In Deep Red Oklahoma, The Blue Door Is 'A Lighthouse' For Progressive Protest Music

Jan 21, 2020
Originally published on January 21, 2020 7:04 pm

It's a couple hours before show time at Oklahoma City's the Blue Door, and owner Greg Johnson is in his living quarters at the back of the venue, remembering musicians who've hung out there after shows.

"Jimmy Webb, John Fullbright, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Arlo Guthrie ... ," Johnson rattles off their names.

Johnson moves into the Spartan performance space, where soon Oklahoma songwriter Mike McClure shows up for his sound check. McClure gestures to 100 folding chairs that seem to be arranged as much for worship as entertainment, saying it is "the best listening room in Oklahoma."

A wall of concert posters at the Blue Door in Oklahoma City.
Mitch Myers / Courtesy Blue Door

For 25 years, the Blue Door has been a regular tour stop for singer-songwriters. But the venue has also become a nerve center for progressive musicians in a state where all 77 counties voted for Donald Trump in 2016, and political posters are plastered on its walls among the playbills.

" 'Honor the Treaties,' 'March For Our Lives,' 'All You Fascists Bound to Lose,' " Johnson reads some of the slogans that decorate the venue. "We're not afraid to let our progressive beliefs be known around here."

Firebrand Oklahoma protest singer Woody Guthrie is the Blue Door's patron saint. Johnson started presenting Guthrie tributes during a stint in Austin, and continued them when he returned home and opened the Blue Door in 1993.

The rustic venue sits incongruously at the edge of Oklahoma City University, where it has long showcased Americana songwriting. It is also out of place in the state's political landscape; in 2016, Donald Trump won 65.3% of the vote to Hillary Clinton's 28.9%.

"We're all about the underdog," Johnson says. "We're all about the next person in line. So it's just really a time that we have to speak out. Plus it's no secret that I've been doing Woody Guthrie tributes for 29 years."

Singer Peggy Johnson — no relation to Greg — plays the Blue Door's Woody celebrations. "Woody used his music as a tool to communicate with people, and that's what most of us are trying to do here," she says. "Cause music is its own language, and sometimes you can get through with music what you can't just sit and talk about."

Peggy Johnson performs at a 2018 Blue Door political benefit.
Michael D. Duncan / Courtesy of the artist

The Blue Door also lets Peggy Johnson open up her catalog. She says there are places in the state where it's risky to play her anti-Trump song, "Sock Puppet."

Jimmy Webb, one of the more influential living songwriters who's played the Blue Door, calls the venue "a lighthouse for liberal democratic thinking in a state that is really pervasively right."

Webb believes "message songs" are exactly what the current political climate requires. "I know what a strong tool music can be in the struggle to make America a better country," he says.

Many of Webb's songs have also appealed to listeners across political divides, however. His Vietnam-era composition "Galveston" found wide success when Glen Campbell's recorded it in 1969.

And there are other singers at the Blue Door trying to bridge the political divide, like Choctaw American songwriter Samantha Crain. Crain lives in Norman, Okla., and she favors what she calls the "Dolly Parton" method: singing individual stories of struggle, opening a door to broad identification.

"Just in how divided this country and the world has become, coming at it from a bit of a softer way has shown to be a little more effective and meaningful to me," Crain says.

One example of Crain's more personal approach is her song "Elk City," which depicts a woman who moves to Oklahoma during the oil boom and gets lost in the system.

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At 7 p.m., the Blue Door crowd arrives with beer and Mountain Dew in hand — it's BYOB, so there's no drink service to interrupt listening. Greg Johnson is in the green room. Even he needs an occasional break from finger-pointing political songs, and looks to music for other things.

"I think it can inspire people. I think it can be a soundtrack. It can soothe people, it can be like, 'Ah, we can even forget about this for a few minutes' kind of thing," he says.

The show begins. Johnson goes behind the soundboard to let music do what it will for the night: connect, soothe and resist.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now to Oklahoma and a music venue where progressive artists find a place for protest songs in a deeply conservative state. Michelle Mercer reports from The Blue Door in Oklahoma City.

MICHELLE MERCER, BYLINE: It's a couple hours before showtime at The Blue Door. Owner Greg Johnson is in his living quarters at the back of the venue, remembering musicians who've hung out there after shows.

