Thursday, July 12, 2012

"We Are All Woody's Children" - Woody Guthrie At 100

"We are all Woody's children" Pete Seeger remarked famously several decades ago, and by "we" he clearly meant everyone who loves American folk and roots music every bit as much as he meant those who collect and perform it. The folk revival in this country, however you wish to define it and whatever parameters you put on its duration, has certainly had its oracles and prophets both before and after Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, from John A. Lomax and Cecil Sharp through Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan and beyond. But the central figure of the revival, the one whose cultural significance a century after his July 14, 1912 birth still stands above that of all the rest, is the skinny kid from Okemah, Oklahoma whose personal charisma, charm, and talent for writing songs that touched and moved ordinary people to both emotion and action make him the single indispensable figure in American folk music.

That Guthrie was also a canny self-promoter who told a lot of tall tales about himself and was the primary painter of his own icon is also true as well. That he was a sometimes troubled soul with profound character flaws, a deep resentment of authority, and lifelong trouble maintaining stable relationships is equally true - and ultimately not especially relevant to his achievements except in one regard - and that is that his very iconization obscures, as it often does, the true nature of what he was able to accomplish in a musical life that was essentially over for him at the age of 40, fifteen years before what we would see today as his shockingly early death at 55.

The nature of that achievement and its importance is currently being celebrated, debated, and discussed across the airwaves and print media and websites of the nation, and properly so. I'm sure that many of these discussions will point to the popularity of Guthrie's work as essential to the creation of a genuinely national folk music in the U.S. where a mere 80 or so years ago none had existed - it was all regional material, and before the near-simultaneous arrival of Guthrie, radio, and records, Americans seldom heard much music from outside of their own localities and cultural niches. Many others will discuss Guthrie's lifelong commitment to unions and other progressive and radical causes and his willingness to put his own welfare on the line for what he believed in. Still more will praise him for his influence on later and usually lesser lights of the folk world that he helped to create. All of this is true, all of this is real - and all of this misses the simple and essential point of why we should and do still care about Woody Guthrie.

He wrote great songs. I mean, really really great songs - songs that decades after his death people still sing, people still march to, people still embrace, people still connect with, here and around the world. Guthrie's songwriter acolytes in later generations may have exceeded him in lyrical complexity and apocalyptic anger - but those are precisely the points at which they ceased to be folk musicians in any recognizable sense of the word and converted themselves into self-conscious artistes and percussionists for political movements. Folk music is in its very nature simple and repetitive - it is the music of The People, as poets Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg termed them, and that is the music that Woody Guthrie wrote. Many of his best songs sound familiar the first time you hear them, and you can usually sing them the second. Yet Guthrie is capable of lyrical brilliance unrivaled for its Whitman-esque beauty of simplicity -

I roamed and rambled, and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts...

As the sun was shining, and I was strolling
And the wheat fields waving, and the dust clouds rolling
As the fog was lifting, a Voice was calling -
"This land was made for you and me."

No American lyricist has ever surpassed those lines for sheer American-ness - for an unselfconscious imagery derived from the real sight of his own two eyes and not from the pages of other people's poetry. You can remember those lines and hundreds more like them, and you can sing them again and again - and you want to. And Guthrie was able to do that in song after song, marrying his words to tunes sometimes traditional and sometimes of his own making but always ending up with compositions that were just, well, supremely singable.

Guthrie's radical politics still give some people pause, perhaps more in these benighted and reactionary times rather more than in decades earlier - but even in this regard there are serious misunderstandings of what he actually created. Consider, for example, the lyrics of two of his most famous creations, the above-quoted "This Land Is Your Land" and "Plane Wreck At Los Gatos," better known as "Deportee." Singers today often jubilantly include the verses from "This Land" that didn't make it into the school songbooks or folk revival LPs - the one about the "No Trespassing" sign most famously. But take a look at the real penultimate verses:

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 squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I'd seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land still made for you and me?


