Once in a while there comes an album that is so musically perfect and so in tune with its times that you know on one listen that it is destined to be a classic. Such is Freedom Highway, the second collection that Rhiannon Giddens has released under her own name. Its songs are drenched in her country’s history while speaking directly to its troubled present. There is horror here, but inspiration too.
‘The world that I knew, it has vanished and gone,’ sang Eliza Carthy during Blood and Roses: The Songs of Ewan MacColl, a special concert at the Liverpool Philharmonic this week that marked the centennial of the songwriter and Communist activist’s birth. It was a marvellous evening of passionate songs of politics and love which caused me to reflect on the significance of MacColl’s songs in our changed times. Continue reading “Blood and Roses: The Songs of Ewan MacColl”
I was so disappointed by Donovan’s concert at the Liverpool Phil a couple of weeks back that I couldn’t summon up the enthusiasm to write about. For the record, though, the following review by Del Pike pretty much sums up how three of us sitting on the front row (myself, and friends Joe and Annette) felt about it. Continue reading “Donovan at the Phil: disappointing and bizarre”
Tomorrow evening I was planning on seeing John Renbourn play at the Floral Pavilion, New Brighton, one stop on a tour he was doing with guitarist Wizz Jones. This morning I opened the paper to learn that he was dead. Continue reading “John Renbourn: buckets of tears”
Thea Gilmore seemed surprised that so many people had turned up to see her – enough to fill the Epstein Theatre – on the same night that Dolly Parton was doing her thing down at the Arena. But Thea’s fans are nothing if not loyal: when she asked how many members of the audience had previously attended one of her gigs, the response was pretty well unanimous. For myself, as the links at the foot of this post reveal, I’ve seen her on several occasions now, and been a fan of her music since the late nineties.
Indeed, Thea was in reflective mood last night, musing over the fact that it’s been 17 years now since she recorded her first album – at the age of 17. With no new album to promote, she was free, she said, to play what she liked, and to range over her extensive back catalogue. So what we got was a selection of old favourites and some classic cover versions. No-one, I think, does cover versions as good as Thea’s, except, perhaps, Bruce Springsteen.
As usual, her husband and producer Nigel Stonier accompanied her on guitar and keyboards (he had also opened the show with a supporting set of numbers from his new album – the best of which was an old song, now re-worked, ‘Messin’ With Fire‘, which he originally wrote with the jazz vocalist Clare Teal. Apart from Stonier, Thea’s current band makes an unusual line-up – in addition to Stonier, there’s Liz Hanks on cello and Susannah Simmons on violin. Oh, and 7-year old son Egan on fiddle for a couple of numbers at the end.
Thea opened with two numbers from 2002’s Songs from the Gutter – ‘And We’ll Dance, taken at a much faster pace than on the album, and ‘Tear It All Down’. Then came a superb cluster of songs – ‘Old Soul’, one of my absolute favourite Thea Gilmore songs, followed by the superb version of ‘All You Need Is Love’ which she recorded for a Mojo magazine cover mount. Slowed-down and with all the orchestration stripped out, it’s a brilliant interpretation. She sang it at the Hillsborough Justice gathering before the new inquest began; after singing it at the Epstein she said how nervous she felt singing it in this city. She needn’t have worried.
After that came ‘This Road’, the beautiful song from last years Regardless album which, as Thea explained, she wrote as an expression of love for her children: ‘this road is the only one worth walking’.
Two more outstanding moments were interpretations of songs by others – David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ and an exquisite reading of George Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’.
We left the Epstein fired up by a great concert, with the rousing choruses of the final encore, ‘Are You Ready’, ringing in our ears.
And We’ll Dance
Tear It All Down
All You Need is Love
The Man Who Sold the World
Goodbye Old England (For Victor)
To the Bone
Start As We Mean To Go On
Love Came Looking For Me
You’re the Radio
Are You Ready
Pete Seeger, photo by Anthony Pepitone (Wikipedia)
Following the death of Pete Seeger I came across reviews of an album put out in 1998 by Appleseed Recordings, an idealistic independent music label set up by Jim Musselman, a lawyer and activist who once worked with Ralph Nader. Musselman has devoted the label to releasing socially conscious contemporary and traditional folk and roots music by established and lesser-known musicians. On the Appleseed website, Musselman speaks of the years when he worked with Ralph Nader:
I travelled the country for eight years, criss-crossing America in a Guthrie-esque way, seeing the nation and its citizens up close, learning the best ways to listen and to communicate. When I was organizing local communities to fight back against multinational corporations, I would start our open public meetings with a song, figuring that unifying people in singing was an important first step to unifying them in political action.
In 1997, for Appleseed’s first major project, Musselman approached numerous well-known musicians, along with writer Studs Terkel with a request to each record a song written, adapted or performed by Pete Seeger for a tribute album to highlight Seeger’s musical contributions and his tradition of mixing songs and political activism. The resulting double CD Where Have All the Flowers Gone: The Songs of Pete Seeger was the one I stumbled across as I followed internet references to Seeger in the days after his death.
It’s a terrific album from which you gain a holistic sense of the man and the causes he embraced. Jim Musselman also did a great job choosing songs from Seeger’s vast repertoire and matching each tune with an artist ‘based on either the philosophical fit between the artist and the message of the song and/or their unique musical style’, as he writes in the accompanying booklet. As an example of this approach, take the opening track – ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone’ – sung by Irish songwriter and peace activist Tommy Sands with Bosnian Vedran Smailovic (‘the Cellist of Sarejevo). Bear in mind that this was recorded in 1997, before the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland and only months after the lifting of the siege of Sarejevo.
The album includes 37 versions of Seeger-related songs specially recorded by luminaries such as Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Billy Bragg, Sweet Honey In The Rock, Ani DiFranco and many others. The material is wonderful, every song reinforcing the picture of Seeger as both an interpreter of musical tradition and as a crusader for social justice. The performances are first-rate, with many highlights. Bruce Springsteen’s gentle reading of ‘We Shall Overcome’, for example, precedes the version he recorded for his album, The Seeger Sessions many years later, while Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt offer a lilting reggae-inflected account of ‘Kisses Sweeter Than Wine’. There are the songs that reflect Seeger’s later commitment to environmental issues and his campaign (entirely successful) to clean up his beloved, polluted Hudson river, such as ‘Sailing Down My Golden River’.
A remarkable, if less musical interlude comes with Ani DiFranco singing ‘My Name Is Lisa Kalvelage’, Pete’s adaptation of the words spoken in May 1966 by Lisa Kalvelage, one of four women who stopped a shipment of napalm to Vietnam by standing on a loading platform and refusing to move. Seeger’s words come from the statement she made in court after being arrested. Kalvelage likened her protest to lessons she learned from being raised in Nazi Germany – never to keep silent:
If you live in a democratic country where the government is you, you cannot say, ‘I followed orders,’ ” she told a reporter. “If you recognize that something is wrong, you have to speak out to set it straight.
But the words I really wanted to pass on in this post come from one of the two recitations on the album by the late Studs Terkel. It’s a reading of ‘Blessed Be The Nation’, verses Seeger left on a rock on an island where he had camped with his youngest daughter. He elaborates in the CD booklet:
In 1964 I took my youngest daughter canoeing on a beautiful lake in Maine. We camped on a little island and were dismayed to see the beach littered with bottles and cans. We picked ’em all up. I had a marker with me and wrote this graffiti on a flat stone. I never wrote a tune, but someone else can try.
Seeger never put music to these words. I’d like to share them here:
Cursed be the nation of any size or shape,
Whose citizens behave like naked apes,
And drop their litter where they please,
Just like we did when we swung from trees.
But blessed be the nation and blessed be the prize,
When citizens of any shape or size
Can speak their mind for any reason
Without being jailed or accused of treason.
Cursed be the nation without equal education,
Where good schools are something that we ration,
Where the wealthiest get the best that is able,
And the poor are left with crumbs from the table.
Blessed be the nation that keeps its waters clean,
Where an end to pollution is not just a dream,
Where factories don’t blow poisonous smoke,
And we can breath the air without having to choke.
Cursed be the nation where all play to win,
And too much is made of the colour of the skin,
Where we do not see each other as sister and brother,
But as being threats to each other.
Blessed be the nation with health care for all,
Where there’s a helping hand for those who fall,
Where compassion is in fashion every year,
And people, not profits, is what we hold dear.
