Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Folk Song Tradition

I grew up during the 1950’s and 60’s.  As was the norm at the time, my parents sent me to 8 week sleep away camp when I was 7 years old.  In my second year there I did not like my counselors and the following summer I was sent to another camp called Killoleet which was run by a teacher from a New York City private school and who happened to be the brother of the famous folk singer Pete Seeger.  That is where I learned to love and learn about folk songs and the stories that went along with them.  We had regular campfires where we all sang songs that had become familiar to my generation and still live today.

The other night it all came rushing back.  Arlo Guthrie  (b.1947) gave a sold out concert in Santa Fe’s Lensic Theater.  Arlo is the son of Woody Guthrie (1912-1967).  While folk music has always existed in every country and culture from  time immemorial, Woody made it what it is today in the U.S.  Hundreds of his songs have been recorded and another 3,500 were just written as poems and no music was ever set down because Woody didn’t know how to write music!  He did, however, write poems, books, his autobiography “Bound for Glory” being his most famous, and he even wrote a play.  Woody’s daughter has set herself the task of getting more of this work published and even setting music to some of the poems.

What Woody is best remembered for, however, are his songs and performances.  In honor of what would have been his one hundredth birthday last year, his son Arlo, a well known singer and song writer in his own right, began a two year tour featuring Woody’s music and some of his favorite songs.

Folk music is obviously passed on from generation to generation but since Woody lived early on in the era of recorded music he was able to make some records which gave him a much wider audience.  When his friends would “steal” his songs and record them they would often modify them slightly, but, in this way, his music was disseminated far and wide and lives on.

Arlo told us who those friends were and they were the most famous folk singers of his generation influencing generations to come.  Pete Seeger, Cisco Houston, Huddie Ledbetter (better known as Lead Belly), and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot to name a few.  Many could claim to be students of Woody and his music, passing on the tradition.  Probably the most famous singers of recent times influenced by them are Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen who has recently recorded the music of Pete Seeger, Woody’s best known student.

Woody’s most famous song, sung around the world sometimes with slight variations, is “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land” written in 1940.  When Arlo was about 6 years old his class at school was asked to sing this famous song.  Arlo, however, not realizing that others were singing “his family’s song” had never bothered to learn the words!  Being embarrassed he went crying to his Dad.  That evening Woody taught him how to strum the little guitar that he had been given, as well as a bunch of verses that were not in the recorded version of the song so the next time Arlo was prepared. 


Woody was always writing and his songs could go on forever.  One of these is called “Deportee”.   It is about a group of 27 Mexican field workers who had overstayed their visas and were being deported back to Mexico.  The plane crashed with all on board lost.  The story was published in the papers but only the crew’s names were mentioned but none of the deportees.  Woody being a hero of social justice wrote this song with the names of all the victims included.   No one wanted a recording with a long list so Pete Seeger made it publishable and famous by taking out most of the names and singing the song on many of his records and in his concerts.


So went the evening with lots of songs and stories interwoven into a most entertaining evening.  Everyone got into it including my wife who is not well acquainted with the folk song tradition but was so impressed by Arlo as a performer and the lady behind me who sang along to almost every song as did many in the audience.

Some performances are like magic and transport you to a wonderful time and place.

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