Okie Rebels With A Cause, Part One
(This is the first installment of a series of blogs dealing with the progressive and heroic Oklahoma mythology created by musician Woody Guthrie, comedian and writer Will Rogers, and novelist John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. “Okie Rebels With A Just Cause” will appear on a regular basis. )
In Search of Woody
On a recent December afternoon a couple years ago, I was in Okemah, Oklahoma, the birthplace of the legendary musician and songwriter Woody Guthrie. Using information from friends and the Internet, I searched for a small park that I was told possessed a small stature of Guthrie. Okemah, a small town whose city officials claims has approximately 3,000 people, is located about seventy miles east of Oklahoma City on Interstate 40. It has only one street really—a Main Street stretching a few books—devoted to business.
I was surprised I could not find Woody right away when I first pulled into town.
I drove up and down Main Street, and then through the city’s small residential neighborhoods, which are marked by dilapidated homes. I noticed one of the homes was made of corrugated tin and attached to one-half of a double-wide trailer. Another home had been heavily damaged by a fire, but people still apparently lived in it. One home was next to the city’s rusty water towers; in fact, the people who lived in the home obviously parked directly beneath them. More tiny homes, some in dire need of repair, dotted the hill upon which much of the town is built.
Still, I could not find Woody, and the town, frankly, was giving me this weird, discombobulated, old-newsreel vibe both horribly magnificent and freaky at the same time. Why? You see, it is apparent that, in some respects, Okemah has never really recovered from the Great Depression, which was the most inspirational topic of Guthrie’s career. One of Guthrie’s most famous records, for example, is titled Dust Bowl Ballads, and it describes the struggles of impoverished Okies evicted from their land during this time. Consequently, to visit Okemah, is to view, upfront and personal, the leftovers of a cruel right-wing, political philosophy. To visit Okemah, especially if you are an Oklahoman, is also to become all at once character in a Guthrie ballad, a person trapped by all the state’s weird contradictions and carried along by its sometimes surreal, American-gothic beauty. There is a terrifying beauty in rural poverty if one has the patience and heart to face it.
Ignored and neglected, then and now, by the state’s powerful people, and especially the conservative right, Okemah (like much of rural Oklahoma) is a particularly noteworthy symbol of the nation’s contradictions, its cyclical miseries, and its inspirational but sometimes fraudulent mythologies. It becomes even more symbolic when one considers it is the place where one of the nation’s most moral sons first created a music that provided the inspiration for a populist movement that seized the country’s imagination and brought about decisive change through Roosevelt’s New Deal.
That moral son, of course, was Woody Guthrie. But where was Woody? I couldn’t find him anywhere. Dusk descended on the town. A mangy mutt crossed the street in front of me. Was that a coyote I heard howling in the distance? Was that an armadillo or possum that darted under a huge rock and down into a large hole? Did the young man walking down the street look at me strangely or was I just imagining things? A redigitalized Guthrie sang out from my car’s radio and into surreal Okemah, Oklahoma:
One Sunday morning
In the shadow of the steeple
By the relief office
I seen my people
As they stood hungry,
I stood there whistling this:
This land was made for you and me.
Woody Guthrie, I thought to myself, where are you?
I had been told to look for a mural on the side of a downtown building. The park was supposedly next to it. I returned to Main Street, then, and began a new search. I found the mural at last. It was on the side of the Wright Kit barbershop. I parked, looked at the mural. But where was the park? Where was Woody?.
And then from the corner of my eye, I noticed a small head of a statue poking out of a shabby, cardboard Christmas nativity scene, and I realized, then and there, I was actually standing in the park all this time.
The gaudy and oversized nativity scene completed obscured Guthrie’s statue, so only locals would have known that right behind the crass cardboard Jesus and Mary stood a tiny monument to one of the nation’s most influential songwriters of all time. As I made my way to Woody by weaving through some weathered angels and the three wise men, my immediate reaction was, “This is what it would be like to live in a true theocracy” where symbols of social protest and art—the very substance of Guthrie’s life—are replaced by the oppressive symbols of the prevailing religion. Maybe. But then I pinched myself, thought, “No, Woody Guthrie’s political ideas always had strong roots in Christianity.” Jesus and Woody both wanted to feed the poor. Both made it their life’s work. It really is that simple. Obviously, Woody was right at home next to baby Jesus.
Woody Guthrie and the nativity scene is a powerful symbolic message for progressives as the nation’s red-state, right-wing religious folk turn a peaceful, sin-forgiving, inclusive religion into a religion of hate and death. When people are starving to death, as they did in The Great Depression, as they do today, it is immoral to stand by and let it happen. Yet the religious right did just that then, and it does it again now. (Watch the powerful, religious right, for example, allow George Bush to steal your grandparents’ Social Security check and give the money to his rich, stock market buddies. Ah, if only Woody was here to sing about this one.)
