Thoughts Wash In
An Awakening Of Oklahoma Memory
When the current Smithsonian exhibition THIS
LAND IS YOUR LAND: THE LIFE AND LEGACY OF WOODY GUTHRIE opened
last month in Oklahoma City at the Oklahoma Historical Society,
I had a feeling in my gut that a lot of interesting things
would happen as a result.
The first thing that happened was that, due to all the publicity
surrounding the opening, a local woman did some digging and
previously lost details of my grandmothers (Woodys
mother) death and grave site were discovered near the Norman
asylum where Nora Belle had been sent to spend her final years,
due to a misunderstood disease then called Huntingtons
Chorea. Unbelievably, none of this information was ever known
to anyone before last February.
72 years the death certificate and grave site have been found.
Nora Belle Guthrie passed away at age 44 of chronic myocaditis
(inflammation of the heart muscle) on June 13, 1930. She was
buried on June 21, 1930 in the IOOF cemetery. The location
is section BLK5bo, Grave 73. The grave is unmarked (at this
an interview I did for an Oklahoma newspaper, I commentated
that "having the exhibition finally come home to Oklahoma
was like Woody being placed back in his mothers arms
again." At the time, I had no idea how close to the truth
this poetic metaphor would turn out to be. Two days later
the grave site was discovered!
will be held March 24th, with Woodys Oklahoma family
and friends present, and a gravestone will be placed on the
site. Musicians Jimmy LaFave and many others will do some
singing there with Woodys sister, Mary Jo Edgmon, and
will follow up with a night of Woodys music at the Blue
Door Cafe in Oklahoma City. Our family is eternally grateful
to Evelyn Parker of the Cleveland County Genealogical Society
for finding Nora Belles final resting place.
The next thing that happened was that I got a letter from
a Oklahoma man whos father knew Woody. I was so blown
away from his stories that I asked him if we might put his
letters up on our web site for others to read. He kindly agreed,
but asked me not to name him for reasons youll read.
He also asked me to make spelling and grammar corrections
as he didnt want to "brag" about his "ignorance."
However, I think he uses the word erroneously. As you will
learn, he is far from ignorant. In addition to being a wise
and kindly man, I also find him to be a natural born writer.
So, Ill pass the baton on to the old wop,
as he calls himself, knowing that the purest core of Woodys
legacy lies in true stories like these. He writes, youll
need two nights and four Okie interpreters to
read all this. Its a very small price to pay.
My father was a teenager when he went to California back during
the depression and there he got to know and greatly admire
your father. My fathers name was George, and as a young
man he was what they called at the time, a troublemaker. Dad
was thrown in jail at least three times I understand,
but once outside Bakersfield, Woody came and bailed him out.
That night they sat in a friends pickup truck and drank themselves
silly, but my dad always swore that Woody was the best. They
talked about the farm workers, their children & wives,
the unions and the growers.Some days later, Woody brought
a man up to the camp and
introduced him to my dad, the mans name was Red Taylor.
This friend of Woody's got food for the children, and even
got a real mechanic out to help the people go on north for
a picking job.Woody also got my dad a job in a warehouse in
L.A., but my uncle needed him in Modesto, so he didnt
stay there but a few months.
This camp was on State Highway land, the people had two trucks
broken down, no food and one child who had just died from
a fever. Anyway, while they were burying the child Woody picked
out a hymn on his Guitar and the Deputies came in with clubs,
three foot long, looked like ball bats. Woody tried to explain
that the people were burying a little girl and a man would
come there within a few days to help the migrants move on,
with their trucks.
But the Deputies, acting on the Sheriffs orders began
herding the people, about 30 or so, toward the highway.A fight
broke out and the Sheriff with his Deputies pulled out soon
afterwards. My Dad said people looking at Woody thought him
a weakling, as he was kinda short and pretty thin too.
If ever there was a man to be proud of, and boy I do mean
proud of, it was your father. Im sure you could not
know that your father was not only a good singer & songwriter,
but a very compassionate and intelligent man. My father, who
was accused of being a communist, was not in any way a communist,
he believed in peoples rights, fair play, equality, but he
was not political in the least, he only had an eighth grade
But given all that, he knew people, and he knew Woody Guthrie
was the very best. My family sort of hid out for years, and
my Dad got a job on the board of education, so we could not
listen to Woodys music or even acknowledge my Dad once
knew and loved him.