Not a lot there to argue with there, I would think - no party-line commie-loving armed-revolutionary sedition, just the powerfully evocative compassion of a poet who loves his country and his people and who wants to see justice done both for them and for himself. Or take the conclusion of "Deportee" about the crash that killed more than twenty itinerant farm workers -

The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon,
A fireball of lightning, and shook all our hills,
Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio says, "They are just deportees"

Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?
To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil
And be called by no name except "deportees"?

Again - could anyone seriously argue against such a sentiment or condemn it as radical? This is the real political Woody Guthrie, if not the sum total of his beliefs at least the very core and essence of them - compassion for people and passion for justice.

In the four years of this blog, even focusing as it mostly does on pop-folk music, Guthrie's name has appeared in dozens of posts - as how would it not? - and six of his songs linked below have full articles on them, with a selection of different interpretations by various artists and more reflections on Guthrie and his legacy. For this post, I would like to conclude with three videos, one of Guthrie's first disciple and great friend Pete Seeger recalling WG, and two covers of the songs alluded to above that I find especially moving. It's the best way I can think of to remember the man who gave us so many other wonderful songs to sing.


Pete Seeger On Woody Guthrie





Seeger, Springsteen et al. 2009 Inaugural Concert




Arlo Guthrie, Emmylou Harris et al, - "Deportee"


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Comparative Video 101 Posts On Woody Guthrie Songs


1. "This Land Is Your Land"

2. "Deportee"

3. "Pastures Of Plenty"

4. "The Sinking Of The Reuben James"

5. "Hard Travelin'"

6. "Hard, Ain't It Hard"

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

"The Unfortunate Miss Bailey/Hunters Of Kentucky"

I am delighted to return after a brief hiatus (for radio show production and folk music performance in Big Bear, CA) with an absolutely genuine traditional folk tune, one that is complete with uncertain and disputed authorship, alternative sets of lyrics, cousins in several countries, and at least one significant derivative song. "The Unfortunate Miss Bailey" is all of these and a delightful satire to boot, and like its music hall relatives "New York Girls" and "With Her Head Tucked Underneath Her Arm" manages to take an incident that in real life would would dismay us at the least and appall us at the most - and make it somehow amuse us in song. That may be because unlike the decapitated Queen Anne or the pants-less sailor of "NYG," our Miss Bailey manages to exact a measure of revenge on her heartless seducer, rather more completely as we shall see in the full lyric to the piece and in its sequel than in the standard versions that we will hear below.

The root song of "The Unfortunate Miss Bailey" is alleged by most scholars to be an Irish number by piper Larry Grogan called "Alley Croaker," written and published around 1725. I have a bit of trouble with this, first because the lyrics don't fit metrically or thematically with the later tune, as they involve a young man whose drinking, gaming, and whoring destroy his chances of marriage to the prim Miss Alicia Croaker (or Crocker in some versions) - making the jilted narrator the inverse of love-'em-and-leave-'em rakehell playboy Captain Smith of "Miss Bailey." Alley's guy dies of a broken heart, or syphilis, or a combination of the two. Smith, on the other hand, seems at first to suffer no consequence for his betrayal of the maiden Bailey other than a very brief and easily exorcised haunting. Second, the melody of "Croaker" doesn't sound to me to be similar enough to consider it an ancestor (a MIDI version of "Croaker" can be heard HERE), not nearly so much as "Hunters of Kentucky" below borrows most of its tune from "Miss Bailey."

The same scholars believe that "The Unfortunate Miss Bailey" was adapted from Grogan's work in about 1804 for a London play called Love Laughs At Locksmiths by George Colman the Younger (1762-1836) - but despite the superior academic credentials of those critics (vastly superior to mine, in any event), I doubt that Colman junior is responsible. First, the aforementioned "Hunters of Kentucky" was penned in the U.S. in 1821 about The Battle of New Orleans, and composer Samuel Woodworth remarked that though he had heard the melody in the Colman play, the song as "Miss Baily" had been well-known in America for years before the 1804 date. In addition, Edith Fowke and Richard Johnston note in their Folks Songs of Canada that

The words are credited to George Colman, an English dramatist (1732-1794), and were very popular in England for at least fifty years. By the early part of the nineteenth century the song had also spread throughout North America, for when Samuel Woodworth wrote his famous ballad of the War of 1812, 'The Hunters of Kentucky', the old broadsheets bore the inscription: 'To the air of Miss Baily'. The original setting for the story was, of course, in England, but when soldiers sang it on this side of the Atlantic [italics mine] they would naturally associate Captain Smith with Halifax, Nova Scotia.

