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Nora's News

 

March/April 2002


“Old 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 grandmother’s (Woody’s 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 Huntington’s Chorea. Unbelievably, none of this information was ever known to anyone before last February.

“After 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 time).”

In 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 mother’s 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!

A ceremony will be held March 24th, with Woody’s 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 Woody’s sister, Mary Jo Edgmon, and will follow up with a night of Woody’s 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 Belle’s final resting place.

The next thing that happened was that I got a letter from a Oklahoma man who’s 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 you’ll read. He also asked me to make spelling and grammar corrections as he didn’t 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, I’ll pass the baton on to “the old wop”, as he calls himself, knowing that the purest core of Woody’s legacy lies in true stories like these. He writes, you’ll need “two nights and four Okie interpreters” to read all this. It’s 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 father’s 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 didn’t 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 Sheriff’s 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. I’m 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 education.
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 Woody’s 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 man’s children are sick and hungry he should get help from any place he can.God doesn’t care where food comes from if it’s feeding the hungry and we should not try to be better than him.


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. I’m on Social Security and my wife’s a teacher so I can’t 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 wife’s a teacher and she would like to give it out to other teachers the real song as my father sung it. So I’m including a check for 5 dollars in hopes you will help us, but if you can’t I will understand. My dad died some ten years ago, and they say I don’t 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



I’m 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 don’t have much, but we have enough, and we’re 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.

We 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, I’d love to have Woody’s stories on your web site, but could you just attribute them to “the old wop,” my wife’s pet name for me, at least for a few years, then you can put my name on it if you wish.
              
You, living in New York, probably think I am paranoid scared, mind sick, or worse, but it’s 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 they’d 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 don’t mind being ignorant, I just don’t want to look like I’m 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, they’re not one in a million, they’re more like one in a hundred million. Woody wasn’t rich, or even well off, but he gave all he had, and my dad, who didn’t lie, said he saved their lives.
              
I guess this letter is going to be so long to read, you’ll need two nights and four Okie interpreters. I’m really sorry now that I didn’t get much education, can’t spell, can’t 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 we’ve ever known, maybe ever will.

                                                  Love, with Deep thanks & respect
                                                  “The old wop”



They 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 hair.

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 wasn’t 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 owing him.
              
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 Bob’s 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 Bob’s 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 help them.


              
After Woody talked with Vincenti and Cott, Woody left one of his friends there and took out.The next day two more of Woody’s 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 Bob’s dogs, and beat some of his people up. Twany had been locked in a tool shed behind Big Bob’s barn, she looked real bad.
              
The longshoremen helped get the migrants on the road that night and they didn’t 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, rotten, S.O.B.

Years later Cott went back to Washington to put markers on their grave sites, but couldn’t 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 couldn’t save them.

The end

*All images and text are copyrighted by Woody Guthrie Publications. Any use without permission is illegal.

 

 

 

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