But the religious right did not always dupe people into voting and acting immorally in Oklahoma. Oklahoma and its surrounding states were once a hotbed of populism. There was Guthrie, true, but also Will Rogers. In addition, the novelist John Steinbeck mythologized Oklahomans forever in The Grapes of Wrathby creating a heroic image of the beleaguered Okies through the character of Tom Joad. Joad and his family struggled against the brutality and immorality of right-wing Christian ideology that allowed people to turn their heads away from child starvation, massive homelessness, and widespread illness.
Today, even a casual reconsideration of Guthrie, Rogers, and Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath moves us to larger questions in the contemporary, political world. Why, for example, have so-called “ordinary” middle-class people of Oklahoma, The Great Plains, and portions of the southwest rejected their populist history and supported politicians with extreme, hateful conservative views when doing so is not only immoral within a religious framework but also is against their personal economic interests?
Current political and economic conditions in this country—one-party conservative rule that favors the super wealthy over the middle-class and poor, a weak job market, an erratic stock market, corporate corruption, media manipulation—make the time ripe for a reconsideration of another dark time in American history when a growing, deceitful conservative movement brought about misery and despair for millions of Americans until brave Americans like Guthrie, Rogers, and Steinbeck stood up and fought the rich and powerful.
These three men created and used an Oklahoma mythology and an Oklahoma message to make things right again in this country. Guthrie, Rogers, and Steinbeck helped bring this country back to a moral center once before.
They will do it again.
(Next: “Woody’s Home Bittersweet Home”)
(Frosty and Helen Troy, who publish The Oklahoma Observer, have been tireless champions of what is right and true in the state for decades. Please subscribe to their publication, The Oklahoma Observer, P.O. Box 53371, Oklahoma City, OK 73152-3371.)
Frosty Troy has an excellent article running in The Oklahoma Observer this week about Odilia Dank, R-OKC, the Oklahoma House member who wants to close down rural schools and towns in the state.
Dank initially filed two bills that could have ultimately force the consolidation of some schools in Oklahoma. They have been apparently withdrawn, but Dank is the head of the Common Education Committee, so do not be surprised if these bills raise their ugly, town-destroying heads once again. We have seen this before.
As Frosty’s article points out, some legislators found it ironic that House Speaker Todd Hiett, R-Kellyville, who is from a small-town would implicitly support this obvious attack on small towns, including (possibly) his own small, town.
I know it is a dog-eat-dog Republican world (or how about the ironic auto-cannibalism of the extreme right) these days, but this is getting so ridiculous it is almost funny. So let’s get this straight because this sort of thing can only happen in red states like Oklahoma these days. Some local upstanding citizen (Hiett) runs for an office from a rural community he plans to destroy based on an ideology he embraces that is anti-rural town, anti-family farm, and anti-education. The people in the small town elect him because ___. You fill in the blank.
I wonder how solid the schools are doing in Kellyville, a town that listed a population of 906 in the 2000 census? How are they doing with the NCLB requirements, another Republican mandate? According to information obtained on the Internet, Kellyville Schools has approximately 1000 students with at least one district-level administrator. This last fact—a district-level administrator—must have OKC’s Dank salivating at the thought of how she might get rid of him/her and right there in the speaker’s hometown, too!
If I worked for Kellyville Schools or any smaller school district in Oklahoma right now, I would be mighty worried about what Dank and Hiett had in store for me, no matter what is coming out their mouths these days.
And Dank? Well, her legislative profile on the net says she attended Casady School here in Oklahoma City. That’s the school that is pretty much solely for the super wealthy in this area, and it’s a long, long way from Kellyville both in distance and philosophy. (The Casady administrators, I am sure, will tell you all about their wonderful financial aid program, blah, blah, blah, but it remains the school of choice for the super wealth in the Oklahoma City area.)
Oklahoma voters are getting duped in this disastrous conservative juggernaut that has seized the state and held it hostage to an ideology that is slowly but surely destroying our small towns.
I have traveled far and wide in the state, and I know people from small towns in Oklahoma do not want some Casady-educated, Oklahoma City elitist telling them they cannot have a high school in their community. But the problem here is that these same people continue to vote against their own interests.
When you elect politicians who are wedded to a conservative ideology that wants to shut down rural America, then you ultimately pay the price. This is what is happening all across red-state America under the George Bush administration and especially during this second-term.
This is plain, common sense. Progressives have always supported strong public schools and strong family farms in Oklahoma, and they will continue to do so. Republicans only support the wealthy elite in this state and nation. Maybe Kellyville schools will be closed, and then that extra savings can be passed on in the form of tax cuts to those super wealthy people in Oklahoma City who want to send their kids to Casady. It just does not get clearer than that, folks.