In Oklahoma, everybody thinks the worst of unions, etc., so
not until dad got old were we told of your father.But my dad
said yours was a true saint of a man, and the common people
should know of him and all he represented.
Even if your father got my people help from communists out
of San Francisco, it was badly needed help, and if a mans
children are sick and hungry he should get help from any place
he can.God doesnt care where food comes from if its
feeding the hungry and we should not try to be better than
I cannot express my respect and admiration for your father,
but I would like to tell you simply that the man was great,
a real saint in many ways. Im on Social Security and
my wifes a teacher so I cant give much to help
your Guthrie exhibition in New York. What I would really like
is all the verses to our song This Land Is My
Land. The reason why, is my wifes a teacher and
she would like to give it out to other teachers the real song
as my father sung it. So Im including a check for 5
dollars in hopes you will help us, but if you cant I
will understand. My dad died some ten years ago, and they
say I dont have a long time left, but I am proud to
be the son of a man who knew your father and hope one day
they will erect a 50 foot statue of him down here in conservative
Oklahoma.Somehow I know the story of his music and the man
will be recognized one day, and no statue in this state will
be larger or better kept.
Dear Ms Nora
Im an old retired farmer who lost his first wife to
cancer about ten years ago, remarried seven years ago to a
sweet little school teacher . We dont have much, but
we have enough, and were as happy as two bugs in a rug,
no children but we have five dogs and a flock of chickens.
We do have to be a little careful about our opinions, we must
be the last two liberals in eastern Oklahoma. We spent a few
years on the Navajo reservation teaching there, now my wife
teaches retarded black children, about 50 miles away.
have a small mobile home with an add on, wrap around porches
on five acres, double garage, shop, small barn, on a dirt
road, miles from anywhere.
But fifty miles or so south there is a Militia camp, complete
with nuts that dress like soldiers, shoot a lot of tin cans,
get drunk, curse people like blacks, Mexicans, Jews, Catholics,
homosexuals, liberals and Woody Guthrie.
I tell you all this to say, Id love to have Woodys
stories on your web site, but could you just attribute them
to the old wop, my wifes pet name for me,
at least for a few years, then you can put my name on it if
You, living in New York, probably think I am paranoid scared,
mind sick, or worse, but its not that, its just that
I know the people here, and though they would never admit
it, most are very vengeful and so far to the right theyd
make Bush look like a Socialist.
Oh, yes, if you put any of our stories on your web site, I
really hope you clean it up, misspellings & such. I really
dont mind being ignorant, I just dont want to
look like Im bragging about it.
It seems some of his friends at the radio station were trying
to protect him from the migrants, or something along that
line, any way, once they got through to him, he told them
he would send help the next day. Sure enough a man came with
a full car load, three fifty pound bags of flour, lots of
sugar, corn meal, cookies for the kids, powdered milk and
a lot of can goods. That car was setting on its springs till
the people unloaded it, and Woody sent a message with it,
saying if more was needed they were to just call, anytime.
Now, most people in California, which Woody called Prunepickers,
hated Okies, would not give them the time-a-day. But Woody
loved my people, he really cared deeply, and not just the
group of people my parents were with, but all the poor migrants.
History shows us that in times past, even present, there are
very few people like your father, theyre not one in
a million, theyre more like one in a hundred million.
Woody wasnt rich, or even well off, but he gave all
he had, and my dad, who didnt lie, said he saved their
I guess this letter is going to be so long to read, youll
need two nights and four Okie interpreters. Im really
sorry now that I didnt get much education, cant
spell, cant do much math either, but I got a good memory
and I got a lot of time to write. Also (my wife) says I owe
you every story concerning your father that pa ever spoke.
Another thing, I should tell you that there are a lot of children
spread out along the Oklahoma Kansas border, mostly family
and friends, who knows about your father, what he did, how
he did it.
Knowing I sound like a very old foolish man, which I may be,
but there is a whole truckload of truth in the fact your father
was the closest thing to a saint that we have ever heard of.
On the radio he sang to my people, he even came to the camps
and sang to my people, he may have drank and cursed a little,
but he was the best weve ever known, maybe ever will.
