Can you talk about your grandfather, the depression and your dad's lineage?
My grandfather, Charlie Guthrie, had this beautiful handwriting and was the clerk of the courts out in that part of the Oklahoma. He wrote newspaper articles about one thing or another and owned a lot of different properties and was into cattle and oil. His ancestors came from Texas five generations before him. With the collapse of Wall Street and the drought, farming had hit these guys with a one-two knock out. Millions of people just like my dad and granddad picked up and left. Imagine what it takes to leave when you've got family history and burial history. It was not easy to do, but it was easier to do that than to stay. People think he left home to be a singer, but he didn't. His ability was actually as a painter. He was a very talented artist. He left home with brushes, not a guitar, and he made his first living painting sign. Later he picked up guitar and started singing the songs that his mother would sing him. They were the songs that her family had probably handed down for generations in Scotland and wherever they were from before that. My dad in saw the wisdom of learning to deal with other people and started stealing their tunes and writing them into his stories and songs. He sort of picked everyone up in his songs and made them see what they had in common.
Talk about your dad in California.
He went to California and hooked up with his cousin Jack who was a very talented singer, songwriter and guitar player. Together they found themselves on the radio singing some of the old songs, putting some of the new words to the old tunes. Jack took off and pursued more of a career in music and recorded some incredibly wonderful songs that he wrote in the real country sense--before country was country, when it was still hillbilly and western. My dad hooks up with a gal named Lefty Lou and they continue the show for a while. It was at about that time that my dad began to realize a lot of things. He grew up. His mind expanded into seeing a bigger picture because I think he offended some people that he didn't mean to offend and he probably found some allies in people he didn't think would be allies, in terms of how to change things that were going on. He traveled out to Los Angeles and started singing in the streets and his first hit, if you want to call it that, came about as a result of him singing in a bar one afternoon where there was a gal outside the window listening in and she heard a song called the "Reno Blues". Her name was Rose Maddox and it was she and her brothers that first recorded "Reno Blues" and it went way beyond Los Angeles. He also met Will Gear and other people who were influential who took him around to some of the labor camps and said, "These are your guys." There were millions of immigrants coming in willing to work for almost nothing because they were hungry and people exploited that. They performed little skits to get people elected to change the political structure.
How did he come to New York City?
Probably through friends like Will Gear who he met in California. At one point they all came to New York City to see what was going on there. His radio career was looking pretty good. His recordings had been made or were about to be made. He was probably at the height of his career in the late thirties and early forties when he arrives in New York. He meets up with Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes and all of these others who are really coming from a completely different point of view that he had ever heard of and that was a political point of view with clout.
All of them see something in Woody.
People were talking about songs of the common man in order to make the common man. With Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly, they were so common it was just uncommon. You know they were so real and in another sense they weren't because they were all utilizing this reality. One of the great Lead Belly stories is that he was in Chicago and went into these publishing houses and studios and said "I got a song," and they said, "What is it?" He sang it and They said, "Wow, that's great. " He said, "It's fifty bucks." These guys figured that for fifty bucks they got this great song. They didn't realize that he'd already done that in like five other studios that day.
There's a blending of philosophies shaped by aggressive politics.
My dad's songs were really written to make certain people feel as though they had some kind of value. Because they were told from where they work and from the countries they had immigrated from that they did not. People were being controlled by others who had a lot of money. They lived in a town that was owned, bought and paid for by the company they worked. The price of bread and milk and the sustenance of life were dictated by the same company they had to work for. This was the world that they had inherited. And so they stepped in-- my dad, Pete Seeger, Lead Belly and the Lomaxes all come into a world that is in a state of change. I think they felt as though events were happening around them that were overtaking them and the only way they could get some ground to stand on was to have a philosophy, an idea that grounded them in the value of their own work, in the value of being a human being no matter what race, color, religion, sex that people were. There was supposed to be something fundamental about being an American in America that was above all of these different ways of categorizing everybody. They sang and wrote and collected the songs in the books that were songs for educating people; songs for organizing people; songs for indoctrinating people. They had to change the world because the world was crushing them.
Can you give us an example from the 40's?
One event that took place in Ludlow, Colorado where the Rockefellers had owned this big mining operation. The minors decided to go out on strike so the Rockefellers kicked them out of the houses, because they owned the houses where they were living. The miners built a little tent community down the road and when the strike was not getting solved as quickly as the Rockefellers wanted they brought in the National Guard who ended up torching the camp ground and shooting into the crowd. In order to protect some of the kids the miners had built this cave and put some kids in, but the fire killed them. It was called the Ludlow Massacre, around 1913, and my dad had written a song about it.
Why do so many artists as well as listeners point to your father as an icon of American music?
He really made the personal decision that it was better to fail at being himself than succeed at being someone else. That combined with the ability to write and sing about who he thought he was and who he thought everybody else was. My mom told me a story about my dad being in jail in New York and calling her up and him saying to bring his guitar to the jail. She said, "You getting out?" He said, "No, they're trying to kick me out, but I've written a Christmas play for everybody, and I need my guitar."
