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Woody Guthrie Folk Festival - Maverick Magazine

by Jela Webb - courtesy of Maverick Magazine

Okemah, Oklahoma - July 11-15, 2012

Michael Fracasso sang: 'I'm going back to Oklahoma ...' thousands did so to celebrate Woody Guthrie's centenary. 1998's inaugural festival featured musicians who return each year but one who hadn't returned until this year was Billy Bragg. The protest folk singer captured the essence of Guthrie singing songs from the MERMAID AVENUE sessions. In his distinctive accent Bragg spoke about his work with the Guthrie archives and how it had led him to reassess Woody Guthrie. Billy Brag at the Woody FestivalYes, Guthrie wrote songs standing up for the dispossessed and disfranchised but lesser known are the children's songs, the love songs, the Jewish songs ... there are almost 3000 individual lyrics in the archives. Bragg observed that I Ain't Got No Home could have been written any time in the past five years such is its relevance today. Political activism is in Bragg's DNA and he pulled no punches in railing against those in power who do little to address social and economic inequality. It was a triumphant return for Bragg.

The Red Dirt Rangers have performed at every festival, as have Joel Rafael, a leading authority on Guthrie, Don Conoscenti, a highly respected multiinstrumentalist and regular headliner, Jimmy LaFave. Rafael included seven Guthrie songs in his set. With a newly released album AMERICA COME HOME Rafael played just one self-penned song from it Meanwhile The Rain. That gives you a measure of his respect for Guthrie's legacy - how many musicians, playing in front of thousands, would rather have promoted their own material? Conoscenti joined by his three-piece band and friend, Ellis Paul, opened his set with Beautiful Valley: 'me and my banjo, are going to pick a little music, we sure are happy to be here tonight ...' Terry Ware, John Fullbright and Bill Chambers joined in for Red Man Sky; Brad Piccolo and John Cooper together with Butch Hancock joined in for What Else Could I Do. Conoscenti called upon a cast of many so we got to see the dream combinations that are only possible at 'WoodyFest.'

LaFave has performed at many 'Woody at 100' shows this year. A festival mainstay as a performer and as an adviser to the organising committee, he showed what a wonderfully interpretative singer he is. Guthrie's Bound For Glory, Bob Childers' Restless Spirit, Dylan's Dusty Old Fairgrounds, Butch Hancock's Bluebird (for which he was joined by Hancock) and Townes van Zandt's Snowin' On Raton were covered. LaFave did include some of his own songs before finishing with Guthrie's Oklahoma Hills and This Land Is Your Land. By this time the stage was full to bursting with musicians who took turns at lead vocals - Johnsmith drew the loudest cheers for changing the words of a verse to reflect the 'Occupy' movement's protests.

Ellis Paul, described by Guthrie's daughter, Nora as 'wise, tender, brilliant and biting ...' played main stage with accompanists Conoscenti and Radoslav Lorkovic. Highlights included Chief Joseph from his family album THE HERO IN YOU and the medley of Patsy Cline's Walking After Midnight with Sam Baker's Change - Baker joined in. Baker's own set at the Crystal Theatre was played to a packed house, he opened with a song he'd written for Guthrie's 100th - the lines: 'Give Woody just a little bit of time, he's gonna teach the angels to fight.

Woody's packed, he's gone, he's like a thunderstorm late at night' got a rapturous response from the audience. Migrants an unrecorded song, influenced by Guthrie's Deportee (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos) was a memorable moment as too was All Fall Down - a song in the burlesque style.

Butch Hancock played on his 67th birthday; his band included his fourteenyear- old son, Rory. Whilst Hancock has a new album due he concentrated on more familiar material inviting fellow 'birthday boy' LaFave to join him for Bluebird. Hancock's homage to Guthrie was Pretty Boy Floyd.

A rainstorm delayed local boy John Fullbright's main stage slot. With a band, he opened with David Halley's Rain Just Falls before showcasing songs from his new album FROM THE GROUND UP. People unfamiliar with Fullbright were stopped in their tracks by the brilliance of this 24-year-old whose mature lyrics have an immediate impact. A great future beckons for this unassuming young man. Festival debuts included John McCutcheon who very affectionately, recounted his story of falling in love, at 14-years-old, with the local librarian and how many years later, she brought her grandchildren to one of his book signings. McCutcheon was a perfect fit for the festival mixing political messages with songs for children and closing with Guthrie's Hobo's Lullaby.

The festival finale was given over to the ageless Judy Collins whose voice is still clear and beautiful. She told stories about meeting a young Arlo Guthrie, being with Bob Dylan when he wrote Mr Tambourine Man and sang snippets of songs, without accompaniment, by way of illustration. She entranced the audience with, amongst others, the Grammy winning Both Sides Now, Joan Baez's Diamonds And Rust and played piano for a moving song about her late mother In The Twilight. Collins finished with Somewhere Over The Rainbow - a fitting end to the centenary celebrations.

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