There’s a recording of Studs Terkel reading the words on YouTube:
In another song on the album – ‘False from True’, sung by Guy Davis – Seeger ruefully observes the limits of protest in song. But, as he remarks in the verse, he continued to sing our story for as long as he had breath within. For that we can be thankful, for the words continue, inspiring succeeding generations:
No song I can sing will make a politician change his mind,
No song I can sing will take the gun from a hate-filled man;
But I promise you, and you, brothers and sisters of every skin,
I’ll sing your story while I’ve breath within.
‘He’s gonna look like your granddad if your granddad can kick your ass.’
Four years ago, Pete Seeger celebrated his 90th birthday party with a sell-out concert at Madison Square Garden. Characteristically, it was a fundraiser for a campaign to which he’d dedicated years of his life: cleaning up New York’s Hudson River. That night, Bruce Springsteen introduced Seeger with these words:
He’s gonna look a lot like your granddad that wears flannel shirts and funny hats. He’s gonna look like your granddad if your granddad can kick your ass. At 90, he remains a stealth dagger through the heart of our country’s illusions about itself.
And that’s the truth. Pete Seeger, who died yesterday aged 94, opposed McCarthyism, and worked tirelessly on behalf of civil rights movement, making his first trip south at the invitation of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1956. One of the seminal political events in his life, and the one which solidified his intent to make actively combating racism a lifelong pursuit, was the 1949 Peekskill race riots. In this video, Seeger recounts his experiences:
Seeger is the only singer in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame who was convicted of contempt of Congress. In 1955, he refused to testify about his past membership in the Communist Party. He had quit the party in 1949 though, he later admitted, should have left much earlier. ‘It was stupid of me not to…I thought Stalin was the brave secretary Stalin and had no idea how cruel a leader he was’. His conviction was overturned on appeal in 1961, but Seeger continued to be blacklisted by American TV networks until 1967. CBS censored parts of his anti-Vietnam War song, ‘Waist Deep in the Big Muddy’, when he sang it on the Smothers Brothers’ Comedy Hour.
Poet Carl Sandberg dubbed Pete Seeger ‘America’s tuning fork’, and there’s little doubt that Seeger helped introduce America to its own musical heritage, devoting his life to using the power of song as a force for social change. He went from the top of the pop charts (‘Goodnight Irene’) to the blacklist and was banned from American commercial television for more than 17 years. In his nineties, Seeger continued to invigorate and inspire the musicians – most notably Bruce Springsteen, whose album We Shall Overcome – The Seeger Sessions was a tribute, comprising songs popularized by Seeger. Three years later, Springsteen persuaded Seeger to sing ‘This Land Is Your Land’ with him at Obama’s inaugural concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Seeger sang the two ‘radical’ verses of the Woody Guthrie song that invariably get cut when it is sung in public, or in American schools:
As I was walking – I saw a sign there
And that sign said – no trespassing
But on the other side …. it didn’t say nothing!
Now that side was made for you and me!
In the squares of the city – In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office – I see my people
And some are grumbling and some are wondering
If this land’s still made for you and me.
He sang the song again last September in one of his last public performances at a Farm Aid concert in Saratoga Springs, New York state. As well as Guthrie’s ‘radical’ verses, Seeger inserted another verse of his own that protested fracking in New York state – through the decades he has campaigned on environmental issues, leading a successful crusade in the 1970s to clean up New York’s Hudson River, which was so heavily polluted that there was nowhere on its course that was safe to swim in. He built a boat, the Clearwater, that travelled the Hudson River, drawing attention to the polluted condition of the river. He founded the Clearwater organization which supports environmental education programmes in schools and campaigns for tighter environmental laws.
Pete Seeger came from a wealthy, yet highly politicised radical family. He was born at his grandparent’s estate in Patterson, New Jersey in 1919, the son of musicologist Charles Seeger and his wife, Constance de Clyver Edson Seeger, a violin teacher. Both parents could trace their ancestors to the Mayflower.
His father was a pacifist during World War I whose pacifism, while teaching music at the University of California, cost him his teaching position. In the 1930s Pete was attending Harvard, hoping to become a journalist. In 1936, at a folk song and dance festival he heard a five string banjo for the first time and his life was changed forever. By 1938 he was passing out leaflets for Spanish civil war relief on the Harvard campus and had joined the Young Communist League. He left Harvard in the spring of 1938 without taking his exams.
He went to New York where he found work with the Archives of American Folk Music. Seeger sought out legendary folk song figures including Leadbelly. Inspired by these people and learning much about folk music, he began working with the five string banjo and soon became an accomplished player.
In 1940, Seeger met Woody Guthrie and together they formed the Almanac Singers, a musical collective including Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Sis Cunningham, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry and others. They recorded union songs, such as ‘The Talking Union Blues’ which they wrote as an organizing song, as well as pacifist songs. Drafted into the Army in 1942, the FBI was already building a file on Seeger because of his left-wing activities.
In 1945, after his discharge from the Army, Seeger founded the People’s Songs collective but by 1949 it had gone bankrupt. On 4 Sepember 1949, Paul Robeson was scheduled to perform with Seeger at the Lakeland Picnic Grounds in Peekskill. A large mob of anti-communist vigilantes stormed the venue, attacking performers and members of the audience. While trying to drive away from the scene, Seeger’s car was attacked by vigilantes. His wife Toshi and their three year old son Danny were injured by flying glass.
In the late 1940s, Seeger and Lee Hays wrote ‘If I Had a Hammer’. In 1950 Seeger, Hays, Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert formed the Weavers. They achieved great success, especially with their recording of the Leadbelly tune ‘Goodnight Irene’.
However, blacklisting in the McCarthy era put paid to commercial success for the Weavers. During the 1950s Seeger occasionally performed with the Weavers but mainly paid the bills with his appearances on the college circuit, and with recordings for Folkways Records (including albums of songs for children, two of which our daughter would play repeatedly when young).
In 1956, after writing ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’ Seeger, Arthur Miller and six others were indicted for contempt of Congress by the House of Representatives. He was found guilty of contempt in 1961 and sentenced to ten years in prison. He was released from prison in 1962 when his case was dismissed on a technicality.
During the folk music revival of the early 1960s, the TV networks occasionally invited Seeger to appear on folk music shows like Hootenany, but quickly dropped him when they discovered that he had been blacklisted.
Pete Seeger singing If I Had a Hammer at SNCC rally in Greenwood, MS, 1963
Seeger became involved in the civil rights marches in the South, both as a marcher and as a performer for the marchers. One notable occasion was at Greenwood in Mississippi in the summer of 1963 when there were voter registration drives underway in various communities, one of which was in Greenwood. On 2 July, Seeger performed at a SNCC rally before a small gathering of civil rights workers, singing ‘If I Had a Hammer’. Bob Dylan sang ‘Only A Pawn in Their Game’, written following the murder of Medgar Evers less than a month earlier, on 12 June.
Pete Seeger’s version of ‘We Shall Overcome’ became the anthem of the movement. He discussed the origins of the song in an interview in 2006:
Seeger was strongly opposed to the Vietnam War. In September 1967 he appeared on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on CBS-TV where he was scheduled to sing ‘Waist Deep in the Big Muddy’, an attack on the war, but the song was cut by the network censors.
‘Songs won’t save the planet’, Seeger told his biographer David Dunlap, author of How Can I Keep From Singing? ‘But, then, neither will books or speeches…Songs are sneaky things. They can slip across borders. Proliferate in prisons.” He liked to quote Plato: “Rulers should be careful about what songs are allowed to be sung.’
I have been singing folk songs of America and other lands to people everywhere. I am proud that I never refused to sing to any group of people because I might disagree with some of the ideas of some of the people listening to me. I have sung for rich and poor, for Americans of every possible political and religious opinion and persuasion, of every race, colour, and creed.
Pete Seeger on The Johnny Cash Show in 1970 complete and uncut
It takes a worried man to sing a worried song….
Pete Seeger with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee: ‘Down by the Riverside’
In 2012 Pete recorded a hearty version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Forever Young’ for an Amnesty International fund-raising album:
‘This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender’
John Nichols’ closes a fine elegy on The Nation website (which reminds us that Seeger played a banjo inscribed with the message ‘This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender’) with these words:
He showed us how to do our time with grace, with a sense of history and honour, with a progressive vision for the ages, and a determination to embrace the next great cause because the good fight is never finished. It’s just waiting for a singer to remind us that: ‘The world would never amount to a hill of beans if people didn’t use their imaginations to think of the impossible’.
