Music

This Land Is Your Land

In Tulsa, Oklahoma, the Woody Guthrie Center shines a light on one of America’s most influential artists.

MOST READ ARTS

Stays

Villa Carlotta

One of Italy’s most charming boutique hotels offers style and hospitality in equal...

Guides

Where to Eat, Drink, and Caffeinate in Copenhagen

A few favorite spots from the Noma staff list.

Destinations

The Italian Riviera, Reborn and Reconsidered

A road trip across Liguria.

“This land is your land and this land is my land
From California to the New York island
From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.”

— “This Land Is Your Land,” Woody Guthrie


“THIS LAND IS
Your Land” is folk singer and songwriter Woody Guthrie’s most famous song. For Americans, it’s ubiquitous, as if planted in our brains at birth. School children sing it. We hear it at Fourth of July parades and baseball games. We know the lyrics without remembering exactly how or when we learned them. The song, written in 1940, is arguably just as famous as “God Bless America” or even “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but its message is both more gentle and cleverly subversive. “This Land Is Your Land” is less a song of blind allegiance to America than one about sharing, equality, and diversity. It’s a reminder to America’s working class — you have the power.

Considering that his work is ingrained in the public consciousness, it’s remarkable how little most people know about Woody Guthrie. Although he was never officially affiliated with any political party or movement, Guthrie was deeply motivated by socialist political ideals. The dichotomy between the popular image of Woody Guthrie — the skinny, handsomely disheveled, boxcar-jumping troubadour with a guitar in his hand — and the real man is one of the most striking aspects of the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “People know Woody wrote ‘This Land Is Your Land,’ but he was so much more than that,” Deana McCloud, executive director and chief curator of the Center, says. “He was actually reporting.”

MOST READ ARTS

Stays

What We’re Eating, Where We’re Going, and What We’re Loving in July

From a special object to a delicious meal, a captivating place to an unforgettable...

Destinations

The Faraway Nearby

Exploring Georgia O’Keeffe’s New Mexico.

Performance

On Pointe

One of New York City’s most venerable cultural institutions returns to the stage.

Located in the Tulsa Arts District near the city’s downtown area, the Woody Guthrie Center houses the world’s largest collection of the songwriter’s materials. In the Center’s archives, you’ll find Guthrie’s writings, instruments, scrapbooks, artwork, recordings, photographs, and related reference materials. The Center, which opened in 2013, also serves as a fascinating tribute and remarkable document of Guthrie’s life and work, featuring a biographical film installation, curated exhibitions of other kindred artists and musicians, a performance space, and educational programs for children and young adults.

Introducing Guthrie to newbies is no easy task. The musician’s life was as complicated and expansive as his music, as McCloud explains. “You can’t paint Woody Guthrie with a stroke of one brush,” she says. “You need to get out all the colors of the rainbow.”

***

Woody Guthrie was born into an upper-middle-class family in Okemah, Oklahoma, in 1912, a rural farm town experiencing a flush of new oil wealth. He loved music from an early age, absorbing English and Scottish folk music and country music from his mother and father, and blues music from Black musicians in town. His early life was marked by calamity. When Guthrie was seven, his sister caught on fire after her dress ignited from a kerosene stove flame and Guthrie witnessed her death from the severe burns. Later, his father was also severely injured in a fire, then lost most of the family’s money in bad real estate deals. His mother was committed to an insane asylum shortly after, suffering symptoms of Huntington’s disease, a rare hereditary neurodegenerative affliction.

As a teenager, Guthrie settled in Pampa, Texas, another oil boom town, taking odd jobs to make ends meet. He bought his first guitar from a drugstore where he worked, and taught himself the basics of the instrument. He joined several country bands, began writing songs of his own, and wedded his first wife, Mary. Life was looking up. Then the Dust Bowl hit the plains in the early 1930s. Woody, like so many around him, found himself with no prospects, so he hit the railcars looking for work. From his fellow wanderers, he learned firsthand about the rich history of American folk and blues music and began to write songs about the characters he met while drifting around the country. These were often men like himself — shut out, downtrodden, without a country that cared about their well-being or their future. He turned their stories into stark narratives of social unrest. “He was using his platform to speak for the disenfranchised in a way that hadn’t been done through music before,” McCloud explains.


