The Arkansas River looks beautiful shimmering in the sun from the window of our Tulsa hotel room. Shafts of light shoot down through dark and mottled clouds onto the land below. There are predictions for severe weather tonight, but for now all is serene. Willows and some early flowering trees are greening up, and the redbuds are blooming with full force.
Up until yesterday we were working hard – six gigs in a row through Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma. It was nice seeing a cross section of these states in consecutive days. I got something of a glimpse of how the personalities of each state differ in relation to each other.
Nebraska appeared busier than I remember. Kearney, where we spent a couple of days, had clearly grown in population since I was last there. Sandhill Cranes were everywhere, fattening up in cornfields near the Platte River on their journey north to ancestral breeding grounds. Kansas felt empty in comparison. We drove across miles of dusty land that agri-business had gobbled up from smaller family farms – their houses now empty, abandoned and derelict. I was told that all the towns under 35, 000 in population are shrinking whereas all the towns above that are growing. In eastern Oklahoma all of a sudden there were hills and trees and water. In contrast to high and arid Kansas, eastern Oklahoma felt lush.
Eric Clapton’s “Tulsa Time” has been going around in my head for the past three days. Knowing that the Woody Guthrie Center had recently opened in Tulsa it seemed like this would be a good place to spend the couple of days that we had off.
The Brady Arts District is located in the northern part of downtown Tulsa and is where a variety of really cool businesses have set up shop: there’s a letterpress, a glass blowing school, a violin shop, vintage stores, groovy bars, foodie restaurants, a couple of big art galleries, and of course the Woody Guthrie Center. Arriving to the Guthrie Green we were delighted to discover it was “Food Truck Wednesday.” A live blues band was playing and food trucks of all stripes circled the perimeter of the park. It was a beautiful early-spring afternoon and people were out in numbers soaking up the sun.
After lunch we dove into the Woody Guthrie Center. There were stunning depictions of the Dust Bowl and the mass exodus from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico; photos of Woody’s life; stories that created the context for Woody’s music and activism; original, hand-written lyrics and a huge display of his illustrations. I was thrilled by an oil painting he made in Santa Fe of adobe houses in an impressionist style with Van Gogh-esque swirling clouds in the sky above; and moved by photographs that John Cohen made in New York City during Woody’s decline in the 1960s from Huntington’s disease.
Days later now, we are in Colorado, and I’m still reflecting on how the Woody Guthrie Center touched me. I’m trying to process how his work was significant both in his time and in our time now as well.
In Guthrie’s day the great social issues revolved around rights and dignity for the common working person. Woody advocated for the unions because corporations took advantage of the abundance of cheap labor available and did everything possible to maximize profit (sound familiar?). Belonging to a union was the only way for people to gain enough leverage for better working conditions and to make a living wage. Union members were slandered as socialists or communists, but most workers weren’t concerned about ideology or politics. They just wanted to feed their families and enjoy a basic quality of life.
During the Dust Bowl and Depression Woody witnessed the suffering of the dispossessed. He empathized with them, wrote about them, and sang for them. The Dust Bowl was a man-made tragedy and the worst ecological disaster in this country’s history. Climate change will soon become the 21st century’s version of the Dust Bowl. Not only will it be global in scope, it will be infinitely more destructive. Climate change will create circumstances and conditions we cannot yet fathom, and again it will be the poor who will suffer the most. Why the poor? Because those who create policy that affect our lives typically do not represent them.
Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court dismantled another component of Campaign Finance Reform, which was initially intended to keep big money out of politics. In a time where CEOs of corporations are making annual salaries in the tens of millions, their ability to effect policy is stronger than ever. Basically, the wealthiest people in this country now own the political process and make it very, very hard for non-wealthy candidates who are representing working families to get a fair shot in governing our country.
I recently read that a person was called an “activist” after speaking out in their community for clean drinking water. This was where the chemicals used in fracking were polluting the local water supply. It seems to me that having clean water and clean air is as fundamental a right as any, but when a multi-billion dollar oil, coal, gas, or chemical company holds the purse strings for the politicians who create laws regarding the environment, something is very, very wrong.
I derive great solace and inspiration from Vermont Senator, Bernie Sanders, who says, “We have the people behind us. They have the money. And at the end of the day, the people will be stronger than the money.” Woody believed this as well, and used his creative powers to bring people’s voices, beliefs, and actions together.
I saw very clearly that day in Tulsa how we are in need of Woody’s voice now more than ever. His humor, his compassion, and his message are archetypal and eternal. I sure as hell hope that someone, or better yet, legions of young songwriters, poets, painters, and orators come along to remind us that we all need to work together to make this a better world. Money in and of itself is not a bad thing. People with a talent for making money need to find good, healing and positive things to do with their money! Whether we act or do not act, we are all complicit. So ultimately, it’s down to us. Thanks for the reminder, Woody!