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.
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