“I ain’t got no home, I'm just a-roamin' 'round,
Just a wandrin' worker, I go from town to town.
And the police make it hard wherever I may go
And I ain't got no home in this world anymore.”


— “I Ain’t Got No Home,” Woody Guthrie

Guthrie eventually landed in Los Angeles, where he got jobs performing country music on local radio stations. In LA, he would write many of the songs that made him famous: “Do Re Mi”; “Tom Joad”; and “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You (Dusty Old Dust).” He began gaining the attention not just of the folk music world but also left-wing activists. Many of these songs he would later record and release as “Dust Bowl Ballads,” a powerful exploration of the lives of the American working class and his travels across the country. The record is considered one of the foundations of American folk music.

In New York City, he found a home in the Greenwich Village folk scene and was celebrated for his progressive voice and authenticity as an Okie Dust Bowl survivor. He wrote his acclaimed memoir, “Bound for Glory,” which garnered him significant literary acclaim. He performed with Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers, who wrote emphatic, anti-fascist anthems as the United States involvement in World War II escalated. He eventually joined the Merchant Marines, where he narrowly survived being killed when his submarine was torpedoed off the coast of France on D-Day.


Advertisement

“There are certain things that are on the gallery floor that I make sure to show people when they come in,” McCloud says. “He had this fiddle on the Merchant Marine ships when he was in World War II. He took a wood-burning set and carved in the names of the ships he was on, as well as a message that says, ‘This machine killed 10 fascists.’” It was a message he would later inscribe on many of his instruments.

After the war, Guthrie married Marjorie Greenblatt, a dancer in the Martha Graham Dance Company. These were highly productive years, as he branched out into creating children’s songs, which gave him a broad new audience. But what should have been a joyful new era in his career was cut tragically short. By the late 1940s, Guthrie began exhibiting signs of Huntington’s disease, the same affliction that killed his mother. As the ’60s folk revival blossomed in Greenwich Village, Guthrie was largely incapacitated in a hospital. Acolytes such as Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs (whose archives now also live in the Guthrie Center) made trips to see their mentor, but Guthrie was largely unable to process the gigantic effect that his music made on a new generation of musicians, who would ultimately bring his message to a mass audience. Woody Guthrie died at age 55 in 1967.

***

Speaking of Guthrie’s work, the often-deified Dylan has frequently acknowledged the debt that he owes to the folk legend. “For me it was an epiphany,” Dylan said of Guthrie’s music in Martin Scorsese’s documentary “No Direction Home.” “It was like I had been in the dark and someone had turned on the main switch of a lightning conductor.” Guthrie’s mix of music and activism would serve as a beacon for a wide swath of artists in the coming decades, from Johnny Cash to Bruce Springsteen to Public Enemy’s Chuck D. “They look to Woody, not as a link in the chain of activism,” McCloud says, “but as the post that’s driven down into the ground that the chain’s hooked onto.”

The Woody Guthrie Center’s location in Oklahoma was no accident. “Oklahoma is the reddest of the red states, and Guthrie was not welcome in his home state for many, many years because of his progressive attitudes,” McCloud explains. Nora Guthrie, Guthrie’s daughter and president of the Woody Guthrie Foundation, was instrumental in getting her father’s message to a more conservative audience. “This work being located in New York was preaching to the choir,” says McCloud. “Nora wanted to put Woody’s message in a place where it needed to be heard.”

Guthrie’s progressive vision seems to be spreading into Oklahoma’s cultural landscape. In May 2022, the Bob Dylan Center will open in Tulsa, just down the street from the Woody Guthrie Center, and will house a priceless collection of Dylan’s fabled archives. Additionally, the George Kaiser Family Foundation, which funded the Woody Guthrie Center and the Bob Dylan Center, continues to fund a broad variety of expansive art projects in Tulsa. These include the Tulsa Artist Fellowship, which gives grants to selected artists of all disciplines who make a two-year commitment to come live and work in Tulsa.

Karl Jones, a writer and artist originally from Tulsa, recently received the Tulsa Artist Fellowship and has moved back after many years in New York City. “Tulsa has a long history of attracting artists,” he says. “With institutional support from organizations like Oklahoma Visual Arts Coalition, the Center for Poets and Writers, Oklahoma Arts Council, and the George Kaiser Family Foundation, artists with traditional and outsider approaches can often find support for projects.”

