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Photographs in a temporary gallery space — an exhibit by John Cohen, a member of the New Lost City Ramblers and participant in New York’s burgeoning folk music scene of the 1950s and ’60s — document poignant moments during Guthrie’s stay in a state hospital. A young Arlo Guthrie, Nora’s older brother, pays a visit with his mother. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, a still-active troubadour, gives Woody a hug.
Long path to Guthrie center
Nearly 20 years ago, Nora Guthrie came across a sheet of paper that had her father’s handwritten lyrics for “This Land Is Your Land.” We ought to do something with this, she suggested to a friend at the time. Within a few years the manuscript was highlighted in a traveling exhibit by the Smithsonian Institution.
In the meantime, she learned where Woody Guthrie’s mother, also named Nora Guthrie, was buried after she died from Huntington’s disease. She traveled to Norman, Okla., met with Woody’s younger sister, Mary Jo Edgar, and held a service, some 80 years after the elder Nora’s death in 1929. Nora was in something like a dream state when she sensed her grandmother reaching out to touch her.
“That was the first clue I had that we should be coming to Oklahoma,” Guthrie said.
A confluence of people and visions came together to make Tulsa the center’s home. Bob Santelli, a longtime music researcher and executive director of the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, had envisioned a Guthrie museum. Conversations Nora had with people from the George Kaiser Family Foundation in Tulsa eventually led to the development of a couple of blocks in a near-downtown neighborhood called the Brady Arts District. Voilà, the 12,000-square-foot center was born, along with Guthrie Green, a park across the street with high-end landscaping amenities. It includes a sloping natural amphitheater and a stage with sound system, all powered by a solar roof and a geothermal field underground.
Piece of history, creativity
Guthrie and museum officials expect the new center to tell a larger story of American history, creativity and culture.
“We’re doing more than giving history lessons or a biography of Woody,” said Deana McCloud, executive director of the center and a longtime producer of an annual Woody Guthrie Festival in his hometown of Okemah.
“What we’re doing is showing an example of someone who used his creativity in multiple ways to express his world. His voice was in his lyrics and his art works, and we can learn so much about the creative process if we view these things and take in everything he was doing.
“Our idea,” McCloud added, “is to have people walk away from this with an inspiration to make their own creative works.”
The new center is also intended to paint an increasingly nuanced, continually evolving and often surprising portrait of Guthrie.
“The idea,” said Nora Guthrie, “is not to look up to him, but always to look eye to eye with him.”