Friday, July 10, 2009
The 38th Annual Woody Guthrie Birthday Party....
In the Summer of 1971 I left Philadelphia to go to college in Clarion, Pennsylvania. Clarion would become my other hometown. That Summer I met my friend Tom DiStefano who was, like most of the friends I made in Clarion, not a college student at the time, but a local guy. His parents ran the Vowinkel Hotel in Vowinkel, PA, and we would spend the better part of the next four decades fighting over whose mom's spaghetti sauce was better.
One day that first summer I found him clutching a newspaper and sputtering in anger. He'd just read that Woody Guthrie's hometown had refused to celebrate Woody's birthday because they thought he was "un-American."
Tom was perhaps the first true believer I ever met; he believed in that "other" America, the one that wasn't going to re-elect Richard Nixon, the one that wasn't spending thousands of lives in Southeast Asia, the one that had a national health care system. To him, Woody was a patriot on par with Jefferson and Pane; fellow Thomases.
"This shall not stand."
He most likely didn't actually say that. But he did proclaim that afternoon that, if Woody's hometown wasn't up to the task, we were. Thus began preparations for the First Annual Woody Guthrie Birthday Party. It wasn't until three or four years later that we'd find out that it shouldn't be "first annual" but we did not care; it sounded good.
For a small town in rural Western Pennsylvania, Clarion had a thriving population of local musicians. Bands were quickly arranged for; the headliner would be the band with what is still to this day one of my favorite "sixties" band names: One Hundred and Ninety Eight Hubby Subby Indians. "One Ninety Eight" as they were called if time was short, was led by Scott Garvey, who played a solid body Fender electric 12 string guitar that he ran through a fuzz-wah-wah pedal that gave it him genuinely unique sound, and Terry Rhodes, the local guitar hero of the time who played a black Les Paul. Ken Ponchell, a local poet, wrote their lyrics but didn't actually perform with the band.
It's funny the stuff that I still remember (even though I may be remembering most of it wrong).
The Ross Memorial Library was set back off the town's Main Street, just behind the post office. At the back was a small auditorium that was used for local dances and events. Even though I had just started in school, I played my part by getting one of my professors to agree to sign off on the form requesting permission to use the facility and to attend as "chaperon."
As the day approached, it suddenly dawned on the organizers that neither they, nor any of the assembled musicians, actually knew an actual Woody Guthrie song.
Our young charge, Dick Eustice, an enthusiastic 15 year-old folk singer at the time, was dispatched to learn one.
The event was a success. Woody's patriotism proclaimed and celebrated. The close-mindedness of his home town, cursed and condemned.
This coming July 14th marks Woody's 97th birthday and the 38th anniversary of ours. What better way to celebrate it than this.