News & Reviews - Archive

Rafael Tells Why Festival is Special

Okemah News Leader
July 13, 2003
Vol. 82, No. 56, p. 1

The Woody Guthrie Folk Festival got underway Wed. evening with a tribute concert held at the Crystal Theatre and it was just the beginning of the festivities that many musicians, plus visitors, look forward to all year long.

Joel Rafael, who is a musician from North San Diego County in California, said he has been to all six of Okemah's festivals and says he will be back as long as they keep having them.

"This is just a special festival," said Rafael. "Woody Guthrie is the heart of the whole folk music thing and folk music has taken on a new role."

Rafael explained that back in the 1960s there was what he described as an energy around Woody Guthrie and those who performed Guthrie's music were called "Woody's children." He said Woody's children are sill the ones who are at the festival performing.

"The thing that makes this festival so great, well besides it being free, is the down-to-earthness about it all," said Rafael. "The Coalition has been creative in financing this and they will continue to come up with other ways to make it work."

Rafael went on to say, "We who come just for the festival have no idea what Okemah is like when the festival is not going on. I have some idea because it was about 11 years ago when I first stopped through Okemah. I stopped here because I knew it was Woody's birthplace and there was just not much here about him at all... I saw his initials in the sidewalk and that was about it."

Rafael said it has been great to watch the festival grow through the years and he said he believes that the festival is still growing, and will continue to grow.

"The community we are growing here is great, " said Rafael. "It is what we need and there is so much strength in that, even on a national scale. The performers are growing as well, with new materials being explored. A lot of things come from attending this festival."

Rafael said that he performs regularly and earlier this year he performed 10 shows with another regular festival performer Jimmy LaFave.

"We all share about this festival where ever we go," said Rafael. "It is just so down-to-earth and it is located right in the middle of the country... It is all about Woody's truth and the essence of his personality. It makes people rise to his honesty."

Rafael added, "This is such a strong community of people, not just the people who are here, but the visitors, musicians. People keep coming back... Whenever I play I always put in an invite to people about this festival."

Rafael is not an individual musician, but instead has the Joel Rafael Band. The band is made up of his daughter, Jamaica Rafael, who does vocals, violin, and viola; Carl Johnson, lead guitar; and Jeff Berkley, ethno-percussion. The band members accompany him at the festival, along with his wife, Lauren and other daughter, Cree. However, Cree, who lives in Los Angeles and is attending law school, could not attend this year's event.

"Woodeye" is the newest and fourth CD released from the Joel Rafael Band and it includes a song that mentions Okemah, the festival and Rafael's encounter with Rocky Road Tavern owner Lou Johnson. Rafael wrote the song, "Talkin' Oklahoma Hills," following his visit to the second Woody Guthrie Folk Festival.

"You know it happened just like the song says," said Rafael. "I was coming downtown to attend a reception at the Brick Street Cafe and there was just no place to park... I ended up taking Lou to the reception as a guest with me after all that."

As the song explains, Rafael found a parking spot in front of the Rocky Road Tavern and when he got out of his car, he was questioned by Johnson about where he was going. Rafael informed Johnson that he was going up to Brick Street and she said that he could not park in her parking lot because it was for Rocky Road customers. Rafael was understanding of the situation and said he would move his car, then come inside the Rocky Road to drink a beer. Johnson then told Rafael that if he was going to come inside her bar for a beer, then he would not have to move his car.

The story in the song ends by saying Johnson ended up buying Rafael a beer, which he describes as "Oklahoma hospitality." At every festival since that time, Rafael has a reserved parking spot marked by a sign out in front of the Rocky Road.

"Lou told me she would build a stage in her back yard if we would come back the next year and play," said Rafael. "Well we came back the next year and we were amazed at what all she had done."

Rafael said that he wanted to write about his experience in Okemah and his encounter with Johnson, which he described as a real rural Oklahoma experience.

"Really I wanted to write a song about Woody and the song starts out that way," said Rafael. "Then I wasn't sure where to go with it all and I just kept going back to the other element of the festival, which was meeting Lou. So I just put the two together... The first time I played Talkin' Oklahoma Hills was in Santa Barbara and it just knocked the audience out. So now I play it everywhere I go."

The song can also be heard regularly at the Rocky Road due to Rafael's CD, along with other CDs of festival performers, being located in the jukebox.

Rafael spoke about his band and said that all of the band members are songwriters. He commented, "They are all willing to support me in my music and since they are all songwriters then they totally understand. They understand how to put music around a song."

As for Rafael having a favorite part of the festival, he said he likes all of it and he does not mind the event being held in the heat of the summer.

"It is just great the way friendships increase and grow with each year," said Rafael. "You get on a first name basis with people and you look forward to seeing them all year. It is just like a big family reunion... And celebrating it in July is for celebrating it around Woody's birth and his life. That is what this festival is all about."

Rafael is very supportive of the work of the Woody Guthrie Coalition and he has hopes that the group will continue to grow. "The Coalition takes care of everything. When this is a problem, they jump in and take care of it. They also keep the festival alive all year long by planning and working on things. Their work makes this whole thing unique and special."

Rafael concluded by saying, "The cordialness and hospitality here in Okemah are something that you just don't see in other parts of the country."

The Joel Rafael Band was an opening act of Joan Baez's 2003 Tour and they performed Fri. evening at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival Pastures of Plenty concert site. The folk festival continued with performances all day Sat. at all available venues and on Sun. with a worship service at Noble Park, plus the "Hoot for Huntington's" at the Crystal Theatre.

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