As I mentioned earlier, the fine biography of Pete Seeger written by David Dunaway is entitled How can I keep from singing? – taking its title from an old 19th century hymn revived and adapted by Pete in the early 1950s
My life flows on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentations,
I hear the real, though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear it’s music ringing,
It sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?
While though the tempest loudly roars,
I hear the truth, it liveth.
And though the darkness ’round me close,
Songs in the night it giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm,
While to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?
When tyrants tremble sick with fear
And hear their death knell ringing,
When friends rejoice both far and near
How can I keep from singing?
In prison cell and dungeon vile
Our thoughts to them are winging,
When friends by shame are undefiled
How can I keep from singing?
So long, Pete. It’s been good to know you.
American Masters: Pete Seeger: The Power of Song (PBS)
Seeger at his home in Beacon, New York state in March 2009
The baton passed to another generation
- Happy birthday, Pete Seeger: post here on Pete’s 90th
- In praise of Pete Seeger: posted after Seeger’s appearance at Obama pre-Inauguration concert
- Pete Seeger: the man who brought politics to music (Dorian Lynskey’s Guardian tribute)
- Pete Seeger, Folk Legend, Dead at 94 (Rolling Stone)
- Pete Seeger: interview with Pitchfork magazine, November 2008
- Springsteen Pays Tribute to Seeger (Mother Jones)
- When Pete Seeger Faced Down the House Un-American Activities Committee (Slate)
Don’t you know it’s darkest before the dawn
And it’s this thought keeps me moving on
If we could heed these early warnings
The time is now quite early morning
If we could heed these early warnings
The time is now quite early morning
Some say that humankind won’t long endure
But what makes them so doggone sure?
I know that you who hear my singing
Could make those freedom bells go ringing
I know that you who hear my singing
Could make those freedom bells go ringing
And so keep on while we live
Until we have no, no more to give
And when these fingers can strum no longer
Hand the old banjo to young ones stronger
And when these fingers can strum no longer
Hand the old banjo to young ones stronger
So though it’s darkest before the dawn
These thoughts keep us moving on
Through all this world of joy and sorrow
We still can have singing tomorrows
Through all this world of joy and sorrow
We still can have singing tomorrows
Well, knock me down with a feather! Dylan produces new album that’s not only melodious and beautifully sung, but revelatory, too, casting new light on a period in his career generally held in low esteem by fans, including myself, and deeply suggestive of something else that might have been.
Plenty has been written in the last week or so about the latest official instalment from Dylan’s unreleased archive, the Bootleg Series (we’re up to volume 10 now), so I won’t recapitulate the whole story here. Suffice it to say that Another Self Portrait (1969-1971) is in some ways the most revelatory of the whole series.
What we have here are alternate and stripped-down versions of songs released on the infamous Self Portrait album and – most spellbinding – songs recorded in the same period but never released – indeed entirely forgotten. There are two discs, with songs falling roughly into two groups. The first CD mostly comprises songs recorded prior to Self Portrait, and is where you find the real jewels of this set: amidst alternate versions of some of Dylan’s own songs are unreleased versions of traditional songs. The second CD offers alternate versions of Dylan originals from Self Portrait, New Morning, and Nashville Skyline, plus remastered live recordings from the set performed by Dylan and the Band at the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival. In many cases, the differences in these versions are striking, and make you wonder what the original Self Portrait might have been.
What it might have been was an anthology of American music – blues, folk, old-timey, country and pop tunes – but it came out all wrong, with songs slathered with syrupy strings overdubs and good stuff discarded in favour of some decidedly dodgy recordings – Dylan duetting with himself on the amateurish version of Simon and Garfunkel’s The Boxer was either a bad joke or a serious loss of judgement.
As much as ordinary mortals can fathom what goes in the mind of Bob Dylan, we know a bit more now about where he was coming from perhaps, having heard a much more spartan version of what this might have been two decades later on the albums Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong, and listened to Dylan present his radio show Theme Time Radio on which he celebrated all forms of American music – from jazz and blues, through country and R&B to classic pop of the fifties and sixties.
But back then, at the start of the 70s, was the heyday of the singer-songwriter, and Dylan was regarded as the greatest of them all. To fill an album with songs written by others was taken as a sign that you had lost your mojo, and were playing a bad joke on your followers. Moreover, Dylan had gained a huge reputation as a protest singer, so we expected any new album to contain lyrics of social criticism. The worst thing about Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait and New Morning for many of us back then was the overriding tone of domestic bliss and bucolic rapture. For Christ’s sake, the cities were burning and there was a war going on: was this the best that the voice of a generation could do?
Time passes slowly up here in the mountains
We sit beside bridges and walk beside fountains
Catch the wild fishes that float through the stream
Time passes slowly when you’re lost in a dream
That was New Morning, a rapturous collection, apparently rushed out quickly by Dylan to obliterate the stain on his career represented by Self Portrait (notoriously rejected as ‘shit’ by Greil Marcus in his review for Rolling Stone that basically set the seal on the album’s reputation). The general interpretation of Self Portrait in subsequent decades has been that it represented a deliberate act of career destruction – he just ‘threw it all away’ in order to get the rest of us off his back. But just as easily it could represent just one more example of Dylan’s legendary misjudgements in the choices he has made about what to put on, or leave off, an album.
As Mark Richardson observes in his thoughtful review for Pitchfork:
Though we’ll never know exactly what he was thinking, the idea of Dylan making a poor album on purpose never made sense. He worked with too many top-shelf musicians that he cared about, and had friends and colleagues investing too much time, to make something that would embarrass them. It seems more likely that the “intentionally bad” storyline was a defence mechanism for a mysterious artist who did, after all, have a pretty hefty ego and was deeply aware of his own talent. So it’s reasonable to conclude that Self Portrait was a strange and all-over-the-place album because, for one reason or another, that’s the kind of album Dylan wanted to make at that time.
Whatever the circumstances that led Dylan to release the sickly-sweet, sloppy, sprawling Self Portrait, the artefact delivered to us in 2013 is a different kettle of fish entirely. Even before considering the tunes themselves, the remixing and the remastering, there is the fact that Dylan sings beautifully, in a voice far removed from the gravelly rasp of later years, a voice tender and expressive and melodious. Mark Richardson again:
That is where the deep and immense pleasure of this set resides: hearing melodies – some new, some old, some borrowed – performed by a distinctive singer at the height of his powers.
Dylan has seldom recorded more lovely vocals that here on his beautiful unreleased reading of the traditional English folk ballad Pretty Saro, or on alternate versions of such songs as Belle Isle or Copper Kettle, with its bucolic, if not intoxicated, refrain:
You’ll just lay there by the juniper while the moon is bright
Watch them jugs a-filling in the pale moonlight.
Loveliest of all is the remastered, achingly beautiful rendition of Wild Mountain Thyme performed solo at the Isle of Wight. James Reed, writing in the Boston Globe, was entranced like me:
The joy of Another Self Portrait is hearing the music for its own merit. This is Dylan at his most tender-hearted, finding his way around songs that clearly made an impression on him. Because so much of the material is traditional or written by others, it allows you to ruminate on Dylan’s interpretive skills.
Anyone who claims Dylan can’t sing, or that he’s not the most soothing of singers, has never heard his previously unreleased version of “Pretty Saro” included here. His voice is soft, delicate, as if it’ll buckle under the weight of the song’s heartache over losing his beloved.
Listening to the album a few times you begin to realise that it’s not only that songs that were messed up on Self Portrait have now had the excess of overdubbed strings removed; it’s the rediscovered ‘lost’ recordings – traditional songs and songs by Dylan’s song-writer contemporaries that astonish, too. Dylan offers tribute to Tom Paxton with his lesser-known tune, Annie’s Going to Sing Her Song, This Evening So Soon is a version of Tell Old Bill by Bob Gibson, an old buddy from the Greenwich Village days, and there’s a great version of Thirsty Boots, written by another overlooked contemporary, Eric Andersen.
Mark Richardson puts it like this in his Pitchfork review:
The real revelations on the first disc are the unreleased versions of songs from the public domain … the songs Dylan grew up with and studied… The versions here of “Railroad Bill”, “Little Sadie”, “Pretty Saro”, and the especially powerful “This Evening So Soon” are brilliant showcases of his ability to inhabit old material and make it his own. And they benefit from the generally spare and acoustic sound. Dylan started his career singing traditional folk songs, but his understanding of them eight years later was far richer.