Love, with Deep thanks & respect
The old wop
had two old trucks and a 1921 ford, which only one was running,
and enough to eat, if careful, till the job opened. They consisted
of six couples and about nine children, all related, mostly
by marriage though.One couple, Uncle Cott and Jenny, had three
children, the oldest being Twany, a fourteen year old girl
with two just younger brothers. Twany was a strange girl,
but only in her looks, as she had inherited Cotts pure white
Uncle Cott, called Cotton when a boy, had a full head of pure
white hair, and Jenny was a tall, thin, nervous blond. Twany
had this white hair and very wide set eyes that were as green
as spring wheat, even glowed some said. She wasnt really
pretty, but she had that thing about her that drove older
men stupid, and made young men chase her. Jenny had taught
Twany to cook some, wash clothes, etc., and Twany always had
a book with her, her favorite being Ivanhoe, but because strangers
upon coming into their camp, always tried to get around Twany,
Twany became fairly shy. A second cousin called Petey wanted
to marry Twany, but Cott wanted much better for her, and scared
little Petey into staying away from her. A county deputy called
Big Bill, sometimes came by to harass the camp. He must have
weighed 300 lbs, 6 4, mean and ugly, but he had
a brother who was a grower, not far away. His brother, called
Big Bob, was even bigger, meaner and uglier and one eye set
so that he could watch you rock on your front porch and your
kids play on the back porch at the same time. Big Bob had
a bad reputation for getting a lot of work from
the migrants, and forcing them to leave without pay, or even
Anyway, Big Bob showed up at the camp one early morn and tried
to hire some of the men for a few days. The leader of the
migrants was a short, hard, stocky man called Vincenti, and
he knew Big Bobs reputation, so he told the people not
to go with Big Bob, which made Big Bob very angry, pulled
a gun, threatened everybody, but finally left. But while he
was there in the camp he had spotted Twany watching out the
window of a truck, where she hid when strangers came into
the camp. He had asked Vincenti how old she was, wanted her
to work for him also.
A few days later, at dusk, two cars stopped on the road by
the camp, and the drivers got out and begun a pushing match,
so most all the migrants walked up to the road to watch and
found one of them was Big Bob. It was a strange fight, they
just kept yelling and shoving each other about, then suddenly
they each got in their cars and left.
That fight must have lasted over a half an hour, but when
Jenny returned to their truck she found one of her boys crying.
The boy said that two men had grabbed Twany, put a rag in
her mouth, and hit him in the face when he tried to stop them.
The rest of the night, every grownup in the camp was searching
the surrounding woods and fields, but not one trace was found
of Twany. Cott went into town and told the Sheriff what happened,
but the Sheriff laughed at Cott and said the migrant girls
were always running off with someone. Meanwhile Vincenti and
two others went over to Big Bobs place and asked if
he or his men there had seen her. Big Bob threw them off his
place after setting his two German shepards on them.
Vincenti just knew Big Bob had something to do with her disappearance,
so he found Big Bill and asked him if he had seen her. Big
Bill got angry and knocked Vincenti down three times before
Vincenti could get away.Then Vincenti told Cott to go into
Modesto, there was a gas station there ran by a man who might
After Woody talked with Vincenti and Cott, Woody left one
of his friends there and took out.The next day two more of
Woodys friends came from San Francisco, big men, hard,
cold, said they were longshoremen. Two days later the longshoremen
brought Twany back to the
camp, said they had to kill both of Big Bobs dogs, and
beat some of his people up. Twany had been locked in a tool
shed behind Big Bobs barn,
she looked real bad.
The longshoremen helped get the migrants on the road that
night and they didnt stop till they were north of Sacramento.
But Twany was never the same, just cried all the time, seemed
to hate everybody. That winter when the migrants were in a
camp, in Washington, Twany must have slipped out in the night,
with nothing but a thin gown on, in the snow.
They found her, nearly frozen in a nearby field and she died
just two days later, followed by aunt Jenny just a month after
that. Cott always said that was positive proof there was no
God, cause no God would have allowed that to happen to Twany,
and if by chance there was a God, he had to be a weak, mean,
Years later Cott went back to Washington to put markers on
their grave sites, but couldnt locate the place they
had been buried at, just knew it was on private land along
a fence, under some small trees.
Cott never remarried or anything, drank himself to death in
Copan, Oklahoma, the last thing he said was he wished Twany & Jenny would forgive him cause he couldnt save
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