Getting in Tune
The Woody Guthrie Center focuses on carrying Guthrie's vision and legacy into the future while keeping in touch with his past, and helping Oklahoma youth find their own voices.
More than just a museum and gathering place for Woody Guthrie’s archives, the Woody Guthrie Center is focused on both giving back to the community and helping others carry forward Woody’s legacy of social activism. This year will see a big update for the museum and, of course, there will be concerts to celebrate the center’s fifth anniversary. But as executive director Deana McCloud shares, the WGC’s main focus is in remaining committed to its educational programs and helping Oklahoma youth find their voices and help create change.
Whether you’re a first-time visitor or know the layout of the building like your own home, a huge new addition will be hard to miss. As an exhibit, the virtual reality Dust Bowl is designed to resemble a farmhouse porch and was even built from repurposed wood located in the Panhandle of the state. With VR headsets, visitors are able to experience an oncoming dust storm from the vantage point of the porch, in a multi-sensory experience.
The exhibit opens to members and donors April 23 before opening to the public the next day.
During the Dust Bowl period, folk singer Guthrie, whose writing is distinguished by a homespun authenticity and deep-seated purpose, joined thousands of Okies who were migrating to California looking for work, leaving his wife and children in Texas. Many of his songs are concerned with the conditions faced by these working-class people.
“We have found in the past that most people were really interested in the Dust Bowl era and the dust storms,” says McCloud. “When it came time for our five-year update, we wanted to be forward thinking and cutting edge. A lot of museums are trying to find ways to use new technology and virtual reality to make the experience more interactive. It was clear for us to know how to incorporate that with this exhibit. It just makes sense.
“This was the first step to kick off our capital campaign to add technology and scope to the museum. We were fortunate to get grants from the Oklahoma Humanities Council and matching funds from the George Kaiser Family Foundation, but most of this was paid for from our operating expense budget. It’s our responsibility to be wise with our spending and we understand the impact this can have.”
This exhibit is important to show the impact the Dust Bowl and the storms had on the people who left Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas. It’s historically important because these were the events that caused people to move and become migrant workers, but it was also the catalyst for Woody becoming a social activist and telling the stories of the area.
In February 1940 while holed up in a New York hotel, he wrote his most famous song, “This Land Is Your Land,” as a response to what he felt was an overplaying of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” on the radio. Guthrie thought the lyrics were unrealistic and complacent.
Songwriters such as Bob Dylan, John Mellencamp, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen have acknowledged Guthrie as a major influence.
Also on exhibit through May 6 is “Marty Stuart’s Way Out West: A Country Music Odyssey.” Taken largely from Stuart’s private collection, the display includes hand-written lyrics from Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard; Cash’s Martin D-45 guitar; and guitars from Glen Campbell and Haggard, along with many other items.
“It really shows the impact Oklahoma had on the Bakersfield sound,” says McCloud. “If you investigate the West Coast country sound, it includes a lot of people who migrated to California, so it really ties to who we are in Oklahoma, musically.”
Bakersfield country was a reaction against the slickly produced, string orchestra-laden Nashville sound, which was becoming popular in the late 1950s. Buck Owens and the Buckaroos and Merle Haggard and the Strangers are the most successful artists of the original Bakersfield sound era. Other major Bakersfield country artists include Dwight Yoakam, Wynn Stewart, Jean Shepard, Tommy Collins, Susan Raye, Joe Maphis, Dennis Payne and Freddie Hart.
Stuart was in Tulsa for his exhibition opening and loved the way everything was displayed. That success has opened doors and an ongoing conversation with the WGC as he is planning on opening a museum with his collection in Mississippi, and is using input from the center in planning the project.
McCloud says the WGC offers a number of educational programs that are ongoing and mostly focusing on underfunded schools. Of course, there are also after-school and summer programs that include putting together a band and either recording a song or performing on the Guthrie Green, depending on the season.
“We don’t want to just show Woody’s legacy; we want to inspire people to use their own voices,” McCloud says. “It’s great, and so rewarding, when you see young people realize their voice is important. Woody wanted people to love and feel good, and his work was largely about the potential of the world.
“Woody always carried a message of hope and that if you don’t like the world, it’s up to you to change it.”
Woody Guthrie Center
102 E. M.B. Brady St. | Tulsa
Tuesday-Sunday: 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
First Fridays of Month: 10 a.m.-9 p.m.
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