A picture begins to emerge of the album that might have been: Dylan’s own Anthology of American Music, a foretaste of 1992‘s Good as I Been to You and 1993‘s World Gone Wrong. Self Portrait was top-heavy with less than inspiring versions of country and western standards such as I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know (recorded by just about every Country artist going, from Tennessee Ernie Ford by way of Skeeter Davis to Patti Page and Dolly Parton) and two songs written by Boudleaux Bryant, the man who probably wrote more country and western hits than anyone (including ones for Jim Reeves); indeed, the strings and vocal stylings were reminiscent of a distinctly square Jim Reeves LP such as one’s mother might have in her collection. There were also passable versions of pop songs that Dylan had grown up with in the fifties, such as Blue Moon and the Everly Brothers’ Let It Be Me.
Imagine, instead, an album that truly lived up to its name: a self portrait of Dylan in the form of an intimate, acoustic session where, along with a handful of trusty musicians (David Bromberg on guitar, Kenny Buttrey drums, Al Kooper organ and piano, Happy Traum banjo, and Charlie McCoy on bass), he presented a showcase of the songs that had informed his musical sensibilities – a blend of blues and country, folk and pop. Well, we’ve finally got to hear it – or something like it – albeit 40 years later.
Significantly, perhaps, the collection opens with a demo recording of Went to See the Gypsy, Dylan’s lyric apparently inspired by an encounter with Elvis in Las Vegas:
Went to see the gypsy
Stayin’ in a big hotel […]
Outside the lights were shining
On the river of tears
I watched them from the distance
With music in my ears
I went back to see the gypsy
It was nearly early dawn
The gypsy’s door was open wide
But the gypsy was gone
There’s another demo of When I Paint My Masterpiece, a simple recording of just Dylan and piano, the song best known through the Band’s superb arrangement with with mandolin and accordion released on Cahoots in 1971.
Other highlights of this magnificent collection for me include the thrilling remastered recording of Dylan and the Band tearing through Highway 61 Revisited at the Isle of Wight; an exuberant alternative take of New Morning with horns; Copper Kettle, stripped of strings with just David Bromberg’s shimmering guitar and Al Kooper’s delicate organ noodles for decoration; a 1971 recording of Only A Hobo with Happy Traum on banjo and harmony vocal that has the feel of an impromptu Greenwich Village coffee house session.
Time passes slowly up here in the mountains
We sit beside bridges and walk beside fountains
Catch the wild fishes that float through the stream
Time passes slowly when you’re lost in a dream
Ain’t no reason to go in a wagon to town
Ain’t no reason to go to the fair
Ain’t no reason to go up, ain’t no reason to go down
Ain’t no reason to go anywhere
Mark Richardson, the reviewer for Pitchfork, is clearly of a younger generation than mine, many of whom were perplexed, outraged even, by Self Portrait when it appeared in 1970. He writes:
Returning to it, it’s hard for those of us a generation or two younger to understand the reaction to it not because it paled in comparison to the greatness that came before, because it obviously did. If you’ve spent any time listening to Bob Dylan’s 1960s catalog, you are still trying to wrap your head around the thought that one person wrote the 56 songs on Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding, and Nashville Skyline between 1965 and 1969. Self Portrait, next to these records, in that moment, must have seemed like a joke.
But later generations hear it differently. We’ve discovered Self Portrait in the used bins, torrent downloads, and streaming services alongside records like Street Legal, Saved, Empire Burlesque, Down in the Groove, and Under the Red Sky. And in this broader context, it sounds quite good, another weird and sloppy record from a guy who released a lot of them.
Hearing Self Portrait now, alongside the fantastic music now released on Another Self Portrait, casts Dylan’s efforts in the recording studio at that time in a whole new light, Richardson rightly suggests, arguing that the collection further cements Dylan’s Bootleg Series as one of the most important archival projects in modern pop history.
We’ll probably never know why Dylan, after recording all these wonderful tracks, decided to discard them and release something entirely different. Never mind; 40 years late, we have a gem to treasure
Once I had mountains in the palm of my hand
And rivers that ran through every day
I must have been mad
I never knew what I had
Until I threw it all away
I don’t think of myself as Bob Dylan. It’s like Rimbaud said, ‘I is another’.
– Bob Dylan, 1985
A million books have crawled over the minutiae of Bob Dylan’s life, his words, live performances and recordings, and I have read a fair few of them. But I do believe that Ian Bell’s Once Upon a Time: The Lives of Bob Dylan is the best of them all. Which is surprising since Bell – former Scottish editor of the Observer and a past winner of the Orwell Prize for political writing – has done no original research, conducted no fresh interviews, or been given access to record company archives.
But what Bell has done – and supremely well – is to sift through all of the voluminous material that the Dylan phenomena has generated over the decades – interviews, biographies, memoirs, articles, web forum debates and bootlegs, as well as the artist’s own words – to produce a book that is insightful, critical (indeed, often sceptical) and analytical. Bell places Dylan in his entire context: musical, literary, historical, and political. Continue reading “Once Upon a Time: The Lives of Bob Dylan”
I’ve got a bad feeling about the American Presidential election, and so has Ry Cooder. He’s so worried that he’s rushed out a new album, Election Special, on which every track is dedicated to alerting his fellow-countrymen and the rest of the world to evil intentions of the Tea Party Republicans and their wealthy backers only interested in power, profit and war. Yes, it’s uncompromising, unapologetic, and concerned that this may be the last chance for ‘the 90 and the 9’ to hold on to their rights, their jobs, and a future for their children:
This may be the last time , I don’t know
It may be the last time for the 90 and the 9
If the Democrats don’t make it
Then I’ll have myself to blame
If we don’t raise some sand
Then our votes might slip away
And our civil rights and our equal pay
And then it’s too bad, Jim, for the 90 and the 9
They promised war was done but peace didn’t declare
Our young folks are still going there
I didn’t raise our child to go to war this time
Honey, they’re just shootin’
At the 90 and the 9
Opinion polls show Romney and Obama neck and neck. Some say that the sane majority of Americans will remember why they voted for Obama in the first place. But, is there a sane majority in America these days? That’s what worries me. Yesterday, The Guardian reported that an attendee at this week’s Republican party convention was removed from the conference after allegedly throwing nuts at a black camerawoman from CNN, saying ‘this is how we feed animals’.
Released in the US just in time for the Tampa Convention, Ry Cooder’s album features a cheeky ditty, ‘Going to Tampa’, voiced by a delegate who’s heading there to get ‘my ashes hauled’:
Goodbye my honey, farewell my baby
Don’t look for me around convention time
I’m bound for Tampa, in the great state of Florida
To see some distinguished friends of mine
Mitt and Rick and the pitbulls, the jolly ride and step forth
To the highest bidder each will guarantee
I’d give all my money sir if Palin calls me honey
And shakes the pizzas on my tree
‘Cause I’m goin’ to Tampa in the morning
Got my credentials in my overalls
But I can’t take you with me little darling
I’m going down to get my ashes hauled
If they can just find another Willie Horton, he opines, ‘we can petrify the nation and bring the votes from Mexico somehow’. This guy dreams of reasserting states’ rights and Jim Crow laws. In his sleeve notes to the album, Cooder wonders whether ‘as a mother, will Sarah Palin lead the Republican convention in a prayer for Treyvon?’
Election Special is full of folk, blues, and gospel themes brilliantly played by Cooder on guitar, mandolin and bass, with his son Joachim on drums. Its songs draw upon old traditions of radical America reinterpreted for 2012, and in them Cooder takes direct and sometimes humorous aim at rapacious capitalists, big corporations and corrupt politicians. An album consisting of nothing but political songs could end up an unlistenable disaster, but Election Special is entertaining, enjoyable to listen to, and musically seductive. Many of these songs will last, like Woody Guthrie’s did.
In an interview with The Guardian, Cooder explained how these songs differ from the protest songs of the sixties:
Well, I don’t know how to write soldier music. They were soldiers’ songs so people could go out and hit the frontline. We shall overcome and so forth. And you need those types of songs. Especially in the Occupy movement. I think they’re going to want to have songs like that, it’ll be helpful. But I don’t know how to do that really. That’s a different kind of musical brain up there. So what I look at is these bleak stories: they’re narratives and they introduce you to a character and the character says something.