“I remember coming out upon the northern Great Plain in the late spring. There were meadows of blue and yellow wildflowers on the slopes, and I could see the still, sunlit plain below, reaching away out of sight. At first there is no discrimination in the eye, nothing but the land itself, whole and impenetrable. But then smallest things begin to stand out of the depths--herds and rivers and groves--and each of these has perfect being in terms of distance and of silence and of age. Yes, I thought, now I see the earth as it really is; never again will I see things as I saw them yesterday or the day before.”—Oklahoma native Scott Momaday, The Way To Rainy Mountain
“Something called 'the Oklahoma Standard' became known throughout the world. It means resilience in the face of adversity. It means a strength and compassion that will not be defeated.”—Brad Henry
It has been inspiring to watch Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry come into his own as a genuinely effective and excellent Democratic political leader these last three years. It has been one of the few real bright spots for Democrats in state or national politics.
Henry’s affable demeanor and personality contrasts tellingly with the state’s new angry Republicans, who won a majority in the House last year. Every time House Speaker Todd Hiett (R-Kellyville) throws a fit and stalls meaningful legislation, we know Henry’s calm and steady leadership will eventually win out.
Henry’s State of the State address on Monday was so inspiring it will only fuel speculation that he could serve our national government in some top position in the future. Before the speech, I was even contacted by someone connected to a national blog service wondering if I thought Henry was 2008 presidential material.
Of course, he is presidential material, and many are beginning to recognize it.
In his speech, Henry spoke in bold tones about education:
“Education transcends the boundaries of race, financial status and geography. It provides opportunity for all Oklahomans and makes Oklahoma competitive in today’s global economy. Building a better Oklahoma for tomorrow means investing in education today.”
He also recognized the need to strengthen Oklahoma families who face higher health care costs. Many Oklahoma families lack health insurance.
“Our commitment to Oklahoma families must be unshakable, “Henry said. “Family values are core values in Oklahoma. We must work unfailingly to honor and strengthen our families.”
The speech quoted Oklahoma natives Will Rogers and Scott Momaday, two progressives who, with others, have helped create an Oklahoma moral vision that has had a significant influence on the national politic throughout the country’s history.
(Check out my Okie Rebels With A Cause series, which features posts about Rogers, Momaday, and several other Oklahoma progressives. Click on the link on the right side of this page.)
After speaking of initiatives to raise the salaries of correction offices, hire more state child abuse investigators, and build new roads and bridges in the state, Henry had this to say:
“If I have grown convinced of the rightness of anything, it is this: Only through working together in a bipartisan spirit will we achieve real, meaningful, lasting results.
“It is with that spirit that we will tackle the challenges ahead, for the State of Oklahoma is strong. It is dynamic and visionary. It is creative and innovative. It is courageous and committed. And Oklahoma is definitely headed in the right direction.”
The governor led this state out of the financial and emotional doldrums starting in 2003, and state revenues just keep growing under his administration. He is approachable, truly concerned about ordinary Okies, and committed to the state, unlike his predecessor, former Governor Frank Keating.
Henry’s credentials as a new progressive have become overwhelming, though some state liberals might initially view him as a conservative Democrat. Think about it. Working with a new Republican majority in the House and in a state that is considered one of the reddest of reds, Henry has managed to get significant funding increases for education along with adding new programs such as all-day kindergarten. He has also given us a lottery that helps fund education, and now he is about to ensure we improve the state’s infrastructure.
Increasing educational levels and improving the state’s infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, will help this state increase its tax base a hundred times more than some corporate handouts in the form of tax cuts for General Motor or the big energy companies. (Look what the taxpayer handouts to GM got us in this state.)
In his speech, Henry quoted from the poem “Oklahoma 2003,” which was written for his inauguration by Oklahoma native Momaday, who was born in Lawton. Momaday, a Native American who wrote the critically-acclaimed The Way To Rainy Mountain, has spent much of his life arguing for our moral responsibility to nature and our fellow people and to “seeing” life in clear, substantive, and meaningful ways.
Here are some lines from that poem:
“Now we come in our turn
Now we come to a new destiny
Now we come to a new consecration of this holy place
Now we come in our turn
To stand on this ground between our forebears and our children
To build understanding on what has been
To build greatness on what will be.”
And here is what Henry said in his recent speech:
“We have achieved truly remarkable things for our great state, and the successes we have created will lead to future triumphs. We are on the cusp of greatness -- a new dawning in Oklahoma -- a bold, proud, prosperous Oklahoma where the full potential of every child can be realized.”
Like Momaday, Henry possesses a moral vision that embodies all of us and speaks to all of us. Henry has clearly earned another four years in office.