Following Woody Guthrie's footsteps from Oklahoma to Texas to California
Over the weekend, the Woody Guthrie centennial celebration included a stop in Pampa, Texas, a town of about 18,000 in the Texas panhandle where Guthrie’s family lived for a time in the 1930s.
The celebration tour is traveling from Oklahoma to California. The route across eastern Oklahoma into the Texas panhandle, where Pampa sits about 70 miles from Amarillo, roughly parallels historic Route 66. Woody’s son, Arlo, recalled traveling this route in the pre-interstate highway days when it was still known, and heavily trafficked, as “the Mother Road.”
Speaking from the shotgun seat on his 1989 tour bus, Arlo said the passing scenes reinforced one of the many things he inherited from his father: a fundamental trust in the wisdom and common sense of working people.
"I love that when the government decided to put an end to Route 66, the people said no,” Guthrie told me as we cruised along Interstate 40 through the rolling countryside of the Sooner State that his father most famously lionized in his song “The Oklahoma Hills.”
“They put up their own signs that said 'Historic Route 66' or 'Old Route 66.' And it wasn't just one person -- it took a lot of people in these towns to raise the money to buy and put up those signs, so that now when folks come from all over to travel it, they can still find it."
Along the way Guthrie shared what’s been an ongoing mission for himself, his big sister, Nora, and Guthrie scholars: piecing together the specifics of his father’s many travels.
It was well known that Woody’s father, Charlie Guthrie, moved to Pampa and eventually brought Woody and his other children along after the death of Woody’s mother, Norabelle, from the same Huntington’s disease that led to Woody’s death at 55 in 1967.
Arlo said he was contacted a few years back by a woman who said she’d been in school with Woody in Pampa, which was a surprise to Arlo because he never knew that his father went to school during the years the family was there.
The Pampa resident even sent him a class photo, on the back of which was written the name “Woody Guthrie” in what appeared to be his father’s handwriting.
What Arlo eventually discovered was that the woman had indeed been in school with Woody Guthrie -- “It was another Woody Guthrie!” Arlo said -- a distant relative, who happened to live in Pampa around the time that Arlo’s father and other family members were there.
There were a number of Guthries in that part of the country, and in the same way that Charlie and Norabelle named their son after Woodrow Wilson, who had been elected president the year Woody was born, it wasn’t so unusual that other parents favored the name for their own offspring.
Centennial events organized by Nora in conjunction with officials at L.A.’s Grammy Museum are taking place this year in the same geographical sequence that Woody followed as he traveled from Oklahoma to Texas to California to New York and Washington, D.C., through his life.
"One of the brilliant things my sister did in putting this together,” Arlo said, “was to see what came up and then respond to that and let that guide how big this could be. So when the people like Bob [Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum] said, 'We'd like to do something in L.A.,' and then people in New York said, 'Well, we want to do something,' she just followed Woody's trail and put them together in the order Woody went to these places."
The trail leads to Los Angeles for a week of activities culminating on April 14 with an all-star show at Club Nokia with a just-announced lineup that includes Jackson Browne, David Crosby & Graham Nash, Kris Kristofferson, Richie Furay, John Doe and Dawes.
-- Randy Lewis
Photo: Arlo Guthrie, left, performs with Taylor Hanson during the Woody Guthrie Centennial Concert at the Brady Theater Saturday. Credit: Christopher Smith / Tulsa World/Associated Press