My italics point out the problem: the only time that there was a significant British military presence in the U.S. was from Colonial times through the Revolutionary War - the only time that Americans might have heard redcoats singing a popular bawdy ballad and learned it themselves. The Brits weren't around much or for very long during the War of 1812, so I would go with Fowke and Johnston in supposing that it was Grogan's contemporary George Colman the Elder who adapted the tune and turned the Irish piper's tale on its head to give us "Miss Bailey," included without attribution by his son in the play. After all, daddy was dead by then.

Interestingly, there is a seldom-heard fifth verse in the original, one in which Miss Bailey completes her revenge in a rather "New York Girls"-ish manner:

Next morn' his man rapped on the door, his voice shook with emotion,
"Just how you're going to dress today I really have no notion.
Miss Bailey has your five pound note, the sum of all your riches,
And now she's vanished down the street inside your leather breeches!"


A sequel to the song apparently written by a certain Joseph Kertland about 1806 (lyrics below*) also references the stolen trousers.

"Miss Bailey" enters the era of recorded music courtesy of the now-forgotten 1930s and 40s duo of John and Lucy Allison, friends of Pete Seeger and with him involved in leftist labor rallies of the time. The Allisons often rewrote tunes and lyrics for folk songs (imagine that) and contributed a number of those to the Seeger/Weavers repertoire, notably the lovely "Wild Goose Grasses" (one of my personal Weavers favorites). But the Allisons also recorded a goodly number of traditional tunes straight up, as they did for both "Miss Bailey" and "Hunters of Kentucky." The Allisons inspired a delightfully off-beat version of our song by the delightfully off-beat Marais and Miranda in the 1950s, as well as versions by progressive singer/actor/activist Will Geer (Grandpa Walton and crazed mountain man Bear Claw Kris Lapp in Jeremiah Johnson, remember?) , Dean Gitter (also popularizer in the 50s of the Boleyn song), and Will Holt.

The Kingston Trio learned the song from their arranger and later Limeliter founder Lou Gottlieb and released what was probably the most widely-heard version of the song, appearing as it did on their 1959 album Here We Go Again that spent eight weeks as the #1 album in America and sold just under a million units:

(Reminder: when the video starts, toggle the little wheel in the lower right area of the frame to get a full 1080p hi-def view)


For my money, this track wears through the years better than nearly any of the Trio's other attempts at novelty and humor, likely because they (and Gottlieb) didn't mess much with the original lyrics. It is for me certainly the most successful of the songs in which they attempted a broadly self-mocking English accent.

Despite the tune's popularity on vinyl in the 50s and 60s, the only other musical version currently on YouTube is by Henry Martin:



Martin is a mainstay on the pirate/Renaissance fair circuit, a truly odd conflation when you consider that the actual 16th century Renaissance was pretty much a done deal by the great 17th century era of high seas piracy. Still - whatever works for you, and I think Martin does a fine and spirited job, and it's good to know that some strolling troubadours are out in the world keeping the music alive.

The stage-named Tom O'Bedlam has a YT channel dedicated to spoken verse, often of the off-beat and weird. Here is his take on "Miss Bailey," complete with two final stanzas from an alternate published text:



This may well be from the 1840 publication of the song (which some clearly inaccurately assert was the earliest appearance) because the final stanza's moralizing, however humorous, is much more characteristic of the Victorian period of that date than the Empire era 40 years prior when Colman's play was staged.

