October 11, 2011

Blog Salon: A Memory in the Arts I Can't Forget

October is national arts and humanities month. 

During the last two weeks of the month, Oklahoma business and arts leaders will participate in a blog salon, "A Memory of the Arts I Can't Forget," on the Oklahomans for the Arts blog

Jennifer James
I can still hear the needle dropping down on the vinyl of my father’s Woody Guthrie albums. The political and social ballads strain through the hollow of his study door, interloper to my MTV.

My father was a sailor and a minister; educated and professorial and yet so working class. With the last light of evening, the controversial music he played escaped through the cracks around his door jamb. He once referred to it as the people’s music, but I was a teenager and I’m sure I rolled my eyes.

I was, after all, amassing an impressive collection of mix tapes. Still, I knew my mini torrent would never be a match for the deluge of art, literature and music that inundated my father's shelves and cabinets. Like familiar rains, it became a torrential culture I would forever miss.

If my father told me once, he told 10,000 times growing up that Woody Guthrie was his second cousin. As a kid I often told people I was related to this famous person, the one who had written This Land Is Your Land.

But, somewhere between Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun and the Bangles’ Manic Monday, I stopped telling people I was related to Woody Guthrie. In fact, from around 1982 until around the turn of the century, I don’t think I told a single soul, mostly because I completely forgot all about him.

Then one year, I decided to attend the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah, Oklahoma. By then, my father had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and was living in a nursing home. In some ways the journey was to pay homage to the music he loved, that which he wanted me to love, too.

If it weren’t for the Oklahoma Arts Council, I don’t know if I would have ever gone to the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival. I was working as their PR Director at the time and heard Betty Price share many stories about how public funding for the arts helped launch the event. It helped the festival reach critical mass and gain international following. OAC literally helped seed a dream long before it achieved the brand awareness it enjoys today.

I’m so grateful for their work as it helped me connect with my own Oklahoma roots. It helped shape the advocate I am today for public funding for the arts.

I am also grateful to my father for nurturing in me a love for folk music that is so uniquely Oklahoma; the people’s music, my music, his music, always.

Jennifer James serves as director of Oklahomans for the Arts.