achieved. In fact, the house was ultimately torn down.
"Commemoration just isn't justified because of Guthrie's Communist affiliation, whether he was active or duped," Allison Kelly, a banker in town, is quoted as saying.
It's only been in the last couple of years that Guthrie has started to find acceptance in Okemah.
In 1998, a group of citizens started an annual Woody Guthrie Music Festival that has grown with each passing year, according to Donald Moore, secretary for the Okemah Chamber of Commerce and one of the festival's founders. Arlo Guthrie's performed at all three festivals, and Billy Bragg played at the inaugural concert.
And just as Salinas slowly came to commemorate Steinbeck with both the National Steinbeck Center and the preservation of his family's home, the town of Okemah has begun to honor Woody in its own way: The town erected a statue in its central park and renamed the main drag Woody Guthrie Street.
"The opposition has kind of faded into the background now," says Moore. "Today there are only two people in the town of Okemah who have any opposition to Woody. At least they're the only two who ever speak out."
Moore figures that most people in town "can look back and see his whole philosophy was trying to help people who needed help bad. Today, he would just be a liberal Democrat."