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Didn't realize until a few weeks ago that Woody Guthrie's songwriting philosophy was pretty simple: write the words, then look for some popular song and use the melody...lol..and that's what he often did..Should have known it was pretty straight-forward since his guitar playing philosophy was "if you're using more than two chords you're bragging." Anyway, we've all heard what is perhaps Woody's most famous song. He was a huge fan of The Carter Family and here's where he got the melody.

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While he was a prodigious writer -- when he was healthy, he wrote pages and pages of letters and songs nearly every day of his life -- Guthrie was notorious for reusing melodies. The use of the word "notorious" here isn't necessarily pejorative because nobody then or now really cared that he did it.

 

Sometimes he'd use others' melodies and sometimes he'd reuse his own. He often reused melodies of old hymns, believing that the audiences he was playing to (often dislocated Dust Bowl farmers) would know the melodies and his songs would be easier to sing.

 

The guy was a creative genius, and modern psychologists would have a field day with him because he exhibited some bizarre behaviors. Some of them could be attributed to the constant rewiring that was going on in his brain because of the Huntington's Chorea, but some of it was just plain narcissistic personality disorder.

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All true according to my relatively limited knowledge. Have been a fan since I was just a kid. In fact, my earliest guitar 'lessons' consisted of listening to his recordings and trying to learn that 'Mother Maybelle' approach he'd borrowed. I knew he'd laid claim to one of Herta Geer's guitars, but was unaware he made it a regular thing. Would love to know which others he 'borrowed' and from whom, if any of y'all don't mind sharing!

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I'm currently reading "Woody Guthrie: A Life" and really enjoying it. Also have been a huge fan of Wilco for years, so the Mermaid Ave. records are a staple of mine. Not saying I ike every song on every one of the records, but there are a handful of favorites for sure.

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I'm currently reading "Woody Guthrie: A Life" and really enjoying it. Also have been a huge fan of Wilco for years, so the Mermaid Ave. records are a staple of mine. Not saying I ike every song on every one of the records, but there are a handful of favorites for sure.

That's a wonderful book. My hardbound copy is nearly 'unbound' from years of rereading☺

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Actually, WHEN THE WORLD'S ON FIRE was not written by AP Charter -- like much of their materials, AP collected it. The Charter Family was a major source of melodies for Woody, but another factor was that they both drew from the well of songs in the Scots Irish secular and religious tradition.

 

AP also used a slightly modified version of the same melody in a more popular song he wrote about Sarah -- DARLING PAL OF MINE.

 

We added about 30 Guthrie songs to our repertoire in the 60s in Boston while going to college. There is only one of those -- PRETTY BOY FLOYD -- where I don't know the source of the melody.

 

Guthrie was an incredible poet, but he only really became famous because Pete Seeger campaigned him in his lifelong agenda to characterize traditional music in Puritan terms -- Pete was classically trained and his father was a Harvard professor. Like clear cutting and strip mining, the FOLK REVIVAL that Pete crafted was another ripoff of the rural cultures by the urban ones. The view in the 60s -- which we totally bought into -- was that the folkies were saving the music of dying cultures.

 

When we moved to north GA to work in 1971, we fell in with the mass of rural musicians with roots in the mountains. It was culturally easy for me to do since I had been raised in a blue collar expatriate mountain family. What we found was totally different from the folk revival vision campaigned by Seeger and others -- including us I guess. We found a great mass of powerful acoustic music populated with a huge collection of old (and new) songs. Many of these songs were collected and performed by the Carter Family, and both the original and the Carter Family versions abounded. BUT, although Guthrie obviously started as one of them, his songs were mostly ignored -- still are. That is because this music is really cultural, and when you remove it from its cultural context, it is no longer recognized by its creators.

 

So now we play Guthrie and folk revival music in urban cultures and the original traditional versions in rural cultures. Of course people from urban cultures often live in rural areas and vice versa. We love them both, but the underlying cultures don't love each other. Our recent election is an example of that unfortunate mismatch.

 

Let's pick,

 

-Tom

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Tom's observations/experiences are spot on. In fact, when the Almanac Singers started out, they all (including Seeger) came up with fake biographies for each member, claiming they all came from the rural South. I guess it was intended to give them more street cred....