The album opens with the plaintive ‘Mutt Romney Blues’, voiced by the dog that Romney once strapped to the roof of his car for a long family road trip. In his forthright Guardian interview, Cooder explained that his loathing for Romney is fuelled as much by the way his business interests have raped the environment, as by his policies:
Romney is as bad as anyone can be. He’s a dangerous man. He’s a cruel man. He’s a perfect creation for what the Republican party is all about. And that is to say, a rapacious capitalist. Anyone who ran Bain Capital is not your friend. All they’re going to do is rape and pillage the land.
The targets in ‘Brother Is Gone’ are the Koch Brothers who head up Koch Industries, the second largest private company in the United States and who liberally fund a bewildering range of conservative, free market and libertarian policy groups, lobbying organisations and right-wing foundations in the United States.
In an article a couple of years ago in New Yorker, Jane Mayer wrote:
The Kochs are longtime libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry – especially environmental regulation. These views dovetail with the brothers’ corporate interests…. Greenpeace issued a report identifying the company as a ‘kingpin of climate science denial’. The report showed that, from 2005 to 2008, the Kochs vastly outdid ExxonMobil in giving money to organizations fighting legislation related to climate change, underwriting a huge network of foundations, think tanks, and political front groups. Indeed, the brothers have funded opposition campaigns against so many Obama Administration policies—from health-care reform to the economic-stimulus program – that, in political circles, their ideological network is known as the Kochtopus.
In his sleeve notes, Ry Cooder observes, ‘The only logical explanation for the Brothers I could come up with is, they made their deal at the crossroads with Satan. Satan will need to get paid, but in the meantime, they are doing everything in their power to hurt you and me. The big hurt’.
Oil spills and cancer towns was our stepping stones
Immigration bills and foreclosure homes
States’ rights we proclaimed
Like in the good old Jim Crow days
Our highest aim was to take your vote away
So, in the manner of Robert Johnson’s encounter with the devil at the crossroads, and decorated with a lovely mandolin arrangement, ‘Brother is Gone’ imagines the Koch brothers owing the devil, as Cooder explained in a New York Times interview:
I thought how could you – in a song phrase – explain them? Then I thought the crossroads. Everybody understands that. I thought, That’s how I’ll start: “We made the deal, and Satan’s deal was good, ’cause he said we could have all that horrible power and do anything we want.” But Satan’s price is he’ll come for one of the Koch brothers and take him back down. He won’t say which one. He won’t say when.
‘The Wall Street Part of Town’ was clearly inspired by the spirit of solidarity invoked by the Occupy movement:
I’m in trouble again but this time I’m not the only one
I was hurtin’ before but this time I’m not a lonely one
Divide and rule, that’s always been their plan
We’re in trouble again but this time we’ve got friends
So I’ll keep walkin’ if it takes all night
Hopin’ we gonna make things right
I’m lookin’ for the Wall Street part of town
‘Is there a Wall Street part of town in your town?’ Ry asks in his sleeve note. ‘Start your own, it’s easy. When the police come, remind them that you pay their salary, such as it may be’. Or, as he put it more bluntly in the New York Times:
The only way we are going to save the country from these bastards is unity and solidarity, and the conservatives went after unity and solidarity when they started to dismantle the labor force under Reagan.
‘Guantanamo’ is not the lilting Cuban song about a country girl from Guantanamo, but a thunderous attack on prisons everywhere, and one notorious one in particular: ‘You can’t come back from Guantanamo’.
The striking thing about this election is the lack of any of the fervour that surrounded the Obama campaign in 2008, and there’s certainly no will.i.am ‘Yes We Can’ video this time. Then, youth voter turnout was the highest it had been in 35 years, and it helped propel Obama to the White House. Now, according to an article in The Guardian earlier this month, as Obama strikes a centrist tone in order to reach crucial swing voters and conditions on the ground worsen, rappers see him as ‘part of the very political establishment rappers have long held in contempt’.
But Cooder will have none of this: at the heart of this collection of songs is his belief that Americans who want to preserve their liberties, defend jobs, health care and public services must stand up for Obama. In ‘Cold Cold Feeling’ he imagines the president, alone in the dark, walking the Oval Office floor. ‘Before you criticize and accuse, walk a mile in his shoes’, he says on the album’s sleeve. In the Guardian interview, Cooder was asked whether he saw Obama as a good man trapped in an impossible situation:
Yes, 110%. He’s set upon by dogs. He’s prevented from doing anything because the Republicans ensured that no president and no Democrat president can ever do good again. That’s what Bush was sent in there to do: destroy the presidency, and that’s what I think he did. How do you come back from that? How do you make the presidency good again? They talk about bi-partisanship but that’s an empty word, doesn’t mean a thing. So what is Obama supposed to do? How can he operate? This healthcare thing is really quite something, if it lives. They’re going to go after it and try to destroy it, that’s the leading end of the Republican effort right now, that’s going to sink the Titanic, you know? I mean, I think he’s a good man. He’s a smart man. He understands the constitution, therefore he must respect it. They don’t. I believe that he does.
‘Kool-Aid’ is a fearsome blues enhanced by some classic Cooder slide guitar that gives voice to a poor man who swallowed conservative arguments. Too late, he realises that the rich have given the the poor gun rights and ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws – but defaulted on the promise of well-paid jobs and a secure future. He drank the Kool-Aid, they really drank it down.
Your poor white people — conservatives want to split them off and say, “We are going to engineer it so these people will vote against their own self-interest.” But this character in the “Kool-Aid” song says I did everything that was asked of me but I’m still losing my job and I’m going to lose my house. Finally, it occurs to him at 3 o’clock in the morning, what my friend Jim Dickinson used to call the moment of the horrible hillbilly reality, as his wife’s asleep and he’s smoking Chesterfields, and he says: “Wait a minute — this didn’t work at all. I’m hung out to dry. I’m twisting in the wind. I drank the Kool-Aid.”
Perhaps the best tracks on the album are the two with which it closes – the aforementioned ‘The 90 and the 9’ and ‘ Take Your Hands off It’, an out-and-out rocker co-written with his son Joachim. They see this as a re-working of Woody Guthrie’s, ‘This Land is Your Land’. In it the Cooders storm, ‘take your hands off my Constitution, my Bill of Rights, my polling rights, my reproductive rights’. ‘Take your hands of it, you know it don’t belong to you’.
Get your bloody hands off the peoples of the world
And your war machine and your corporation thieves
That lets you keep your job and pays your dirty salary
Take your hands off us, you know we don’t belong to you
This isn’t the first time that Cooder has gone overtly political: his last album, Pull Up Some Dust opened with ‘No Banker Left Behind’ and may prove to be the record that future generations look to in order to understand this recession. And, of course, throughout his lengthy musical career Cooder has immersed himself in Dustbowl era music and social history, always seeing the parallels to the modern-day situation.
Ry Cooder first surfaced in 1964, at the age of 17, playing in the blues-rock band Rising Sons with Taj Mahal. They recorded an album’s worth of material that was not released until 1992. After that, Cooder was in demand as a studio musician, working with everyone from Captain Beefheart to the Monkees, and making classic contributions to Rolling Stones recordings, including the mandolin break on their cover of Robert Johnson’s ‘Love in Vain’ (on Gimme Shelter) and the slide guitar solo on Sticky Fingers‘ ‘Sister Morphine’.
His first solo record came out in 1970 and largely consisted of old folk and blues covers, including radical classics like Woody Guthrie’s ‘Do-Re-Mi’ and Blind Alfred Reed’s ‘How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?’. That began a pattern of albums early in his career that had at their centre classics of the Dust Bowl era, with songs by by Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and others.
More recently he produced two concept albums that documented social change in America in the years before and after the Second World War. His 2005 masterpiece Chavez Ravine, dealt with the true story of destruction of a Latino neighbourhood in Los Angeles, a land grab to build Dodger Stadium. It was a heartfelt work about the forgotten victims of political and corporate shenanigans, built around the Hispanic sounds that permeated that displaced community. He followed that with My Name Is Buddy, a collection of songs imbued with socialist values about unions in the Depression as seen through the eyes of a cat named Buddy and his friends Lefty Mouse and Reverend Tom Toad.
