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S2 Ep7: Woody Guthrie: "A Shakespeare in Overalls"

Why should we still listen to Woody Guthrie’s music and message over 50 years after his death? This #BrainBoxOK episode features a discussion with scholars and musicians who are keeping Guthrie’s legacy of social activism alive through the folk music tradition. We look at Guthrie’s childhood in Okemah, OK; the wide range of influences on his work; stories from his life of wandering; and his continuing impact on American culture.

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About our guests:

Rik Palieri and Rick Nestler are an award-winning musical duo known as The Rix. They have recorded, performed, and learned from folk music masters like Pete Seeger and Utah Phillips. At this year’s Woody Guthrie Festival Robert Williams and The Rix presented a program sponsored by Oklahoma Humanities honoring the 100th anniversary of Pete Seeger’s birth and discussing the history of environmental activism in music. The Rix worked with Pete Seeger for many years on his Clearwater project to clean up and preserve the Hudson River. Click here for information about The Rix's new album, Steering Pete's Course: Maritime Songs from the Seeger Songbag, featuring the Grammy Award-winning song "The River That Flows Both Ways" that the Rix perform at the end of this BrainBox episode.

Robert Williams is a native Oklahoman and a retired linguistics professor whose research focuses on the documentation of endangered languages. His PhD dissertation was on the Choctaw language in Oklahoma. Robert is also an acclaimed recording artist based in Berlin, Germany, and he regularly tours with his band Melvin Touché and the Tom Toms. Robert’s first solo album, State Secrets, was named by the Oklahoma Gazette as one of the top ten albums of the 2000s by an Oklahoma artist. His musical style is a blend of folk, blues, rock, and European cabaret. Robert is a member of the Woody Guthrie Coalition’s advisory board, and he has performed and given scholarly presentations at the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah.

Links to additional information about topics discussed in this episode:

Read more about Woody Guthrie's childhood in Okemah, OK, and the city's complicated relationship with its native son. (Woody is pictured here with a hat on the porch of his childhood home, around age 13.)

Woody's song "Union Maid" was inspired by union organizers in Oklahoma City. Hear an excerpt of the song and read more about Woody and Pete Seeger's visit to Oklahoma in 1940.

Find background information about why Woody's guitars carried the message "This Machine Kills Fascists" in the 1940s.

Read more about Woody's most famous song, "This Land Is Your Land," and the "more radical" verses he wrote but never recorded.

Our guest Robert Williams calls "Do Re Mi" one of his favorite Woody Guthrie songs. Hear the song, and check out an interview with Woody's granddaughter Anna Canoni that describes the song's meaning and her thoughts about her grandfather.

Larry Long assembled the first hometown tribute to Woody Guthrie in Okemah in 1989, working with school children to interview family members about the town's history, write ballads about what they learned, and perform a tribute concert. Watch this 1980s news report from the Today show about Long's efforts to honor Guthrie and the wide range of reactions he received from Oklahomans at the time.