One of the first songs I ever learned was This Land Is Your Land. My father taught it to me. His mother, Bethel, my grandma, was Woody Guthrie’s first cousin. She was born in a covered wagon in Oklahoma Territory in 1898.
Family tradition says Woody wrote Oklahoma Hills on the back porch of my great grandmother’s house in Sonora, California.
In 1976, my third grade class sang This Land Is Your Land at a bicentennial celebration. I told my classmates that Woody was my cousin, but they didn’t believe me.
So, for the next 25 years, I rarely mentioned it to anyone. I didn’t even tell my former coworkers at the Oklahoma Arts Council. The state agency provided startup funds in 1998 for the first Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah.
A few years ago, I was talking to my friend Louisa, and I mentioned to her in passing that I was related to Woody. Louisa is the former editor of Oklahoma Today and now Executive Director of the Kirkpatrick Foundation. She’s the only person I know who can be intuitive and exuberant at the same time. “My God,” she said. “What a pedigree.”
And then it was settled. She returned to me the pride I’d lost in 3rd grade.
Almost every year since 2001, I’ve attended the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival. I always think about the Oklahoma Arts Council when I’m there and how they helped turn the tide for Woody and Okemah. A lot of people don’t know this. The Oklahoma Arts Council has vetted the dreams of Oklahomans for nearly 50 years. They’ve pulled people together in the early stages of creative ideas. Like venture capitalists they’ve provided early funding for high-potential projects like Red Earth, The Pollard and the Rentiesville Blues Festival.
Decades ago they were part of the machine that helped build Tulsa Opera and Oklahoma City Ballet. Our state government was so fantastic, they created and funded the Oklahoma Arts Council with an annual appropriation. For almost five decades they’ve worked to make the arts accessible to everyone. The agency’s budget is less than 1/10th of 1 percent of the entire state budget. With that $4 million they work magic. They turn every $1 they grant into $8 of economic activity.
But, now. House Bill 1895 seeks to eliminate all funding to the Oklahoma Arts Council by 2017. Why would lawmakers want to displace the very people who are mining Oklahoma’s seedbeds of innovation? We need vibrant arts and cultural districts for lots of reasons. For one, tech companies want them because their employees demand them.
So in the days and weeks to come, the powerful grassroots lobby of arts advocates will work in partnership with Oklahomans for the Arts, an advocacy group, to defeat House Bill 1895. As far as Woody, my first cousin, twice removed, he is closer to me now than he’s ever been. I visit his portrait when I’m advocating at the state capitol. He has his guitar and his cigarette, and all around me his voice is sounding. This land was made for you and me.
Disclosure: I serve as director of Oklahomans for the Arts, an advocacy organization for public funding for the arts. Our work is focused on preserving funding to the Oklahoma Arts Council, a separate state agency. This commentary originally aired on KOSU Radio, January 22, 2013. You can listen to the audio version by launching iTunes and searching “KOSU” in the upper right-hand dialogue box. Thanks for listening.