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.


Tom DiStefano said...

Wow... the First Annual Woody Guthrie BIrthday Party...I'm trying to remember all the people who helped out with that - sweet Karen Cotterman, Bill 'Tidbit' Summerville, Donna Issac, Carol Chinchock, the Caldwell boys (?)... it's all real hazy.

Someone went out to a local fruit wholesaler and got a shit load of only-slightly-past-due watermelons for free. Someone produced a very large, very sharp knife and everyone was to cut their own watermelon, but we got nervous someone might hurt themselves with that knife and appointed a designated watermelon cutter. We spare-changed our friends and came up with about $12 bucks for bags of potato chips and cheese curls.

As I recall, the fee for the Ross was $50 for events with an admission fee and $10 for non-profit, free to the public events. Someone went for the key to the Ross, but the lady at the borough office above the fire hall wanted fifty bucks, and we had to go up and do some pleading and charming to persuade her it was all for free - bands, watermelon, cheese curls and everything.

The night of the party, I got off work from my job picking litter at the state park, and got to the Ross, where Tidbit told me none of the bands were going to make it. I freaked and stormed off, marched around athe block a couple of times, and by the time I got back, Tidbit announced that at least some of the bands were coming after all. In the end, every one of them showed, which perhaps ranks as one of the greatest miracles since Jesus sprung for the wine.

Not only did no one know any Woody Guthrie songs, 90 percent of the people at the party had no idea who Woody Guthrie was at all. I had been reading "Bound for Glory" at the time, and early in the evening I climbed on stage between bands and gave a short speech about Woody, which absolutely bored everyone in less than 30 seconds, so I cut it even shorter.

At some point, most of the crowd up and left for a farmhouse out of town where one of the bands lived (I think it was Trace Ordiaway, Bo Polatty and a man who is now a local pillar of the business community and would probabaly sue my ass off if I said who it was).We all lined up and did "spoons," which involved heating up two spoons held with pliers, pressing a roach (not the insect) between them and snorting the smoke. Once most of a gallon jar full of roaches was consumed, we all headed back to the Ross. I was so stoned by then all I could do was wander around offering people cheese curls.'s all real hazy...

Stan Denski said...

I recall that someone once said that if you can remember the 1st Annual Woody Guthrie Birthday Party you weren't really there....

DashingFabrics said...

Tom's whole comment is like a list of things and people I only half remember.....