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A Scrapper, Like Woody

Woody Guthrie Prize recipient John Mellencamp takes up residence in Woody’s house with Rock & Roll Hall of Fame curated exhibition “Mellencamp.”

G.K. Hizer
August 28, 2018

If you’ve visited the Woody Guthrie Center multiple times and think you’ve seen it all, think again. The center’s gallery space opened a touring exhibit of John Mellencamp’s life, work and memorabilia Aug. 31. The exhibition will be available for viewing into January 2019.

In conjunction with the exhibit, Mellencamp was awarded the Woody Guthrie Prize.

“The Guthrie Prize is awarded annually to an artist who continues Woody’s work and message,” says Deana McCloud, executive director of the Woody Guthrie Center. “In that sense, John certainly qualifies. Not just based on his work with Farm Aid, but also as an advocate for equal rights and marriage equality and very much as an advocate for social change.”

Past recipients of the award include Norman Lear (2017), Kris Kristofferson (2016), Mavis Staples (2015) and Pete Seeger (2014).

Whereas previous award ceremonies and concerts have been held in varying locations, such as Cain’s Ballroom, this year’s ceremony took place in the center’s adjoining FlyLoft. “John specifically requested that we not leave ‘Woody’s house,’” McCloud says.

Mellencamp already has a healthy working relationship with the center and has toured the archives multiple times. “John is always very funny, witty and humble when he’s here,” McCloud says. “When he was here with his band a few years ago, he said that he had done a painting in honor of Woody and asked if we would want to display it. Of course, our answer was yes and it has been on display in the entry to our gallery.”

Included in the collection are handwritten lyrics, the Gibson Dove acoustic guitar used throughout his career, and more.
Included in the collection are handwritten lyrics, the Gibson Dove acoustic guitar used throughout his career, and more.

Another of Mellencamp’s paintings, this one focusing on Martin Luther King Jr, is included with the traveling exhibit. “We thought it was great, being that we’re next to Wall Street, and it’s such a strong statement from John that we decided to put it on the main gallery floor to draw full attention to it,” she says.

Included in the collection are handwritten lyrics, the Gibson Dove acoustic guitar used throughout his career, and more. “John’s motorcycle, a 1966 Honda Scrambler, is included in the exhibit and will be sitting on the gallery floor, which is a fun addition,” McCloud adds.

Mellencamp, a native of Indiana, was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2008 and was inducted this year into the Songwriters Hall of Fame by Woody’s daughter, Nora Guthrie. In 2012, Mellencamp received The John Steinbeck Award: “In The Souls of the People.” As a co-founder of Farm Aid, Mellencamp has helped give a voice and raise money for dispossessed farm families. He continues to tour and impact the musical landscape with his influence shown through musicians across genres.

Mellencamp has released nearly two dozen albums since the 1970s, with 10 records reaching the platinum sales mark. His most recent album, Sad Clowns and Hillbillies, includes the song “My Soul’s Got Wings,” with lyrics written by Woody Guthrie and music by Mellencamp.

Although the center has hosted other collections, this is the first time it has worked with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. “John told them he wanted it to come here, so we got a phone call asking if we’d be interested,” McCloud says. “Of course, it’s pretty pricy to bring some of these touring exhibits, so we reached out to some of our local sponsors and friends, and the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tulsa stepped up to be the presenting sponsor. It’s actually a great fit for both of us.”

“When Woody was on the radio in California, he got hundreds of fan letters,” McCloud says. “That’s when he really understood his responsibilities to be an advocate of change. John has been an example of that, whether it be taking a knee on Stephen Colbert’s show when that was a hot topic on the news, or encouraging others to be socially active. When artists are willing to risk their livelihood for issues they believe in, that’s something we admire and should try to model. That’s what Woody was all about. John understands that responsibility.

“John has always been very respectful when around Woody’s archives. John often refers to Woody as a ‘scrapper,’ because he was always ready to fight anyone not showing people the respect they deserved or if he saw people being mistreated. I think John’s a great example of that as well and very deserving of the Guthrie prize this year.”

The exhibit is included with admission to the Woody Guthrie Center.

Woody Guthrie Center
102 E. M.B. Brady St. | Tulsa