Lahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plain…
To many Americans of a certain age, these lines, along with a few other verses by Rodgers & Hammerstein, are the sum total of what they know about the state of Oklahoma.
It’s understandable. Oklahoma is just one of 50 states. It’s far from the sophisticated and intellectual east; it seems flat, hot and dry to the fun-loving west; and it is more than eclipsed by its neighbor to the south, whose name happens to be Texas. What’s an Okie got to do to get a little recognition, much less, respect?
The answer came from an unlikely source. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein were not the kind of guys to spend time punching cattle, but they did manage to write one of the most successful Broadway musicals of all time. Titled simply, Oklahoma, their show opened in 1943 and was still being performed all over the country when a movie version appeared in 1956. To date, there have been more than 30,000 productions of Oklahoma in more than a dozen languages. Barely a season goes by when somebody doesn’t stage a major revival of Oklahoma for a whole new audience generation. Together, shows, film, soundtrack albums and even a postage stamp – the US issued one in 1993 to commemorate the Broadway show – have brought more fame and attention to the state than anything since 1907, when Oklahoma officially joined the US of A.
Needless to say, this CD is not about show tunes and Broadway visions of Oklahoma. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. No sir. This collection of 25 tunes looks at the real Oklahoma, as reflected in the state’s dance floors, bars and honkytonks. As with other CDs in this series, we weren’t necessarily looking for big hits. Rather, we were looking for vintage recordings (typically 1940s through 1960s) that convey the sounds and styles of the State. A lot of Oklahoma music is dance music: boogies, shuffles, polkas and waltzes. It was meant for Saturday night, for kicking back and getting out on a dance floor once the week’s work or the daily chores were done. Like most songs in this series, this is basically working class music. The maxim that folks who work hard, party even harder is nowhere more evident than on this collection of tunes.
Some of the artists like Bobby Barnett, Sheb Wooley and Jack Guthrie were native Oklahomans but, for the most part, this collection features songs about Oklahoma, recorded by artists from all over the US and, in the case of Wilf Carter, even Canada. Jack Guthrie, represented by three tracks on this collection, brings us one of the most assertively rural voices on this or any compilation. Jack and his cousin Woody Guthrie co-wrote Oklahoma Hills. The song may have faded from memory, but it was a major hit in 1945 and was one of the most frequently recorded tunes in country music. Jack Guthrie was wounded in World War 2 and died in January, 1948 weakened by the residual effects of those injuries.
Some of these tracks, while not chart-toppers in their day, are still quite memorable. Marvin Rainwater draws a picture of limited leisure-time activities in Henryetta, Oklahoma. Just check out these lyrics: “If you want to mix the sexes/Then you’d better go to Texas.” It’s a song the local Chamber of Commerce won’t be broadcasting any time soon. Wilf Carter’s wonderfully dated rendition of My Oklahoma Rose offers us another slice of musical time-travel, as does Ella Mae Morse’s Okie Boogie, a track she recorded twice, including an originally unissued 1951 version dating from the same session that produced her biggest hit, “The Blacksmith Blues.” Finally, there’s Bobby Barnett’s Oklahoma’s OK – a candidate for official state anthem if we ever heard one.
In case Bobby’s song doesn’t get you to cheering, just remember:
The wavin’ wheat can sure smell sweet
When the wind comes right behind the rain…
All together now,