Woody Guthrie may have died relatively young at 55, but the influence of his music has survived long after his death and is being honored on would have been his 100th birthday.
The folk singer is the focus of a festival in his hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma, to honor his 100th birthday, the Associated Press reported. Guthrie’s musical legacy inspired five-day music festival known as Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, referred to by fans as WoodyFest.
Woody Guthrie gained fame for his politically charged lyrics, speaking out against fascism and songs aligning himself with the working class. Perhaps best known for “This Land is Your Land,” Guthrie was heavily influenced by his time growing up in the Dust Bowl, where poverty and unemployment were rampant. Not all of his songs were serious or political–he could have a funny side to him, which he showed in songs like “Car Song.”
Woody Guthrie’s songs were popular in a large part because of their simplicity, Forbes noted. The plain-talking songs were set to two or three chords and told easily relatable stories of desperation and hope, hunger and aspiration, the report noted. The lyrics were all charged with an American communitarian viewpoint born out of the labor movement and New Deal. Guthrie was both a follower of the Communist Party of the United States of America and a deeply religious person.
Guthrie’s simple style became an inspiration for later folk singers like Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan.
The celebration for Woody Guthrie also marks a bit of a change of course for the state of Oklahoma, where he has not always been the favorite native son.
State Sen. Roger Ballenger, whose district covers Okemah, said Guthrie came across as a bit abrasive in his beliefs and his politics sometimes irked those in Oklahoma, but his popularity grew after his death.
“His popularity rose, as many do, after he passed away,” Ballenger told the Associated Press.
If he were still alive Guthrie would probably still stirring up controversy in the state, Ballenger added.
“He would be seen as an extreme left political thinker, I’m sure. I’m not sure how political he was, he just had a passion for people that were struggling and he called it like he saw it and that came out in his music.”
Woody Guthrie’s son, Arlo Guthrie, told the Associated Press that he thought his father would have found it funny that his music was being celebrated at the five-day festival.
“We’re living in a very divided time (politically), I think everyone would agree with that,” Guthrie told the Associated Press from his home in Massachusetts. “I think he would have had some fun with that. His hero was Will Rogers, who was able to traverse between political ideologues and he did it very deftly and everybody liked him.
“And I think that’s what my dad tried without surrendering his own ideals,” added Arlo, who performed on the opening night of the Woody Guthrie festival.