A Ry Cooder radical America playlist
No Bankers Left Behind (from Pull Up Some Dust)
Do Re Mi (from Ry Cooder, 1970)
Strike! (from My Name Is Buddy, 2007)
One Cat, One Vote, One Beer (from My Name Is Buddy, 2007)
The Bourgeois Blues (from Chicken Skin Music, 1976)
Vigilante Man (from Into The Purple Valley, 1972)
How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live? (from Ry Cooder, 1970)
Take Your Hands Off It (from Election Special, 2012)
A little bit of music history was made in the Rodewald Suite last night. The event was a celebration of the centennial this year of the birth of Woody Guthrie at which Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter, gave an engaging personal talk about her father’s life and music. Organised by Alun Parry, founder of Liverpool’s Woody Guthrie Folk Club that meets on the final Thursday of each month at the Ship and Mitre on Dale Street. Alun had heard that Nora was touring Europe in 2012 and took a chance on asking if she could fit in a visit to Liverpool.
As Nora explained at one point in the evening, she was eager to come to Liverpool for several reasons, one being that when Woody served in the Merchant Marine during the war he took shore leave several times in Scotland and England, and may (though this is unconfirmed) have stepped ashore in Liverpool. Another reason was that Liverpool in the 1950s was the city of the ‘Cunard Yanks’, the Liverpudlian seamen who served on the ocean liners and brought back American blues, jazz and R&B records, thus enriching the musical culture of the city. This was when a certain George Harrison was playing in a band led by Les Stewart that specialised in tunes by Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy – and Woody Guthrie.
But there was another way in which Woody’s songs seeped into the repertoire of Liverpool bands: young musicians like Paul McCartney and John Lennon began messing around with guitars during the skiffle boom, heavily influenced by Lonnie Donegan, probably the most significant popularizer of songs byLeadbelly and Woody Guthrie. With this in mind, when Nora Guthrie got the invite to Liverpool, she decided to contact Lonnie Donegan’s son, Pete, in London to see if he could make it. He did – and provided a triumphant ending to a great night.
Alun Parry kicked off the evening with a song of his own, inspired by Woody’s statement in which he summed up the point of his songs:
I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard travelling. … I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what colour, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work.
Then Nora took the stage to give a presentation, illustrated with family photos, paintings and drawings by Woody, and pages from his notebooks. He wrote down all his lyrics, she said, because he could not memorize them. She began with the original words of ‘This Land Is Your Land’, written by hand in a school notebook. ‘This Land’ was, she pointed out, one of the earliest songs he wrote – in 1940, when he was only 27 years old and had just arrived in New York. But, she asked, how did this song come to be written?
She took us right back to Woody’s beginnings in Oklahoma. He was born on July 14, 1912 in a ‘typical Wild West town’, Okemah which, as Woody later wrote
was one of the singingest, square dancingest, drinkingest, yellingest, preachingest, walkingest, talkingest, laughingest, cryingest, shootingest, fist fightingest, bleedingest, gamblingest, gun, club and razor carryingest of our ranch towns and farm towns, because it blossomed out into one of our first Oil Boom Towns.
– Bound For Glory
When he was a boy, Okemah was a sleepy farm town where they grew cotton out in the fields. Then as it became an oil boomtown, when he was about 8 years old, all kinds of other people were suddenly in Okemah overnight: a pretty rough and rowdy bunch of people that worked in the oil fields. The politics were rough, too: Nora noted that Oklahoma was the last state to join the union, and had the most political parties – 14 in all, mostly left-wing (though today Oklahoma is a red state, solid Republican).
Woody’s mother, Nora and his father, Charley were a middle class up and coming couple: Charley was an entrepreneur, a land dealer, young and ambitious. But the family went through an appalling sequence of tragedies that, suggested Nora, were the foundation of his empathy and compassion – not intellectual but a response to the experiences of his own family life.
Woody Guthrie’s childhood home in Okemah photographed in 1979
When Woody’s father got enough money to build a new house, it burned down before the family could move in. Then his older sister Clara was also burned in a fire and died. Within two years of that happening his mother was sent away to an insane asylum, while his father lost everything in the Depression.
We now know that Woody’s mother was suffering from Huntingdon’s disease, a neurological disease that causes degeneration of the nerves and eventually leads to loss of control of the body, and death. But at the time nothing was known about it. People in the town made fun of the way she behaved. She was a victim of a disease and she was ridiculed for it, and eventually deemed insane.
Woody felt this deeply, argued Nora in her talk. Running through every single song that Woody wrote is a sense of empathy with people who are enduring hard times, whether they are homeless or hungry or whatever. That became the signature and the heart of all of his music, suggested Nora. She displayed the last photo of Woody’s mother, and drew attention to how she was holding her arms behind her back – literally holding on to her arms to control the Huntingdon’s.
Woody Guthrie in Okemah
Nora suggested that her grandmother had been important to Woody in another way: as she played piano, she would sing old Scots-Irish ballads. These long ballads were very likely the inspiration for the long ballads that he would later write.
In a very short period of time, Woody’s middle-class family life had fallen apart. By age thirteen, he was pretty much on his own with no parents – his father had left for Texas, while he stayed in Okemeh, living in a gang house with a couple of other kids on their own. In his autobiography Bound for Glory he tells of collecting garbage to get by. He was out of school and surviving on his wits. At this point, Nora said, he wanted to be an artistand he took to painting as a potential career. All of the art from his early years is gone, Nora said. One of the only portraits that still survives, to her knowledge, is one that he did of Abraham Lincoln a few years later, when he was in his twenties. It’s an oil painting that’s now at the Smithsonian Institute in the Smithsonian Folkways Collection.
It was very hard to keep that up and pay for a $5 brush and the canvas and the oils. Then he realized that once you did a painting and you sold it once and you never saw it again, and that dollar you earned for it got spent…He realized with a song you write it once and someone says, ‘Hey, I like that song. Sing it again!’ It was really a funny, very natural understanding that songwriting was a better way to make money in the early days than painting.
After two years in the gang house decided to join his father in Pampa Texas, where he spent most of his time in the public library ‘interested in everything’:
I scratched around in the books. I carried them home by the dozens and armloads, on any subject, I didn’t care which. I wanted to look into everything a little bit, and pick out something, something that would turn me into a human being of some kind – free to work for my own self, and free to work for everybody.
– Bound for Glory
This was when he really start writing, following the principle that ‘all you can write is what you see’. What he saw first was the terrible impact of the dust storms on that part of Texas:
On the 14th day of April of 1935,
There struck the worst of dust storms that ever filled the sky.
You could see that dust storm comin’, the cloud looked deathlike black,
And through our mighty nation, it left a dreadful track.
From Oklahoma City to the Arizona line,
Dakota and Nebraska to the lazy Rio Grande,
It fell across our city like a curtain of black rolled down,
We thought it was our judgement, we thought it was our doom.
It covered up our fences, it covered up our barns,
It covered up our tractors in this wild and dusty storm.
We loaded our jalopies and piled our families in,
We rattled down that highway to never come back again.
– ‘The Great Dust Storm’
I’ve seen the dust so black that I couldn’t see a thing,
I’ve seen the dust so black that I couldn’t see a thing,
And the wind so cold, boy, it nearly cut your water off.
I seen the wind so high that it blowed my fences down,
I’ve seen the wind so high that it blowed my fences down,
Buried my tractor six feet underground.
Well, it turned my farm into a pile of sand,
Yes, it turned my farm into a pile of sand,
I had to hit that road with a bottle in my hand.
– ‘Dust Bowl Blues’
Dust storm in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, 1936, Photo: Arthur Rothstein
Like countless others, Woody left Pampa, Texas in the early 1930s for California to see if he could get work in the fruit orchards
there. When he got to the California border there were roadblocks – they were stopping people from crossing the state line. Nora elaborated:
You get to a state line and they won’t let you cross the border. You are an American citizen, this is your country and they won’t let you cross the border. It’s not another country. This is America and these are American citizens. They wouldn’t let you cross the border unless you had $50 in your pocket. But he was thinking, I’m from Oklahoma. I’m not a foreigner. I’m from Oklahoma. I’ve walked across the desert a thousand miles and you are telling me I can’t come in? He saw families being turned around and being sent back. How in the world are these people going to have $50? They don’t have anything to eat, let alone have $50 in their pockets. Woody writes in the song ‘Do Re Mi’, ‘If you ain’t got that Do Re Mi, well you had better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia and Tennessee.’
Lots of folks back East, they say, is leavin’ home every day,
Beatin’ the hot old dusty way to the California line.