As noted above, Samuel Woodworth took the popular melody and turned it into a patriotic tune called "The Hunters of Kentucky" that Battle of New Orleans victorious commander Andrew Jackson used as his official campaign song in his successful presidential runs of 1828 and 1832. This version is anonymous, but internal evidence suggests it may be sung by a teacher named Fethermen.



While it's good of Mr.Fetherman to include the lyrics plainly and visibly, the error in the opening frame is a problem. "Hunters" composer Woodworth also wrote the popular classic "The Old Oaken Bucket" and was consequently fairly well-known in his day - but Fetherman is using the Lesley Nelson-Burns version and mistaking that estimable lady as the author. Nelson-Burns' site TheContemplator.com is one of the best on the web for traditional songs, with hundreds of lyrics and MIDIs for folk songs in English. Ms. Nelson-Burns makes it very clear that Woodworth wrote the lyrics and borrowed the "Bailey" tune.

I have used the performances of Tom Roush when I have written about songs from the Civil War era, and I think he always does a good job of creating a modern arrangement while preserving the feel of the original words:



Roush and everyone else who does the song point out that a quarter of Tennessean Jackson's troops at New Orleans were from Kentucky, whose woodsmen had been prized as soldiers for half a century even then because of the skill and marksmanship they demonstrated with the long-barrelled rifle that they invented and which is named after them.

The earliest versions of "The Unfortunate Miss Bailey" satirize rather than sermonize, and there is a hint that Miss B's revenge may well go beyond the one (or five) pound note and a pair of purloined pants. Some critics have suggested that Captain Smith's debilitating fever in the second verse may well be induced by the final stages of the syphilis he may have contracted from his nights of debauchery and dissolution - and that the hallucinations common to the tertiary phase of that terrible disease may render poor Miss Bailey nothing more than the dream of a fevered brain. Maybe so, but I think not. Miss Bailey does about as well as the ghost of a girl can do in getting even with her tormentor, and I refuse to believe that so fine a song as this is the result of a mere illusion. As far as I am concerned, Miss Bailey is as absolutely real as the Tower's headless Ann Boleyn.
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*Kertland's Sequel, "Miss Bailey's Ghost"

The dog had ceas'd to bark,
The silver moon shone bright,
When, in the lone church-yard,
Stood poor Miss Bailey's ghost.
Oh! what will become of me?
Ah! why did I die!
Nobody coming to bury me!
Nobody coming to cry!

The first time I saw Captain Smith
I was fair, though he treated me foul,
So here tête à tête with the moon,
All night will I bellow and howl,
Oh! what can the matter be,
My own ghost in the cold must expire,
While wicked Smith, o'er his ratafie,
Is roasting his shins by the fire.

The last time I saw my deluder,
He gave me a shabby pound-note,
But I borrowed his best leather breeches,
To wear with my wooden surtout.
And its oh, to be covered in decency,
For a grave I the parson did pay,
But Captain Smith's note was a forgery,
And I was turned out of my clay.

And here I am singing my song
Till almost the dawning of day;
Come, sexton, come, spectre, come, Captain,
Will nobody take me away?
But hold, yet I've one comfort left,
Delightful to most married fair,
Though cold, and of all joy bereft,
Yet still I've the breeches to wear.
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And finally, an 1842 recipe for the "light, fruit-flavored liqueur" of the song, Ratafia:

Into one quart of brandy pour half a pint of cherry juice, as much currant juice, as much of raspberry juice, add a few cloves, and some white pepper in grains, two grains of green coriander, and a stick or two of cinnamon, then pound the stones of cherries, and put them in wood and all. Add about twenty five or thirty kernels of apricots. Stop your demijohn close and let it infuse for one month in the shade, shaking it five or six times in that time at the end of which strain it through a flannel bag, then through a filtering paper, and then bottle it and cork close for use; you can make any quantity you chose, only by adding or increasing more brandy or other ingredients.

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Addendum, May 2017

Thanks to JMarie's comment below, I searched YT again and found that the site has posted a copyright-permitted version of the delightful Marais and Miranda version of "Miss Bailey" alluded to in the article.