Another recipient of support from the George Kaiser Family Foundation is Twisted Arts, a Tulsa-based organization dedicated to promoting the work of LGBTQ+ artists, including the Twisted Arts Film Festival, which debuted in Tulsa in November 2021. Founder Kevin Lovelace is also an Oklahoma native who has come home to roost. Like so many creatives, he gravitated to both the East and West Coasts as a young person, but has found inspiration in returning to Oklahoma. “I knew someday that I would move back,” Lovelace explains. His experience mirrors that of many people who have found a supportive community of artists in Tulsa. “Churches, community groups, and local nonprofits have actually been incredibly supportive and thankful that Twisted Arts is providing queer artists a platform,” he says.

***

Given Tulsa’s complicated cultural history as a site of artistic innovation, political diversity, and profound racial strife, it seems fitting that Woody Guthrie’s work has taken up permanent residence here. And even though much of Guthrie’s work spoke directly to the specific struggles of his time, it’s astounding how prescient his body of work now feels. When asked about the highlights of the collection at the Woody Guthrie Center, McCloud points to an eerily relevant lyric sheet. In the 1950s, Guthrie lived in an apartment building on Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island, Brooklyn, owned by Fred Trump, the future president’s father. After observing the now widely known discriminatory housing practices inflicted on residents of color, he was inspired to pen a song called “Old Man Trump.”


“I suppose that Old Man Trump knows just how much racial hate
He stirred up in that bloodpot of human hearts
When he drawed that color line
Here at his Beach Haven family project.”


“Just the fact that there was interaction between Woody and the Trump family is just kind of amazing,” McCloud exclaims. “Old Man Trump” speaks to the singer’s enduring legacy in today’s America, his political foresight, and his ultimate vision for the country he loved. McCloud reads from a corresponding essay that Guthrie wrote about Trump’s policies. Ultimately hopeful for America’s future, Guthrie sought to mend the fence between them, not burn it to the ground. He writes: “Let’s you and me get together, and shake hands together, and play together, and sing together, and dance together, work together, haul together, and lift together, and march together until we lick this goddamn racist hate together.”

Living on Tulsa Time

Things to see and do in Oklahoma’s most cosmopolitan city.

Stay

  • The Mayo Hotel

    First opened in downtown Tulsa in 1925, then abandoned in 1980, the Mayo reopened its doors after a $42 million renovation in 2009, and is now a chic hotel, private residence, and event space.

  • The Campbell Hotel

    Built in 1927, The Campbell was once a modest hotel serving weary train travelers but now offers a boutique hotel experience with a lounge, spa, and event center.

  • Harwelden Mansion

    On a hill overlooking the Arkansas River, just south of downtown Tulsa, this national landmark now serves as a bed & breakfast and historical site, featuring afternoon tea and mansion tours.

  • The Mayo Hotel

    First opened in downtown Tulsa in 1925, then abandoned in 1980, the Mayo reopened its doors after a $42 million renovation in 2009, and is now a chic hotel, private residence, and event space.

  • Harwelden Mansion

    On a hill overlooking the Arkansas River, just south of downtown Tulsa, this national landmark now serves as a bed & breakfast and historical site, featuring afternoon tea and mansion tours.

  • The Campbell Hotel

    Built in 1927, The Campbell was once a modest hotel serving weary train travelers but now offers a boutique hotel experience with a lounge, spa, and event center.

Eat

  • Queenies of Tulsa

    This queer-owned brunch spot in Utica Square shopping center serves up tasty, southern-inspired brunch classics.

  • Lowood

    Located in East End Village, south of downtown Tulsa, Lowood serves Italian-inspired cuisine and food pairings using ingredients locally sourced by Oklahoma farmers.

  • The Vault

    Featuring classic American food and an impressive selection of specialty cocktails, The Vault also offers a monthly cocktail class where you can learn the secrets of high-end mixology.

  • Queenies of Tulsa

    This queer-owned brunch spot in Utica Square shopping center serves up tasty, southern-inspired brunch classics.

  • The Vault

    Featuring classic American food and an impressive selection of specialty cocktails, The Vault also offers a monthly cocktail class where you can learn the secrets of high-end mixology.

