Woody Guthrie in the Time of COVID-19

By Julie Wenger Watson

“Life has got a habit of not standing hitched. You got to ride it like you find it. You got to change with it. If a day goes by that don’t change some of your old notions for new ones, that is just about like trying to milk a dead cow,” says Deana McCloud, quoting folk hero and Oklahoma native, Woody Guthrie.

Photo by Phil Clarkin Photography
Deana McCloud on stage at New York’s Town Hall Feb. 23, 2020,  for the “80th Anniversary This Land.”

McCloud, Executive Director of Tulsa’s Woody Guthrie Center, thinks Guthrie would have some good advice to offer on dealing with the abrupt changes brought about by COVID-19.

“Sometimes life throws curves at you, and you just have to figure your way around it, and the Woody perspective is always you adjust,” notes McCloud. “There is hope, and there is peace, and there is light at the end of any tunnel because you have your friends and your community and you are not alone.”

For the Woody Guthrie Center, adjusting to the “new normal” of life during a pandemic has meant finding creative ways to bring the words and wisdom of Woody directly to the people while the world shelters in place. To that end, McCloud has posted a series of short virtual mini-tours to social media, highlighting specific items in the Center’s collection. She’s also shared Guthrie-related educational activities for families and teachers. 

“Just because the doors are closed at the museum itself doesn’t mean the mission has stalled or that our outreach to the community has stalled in any way,” McCloud notes. “We want to make sure we’re reaching our audience and providing them with things that can relieve a little bit of stress and focus them in a different direction. Otherwise this situation gets a bit heavy, and we want to make sure we’re providing resources so that people have a way of escaping through Woody.”

Photo by Phil Clarkin Photography
A group shot of the performers at “80th Anniversary This Land” celebration at New York’s Town Hall Feb. 23, 2020.

As the State of Oklahoma begins to reopen along with the rest of the country, McCloud is looking ahead. A special exhibit, “Roots, Rock and Rebels: The Photography of Henry Diltz,” originally scheduled to open May 23 may be delayed until later in the summer. Diltz, a musician himself, was the official photographer for Woodstock. Well known for his photographs of the folk-rock stars inhabiting Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon in the 60s, he’s also photographed over 200 album covers.

“We curated this exhibit ourselves, so we have flexibility,” McCloud says. “Henry was a musician as well as a photographer, and he was a friend and colleague to these artists, so he was able to get shots off the stage that are just phenomenal. So many of them have amazing stories. Henry will be with us for the opening and the run of the exhibit to share those stories with us.”

McCloud is also excited about “Folk the Vote: Politics and Music,” another exhibit planned for the fall of this election year.

“We’re borrowing things from a variety of artists whose work was used, either with or without their permission, and we’ll explore that a little, along with the intellectual property issues that arise whenever music is appropriated for use in a campaign without permission,” she says. “The Dropkick Murphys loved giving me their tweet and information from the time [Wisconsin governor] Scott Walker was using ‘Shipping Up to Boston’ during his campaign.”

Tweet to Scott Walker from the Dropkick Murphys.

The exhibit will also include a number of “cease and desist” letters, several instruments, and items from musicians Ani DiFranco and Bruce Springsteen, among others.  

“We’re going to borrow some things from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, too. It’s going to be an interesting exhibit about how politics and music intertwine with commentary from artists and maybe some spoofs on politics,” McCloud explains. “The artists always get the last word. The creatives always win.”

Photo by Phil Clarkin Photography
The grand finale of “80th Anniversary This Land” at New York’s Town Hall Feb. 23, 2020.

In the meantime, McCloud is looking forward to eventually seeing her friends and colleagues in person after weeks of virtual meetings.

“I’m a hugger, so I warned people that as soon as this is over, I’m coming for you. We’re doing bear hugs, so just get ready.”






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