GREG JOHNSON: Jimmy Webb, John Fullbright, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Arlo Guthrie...

MERCER: Johnson moves into the spartan performance space.

G JOHNSON: Need to get my CDs all cleaned up.

MERCER: Soon, Oklahoma songwriter Mike McClure shows up for his soundcheck.

G JOHNSON: Red dirt magic right now.

MERCER: McClure gestures to 100 folding chairs that seem to be arranged as much for worship as entertainment. But The Blue Door supports more than music. Political posters are plastered on its walls among the playbills.

G JOHNSON: Honor the Treaties, March for Our Lives, all you fascists bound to lose - we're not afraid to let our progressive beliefs be known around here.

MERCER: The rustic Blue Door sits incongruously at the edge of Oklahoma City University. The Blue Door is also out of place in the state's political landscape. In 2016, Donald Trump won 65% of the vote here to Hillary Clinton's 30%.

G JOHNSON: We're all about the underdog. We're all about the next person in line. It's just really a time that we have to speak out. Plus, it's no secret that I've been doing Woody Guthrie tributes for 29 years.

MERCER: Oklahoma protest singer Woody Guthrie is The Blue Door's patron saint. Johnson started Guthrie tributes during a stint in Austin and continued them when he returned home and opened The Blue Door in 1993.

PEGGY JOHNSON: Woody used the music as his tool to communicate with people, and that's what we're trying to do here.

MERCER: That's singer Peggy Johnson - no relation to Greg - who plays The Blue Door's Woody celebrations.

P JOHNSON: His music, of course, is its own language, and sometimes, you can get through with music which you can't just sit and talk about.

MERCER: Peggy Johnson says there are places in the state where it's risky to play her anti-Trump song "Sock Puppet."

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "SOCK PUPPET COPYRIGHT 2017 PEGGY C. JOHNSON")

P JOHNSON: (Singing) You think you're the one who's running this show, sock puppet.

You know, you can't play "Sock Puppet" everywhere.

JIMMY WEBB: It is a lighthouse for liberal, Democratic thinking in a state that is pervasively right.

MERCER: Jimmy Webb, another Oklahoma native, is one of the more influential living songwriters who plays The Blue Door.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "JIMMY WEBB - 'GALVESTON' (LIVE FOR WFUV)")

WEBB: (Singing) Galveston, oh, Galveston...

MERCER: He believes, quote-unquote, "message songs" are exactly what the current political climate requires.

WEBB: Because I know what a strong tool music can be in the struggle to make America a better country.

MERCER: But many of Webb's songs have also appealed to listeners across political divides. His Vietnam-era song "Galveston" found wide success in Glen Campbell's 1969 version.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GALVESTON")

GLEN CAMPBELL: (Singing) Galveston, oh, Galveston, I still hear your sea winds blowing.

MERCER: And there are songwriters at The Blue Door trying to bridge the political divide.

SAMANTHA CRAIN: I think you need the militant protesting, but I also think there are some people that need to be doing the bring-everybody-in thing.

MERCER: Choctaw American songwriter Samantha Crain lives in Norman. She favors what she calls the Dolly Parton method - writing individual stories of struggle, opening a door to broad identification. Crain's song "Elk City," for example, depicts a woman who moves to Oklahoma during the oil boom and gets lost in the system.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "SAMANTHA CRAIN - ELK CITY")

CRAIN: (Singing) Get me out of this town. Give me out of this dream.

Just in how divided this country and the world has become, coming at it from a bit of a softer way has shown to be a little more effective and meaningful to me.

MERCER: Around 7 o'clock, The Blue Door crowd arrives with beer and Mountain Dew. It's BYOB, so there's no drink service to interrupt listening. Greg Johnson is in the green room. Even he needs an occasional break from finger-pointing political songs and looks to music for other things.

G JOHNSON: I think it can inspire people. I think it can be a soundtrack. It can soothe people. It can be a, like, we can forget about this for a few minutes kind of thing, too.

MERCER: The show begins.

MIKE MCCLURE: How you guys doing?

MERCER: Johnson goes behind the soundboard to let music do what it will for the night - connect, soothe and resist.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCLURE: (Singing) I'm sliding into the void again.

MERCER: For NPR News, I'm Michelle Mercer in Oklahoma City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.