Today we celebrate America, and in turn some of the folk and roots voices that provided the soundtrack for this great nation.
One of Lead Belly’s signature songs is “Goodnight, Irene.” There’s great irony that just a year after Lead Belly’s death The Weavers’ sanitized version of the song reached number one on the Billboard Best Seller chart, and further irony in that one of America’s best-known singers, Pete Seeger (see below), was a member of The Weavers.
Huddie Ledbetter, better known to the world as Lead Belly, survived a life that included brutalizing poverty and long stretches in prison to become an emblematic folk singer and musician. He is renowned for his songs - the best known of which include “Rock Island Line,” “Goodnight, Irene,” “The Midnight Special” and “Cotton Fields” - as well as his prowess on the 12-string guitar. In his 60-plus years, he essentially lived two distinctly different lives: first, as a field worker, blues singer, rambling man and prisoner in the rural south; second, as a city-dwelling folksinger, performer and recording artist in the urban North. It was, however, not until shortly after Lead Belly’s death that a broader public came to know his songs and the mythic outline of his life.
In January 2014, we lost the great American singer and activist Pete Seeger. It’s hard to choose only one of the many songs he made famous. One of my favorites is the song Pete wrote in 1955 (coincidentally, the year I was born) “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”
Pete Seeger’s contribution to folk music, both in terms of its revival and survival, cannot be overstated. With the possible exception of Woody Guthrie, Seeger is the greatest influence on folk music of the last century. Born in New York City, he was the son of musicologist Charles Seeger. He took up the banjo in his teens and in 1938, at the age of 19, assisted noted folk archivist and field recorder Alan Lomax on his song-collecting trips through the American South. He soon began performing on banjo, guitar and vocals. In 1940, he formed a highly politicized folk trio, the Almanac Singers, which recorded union songs and antiwar anthems. They toured the country, performing at union halls for gas money, and recorded three albums. See more at: http://rockhall.com/inductees/pete-seeger/bio/#sthash.LGJWE4Ch.dpuf
No singer better defines the first half of 20th century America than Woody Guthrie. I hope that they still teach young school children to sing “This Land Is Your Land.” This and many other Woody Guthrie songs must remain, as they have for so long, part of our common cultural heritage.
Woody Guthrie is the original folk hero. It was Guthrie who, in the 30s and 40s, transformed the folk ballad into a vehicle for social protest and observation. In doing so paved the way for Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and a host of other folk and rock songwriters moved by conscience to share experiences and voice opinions.
Guthrie wrote hundreds of songs, including “This Land Is Your Land,” “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You,” “Grand Coulee Dam,” “I Ain’t Got No Home” and “Dust Bowl Refugees.” The colorful life he led became as legendary as the songs he wrote. Fueled by wanderlust, Guthrie hit the road during the Depression, hitchhiking and riding the rails across the Midwest and Far West. From those experiences came source material for his songs and a lifelong commitment to radical politics. - See more at: http://rockhall.com/inductees/woody-guthrie/bio/#sthash.4HdyY72O.dpuf
Some will say that Burl Ives was too commercial, too popular to be considered a true American folk music hero. But you can count me among the many who remember him fondly for his gentle voice and demeanor. Perhaps he didn’t change America with his songs, but through his recordings, radio and television appearances he did help bring a wealth of important old tunes to people who might otherwise have never heard them. One of my childhood memories is hearing Burl Ives’ recording of “Lavender Blue” on the radio. It is not American but, in fact, an old English folk song. Ives’ version was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song for its use in the 1949 movie, So Dear My Heart.
In his April 15, 1995 New York Times obituary for Burl Ives, Richard Severo writes:
“In his long and diverse career in show business, Mr. Ives made 32 movies and more than 100 record albums, appeared in 13 Broadway productions, and gave countless performances on radio and television and in summer stock. He put an enduring stamp on "The Blue Tail Fly," "Jimmy Crack Corn" and other folk standards as well as on such children's songs as "Frosty the Snowman" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." His last recording, "The Magic Balladeer," was issued in 1993, shortly before his 84th birthday.
The bearded Mr. Ives, who loved to cook, eat and drink, was an imposing figure in his prime, carrying more than 300 pounds on his six-foot frame. He was intimidating when he played semi-professional football in Terre Haute, Ind., and he was intimidating onstage. His presence, both physically and musically, was such that Carl Sandburg, one of his great admirers, called him ‘America's mightiest ballad singer.’"
Another great American singer whose cultural impact is impossible to overstate is Odetta. The depth of her musical influence is significant, having inspired Bob Dylan, Taj Mahal, Janis Joplin, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Joan Baez and many other singers and musicians. Not only was she an important part of the American folk revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s, she was an integral part of the civil rights movement. Odetta was there with Martin Luther King Jr. for the march in Selma, Alabama and sang at the March on Washington, D.C.
From the AP obituary in the New York Times:
“With her booming, classically trained voice and spare guitar, Odetta gave life to the songs by workingmen and slaves, farmers and miners, housewives and washerwomen, blacks and whites.
First coming to prominence in the 1950s, she influenced Harry Belafonte, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and other singers who had roots in the folk music boom.
An Odetta record on the turntable, listeners could close their eyes and imagine themselves hearing the sounds of spirituals and blues as they rang out from a weathered back porch or around a long-vanished campfire a century before.
‘What distinguished her from the start was the meticulous care with which she tried to re-create the feeling of her folk songs; to understand the emotions of a convict in a convict ditty, she once tried breaking up rocks with a sledge hammer," Time magazine wrote in 1960.
I never fully appreciated Johnny Cash’s music until late in his long career when he made a series that came to be known as his American Recordings. The songs from the series are spare in texture, just Cash in his living room with his guitar. They communicate a directness that is full of emotion and intimacy.
To millions of fans, Johnny Cash is “the Man in Black,” a country-music legend who sings in an authoritative baritone about the travails of working men and the downtrodden in this country. Lesser known is the fact that Johnny Cash was present at the birth of rock and roll by virtue of being one of the earliest signees to Sam Phillips’ Sun Records back in 1955.
Cash was part of an elite club of rock and roll pioneers at Sun that included Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. The four were collectively referred to as “the Million Dollar Quartet” after an impromptu gathering and jam session at the Sun recording studio on December 4, 1956. What Cash and his group, the Tennessee Two, brought to the “Sun Sound” was a spartan mix of guitar, standup bass and vocals that served as an early example of rockabilly.
Cash recorded a string of rockabilly hits for Sun that included “Cry, Cry, Cry,” “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line.” The latter was first of more than a dozen Number One country hits for Cash and also marked his first appearance on the national pop singles charts. - See more at:http://rockhall.com/inductees/johnny-cash/bio/#sthash.GniV3WYw.dpuf