‘Cross the desert sands they roll, gettin’ out of that old dust bowl,
They think they’re goin’ to a sugar bowl, but here’s what they find
Now, the police at the port of entry say,
“You’re number fourteen thousand for today.”
Oh, if you ain’t got the do re mi, folks, you ain’t got the do re mi,
Why, you better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee.
California is a garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see;
But believe it or not, you won’t find it so hot
If you ain’t got the do re mi.
When Woody arrived in Los Angeles he soon had a radio show which quickly became a tremendous hit because all of the Okies had come to California, so he had the biggest audience in Los Angeles. He got 10,000 letters a week in fan mail. The producers raised his salary and made his show longer. The same thing happened, Nora said, when he moved to New York. There, too, he soon had a very successful radio show. They were paying him so much that he wrote to Alan Lomax and said, ‘they are giving me money so fast I have to sleep under it’.
Then, Nora said, the producers and the sponsors would say, ‘Tone it down on some of those songs, Woody’. But the idea of someone telling him how to do a radio show or what songs to sing – he would just walk out. He would just say, ‘I’m not doing this’.
With Woody’s arrival in New York in 1940, Nora finally reached the conclusion to the story of how ‘This Land Is Your Land’ came to be. Woody had hitchhiked from Los Angeles to New York.
All kinds of things are going on. Hundreds of thousands of people in America are displaced because of the Dust Bowl and The Depression. As he is hitchhiking across America – Hollywood is in good shape and New York is in good shape, but from California to New York Island and everything in between, is really not so great. It takes him a month to hitchhike from Los Angeles to New York. In every jukebox at every truck stop and every diner he kept hearing Kate Smith’s hit song ‘God Bless America’. But Woody’s experience was seeing people homeless and hungry. He was seeing people walking across the country because they had lost everything. He saw families travelling on Route 66 who had lost the farm that had been in their family for generations. So as he is hearing ‘God Bless America’ on the radio and the jukeboxes, he is thinking if God blessed America everybody would have a home and food and a job. We would be okay. He said I’m not getting it and I’m not seeing it. He finally got to New York in February 1940 and in the first week he was in a little boarding house on 43rd Street. He looked out the window and saw homeless people, and things were not so good.
So ‘This Land Is Your Land’ was a direct response to ‘God Bless America’ – even to the extent that the original chorus was ‘God blessed America for me’.
This land is your land This land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and Me.
As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway:
I saw below me that golden valley:
This land was made for you and me.
I’ve roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts;
And all around me a voice was sounding:
This land was made for you and me.
When the sun came shining, and I was strolling,
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling,
As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting:
This land was made for you and me.
As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?
Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.
In the melting pot of New York, Woody for the first time was able to forge friendships with black Americans and with radical women. It was there he met Leadbelly and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. It was there, too, he met people like Lee Hayes, Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax. Woody met Lomax when he performed at a ‘Grapes of Wrath Evening’, a benefit for the John Steinbeck committee for Agricultural Workers. Woody Guthrie’s ballad ‘Tom Joad’, recorded in 1940, was directly inspired by John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath and the successful John Ford film adaptation, released in 1940. The seventeen-verse song summarized Tom Joad’s story, concluding:
Wherever little children are hungry and cry,
Wherever people ain’t free.
Wherever men are fightin’ for their rights,
That’s where I’m a-gonna be, Ma.
That’s where I’m a-gonna be.”
Nora said that after Steinbeck heard Woody’s ballad, he sent him an acerbic note: ‘You little bastard. You said in twelve verses what it took me 500 pages to say’. She was asked from the floor whether Woody and Steinbeck ever met – she thought not. But on the Internet, Steinbeck’s son, Thom, is quoted as saying
My father met Woody several times. There was a mutual affinity there for each other’s creative output even though Steinbeck loved all American music. Dad made it very clear to Woody…you don’t just write ‘folk songs’ you write battle hymns.
Steinbeck later wrote, in the 1960s:
Harsh voiced and nasal, his guitar hanging like a tyre iron on a rusty rim, there is nothing sweet about Woody, and there is nothing sweet about the songs he sings. But there is something more important for those who will listen. There is the will of the people to endure and fight against oppression. I think we call this the American spirit.
– foreword to Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People (1967)
In New York Woody began work on his autobiography, Bound For Glory, completed with the support of his second wife Marjorie Mazia, whose disciplined approach came from her job as an instructor at the Martha Graham Dance School (leaving notes on the fridge like ‘finish chapter 5 today!’). The book was first published in 1943, and I still remember the thrill, as a teenager, of reading Woody’s larger than life narrative told in vivid and energetic dialect.
During the Second World War, Woody joined the Merchant Navy with his friend and singing partner, Cisco Houston. He washed dishes on a the troop ship which carried troops to the Normandy beach in early July 1944. Later, Woody was routed through London and Glasgow, before returning to the United States. While in London, he went to the BBC where he was given the opportunity to sing on Children’s Hour. After some autobiographical anecdotes, he was recorded singing ‘The Wabash Cannonball’ and ‘900 Miles’.
In 1946 Woody and moved to Mermaid Avenue on Coney Island with Marjorie and his daughter, Cathy. One of their children, Cathy, died as a result of a fire at age four, sending Guthrie into a serious depression.Three other children were born and grew up here – Joady, Arlo and Nora. In her talk, Nora vividly recalled this period of her childhood, when most of the year would be spent on the beach.
Woody with (left to right) Nora, Joady and Arlo, 1951
This was a productive song-writing period in which Woody wrote many songs for children, often inspired by Cathy, songs which he recorded with producer Moses Asch. He also began writing more songs inspired directly from daily newspaper headlines, such as Deportees, his response to a plane crash in 1948 in which 28 Mexican farm workers from Oakland, California being deported back to Mexico, were not named but simply referred to as ‘deporteees’ in press reports:
The crops are all in and the peaches are rotting
The oranges are filed in their creosote dumps
They’re flying ’em back to the Mexico border
To take all their money to wade back again
Goodbye to my Juan, farewell Roselita
Adios mes amigos, Jesus e Maria
You won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane
All they will call you will be deportees
My father’s own father, he waded that river
They took all the money he made in his life
It’s six hundred miles to the Mexico border
And they chased them like rustlers, like outlaws, like thieves
The skyplane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon
The great ball of fire it shook all our hills
Who are these dear friends who are falling like dry leaves?
Radio said, “They are just deportees”
Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can raise our good crops?
To fall like dry leaves and rot on out topsoil
And be known by no names except “deportees
In 1947 Cathy died in a fire in the Coney Island apartment, shortly before Marjorie gave birth to Arlo. Nora movingly recalled how Woody, who looked after the children during the day while Marjorie worked, would record Cathy’s funny and childish remarks in a notebook, one of those now in the Guthrie archives, entitled ‘Cathy Says’.
By the late 1940s, Woody’s health was declining, and his behaviour becoming erratic. In 1952 it was finally determined that he was suffering from Huntington’s disease . Increasingly unable to control his muscles and bodily functions, Woody was hospitalized from 1956 until 1966. Nora described how her mother and the children would visit Woody in hospital every Sunday, until finally the visits became too distressing and it was decided to bring Woody home at weekends. She talked as well about the first time that the young Bob Dylan turned up at their house to see the songwriter who had inspired him (she turned him away, but Arlo invited him in). Dylan later wrote (in Chronicles) what Guthrie’s songs meant for him:
The songs themselves were really beyond category. They had the infinite sweep of humanity in them.
Woody died on October 3, 1967. ‘I’m a common-ist’ is how he used to describe himself, believing that people working together were a more powerful force than one.
After Nora Guthrie’s presentation, musicians took to the stage to perform songs by Guthrie and other writers. Emma Runswick and Josh Cartwright sang a cracking verse by a poet I’d never heard of before – Aaron Kramer. ‘In Contempt’ was written in 1950 when people were being jailed for refusal to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee, on charges of being ‘in contempt of Congress’. The words are as relevant today as when they were written. Here, for example, they are used as counterpoint to a report on the Israeli ‘security fence’.
