A few weeks ago I did a musical musing on a song stolen and, ultimately, paid for by that most popular and respected singer, Johnny Cash. (Ca$h?) I have come across quite a few more situations like this in my wanderings through musical history. But, in most instances, it’s just a case of an old and venerable melody put to a new use—the musical equivalent of revamping a historic building as part of the architectural preservation and adaptive use project, so to speak.
Needless to say, this has been a common source of “new” songs ever since one musician listened to the work of another, liked what he or she heard, and repeated it or enhanced it or simply purloined it. Ah, following musical traditions! Isn’t that what folk music is all about?
Now let’s take a look at one of the icons of American folk music—Woody Guthrie—and put the musical microscope on the sources of three of his most played tunes.
Despite their melodic (and sometimes lyrical) origins with musical precedents, these songs have become so associated with Guthrie that we don’t even bother to think about from whence they came. Simply, they ARE HIS. Period.
The first one to look at is a song that Guthrie, a former merchant seaman himself, wrote and performed in remembrance of the torpedoing of the U.S. Navy convoy escort ship, the USS Reuben James, in the months just before America’s official entry into World War II.
“The Sinking of the Reuben James” is a song hurriedly cobbled together by Guthrie and Pete Seeger in an apartment they shared at the time in New York City. These two were good friends and musical collaborators over the years and were moved to write a song about this headline event of the day about the first American ship sunk by German U-Boats.
Tap or click on the triangle in the next image or link to hear the original Guthrie/Seeger collaboration.
Guthrie had started to write the song and, over ambitiously, wanted to include each name from the casualty list—over a hundred US sailors. Seeger worked on the melody and, ever conscious of how a song would play out, prevailed in suggesting that Guthrie’s list be replaced simply by the chorus: “Tell me what were their names . . .”
Seeger and Guthrie borrowed the melody from a pre-Civil War love song written by one Joseph Philbrick Webster . . .
. . . called “I’ll Twine Midst the Ringlets.” His song was later made famous when “harvested” by the Carter Family who recorded it in 1928 and retitled it “Wildwood Flower.”
You can go to YouTube to listen to the original Carter Family recording, but this is just too good an opportunity to hear the tune played by a cigar box uke and a banjo! Tap or click on the next image or link to hear this one.
A second ever popular Guthrie song is “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh.” This depression era moving on song, considered a “Dust Bowl Ballad,” was first released in 1935 and became a standard closing song during the so-called Folk Music Revival of the 1950s and ‘60s.
Click or tap on the triangle in the next image or link to listen to this rousing favorite of folkies!
As with “Reuben James,” this song also had musical antecedents. Guthrie based it on Carson Robison’s early 1930’s recording of the “Ballad of Billy the Kid.” Robison both tweaked and added to the traditional “campfire cowboy song” lyrics. Although Robison’s impact on American music is generally forgotten today, he played a major role in promoting country and western music in its early years through both recordings and the radio.
And, unlike Guthrie or even Seeger, Robison had a ukulele marketed with his image! Here’s one from my collection.
Click or tap on the triangle in the next image or link to hear Robison’s original recording of this ballad.
I have a feeling that Guthrie himself might have sung this ballad when in the 1920s he was a member of his hometown country music band in Pampa, Texas. That’s Woodie on the left, already an accomplished harmonica and guitar player, but only a “costume cowboy!”
Our last, but certainly not least, song is “This Land Is Your Land,” probably Americas most popular folk song. Its lyrics were written by Guthrie in 1940 and, once again, based on an existing melody.
This was adapted from another Carter Family tune called “When the World’s on Fire.” Guthrie wrote his song in critical response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” Guthrie said that he was “just plain tired” of hearing Kate Smith sing that song on the radio in the late 1930s!
Guthrie sarcastically called his song “God Blessed America for Me” before thinking a bit more deeply and renaming it. The rest is musical history!
But, let’s start with the Carter Family’s “When the World’s on Fire.” Click or tap on the next image or link to hear this lead-in melody to “This Land . . .”
Both Guthrie and Seeger usually copyrighted most of the songs they wrote. But in Guthrie’s own words about his many song copyrights, he said: “This song is Copyrighted . . . for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin’ it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it; that’s all we wanted to do.” Take your music where you find it! He certainly did.
And the rest is a musical legacy for us all. These songs are our songs even if they started as someone else’s! Tap or click on the triangle in the next image or link to hear and see my favorite version of “This Land . . .”
So, stay safe, be thankful we no longer have to stay masked, . . .
. . . stay in a musically aware and timely mode, . . .
. . . and STAY TUNED!