Woody Fest: Is this land made for you and me?
Don Conoscenti and Ellis Paul, two musicians at the festival. | Guy Zahller/woodyfest.com

OKEMAH, Oklahoma  – On a hot humid night in Oklahoma, feral cats were fighting in the alley; one could hear their screams. Two loose dogs sauntered over the hot asphalt road where hundreds of cars were parked. There was a two-block-long line of 40-80 year olds standing under the humid heat of an Okemah July night. All came to honor the spirit of Woody Guthrie. From July 12-16 hundreds of musicians, along with thousands of simple down-to-earth folks, are celebrating the 20th Annual Woody Fest.

In his blog, People’s World contributor John Pietaro said, “The hot, dry plains of Okemah, Oklahoma, bore witness to the birth of Woody Guthrie. The area’s spacious straight configurations and windy hills shaped his formative years, spent in the company of the high-lonesome sounds of rural white America, the church and blues music of African American culture, and the customs, dialects, and plight of Native Americans. With the introduction of basic guitar, harmonica, and mandolin skills, Guthrie dealt with the pains and poverty of his young, tragic life through music.”

The festival began this year with a tribute honoring Jimmy LaFave who passed away in May, 2017. Jimmy had been involved with Woody Fest for years. On July 12, Jimmy’s birthday, fellow musicians came to honor the Oklahoma Hall of Fame singer-songwriter.

John Fullbright sang Jimmy’s song “Worn Out American Dream.” The lyrics dripped from Fullbright’s interpretation, accompanied by a powerful voice and guitar. In those lyrics, it seemed like one could almost make out Woody’s spirit:

“I see no refuge for the weary; I see no handouts for the poor; I see no sense of satisfaction; On all the ones who must endure; All the slings and arrows slandered; Against the face of the poor man’s dream; All the rich circle in like vultures.”

As Fullbright magnificently hammered that truth with his Grammy-nominated voice, I sat on the balcony soaking this all in. I sensed that he wished for us to keep struggling against the bourgeoisie. Woody wrote for the Daily Worker, the predecessor of the Peoples World, back in the late 1930’s.

It was rather comforting seeing thousands of folks trek to Okemah every year to hear and honor Woody’s timeless message. Eighty years later, Woody’s lyrics are just as significant. His is the message of the worker’s plight, the hardship of these true Americans not heard or seen by capitalists.

Celebrating the 20th annual event, the crowds still wanted to taste those words of Woody –  played by common folks who were moved to pick up an instrument.

Like LaFave, many came with the experience of their own struggle to achieve an elusive American dream.

Eighty-six year-old David Amram still comes to Woody Fest out of respect for Woody. Amram is an accomplished composer, conductor and jazz fusion artist who weaves folk tales into symphonies. He’s had a 70-year career playing with Woody, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie and many others.

You can hear my interview with him here.

“I remember during the Occupy days in New York we (Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie) were playing a benefit show,” Amram stated. “Pete had just got a new metal cane. He said we all were going to walk out. Walk 40 plus blocks to Occupy in a park. So here we were late in the evening – a large crowd following – and I on a whistle. I was like the pied piper.”

Amram said Seeger’s intention was peaceful protest. That is the spirit of Woody and why 20 years later Woody Fest is a destination. This is why Woody Fest is keeping folks mindful that we can change. The reason why we can change?  Well because…

This land is your land, this land is my land.
In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

(Woody Guthrie, This Land Is Your Land)


Mark Maxey
Mark Maxey

Oklahoman Mark Maxey is a Yuchi Indian, enrolled in the Muscogee Nation, and has a degree in radio/TV/film. He is a member of the National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO. He’s worked as an administrative assistant, petroleum landman, barista, staff writer, paralegal, content producer and graphic designer. He spent six months as a National Data Team volunteer for the Bernie Sanders for President campaign.