  • Lowood

    Located in East End Village, south of downtown Tulsa, Lowood serves Italian-inspired cuisine and food pairings using ingredients locally sourced by Oklahoma farmers.

Drink

  • Heirloom Rustic Ales

    This stylish beer hall serves an impressive collection of local, small craft beers with monthly food and game nights.

  • The Starlite Bar

    A good, old-fashioned small-town dive bar, The Starlite is popular with the locals and features weekly dance parties and trivia nights.

  • Valkyrie

    An Arts District favorite, Valkyrie offers a moody, hip atmosphere; an extensive, thoughtful cocktail menu; and local craft beers.

  • Heirloom Rustic Ales

    This stylish beer hall serves an impressive collection of local, small craft beers with monthly food and game nights.

  • Valkyrie

    An Arts District favorite, Valkyrie offers a moody, hip atmosphere; an extensive, thoughtful cocktail menu; and local craft beers.

  • The Starlite Bar

    A good, old-fashioned small-town dive bar, The Starlite is popular with the locals and features weekly dance parties and trivia nights.

Culture

  • Twisted Arts

    This LGBTQ+ arts organization produces the yearly Twisted Arts Film Festival in Tulsa and offers year-round arts programs and youth filmmaking summer camp.

  • Cain’s Ballroom

    A Tulsa music institution since 1924 and one of the premiere music venues in Tulsa, Cain’s Ballroom hosts an A-list schedule of indie rock, country, hip-hop, and electronic music acts ranging from Thundercat to Cat Power.

  • Gilcrease Museum

    One of the foremost cultural institutions in Oklahoma, the Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art not only houses an impressive collection of American art but also cultural artifacts from Indigenous cultures across the Americas.

  • Greenwood Rising

    The newly opened Greenwood Rising project center honors the icons and victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, serving to educate visitors on continuing racial trauma and inspire meaningful change and action.

  • Philbrook Museum

    Located in a historical hilltop villa, Philbrook has been described as one of the most beautiful places in all of Oklahoma. The gardens alone are worth the trip, but Philbrook also hosts world-class exhibitions and an outstanding collection of modern art.

  • Woody Guthrie Center

    Featuring the world’s largest collection of Woody Guthrie materials, the Center also features art exhibitions and performances from local artists, as well as educational programming.

  • Twisted Arts

    This LGBTQ+ arts organization produces the yearly Twisted Arts Film Festival in Tulsa and offers year-round arts programs and youth filmmaking summer camp.

  • Greenwood Rising

    The newly opened Greenwood Rising project center honors the icons and victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, serving to educate visitors on continuing racial trauma and inspire meaningful change and action.

  • Cain’s Ballroom

    A Tulsa music institution since 1924 and one of the premiere music venues in Tulsa, Cain’s Ballroom hosts an A-list schedule of indie rock, country, hip-hop, and electronic music acts ranging from Thundercat to Cat Power.

  • Philbrook Museum

    Located in a historical hilltop villa, Philbrook has been described as one of the most beautiful places in all of Oklahoma. The gardens alone are worth the trip, but Philbrook also hosts world-class exhibitions and an outstanding collection of modern art.

  • Gilcrease Museum

    One of the foremost cultural institutions in Oklahoma, the Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art not only houses an impressive collection of American art but also cultural artifacts from Indigenous cultures across the Americas.

  • Woody Guthrie Center

    Featuring the world’s largest collection of Woody Guthrie materials, the Center also features art exhibitions and performances from local artists, as well as educational programming.

Explore More
Our Contributors

Joshua Sanchez Photographer

Joshua Sanchez’s debut feature film "Four" won the Best Performance Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. He’s a member of the Writers Guild of America, East, and has contributed to the Guardian, the Creative Independent, and Lambda Literary.

Shawn Brackbill Photographer

Shawn Brackbill is a photographer and director based in New York and Kansas City. His work has been featured in music-related publications such as Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Self-Titled. His fashion photography experience includes capturing the backstage scene at New York Fashion Week for Dazed and Confused and shooting for Vogue, Interview, and Elle.

',
Newsletter

Let’s Keep in Touch

Subscribe to our newsletter

You’re no longer on our newsletter list, but you can resubscribe anytime.

Come On In

U.S. issued American Express Platinum Card® and Centurion® Members, enter the first six digits of your card number to access your complimentary subscription.

Learn about membership.