Ellis Paul
Brick Street Cafe, Okemah, Oklahoma
(14 November 1998)

Ellis Paul, playing Saturday night in Woody Guthrie's hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma, was obviously moved when he was presented with a proclamation signed by the mayor, naming him "an honorary citizen" of that town. The honor came because of Ellis devoting so "much of his time and energies to the preservation of the music of Woody Guthrie" and lending "his talent to the city of Okemah, participating in the first annual Woody Guthrie Free Folk Festival and in various Woody Guthrie Coalition fundraisers."

For the second night in a row Ellis refused to use a perfectly good working sound system, choosing instead to stand in the middle of the crowd of slightly more than 100 fans as he sang his songs "totally unplugged."

He got right to the Woody Guthrie catalogue with the second number, "Hard Travelin'." Over the years Ellis has done several of Woody's songs, but this is the one he is most often associated with. He told the crowd early on that his home is "in northern Maine, which is the Oklahoma of New England." After receiving the proclamation he referred to Okemah as "my new hometown" and said, "I'm movin' in."

He sang "The Martyrs' Lounge," then told the crowd they have "one of the biggest tourist attractions in the state. But Woody's old home is now overrun with weeds and ticks." With a chuckle, he said "I've been stealin' stuff from the site for about five years. I know Lucinda Williams has a big piece of the rock (from the old foundation). I sure hope the (Woody Guthrie) Coalition will be able to do something to preserve that site."

After singing "3,000 Miles" and reciting "Tornado Girl" he introduced "Did Galileo Pray?" by saying "Like Woody Guthrie, Galileo got in trouble for the stuff he believed in." Done as a sing-a-long, at one point the crowd took over the song before relinquishing it back to Ellis. Getting back to Woody, Ellis spoke of the "revolution he started in songwriting." Calling him "sort of the Van Gogh of the musical world," he noted that Guthrie's music "didn't become popular or start making money until after his death."

He sang "The World Ain't Slowin' Down," then said, "Do you all know that your state song was written by two New Yorkers who had never been to Oklahoma? I think Woody's "Oklahoma Hills" should be your state song. Besides, I've never heard anyone in Oklahoma use the term 'my honeylamb and I.'" He sang "Autobiography of a Pistol," a song "sung from the gun's perspective," after calling Woody Guthrie "the first First Amendment songwriter. He didn't care if you liked the song or not, he just thought that he had things he had to say."

Ellis' show was sponsored by The Woody Guthrie Coalition and held at the downtown Brick Street Cafe, home of the "Killer Nachos." To turn the place into a listening room, the recorded music and TVs were shut down and the pool tables were put off limits. This place is used to a more raucous crowd, but on this night Ellis' whisper of a tenor was the only sound to be heard.

He opened his second set with "Lonesome Valley," then explained, "Some people claim Woody was an atheist. I use that song as the argument that he obviously wasn't." After singing "Angel In Manhattan," he said, "When I went off to school I told my parents I was gonna' be a doctor. Before long I changed to an English major. On graduation I became a social worker, then I had to tell them I was gonna' be a folksinger. I guess the next step is complete homelessness."

He then sang "All Things Bein' The Same" ("about a friend of mine from Atlanta, Georgia"), "Take Me Down" ("about watching a town shut down at night, street by street by street") and then "This Land Is Your Land." Of the latter, he said, "I didn't prepare it for this set, but I feel like I should do it, regardless. You know, it's actually a protest song about land ownership and most people don't know about the hidden verse. It's not in the version they want kids singing."

His stirring rendition of Woody's most famous song brought the planned show to an end with a standing ovation from the crowd. His encore was one of his un-recorded songs, "Seize The Day," a feel-good song about enjoying the music of Nat King Cole and wanting to come back as a seagull "if they give you the choice."

[ by Bill McCloud ]

Buy Ellis Paul's new CD, Live, from Amazon.com.