Friday, August 9, 2013

The State I'm In

Growing up in Texas, I didn’t learn much useful about Oklahoma. I learned that there was a university up there called the Sooners that we Longhorns played in Dallas every October at the State Fair.  When I was young, I believed we regularly and effortlessly beat the dickens out of them; when I became an adult, it seemed like they always beat the dickens out of us, cruelly and embarrassingly, I might add. To make matters worse, the wise ones who run the world thought it profitable to somebody to abolish the Southwest Conference and attach Texas to the Great Plains and create the Big 12.  In this way, Texas plays another athletic powerhouse in Oklahoma State, and now both colleges find joy in embarrassing us in the full sight of every tough guy with the NCAA football cable package.
Leaving Texas

            For some reason, I pitied the state.  After all, Oklahoma is not Texas.  It was not pretty in the way we are pretty; and it was ugly in new and terrible ways we had not contemplated.   It was one of those flat states that attract tornadoes; it was where our greatest modern homegrown terrorists blew up a Federal Building; it was the home of the Tulsa riots in 1921 upon which William Owens, my teacher, modeled the riot at the climax of his novel Walking on Borrowed Land. And Oklahoma is the home of Senator Tom Coburn and Representative J. C. Watts, for God’s sake.   Conveniently, I had forgotten a long list of miseries native to my home, sweet home.  What does one do with our floods and fires, the assassination of a president, the murder of James Byrd, and our gifts to national politics, George Bush and Rick Perry, except commit them all to a cultural amnesia?

            Then, I drove the Caravan of Wonder north by way of the Indian Nation Turnpike from Hugo to Henrietta.  Sure, it is a toll road and cost us something like $12 for our couple of hours, but we compared this to the thirty-minute ride on 130 east of Austin for the same price, and our hearts softened toward this pitiful state that doesn’t seem to think that free enterprise is substitute for all governmental responsibilities.   When, over the next couple of days, I noticed the lack of the monotonous commerce of billboard advertisements on several of its state and national roads, I began to contemplate proposing building a border wall at the Red River, now that I had crossed over, to keep all the Texans out.  (I know, very few people read these posts, but if they ever attract an audience, I can already hear the proud Texans muttering, “Love it, or leave it, dude.” We Texans are a proudly inept people.

            From Henrietta, we eased our way to Okmulgee State Park, where we spent two glorious nights in the air conditioned luxury of the Caravan—because Oklahoma is, regrettably, just as ungodly hot and humid as Central Texas.  At Okmulgee, our third and fourth nights on the road, we achieved several firsts—our first state park with the RV, the first meal cooked on the Weber grill, the first full use of our butane fuel tanks, our first hot water, our first bike rides on the trip,  our first playing xbox on the road, and our first changing of plans because it is just too difficult to do everything we hope to do.  We scrapped my plans to see Woody Guthrie’s grave marker in Okemah, the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, and the Will Rogers Museum in Claremore. 

            So what did we get to see?  The Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa.  Opened only four months ago in April, this two-story building in what appears to be a recently revitalized part of Tulsa is a wonderful tribute and educational center devoted to one of America’s great individuals.  Primarily known as the writer and singer of the great American anthem—“This Land Is My Land”—Guthrie is also a poet, painter, artist, memoirist, and novelist. He seems to be a strange mix of the long line of wandering singing minstrels going back to Europe that is somehow grafted on to the root stock of the great American do-it-yourselfer, the pull-yourself-up-by-your-own bootstraps guy, the go-wherever-the-job-is and do-whatever-you-have-to-do-to-make-it guy.  There were no silver spoons for this man, so he was always, it seems to me, a man on the make, looking for the break—after all, he traveled between America’s two centers of culture—New York City and Los Angeles—,married a dancer from Merce Cunningham’s company and published a book reviewed in The New Yorker.   He was a man of the people, but that did not stop him from desiring fame and fortune.  I think this is something we bourgeois want-to-be artists forget:  the poor do not think it is noble to be poor.  Why would one want to be a poor artist that no one ever reads or sees or listens to?  Let’s leave self-inflicted neediness to the preachers and social workers. 