Build high build wide your prison walls
That there be room enough for all
Who hold you in contempt build wide
That all the bad be locked inside
The birds who still insist on song
The sunlit streams still running strong
The flowers a-blazing every hue
All are in contempt of you
When you have seized the gallant few
Whose glory casts a shade on you
How can you now go home with ease
Jangling your heavy dungeon keys
The parents dreaming still of peace
The playful children, the wild geese
Who still must fly the mountains to
All are in contempt of you
When you have seized both moon and sun
And jailed the poems one by one
And trapped each trouble-making breeze
Then you must throw away your keys
So let us hope the day will come
When man adores the rising sun
Empty jails and free to do
With no one in contempt of you
Then it was the turn of Lonnie Donegan’s son, Pete, who gave us powerful renditions of Guthrie’s ‘Grand Coulee Dam’, ‘Vigilante Man’ and ‘Worried Man Blues’, followed by a trio of Leadbelly songs – ‘Rock Island Line’, ‘Goodnight Irene’ and ‘Midnight Special’ (with Nora called on stage to join in the choruses). On these songs, many popularised in Britain in versions by Lonnie Donegan, Pete sounded uncannily like his father.
In a resounding finale, all the night’s performers joined forces for a rousing version of ‘Union Maid’. It had been a great show – absolutely unmissable.
- Woody Guthrie at 100: the return of a pariah (Billy Bragg in The Guardian)
- Woody Guthrie still inspires, 100 years on from his birth (Ed Vulliamy in The Guardian)
When I phoned the Royal Northern College of Music to book tickets they asked me, ‘where would you like to be seated – on the balcony or in the pool?’ There’s a first time for everything, and this was the first concert I’ve attended in a swimming pool.
The concert – which was undoubtedly one of the most memorable and pleasurable that I’ve ever attended – brought together the haunting sounds of Oslo’s Trio Mediaeval’s female voices with Arve Henriksen’s hushed trumpet and live electronics to perform music both ancient and modern.
The swimming pool was the Victoria Baths, a restored Edwardian ‘water palace’ in in Ardwick, Manchester. Before the concert Toby Smith, RNCM’s director of performance and programming, had said that the concert was part of an ongoing series which aims to ‘create an immersive experience for the audience’. There was, thankfully, no water in the pool, but the baths proved to be a perfect venue for the kind of music being played, with acoustics akin to that of a cathedral.
Which was perfect, because Trio Mediaeval’s repertoire features mediaeval devotional music from across Europe, as well as traditional Nordic ballads and songs, and contemporary works written for the ensemble: precisely the musical mix in this concert. Founded in 1997, Trio Mediaeval have built a passsionate following for their unique repertoire that stems from a deep-rooted knowledge and continuous reinterpretation of the ancient music of religious orders and the folk music of the Nordic lands.
‘Singing doesn’t get more unnervingly beautiful’, wrote Joshua Kosman of the San Francisco Chronicle, when Trio Mediaeval debuted in San Francisco. He added, ‘To hear the group’s note-perfect counterpoint – as pristine and inviting as clean, white linens – is to be astonished at what the human voice is capable of’. Certainly, listening to the astonishingly beautiful and spine-tingling sounds that the four musicians conjured last night was an exquisite pleasure.
It is almost impossible to convey the intense sensual experience of this collaboration between Trio Mediaeval and Norwegian trumpet player and electronics wizard Arve Henriksen. It was an unforgettable, spine-tingling performance. Obviously similar to saxophonist Jan Garbarek’s collaborations with the Hilliard Ensemble, the soundscape created by this partnership has a different feel: a consequence of the female harmonies, the electronic washes and pulses, and the way in which Henriksen extracts all kinds of sounds and textures from the trumpet.
Henriksen, switching between conventional and pocket trumpet, is unique in terms of the sounds he can coax from his instrument: at times warm and mellow, at others querulous, scratchy, percussive or breathy like a Japanese shakuhachi. Just as remarkable is his ability to extract from his laptop ambient washes of electronic sound that perfectly complemented the Trio’s vocalisations. For their part, too, Trio Mediaeval didn’t just sing – they used hand-chimes and a hardanger fiddle to add delicate variations to the soundscape. One of the high points came as a passage of electronic improvisation and Sami yoik or throat singing by Henriksen led into the as tonishingly violent Norwegian folk song ‘Till, Till Tove’. Positioned at three corners of the pool, the Trio evoked a type of traditional Norwegian singing known as lokk or lalling – short motifs sung to call home cattle at night on mountain farms, and an effective means of communication over long distances – as Henriksen supplied a deep and urgent electronic pulse.
The collaboration between Trio Mediaeval and Arve Henriksen started in 2007 at the Bergen International Festival where the Trio were artists in residence, and since then they have performed together on several occasions. In the programme notes, the Trio write that:
The presentation of sacred mediaeval music around the world today differs extensively from its original context: performers bring music from around 1000 years ago alive in the present — an act of simultaneous preservation and re-creation. We completely re-contextualize the music: none of it was written to be a part of a concert programme or a recording, and nor was it intended to be performed to an audience (as we understand the term today). Performers of today have completely different backgrounds, Iifestyles and agendas from the original singers and the purpose of performing the music diverges from the mediaeval model on several central points. Today we presume that the men and women who were involved with sacred vocal monophony and polyphony in its original context were convinced of their Christian beliefs and connected to religious establishments. Modern mediaeval music performers and their audience are, unlike our mediaeval forbears, not necessarily religious: in the present anyone can perform sacred mediaeval music whether they are religious or not. We are free from obligations towards a certain system, and there are probably as many individual perspectives on spirituality as there are performers. Likewise, today’s listeners are free to relate to and connect with spirituality in whatever way feels comfortable to them.
As well as sacred music of the 12th and 13th centuries from England and Italy, the programme was complemented by Swedish and Norwegian folk songs. Several displayed a characteristic that makes Norwegian vocal folk music distinctive – the tradition of singing without words, a style known as tulling, sulling or tralling in which a sequence of consonants is invented or improvised by the singer. A typical ‘tralling’ sequence might be tra di da di dadi damm di dadndida. This is very similar to the Scottish and Irish tradition known as ‘mouth music’.
One of the traditional songs from Norway was ‘Sven Svane’:
Svend Svane went out on the road one day
and met a wanderer upon his way.
Listen, wanderer, to these questions I ask,
and consider if you might answer them.
What is it that’s rounder than the roundest wheel
and who sings the brightest of all creatures?
What is it that’s whiter than the swan,
and who cries louder than the crane?
The heavens are rounder than the roundest wheel
and the angel sings brightest of all creatures.
The moon is whiter than the swan
and the thunder cries louder than the crane.
Arve Henriksen, too, has been inspired by Norwegian folk music, as well as pursuing explorations in electronics, different treatments of the trumpet, and developing his singing. He often plays trumpet without a mouthpiece, and uses electronics as a context for the very delicate sounds he coaxes from the horn. Arve has said of these explorations:
An interest in sound-making was there from the beginning of my work with the trumpet. I have spent many hours on developing a warm sound, for instance, but not only that. In my opinion, the trumpet has vast potential for tone and sound variations that we still have not heard. At one point, I think it was in 1988, Nils Petter Molvær lent me a cassette of shakuhachi flute playing. Then things changed.
Henriksen began collecting recordings of Japanese music, with koto, biwa, shakuhachi and other instruments: ‘I let the music ‘ring’ and develop in my head. I was astonished by the sound of this flute…’. The shakuhachi’s roots in the tradition of Zen Buddhism fascinated the trumpeter, as did its meditative and minimalistic expressive quality.
His first solo CD Sakuteiki (2001) reflected this direction, taking its title from an 11th century Japanese treatise on garden planning. Recorded in various churches selected for their acoustical properties, the album had a sparse, acoustic and spacious feel. Henriksen succeeded in extracting a distinctive shakuhachi sound from his trumpet.
His next CD, Chiaroscuro (2004) saw him exploring the same ethereal sounscapes, accompanied by sampling artist Jan Bang. On his third album, Strjon (2007) shards of Henriksen’s trumpet were overlaid by elegant synthesised sounds. So far, there has been no recorded documentation of the collaboration with Trio Mediaeval, apart from delicate samples from the Trio on his most recent CD, Cartography, most notably on the track ‘Recording Angel’ which they performed last night.
At the end of last night’s performance, the four performers returned to the stage to rapturous applause, and, in an extraordinary encore, Arve Henriksen, trumpet in one hand, conducted the audience to create a full-voiced choir.
What an evening: shivers down the spine, hairs on the back of the neck stuff!
- Guardian review of London show
- Arve Henriksen website
- Trio Mediaeval website
- Victoria Baths website
- Officium Novum in St David’s cathedral
- Garbarek and the Hilliard in Gloucester Cathedral