 

And Klein's biography of Guthrie is fantastic. The thing that got me about Guthrie is how he'd just leave for weeks or months at a time, leaving his first wife and his kids to fend for themselves. He would sometimes tell them where he was going but usually, he'd just disappear. I've heard of people obsessed by their art, but when you've got a family, they need to be the priority, not victims of your mercurial whims.

 

Then again, schoolkids will be singing "This Land is Your Land" years after I'll be long forgotten.

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Tom, great point on Darling Pal of Mine. The audio is a bit bad, but here's June's story of Woody.....

I often forget how much modern music was influenced by The Carters, who in turn drew their music from old gospel and folk ballads, shanties, etc. There isn't much that is new. In one form or another, it's all been done before........Also, I read that This Land is Your Land is not copyrighted due to a legal error by the copyright house that wanted to own it.
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Tom, great point on Darling Pal of Mine. The audio is a bit bad, but here's June's story of Woody.....

I often forget how much modern music was influenced by The Carters, who in turn drew their music from old gospel and folk ballads, shanties, etc. There isn't much that is new. In one form or another, it's all been done before........Also, I read that This Land is Your Land is not copyrighted due to a legal error by the copyright house that wanted to own it.

 

Wow -- I never saw that. Thanks.

 

-Tom

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"Pete Seeger campaigned him in his lifelong agenda to characterize traditional music in Puritan terms --Like clear cutting and strip mining, the FOLK REVIVAL that Pete crafted was another ripoff" Strong take on a much beloved figure. I think your comments beg for elaboration. I associate puritan with pure collectors; Pete was a popularizer. As for ripping off =(suing the trad for his own ends?), his main departure from trad folk was political, like his mentor, Woody Guthrie=songs for The People (I have not read that he was a $ ripoff, in terms of copywriting trad material under his own name).

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This feels like a time warp! I don't mean to imply good or bad. Takes me back, though. Pete and Woody and activism on one hand using folk music to unite the folks, and folks who more generally grew up around the music using it to help maintain a sense of unique cultural identity on the other - and neither group ever managing to become altogether comfortable with the other. Funny how nothing's ever as simple when it's happening as we tend to view it after the fact.

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I expect others have read about this as well, but when Woody's HD was getting diagnosed, the psychiatrist dealing with his case said he was delusional - because he claimed to be a published author who had made recordings for the Library of Congress. 😯😒😉

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  • 3 weeks later...

My 'bible' was "The Folk Songs of North America" by Alan Lomax.

I'm guessing it had over 300 songs - with background information on most.

While Pete Seeger was the most famous, his brother Mike (New Lost City Ramblers) was more traditional.

And, his sister Peggy provided the chords for these 300 songs. Similar to a comment on another thread here, on how amazing some people are who can transpose the music for dozens of songs and put them in a songbook/compilation.

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I'm not sure if that is the same book as "Folk Song USA" (1947 originally, 1966 in paperback), by John and Alan Lomax (arrangements by Charles and Ruth Seeger, father and mother of Pete and Peggy)), but that was probably my first source. The other one, for traditional "American" ballads based on English and Scottish ballads brought to America by early settlers (including the Child Ballads), is "The Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles" (1960).

 

Both of those are pretty dog-eared by now, but both have been in my library since the mid 1960s, and they're still great sources.

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My 'bible' was "The Folk Songs of North America" by Alan Lomax.

I'm guessing it had over 300 songs - with background information on most.

While Pete Seeger was the most famous, his brother Mike (New Lost City Ramblers) was more traditional.

And, his sister Peggy provided the chords for these 300 songs. Similar to a comment on another thread here, on how amazing some people are who can transpose the music for dozens of songs and put them in a songbook/compilation.

 

I marvel at how small the world is thanks to the Lomaxes and Seegers. I find myself quite mind-blown by the thought of how Seeger family Christmas parties might have gone with cheaper air fares: imagine Pete inviting Woody Guthrie over and Peggy turning up with Ewan Maccoll. Or maybe it really did happen. In any case, Alan Lomax definitely did get around. The field recordings of Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and Muddy Waters are famous, but there are also quite a few from my neck of the woods: Field Recordings in a Norfolk Accent. How come you Americans haven't had a Harry Cox revival? There are more than enough British blues covers.

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That speech is really worth reading.

Indeed, it is a fine recap of quite a few things-people-attitudes that, if you've been a Dylan fan since his first album, you likely either knew or strongly suspected. The man's honesty and perceptual clarity come through, just as in his songs.

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