TULSA, Oklahoma (Reuters) - There was no doubt in Nora Guthrie’s mind where the final repository of her famous musician father’s legacy would be.
The Woody Guthrie Center opened on Saturday in Tulsa, allowing visitors to see the folk singer’s handwritten lyrics to “This Land Is Your Land” and thousands of other lyric sheets, letters, postcards, artwork, photos, manuscripts and journals.
Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma, about 60 miles from Tulsa, in 1912 and spent his early years there. He gained fame in the 1930s for ballads that drew attention to the plight of Dust Bowl refugees, migrant farmworkers and others dispossessed by the hard times of the Great Depression.
Guthrie’s papers were stored in boxes for decades following his death from Huntington’s disease in 1967, just after interest in his life and work had been rekindled by Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, and others during the 1960s folk music revival.
It was not until the early 1990s that Nora Guthrie started poking through the boxes that her mother, Guthrie’s second wife, had carefully packaged.
She recalled pulling out the lyric sheet to “This Land Is Your Land” and asking an archivist what she should do to protect it. A cup of coffee was nearby, Nora Guthrie said, and the archivist carefully placed it and the lyrics a safe distance apart before explaining some of the basic points of archival storage.
The decision to move the archives from New York City to Oklahoma came about a decade ago. The Guthrie family had lost track of where Woody’s mother, who died of Huntington’s disease in 1930, was buried but rediscovered it in Oklahoma while a touring exhibit on the singer’s life was visiting the state.
Family and friends gathered at the grave site, where Nora Guthrie said she was overcome with a feeling that her grandmother was telling her, “Thanks for bringing my boy back to me.”
“It was a very powerful experience,” she said. “There was some kind of strong pull to bring Woody back to Oklahoma. That was the catalyst.”
The George Kaiser Family Foundation in Tulsa bought the archives two years ago and agreed to transform a brick warehouse into the Woody Guthrie Center.
On Friday, before the center was opened to the public, one of its first visitors was Guthrie’s first wife, Mary Jennings Boyle, 96, of Riverside, California. Sitting in her wheelchair, she watched a multi-media presentation that depicted her marriage to Guthrie after they had met in the Texas panhandle town of Pampa.
She had no objections to be being part of a museum exhibit and said her memories remain fond despite Guthrie’s wanderlust, which left her at home with their three kids.
“Our life was not like the normal life,” she said. “It just wasn’t in him to do that ... Woody wasn’t one for doing what most people do.”
Bob Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, calls Guthrie “one of the most important American songwriters.”
“His relevancy today is as rich and vibrant today as when he was crisscrossing America writing songs about it,” he said.
A variety of recording artists have been invited to browse the Guthrie archives to set his unpublished lyrics to their own music.
“That has never been done before,” said Tiffany Colannino, the center’s archivist. “Archives traditionally have been a repository for preservation.”
The center also features a theater and a classroom for educational programs, but Guthrie’s leftist political views will not be pushed on anyone, said Deana McCloud, an English teacher who has been hired as the center’s executive director.
McCloud said students who come from tough economic circumstances can find inspiration from Guthrie, who grew up amid the poverty of the 1930s Dust Bowl, “but still had power because of his creativity.”
“We’re not trying to tell kids what to think,” McCloud said. “We’re just encouraging them to think.”
(This story was fixed to correct spelling of Tiffany Colannino in paragraph 17)
Editing By Brendan O'Brien, Greg McCune and Bill Trott