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Harvest time in the Pastures of Plenty

Amid rising costs, the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival seeks new revenue streams

Woody Guthrie Folk Festival

Photos courtesy of Guy Zahller

The news came in the form of a press release: The Woody Guthrie Coalition—organizer of the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival—has launched a GoFundMe campaign to help defray the cost of the 20th annual festival taking place July 12-16, 2017 in Woody Guthrie’s hometown of Okemah, OK.

It seems The Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, the scrappy underdog of roots and Americana music held in Guthrie’s birthplace of Okemah, has run into financial difficulty and is looking to the populace at large to help bridge the gap of the increasing operating costs. 

This is not the first time this has happened. In 2015, the organizers of the festival made the difficult decision to start charging admission for the event, which was originally free in every sense of the word. But the dream of a totally free festival where everyone donates for the greater good has proven to be an insufficient, if well-intentioned model.

Karen Zundel, the media chair for “WoodyFest,” pointed to the increase in the artists’ expenses as one of the primary components to rising costs. While the artists—often more than 75 in number—donate their performances, the Coalition picks up the tab for travel and lodging. 

David Amram performs at Woody Fest
“That’s where the greatest increase is occurring,” Zundel said. “In particular, airfare.” 

A quick study of the Bureau of Transportation Statistics shows that in the years spanning from 1995-2015 (Woody Fest began in 1998) the average cost of airline travel increased as much as 29 percent. Couple that with the fact that fares are typically higher in both Tulsa and Oklahoma City than they would be in larger metropolitan areas and it’s not hard to see how quickly costs could get out of hand.

With the help of the GoFundMe fundraising campaign, Zundel believes that they can stop the financial backslide and return the festival to proper footing. 

“I sure hope it won’t be necessary each year,” she said. “We are aiming to get caught up on our current debt and have money in reserve, which we have been able to do in years past. We’re also polling some other festivals and we are picking their brains about how they fundraise, about ways they have found to become more viable in today’s competition for dollars.”

But in order to return the event to a sustainable model, the board of directors is looking for new revenue streams. 

“Admission alone doesn’t seem to be sufficient to keep us out of debt,” Zundel said. “We really need to find some new corporate sponsorships.” 

One current corporate sponsor, the George Kaiser Family Foundation based here in Tulsa, is staying the course with its support. 

“As far as underwriting goes, the GKFF is happy to be a sponsor of the event and looks forward to maintaining its relationship with the Woody Guthrie Festival and the people of Okemah,” said Stanton Doyle, who oversees the Kaiser Foundation’s annual grant program in civic enhancement, economic development and the arts. 

When asked if some of the festival’s problems wouldn’t be solved by moving it to Tulsa and perhaps using facilities like the Woody Guthrie Center and the Guthrie Green to house the performances, Doyle demurred.

“It is the position of the GKFF that the festival belongs in Okemah, and we want to do what we can to support that.”

Whatever financial advantages moving the festival to a less far-flung location might have, to those who support and perform at the event, it wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t held on the Pastures of Plenty. 

Zundel, a Pennsylvania native, explains the enthusiasm for the venue and it’s heritage. 

Campers gather for a jam session at Woody Fest
“Long before there was a festival, there were musicians making pilgrimages to Okemah to Woody’s old homestead. They would steal little pieces of rock from the foundation because that’s all that was left. So, I think the early festival founders had the foresight to realize that the festival was needed. People were coming to town because they wanted to see where this man was from and where he had lived.

“I get this question often about why people are drawn to Okemah and my only answer is that there is some kind of magic there that happens. When people come to Okemah, somehow Woody’s spirit just kind of permeates the air as his words and music are being sung and his life is celebrated from poetry reading to tribute concerts and parking lot jams, people visiting the homestead—that’s why people keep coming back.”

To donate the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, visit gofundme.com/woodyfest.

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