Funeral services announced for Mary Jo Guthrie Edgmon, Woody Guthrie's younger sister
Mary Jo Guthrie Edgmon, Woody Guthrie’s younger sister and one of the Oklahoma folk icon’s most dedicated cheerleaders and champions, died Saturday at the Regency Skilled Nursing Facility in Shawnee.
She was 96.
“Nobody loved Woody Guthrie as much as his baby sister Mary Jo did. Years before the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival and the Woody Guthrie Center were established, she was his champion, sharing his message with students across the state so that his importance in American history was not forgotten,” Deana McCloud, executive director of the Tulsa-based Woody Guthrie Center, said in a statement.
“Her legacy will remain alongside Woody’s in all that we do at the Center. She was a dear friend, our ‘baby sister,’ and our expert on all things Woody. We can’t think of anyone who was a better carrier of Woody’s torch. Our hearts ache for the family as we all honor a life well lived and a spirit of giving. We all hope we can live up to her expectations and continue sharing her brother’s love with a new generation in the way that she did for so many years.”
Mary Josephine Guthrie was born Dec. 24, 1922, in Okemah, the fifth and youngest child of Charley Guthrie and Nora Belle Sherman Guthrie. Her father was a cowboy, land speculator and local politician.
By the time she was born, her mother was already suffering the debilitating effects of Huntington’s disease, the neurological disorder that eventually institutionalized and killed Nora Guthrie — and did the same to her famous son. At the 2014 Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah, Mary Jo shared the story of how her older brother Roy "kidnapped" her when she was a toddler.
“Y’all want to hear about my kidnapping?” Edgmon asked with a smile. “When I was 3 years old, townspeople called Papa and said ‘Mr. Guthrie, there’s a little girl down here running loose. ... We think it’s your little girl.’”
It was her wandering around Main Street, so Mary Jo was sent to live with her aunt in Texas. But she said her older brother Roy showed up and whisked her off to his home in Konawa — before his wife, Anna, even knew he had a younger sister.
“I was 3 years old, and I just don’t remember anything from Okemah — except for what Woody wrote. I never knew or remembered my mother, but because of Woody, I learned all about her,” said Edgmon, whose mother was hospitalized in 1927 at the Central State Hospital for the Insane in Norman, where Nora Guthrie died in 1929.
It was during her time in Konawa that Mary Jo Guthrie met the love of her life, Hulett Edgmon, whom she married on Dec. 21, 1940. Soon after, Hulett joined the Army and was deployed to Europe during World War II. At that time, his wife was pregnant with their only child, Hugh Edward.
When her husband’s tour of duty ended, the family settled in Seminole, and during her 65 years there, Edgmon was a homemaker, wife, mother, artist, author and community organizer. But one of her greatest passions was serving as spokeswoman and cheerleader for her singer-songwriter sibling.
Edgmon survived the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, like famous brother, who began penning his Dust Bowl Ballads like "I Ain't Got No Home," "Hard Travelin'" and "So Long, It's Been Good To Know Yuh (Dusty Old Dust)” while he hitchhiked, road freight trains and walked to California, along with thousands of Dust Bowl refugees known as "Okies."
Touched and angered by the refugees' plight, Woody Guthrie often performed in migrant camps. He also started singing at Communist rallies and writing the column "Woody Sez" for Communist newspapers. He never joined the party, but embraced its support of unions and fair-labor laws.
As his Huntington’s disease symptoms progressed, Woody Guthrie spent the last 13 years of his life hospitalized in New York and New Jersey. The 1950s and '60s brought a folk music revival and renewed respect for his songs. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Ramblin' Jack Elliott were among the songwriters who visited the Woody Guthrie before he died Oct. 3, 1967, at age 55.
As Woody Guthrie began to receive posthumous recognition nationally – including induction into the Nashville Songwriters Association Hall of Fame in 1977 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 – some Oklahomans were reluctant to honor him due to his political leanings. But his younger sister remained his steadfast home-state supporter. She was known to say “We don’t die in my family; I don’t let ‘em go. They’re still here.”
“Mary Jo has been an integral part of our festival since its inception,” said the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival board of directors in a statement. “As Woody’s biggest fan, she loved him more than anyone. She was an author, artist, and collector. She was loving, supportive, and compassionate. She was our perennial guest of honor every year, and the core of our WoodyFest family. We’re going to miss her dearly, but we’re not letting her go anytime soon.”
Since the festival’s first edition in 1998, Mary Jo's Pancake Breakfast, started as a Huntington's disease research fundraiser by its namesake, has become a favorite tradition. Even in her 90s as her health became more fragile, Edgmon remained “a great matriarch for the whole festival,” said Brad Piccolo, a member of the Oklahoma band Red Dirt Rangers.
“We love her, and we do this for her and the Guthrie family, as well for the fans and people,” Piccolo told The Oklahoman at the 20th anniversary festival in 2017.
“They had a few events … before they even started the festival, which to me were like the seeds of what we have now. Back then, it was not uncommon to walk down the street in Okemah and see signs in windows like ‘Don't honor this commie.' … He's embraced now, and the voice against him is not near what it was. And I'm glad to see that.”
Piccolo’s bandmate John Cooper called Edgmon “a major blessing to so many people.”
“She is a sweetheart, and loved all over the country and the world. (It’s) sad, really sad, for all of us that know and love her,” Cooper said in a text message to The Oklahoman. “But she lived a long, fulfilling life. We were lucky to have her for so long.”
Greg Johnson, owner of the Oklahoma City listening room the Blue Door, said Sunday he intends to turn his long-running Woody Guthrie tribute show into an homage for both the folk icon and Edgmon, who was his friend for more than 20 years. Johnson started his Guthrie tribute in 1991 in Austin, Texas, and when he moved to OKC, he continued it at the Blue Door, which hosted the event for the 25th year in December.
“She was like a mother to me, always thoughtful about my role in Woody's life and my life with songwriters,” Johnson said in a statement. “Her being Woody's sister might have been the catalyst for this great friendship, but since that first year, she has not been Woody's sister to me really; she is just my friend Mary Jo.”
Edgmon is survived by her son, Hugh and wife Susan, of Scottsdale, Arizona; grandson, Chris and wife Angela, of Scottsdale; granddaughter, Christy Martin and great-grandchildren Cade and Campbell Martin, of Frisco, Texas; along with many Guthrie nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles and extended family.
Services are planned for 11 a.m. Wednesday at the Emanuel First Baptist Church in Shawnee.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the Woody Guthrie Festival Coalition.