Wondering About Woody's Wanderings: A Visit to the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa Oklahoma

 Dear Henry,

Do you remember the song "This Land is Your Land"?  

The song always brings back memories of elementary school. One of my teachers was an avid Woody Guthrie fan and would always (with his guitar) play us this song. Still, I knew very little about Woody Guthrie himself until the other day when Fish and I went downtown to see the Woody Guthrie Center.

The first part of the tour starts with a short biographical film and then a self-guided biographical walk that details Woody's life. He has a great story.

Woody Guthrie (see his Everyday Patriot biography here) was an Oklahoma native. He was born in 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma, a small town about an hour southwest of Tulsa and an hour east of Oklahoma City. The land was once Quapaw and Osage (read a story of the Osage Nation here) but was relinquished to the US Government in 1825. The government assigned the land to the Muscogee (Creek) people in 1830. The town's land opened up for purchase by people of non-native descent on April 22, 1902, and Charles Guthrie would initially be one of the more considerable non-native landowners in town.

It wasn't a paradise, though. Nora Guthrie was incredibly ill, dangerously so, with Huntington's Disease and, after three fires in the home (one of which killed his sister Clara) had to be committed, and Charles Guthrie, after a string of bad investments, left Oklahoma for Texas. So Woody was mainly on his own at the age of fourteen and began his career as a singer/songwriter then, busking on the streets of Okemah.

Although he would rejoin his father in Texas by the time he was 19, the effects of the Dustbowl and the Depression would ultimately take him on the road, mainly traveling as a "hobo" by freight train, and it was these journeys that provided him with the material for his songs. Because Woody was a storyteller who told the stories of those who were broke, desperate, and hungry. 

Woody Guthrie was an incredibly prolific artist. In addition to writing more than 3,000 songs, he also wrote several books. Bound For Glory and Born To Win were published during his lifetime, while others, like House of Earth, were discovered in his papers and published later. He also produced hundreds of drawings.

The center has a great deal of these papers on display, along with several of his instruments, and everywhere you look, you can see metal-etched copies of his drawings.

I was hugely inspired by Woody's life. Before his time, he played with musicians of all kinds, including crossing racial lines and demanding equal pay for all he played with. He was also the working man's voice, particularly for those affected by poverty and hardship. His goal was never to be a commercial success. Rather his journeys around the country were storytelling adventures. 

In addition to the full-time exhibits of Woody's life, the center also puts together a few shows a year focusing on the impact of music. For example, we attended at the tail end of the Songs of Conscience, Sounds of Freedom exhibition, which focused on America's protest songs, beginning with the Revolution and touching on all genres. It was a great exhibition on how music has shaped our culture.

The center is open from 10 to 6, Wednesday through Saturday, and admission is $12.00. There is a great gift shop for Woody gear, and You can also gain access to the archives for research. Masks to prevent the spread of COVID are required at this time.

xoxo a.d. elliott


a.d. elliott is a wanderer, writer, and photographer currently living in Salem, Virginia. 

In addition to the travel writings at www.takethebackroads.com, you can also read her book reviews at www.riteoffancy.com and US military biographies at www.everydaypatriot.com

Her online photography gallery can be found at shop.takethebackroads.com


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