            But Woody Guthrie’s story is a difficult one, because as the United States exited World War II, and money started  to flow, Guthrie began suffering from Huntington’s Disease that robbed him of his ability to create.  It is astonishing to think that this man had maybe only twenty years of solid creativity.  Every singer-songwriter from the nineteen-fifties forward has his or her roots in Woody Guthrie.  In a sense, Woody Guthrie and Ezra Pound form a kind of artistic pole of opposite respected elders in the nineteen fifties.  These two men, hospitalized in different ways, imprisoned in similar ways, received visits from young men, mostly, who wanted to learn how to become themselves.  Pound was a fascist, which we artists attempt to ignore.  Guthrie was by temperament and philosophy, though not card-carrying, a communist, which solid Chamber of Commerce types wince at.   Guthrie is famous for a guitar upon which he wrote; “This machine kills fascists.”  I don’t think he meant only Hitler.

            From Tulsa, we ventured to Muskogee.  Beside the University of Oklahoma Sooners about the only thing I knew about Oklahoma was a slew of songs, such as “Oklahoma Hills,” by Woody Guthrie, “Oklahoma” by Rogers and Hammerstein, “Take Me Back to Tulsa” by Bob Wills, and one I just discovered thanks to my friend Lance Worley, “You Are the Reason God Made Oklahoma,” by David Frizzell.  Have you ever noticed how there might be more songs about Oklahoma that any other state?  The song closest to my heart is Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Mukogee.”

We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee;
We don't take no trips on LSD
We don't burn no draft cards down on Main Street;
We like livin' right, and bein' free.

I'm proud to be an Okie from Muskogee,
A place where even squares can have a ball
We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse,
And white lightnin's still the biggest thrill of all

We don't make a party out of lovin';
We like holdin' hands and pitchin' woo;
We don't let our hair grow long and shaggy,
Like the hippies out in San Francisco do.            

Leather boots are still in style for manly footwear;
Beads and Roman sandals won't be seen.
Football's still the roughest thing on campus,
And the kids here still respect the college dean.

            As sometimes happens, this tongue-in-cheek song became a kind of rallying cry for people on both sides of the cultural cleavage that still runs through the U.S.  I mean damn near every issue we argue about today has its origins somehow in the sixties.  The song was sung with the same gusto at Armadillo World Headquarters as it was, I assume, in the roughest red neck road house (which I would never dare step into).   “Sweet Home, Alabama” and “Red-Neck Mother” may have similar dual audiences.  For me, at least, I appreciate and yearn toward both sides of Haggard’s civil war.  I think it is right and proper to maintain a certain innocence and sweetness to lovemaking, and there is much I can wave a flag about.  Some of the saddest sites in the United States are the rundown and abandoned central squares where, we fantasize, happy, un-ironic citizens used to gather in mutual respect.  But here I am, at sixty, growing my hair long and shaggy, just one more time before I return to be a college dean, whom I hope deserves a little respect.

            But we didn’t drive to Muskogee so I could sing Merle Haggard to my boys—though I guarantee that they heard a few bars—we went to visit the Museum of the Five Civilized Tribes.  I have been going on a long time in this blog already, so I ought to wrap things up.  And the truth is that the most important part of my visit two days in Oklahoma is still working on me several days after we have left.  It is the presence of Native Americans.  Woody Guthrie said something like he became who he is because he grew up in Oklahoma where one third of the population was white, one third black, and one third Native American.  This division is not true in Texas.  Our illustrious governor Mirabeau B. Lamar, modeling himself upon Andrew Jackson, I suppose, exterminated or exported the tribes native to Texas.  To be continued . . . .      

Soundtrack:  J.J. Cale, "Okie,"     

1 comment:

  1. Hi Lyman, Colleen, Theo, and Jacob, I LOVE this blog, and I envy you this journey. Lyman, when you write again, will you please tell more about the Museum of the Five Civilized Tribes? I didn't know it existed. Many, many years ago, one of my Angell ancestors was "clerk in charge of Choctaw records" in Muskogee for the Dawes Commission. That's all I know about it, and I'd like to learn more. Your adventure is amazing!