Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Will and Woody

W is for Will and Woody.  Will Rogers and Woody Guthrie.  The state of Oklahoma links them together.  I once heard it said that Will Rogers is the most famous Oklahoman in the whole country and Woody Guthrie is the most famous Oklahoman in the whole wide world.

Woody Guthrie was born on July 14, 1912 in the town of Okemah, Oklahoma.  Woody said of Okemah, "It was one of the singingest, square dancingest, drinkingest, yellingest, preachingest, walkingest, talkingest, laughingest, cryingest, shootingest, fist fightingest, bleedingest, gamblingest, gun, club and razor carryingest of our ranch towns and farm towns, because it blossomed out into one of our first Oil Boom Towns."

Okemah is a small town just off Interstate 40, about 70 miles east of Oklahoma City where I-40 splits off from Route 66.  Route 66 is also known as the Will Rogers Highway.

Woody wrote a song about Will Rogers titled Will Rogers Highway.  In the song Woody takes Will to task.

"My Sixty-Six highway, this Will Rogers road,
It's lined with jalopies just as far as I can see;
Can you think up a joke, Will, for all o'these folks
From New Yorker town down to Lost Angeles?

Ten thousand lost families I count every day
Caught under my bridges and under my trees;
Can you make up a joke that'll win them a job
From New Yorker town down to Lost Angeles?

I love Willy Rogers, I love your big smile,
I go to my showhouse, Will Rogers to see;
Can you grin up a tale that'll feed my folks stranded
'Twist New Yorker town and Lost Angeles"?

Will Rogers was born in Indian Territory, near present-day Oologah, Oklahoma. His parents were both of part Cherokee ancestry.  His father was a leader within Cherokee society. A Cherokee judge, he was a Confederate veteran and served as a delegate to the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention.

Will made a name for himself in vaudeville, then started making movies. He became one of the best known movie stars of his time. He was not only a movie star, but also he also wrote a newspaper column and was a radio personality.  At the time of his death in 1935 he was as popular as anyone on the country.

Woody on the other hand like so many other "Okies" hit the road trying to find a way to support his family.  He hitchhiked, rode the rails and walked all the way to California.  In exchange for bed and board, Woody painted signs and played guitar and sang in saloons along the way.

In Los Angeles Woody landed a job on radio, singing traditional songs as well as some original songs.  Woody began to attract widespread public attention, particularly from the thousands of relocated Okies gathered in migrant camps.  The local radio airwaves also provided Woody a forum for his controversial social commentary and criticism.

Woody strongly identified with his audience. Songs such as "I Ain't Got No Home", "Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad", "Talking Dust Bowl Blues", "Tom Joad" and "Hard Travelin'"; all reflected his desire to give voice to the migrants.

Woody died in 1967 from Huntington's Disease.  His music is his legacy.  Because of his politics and his anti social behavior caused by his Huntington's Disease, Woody was and still is a polarizing figure.

Songwriter Bryan Hembree wrote a song titled Will and Woody that is included on 3 Penny Acre's album, Rag and Bone.  He grew up in Oklahoma and was very familiar with both of them.  In talking about his song he said, "Like most young boys in Oklahoma, I couldn't figure out why all of the old folks loved Will Rogers and hated Woody Guthrie.  I just didn't understand because I loved them both equally".

Bryan and his wife Bernice are currently performing as Smokey & the Mirror. Last Sunday night I attended a Smokey & the Mirror concert and one of the songs they performed was Will and Woody.  You can see the performance here.

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  1. They are interesting people! So many great singers in the USA whom I 've never heard of! What a shame. Well thank you for this post.
    Have a great week,
    Wil, ABCW Team.

  2. I've written about them both - maybe in an O is for Oklahoma post?


  3. Will Rogers, his northern airplane flight and many of his great sayings were all part of my childhood. I liked Woody Guthrie too!!

  4. Will Rogers was easy to love. "I've never met a man I didn't like," didn't he say that? Sure, Woody got cantankerous in his later years, but he mentored so many musicians. He wrote the bittersweet "This Land Is Your Land," although the final, ironic verse is almost never played, about how this land is really for the rich. As a solid Union Yes leftie, I have always loved Woody Guthrie! Thanks for this great story. Amy

  5. Such an interesting post! I`ve never heard of these guys before, but they do sound great.

  6. Seems like I ate at a restaurant that spaned over I35 years ago that was " Will Rogers Restaurant" he is a hero here on kansas too