Woody Guthrie was known for his music and art that took the nitty gritty of life and turned it into something that brought us all together in a united stance against the challenges of life.
Born in 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma, Guthrie came of age during the Great Depression and lived through the torment of the Dust Bowl that ravaged much of the Great Plains. His audience knew some of the worst times his country had known:
I know your clothes are torn and ragged
And your hair is turning gray
Lift your head and smile at trouble
You'll find peace and rest someday
That’s why the location of the new Woody Guthrie Center in a rather nitty gritty area of Tulsa, a neighborhood with an ugly past, is particularly fitting and would have pleased the troubadour. Long abandoned because of racial strife, the area on the other side of the tracks now known as the Brady Arts district is the hottest destination in Tulsa.
Legacy of Guthrie
Best known for "This Land is Your Land," a number many of us performed at some time in an elementary school sing-along, Woody Guthrie wrote more than 3,000 songs in his lifetime. Listen to him perform about 46 of them at "Woody’s Music Bar," but take time to appreciate a handwritten copy of "This Land Is Your Land" in a case nearby.
You’ll see a few verses that you never sang in elementary school. That’s because Guthrie called it as he saw it. Although he was a patriot and World War II veteran, he recognized and wrote about some of the ugliness he had seen from California to the New York Island, and for that reason, he was not always a welcomed son in his home state of Oklahoma.
Some of the other cool things on display here include a mandolin that Woody carried with him through his service in WWII, which survived attacks in both Normandy and Sicily. Yep, Woody paid his dues for his country. Another fun exhibit – son Arlo Guthrie’s first guitar.
Across the street from the Woody Guthrie Center is the Guthrie Green, a public green space where concerts, food trucks and art events often bring people together to celebrate their community.
These two facilities are the anchor of the Brady Arts District, which includes a number of art studios, a handcrafted chocolate shop and some fun restaurants and bars.
Travel just a few blocks to Cain’s Ballroom, the place where Western Swing was defined. It was here that Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys hosted a live radio broadcast six days a week from 1934 to 1959. The building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, still hosts dances and its perfect acoustics are sought after by up and coming bands.
It’s not yet on the National Register, but Church Studio on Trenton Street in Tulsa certainly should be, if some music historians had their way. Built as the Church of the United Brethren in Christ in 1913, the church was eventually abandoned and sat empty for a few years. But an up and coming Tulsa musician recognized its potential because of the magnificent acoustics. In 1972 that guy purchased the building for a recording studio.
That musician was Leon Russell who did some of his best work here under the label Shelter Records. Some of his good buddies in the music business became regulars, sometimes recording, sometimes just jamming with friends. Think Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Bob Seger, J.J. Cale, Tom Petty and Bob Dylan, among others. The mojo of this place oozes from the old sanctuary walls.
On Saturday nights, the church doors still open to the public, although no more than 100 or more because it was a small church, and new age bands once again rock these walls.
All of these places contribute to what serious music scholars recognize as "The Tulsa Sound," a kind of bluesy, folksy musical style identified by the presence of a basic six-string acoustic guitar.
It’s a little bit more than you would expect in a place called Tulsa, but worth some time to check it out.
What would you recommend for music lovers visiting Tulsa?