A Hot Old Dusty Highway for a Dust Bowl Refugee

By Robin Wheeler

And so the week of centennial celebrations is over. I’m a little sad, but I’m also happy to rediscover these things I’d forgotten. Namely, my family, and this blissful thing called “sleep.” Have you tried it? It’s awesome! I partook in around 14 hours of it on Sunday.

Lots of you are coming here for the first time after hearing me blab about my project at Woodyfest on Thursday, Corey Woodruff’s photo exhibit on Friday, or the KDHX benefit on Saturday. I appreciate the growing interest in this project so much, and I love hearing what others have to say about Guthrie and his influence. This project didn’t start as a way for me to run my mouth about my experiences; it was originally a way for as many people as possible to express their thoughts about Woody and his work. Got something you’d like published on the blog? By all means email it (boundforglory100 at gmail.com) and I’ll post it. It started out as thoughts on his book “Bound for Glory,” but I’ll gladly take anything you have to say. One of the many things I’ve learned: Guthrie can’t be surmised from one single piece of his work.

I’ve been really lazy about pointing out our Facebook presence. Of course we have a Facebook page, and I’ve been posting a lot of extra goodies on it. As have the people who’ve followed the page. Perfect example: this weekend a fan from the Netherlands posted that a local band played “Worried Man Blues” for Guthrie’s birthday at a gig on Saturday, then posted a video of the band on our Facebook page:

Want to see exactly how music transcends language, countries, continents, genre? There it is.

Where we we last? A hotel room outside Tulsa, last Thursday. I started writing this at Woodyfest Thursday night.

I have found the best way to experience ah outdoor music festival: from a media tent beside the stage with six citronella candles. Woodyfest treats the media well, even when the media’s being a bit of a collective asshole.

The worst way to experience an outdoor music festival? Sitting on drought-sharpened grass in a dress. I did that, too. Forgot my blanket, which is such a festival rookie mistake it makes me wonder who I am.

My drive from Salpulpa to Okemah should have taken an hour. Thanks to Google Maps attempting to send me to Shawnee, it took almost three. I got to see some sights with my side trip, namely a turnpike billboard listing famous Oklahoma native sons: Will Rogers (deserved, of course,) some other folks I’ve already forgotten, GarthBrooks, and Toby Keith. No Woody.

Are you serious, Oklahoma? Without Woody, country music wouldn’t exist. Shame on you for ignoring “This Land is Your Land” while honoring “Red Solo Cup” and the dude who pretended to be Chris Gaines.

(Lest you think I’m singling out Oklahoma, ask me how I feel about my native state, Missouri, putting a statue of Rush Limbaugh in its state capitol. Go on. I dare you.)

My side trip took me through the country and small towns. At a gas station in Meeker I found a fridge magnet for sale, depicting a pink stiletto with a broken heel and the words “Life is crap.” The mood in the store didn’t indicate otherwise.

Back in my car, “Black Wind Blowing” came on. Looking across the landscape now it’s hard to envision the Dust Bowl. The worst of it happened further west in the panhandle. How many people hit by the dust storms moved east? I have no idea. Not everyone moved to California, though.

Now, brilliant red dirt and trees so richly green they must be impervious to drought blazed in Technicolor under brilliant sun filtered through a smattering of puff clouds.

Less than 80 years ago, some of the ancestors of this place nearly choked to death on black dust – a massive percentage of a population eradicated, evicted, eviscerated. Gone – to California, to towns away from the dust clouds, or to the grave. All because of a disaster caused by their brothers – lust for farm profits that led to the destruction of windbreak trees and topsoil, preparing the region for disaster when the rains slowed.
Three generations after a way of life is destroyed, let’s see how hopeful the descendants are. Let’s go to New Orleans in 2085 and see how much faith in humanity, corporations, and governing bodies people have. It’s a hurt passed through generations and rooted in a belief that yes, life is crap.

My ears still heard the babbling, yelping, swushing along the streets, wheels rolling, horses straining, kids chasing and babies screaming. The big trucks tooted their horns in the dark. I wanted to ride there with my eyes closed, listening. I wanted to ride past the picture show, gambling hall, whore house, drug store, church house, court house, and the jail house and just listen to old Okemah growing up.

 

Okemah. She’s a going, blowing oil boom town. - “Boomchasers” from “Bound for Glory”

I finally got on the right road and made it to Okemah – Woody’s hometown – with half an hour to spare before Mary Jo Guthrie Edgmon arrived at the historical society to crack open the first shipment of her book, “Woody’s Road.”

Mary Jo is Woody’s 89-year-old baby sister. She’s on the board of directors for the festival, had created several posters depicting her brother’s life and travels, and now has shared her vast collection of letters and drawings she kept from her big brother over the years.

It’s hard to not imagine Woody when you see Mrs. Edgmon. Curly hair with a red tint to its gray, a thin-lipped broad grin, delicate fine-boned features that aren’t just an artifact of age. And personality. If this woman ever spent a day as a wallflower, I’d be shocked. Upon being wheeled into the historical society, she preened and waved, showing off her broad-brimmed straw hat between passing out hugs.

Prior to her arrival, I asked at the merchandise table if I could buy a copy of her book. No, not yet. Even though the first shipment had arrived the day before, Mrs. Edgmon hadn’t been feeling well enough to attend the festival. She wanted to open the first box, so they waited until she took her place on the museum’s model of Woody’s childhood home and held the first copy.

With a flurry of reporters barking at her to look this way and that for photos, grabbing any Guthrie relation for sound bites, I stayed back. Sure, I also had press passes around my neck. They’re not a license to be a jerk. The only thing that kept me from slapping the photographer next to me who kept yelling, “Mary Jo! Over here! Mary Jo! Over here! Over here!” like she was Lindsey Lohan was the fact that he was at least a foot taller than me.

After the photo op, I bought my book and got in line to get her signature. Given a moment with her, I decided I’d ask her how accurate she found “Bound for Glory.”

“It’s a wonderful book,” she answered, unable to hear the question over the noise. Guy Lodgson, who co-authored Mrs. Edgmon’s book, and several other Guthrie experts, jumped in to inform me she wasn’t in the book (I know), that it’s a novel and not an autobiography (I know), and they offered me the best Guthrie biographies available (I know).

I didn’t want cold hard academic facts. I just wanted Mrs. Edgmon’s opinion. But not enough to push her. Not during her time to bask in the joy of her book’s release. Or ever, really. Mrs. Edgmon, as far as I’m concerned, is allowed to do whatever she damn well pleases; she’s earned that right. I thanked her. She clasped my hand in both of hers, shook it, and said, “Bless you, Hon,” with a sweet, gracious smile.

Her signature in my book is a wobbly “M.E.” over a heart.

Tomorrow? Buskers, bricks, bars, and Bragg.

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