A standing ovation greeted the closing credits of “Woody Guthrie: Three Chords and the Truth” last month in New Orleans. The 2019 BBC-commissioned Bohemia Films documentary is about one of America’s greatest and most influential folksinger/songwriters. Its screening was part of the 2020 Folk Alliance International (FAI) programming at their conference in The Big Easy. The impact on global folk music by Guthrie (1912-1967) who was born in Okemah and wrote “This Land is Your Land” is difficult to overestimate.
In addition to the exclusive Guthrie documentary screening, Tulsa’s Woody Guthrie Center had an exhibition hall table with information about the world renowned figure. The Center’s executive director Deana McCloud is a FAI board of directors member. Oklahoma’s modern music scene was represented in live performances by Nellie Clay, Kalyn Fay and Casii Stephan.
Curiously, one artist with Oklahoma in his project’s name is actually based in New Orleans. Jew of Oklahoma is Mark Rubin. He may be in the Deep South now but his roots are in Norman.
“I’m a 1984 graduate of Norman High School,” Rubin said. “And I attended the University of Oklahoma while still a teenager.” Rubin wasn’t quite finished with high school studies when he switched priorities to classes at OU. A truant officer showed up at the door and Rubin’s mom helpfully retrieved his university class schedule to provide where her son could be apprehended.
“My father was a director of OU’s Hillel for several years,” Rubin said. “He was also Interfaith Council Chairman and perfect at handling friction between the Southern Baptists and Church of Christ. Dad was a big tough rancher who had no problem facing down anti-Semitism.”
Jew of Oklahoma’s performance at FAI featured Rubin singing and playing a couple of stringed instruments including banjo. He’s a big, burly, bearded, tattooed man who was wearing a camo baseball cap and plaid shirt. In the 1990s Rubin was a key member of The Bad Livers, a genre-bending outfit once described as “rural eccentricity (with a) punk aesthetic in the 1920s.” Today Jew of Oklahoma’s artistic theme is “Jewish Americana for Troubled Times.” Guitarist Chip Wilson and Michael Winograd on clarinet made guest appearances during the set. Among Rubin’s most powerful compositions is a historical ballad titled “The Murder of Leo Frank.” It’s a no-holds barred song about the 1915 kidnapping and lynching in Georgia of a white Jewish factory superintendent accused of murdering a 13-year-8old white female employee. Rubin’s admirable goal which he does with entertaining panache is to share the southern Jewish experience.
FAI’s presence in the Crescent City made the conference stout with fine Louisiana music. Cajun firecracker Amanda Shaw lit up a private showcase with her incendiary fiddle and vocals. She brought undeniably attractive and memorable verve to a genre admired for its intensity and passion. Although approaching his 70th birthday Zachary Richard’s delivery of zydeco zest was that of a man half his age. His soulful songs in English and French coupled with unpretentious stage presence make him a professor emeritus of Cajun music who has released 21 albums. Dwayne Dopsie and the Zydeco Hellraisers lived up to their name. Dopsie flamboyantly played accordion from flat on his back for a minute. His six piece band was a ragin’ Cajun hurricane of sound and fury.
An outfit that might have been mistaken for New Orleans natives was LowDown Brass Band. They brought energy from Chicago that was singular to the conference. The band’s publicist Fiona Bloom gave her clients the genius idea of marching along a few hotel floors while playing, French Quarter-style on the way to their showcase room. With a combination of hip hop vocalists, jazz and reggae vibe they brought the house down.
Canada by way of Auckland, New Zealand’s Tami Neilson exploded on stage like Kiwi rockabilly dynamite. Her bossy sass and command of the room were enthralling. At home Neilson is a country music award winner. Her sound is preternaturally all-American.
Tulsa’s Kalyn Fay appeared in a private showcase at the Indigenous Voices room. Her voice and songs are a majestic representation of the modern Oklahoma sound. Fay was accompanied by Matt Magerkurth on cello. Together they conjured the magic that reverberates on these plains and rolling red dirt hills. In 2021 FAI returns to Kansas City, Missouri where it’s expected the presence of Oklahoma musicians will be increased tenfold.