Women of WoodyFest Concert Series plays on in honor of Woody Guthrie and his late sister, Mary Jo Guthrie Edgmon
An abbreviated version of this story appears in Tuesday's The Oklahoman.
Women of WoodyFest play on in memory of Woody Guthrie and his late sister, Mary Jo Guthrie Edgmon
Oklahoma folk singer-songwriters making music in memory of Woody Guthrie are now playing on in honor of his "baby sister," too.
As previously reported, Mary Jo Guthrie Edgmon, Guthrie’s younger sister and one of the Oklahoma folk icon’s most dedicated devotees, died March 16 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.
Mary Josephine Guthrie was born Dec. 24, 1922, in Okemah, the fifth and youngest child of Charley Guthrie and Nora Belle Sherman Guthrie. By the time she was born, her mother was already suffering the effects of Huntington’s disease, the neurological disorder that eventually institutionalized and killed Nora Guthrie — and later did the same to her famous son. At the 2014 Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah, Mary Jo shared how her older brother Roy "kidnapped" her when she was a toddler.
“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,’” she said.
It was her wandering, 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 died in 1929.
In Konawa, Mary Jo met Hulett Edgmon, whom she married on Dec. 21, 1940. He soon joined the Army and was deployed to Europe during World War II, while his wife was pregnant with their only child, Hugh Edward. When her husband’s service ended, the family settled in Seminole, and during her 65 years there, Edgmon was a wife, mother, artist, author and community organizer.
But one of her greatest passions was championing her singer-songwriter sibling.
“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 our perennial guest of honor every year, and the core of our WoodyFest family.”
Since the first edition in 1998, Mary Jo's Pancake Breakfast, a Huntington's disease research fundraiser started by its namesake, has been a WoodyFest tradition. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the Woody Guthrie Festival Coalition.
The coalition and the Oklahoma City listening room the Blue Door will pay homage to Edgmon at the first 2019 installment of the Women of WoodyFest Concert Series at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Blue Door, 2805 N McKinley. The showcase will feature festival favorites Mary Battiata, K.C. Clifford, Sunshine Hahn Scherer, Susan Herndon, Cassie Latshaw and Lauren Lee.
“Mary Jo was THE woman of WoodyFest. We’ll continue to play to honor her,” Lee said in a statement. “The show must go on.”
Women of WoodyFest is produced by the Woody Guthrie Concert Series and the Woody Guthrie Coalition, aiming to raise awareness of the musical legacy of Woody Guthrie and promoting the festival, as well as raising funds necessary to produce the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival. For tickets for and information on Saturday's show, go to www.bluedoorokc.com.
Affectionately called WoodyFest, the internationally acclaimed festival will celebrate its 22nd year July 10-14 in Woody and Mary Jo's hometown of Okemah. It is organized by the Woody Guthrie Coalition, a nonprofit corporation made up of an entirely volunteer team. The festival is made possible in part by a grant provided by the Oklahoma Arts Council. Sponsors include the George Kaiser Family Foundation and BancFirst. For more information, go to www.woodyfest.com.