Why is Lead Belly such an important figure in America's music?
With the advent of radio and recording, music became an industry rather, than just a tradition. Lead Belly sits between those two worlds. In Lead Belly's music you don't hear songs that were written to be popular. You hear the songs that people sang throughout their entire lives. It's the music that you grow up with; that your mom or dad sings to you when you're a baby. Lead Belly wrote about all of the parts of life that were worth writing-- teenage songs for falling in love; going to work songs; falling out of love songs; somebody goes bad songs; getting older songs. He was the last of that generation that sang stories that you would have heard going back thousands of years. I joke about it at my shows, I say, "You know, before people came here and paid people to sing, everybody used to sing." I say this is what I learned from Lead Belly-- that in all of the cultures that we come from, songs were things everybody did, as well as dances, I mean we all took part in some way in this stuff. I joke that we used to sit around campfires singing songs and before that, we sat around regular fires. Most people couldn't read or write so these songs had to be learned.
Back in 1971, I put a fiddler from Ireland, Kevin Burke, on the road with Hoyt Axton and Doug Dillard. They took him to the Ozarks, and they figured, "He's Irish, let's bring him to the Irish family down the road. They've been there for the last two hundred years, you know." They all took out their fiddles and they started playing the same songs in the exact same way, the exact same key, same expressions even though they had been separated for all this time. That's an idea of what the difference is in American music and music in the rest of the world. Traditional music in the rest of the world is handed down as precisely as classical music is handed down most everywhere today. In other words it's something you learn note by note and nuance by nuance and the more faithfully you are playing it, the better you are. In American music the better you are to change it, go away from it, come back to it, fool around with it, you are expected to contribute something to it. This is the great difference. This is why American music is so popular all over the world because all of the sudden all of these different traditions are reflected back but with new input, with new expression. The great contribution that American music makes is that it asks you contribute, not just be a channel and pass it on, but you need to contribute to it. In most of the music around the world you are asked to continue the tradition of playing the music. But in American music, in addition to that, you need to add something yourself. That's very different. That is the thing that defines American music. The new freedom to create has had the major impact of music in the last 50 years. It has created a global community of musicians who can play with each other no matter what their politics are, no matter if they can talk to each other or not, they can sit down and play.
Do you think that radio and records took music out of ethnic and geographic boundaries?
These events didn't happen in some kind of gray zone. They don't happen in some kind of nebulous creation. They happen in a moment in time in a real place with real people. Something happens and that something that happened in New Orleans, in St. Louis and in Chicago up and down the Mississippi River by the meeting of all these cultures whether it was the early French, or the Indians or the Anglos and Spanish. Then, all of a sudden you have a technology that makes it possible for people to hear over long distances what is going on in one place not only at the same time, but at different times with recorded music. From the Lomaxes you really have a collection of things going on in the world. We now have records of people singing the kinds of songs that were sung before the technology of radio and recording devices came to be. So we have an actually history, not just with Lead Belly, but with all these different kinds of singers-- cowboy singers, Caribbean singers, Eskimo singers, and Indian chants. The Lomaxes documented and archived and were scholarly enough to recognize the value of this.
On the other side, as soon as this music becomes popular, as soon as it was going to be on the radio or made into a record, it had to get cleaned up. You couldn't use all the verses to them cowboy songs or even talk about what they were really talking about. You couldn't even mention it. In some ways half of the world suddenly drops away when we have to measure the content of all these songs against the current climate of what's ethical and what's moral. All of our history gets cleaned up. That happens really until Pete and my dad go around documenting the times and songs that tell more of the truth of the struggles of the average guy. What I learned in songs taught me more about what really went on, including songs about the American Revolution and the Civil War. In songs you can't really just change it. It has rhyme, it has meter, it has tune. It is the way it is, you either sing it or you don't. It's hard to change it. I've learned more of the real history of the world through the songs that survived this cleansing process.
What is Pete Seeger's contribution? What do you think drives him?
Pete really believes what he says-- that songs are very important and they really do belong to everybody. Pete realizes that you have to act in a certain way that is beneficial to all living things. And he actually does that. It is not just in his songs. His whole life is like that. It's how he drives and talks and walks, but you can't talk about any of this with him because with him this is all how it ought to be. This is not special. But in truth he is real special and real different.
What do you remember about the Folk Revival when you were young?
One day people were playing and singing the kind of songs that I was playing. It came as a surprise to me. It sounded awful familiar to the songs that were coming out of the same part of Kentucky as the Everly Brothers, who I loved. There were songs from the hills that were making their way to the big cities. Not only the song, but there were guys showing up in the big cities who'd been hiding away in the hills and these guys were pretty cool-- Mississippi John Hurt, Doc Watson, Gene Richie, all kinds of blues guys, jazz guys, cowboys singers, mountain men, river guys, ocean whaler guys. All the sudden the cities were filled with guys singing about a different kind of life other than the immediate surroundings. I remember when Bill Monroe came to town, he was playing outside in New York City in Washington Square Park. In those days on Sunday afternoons the kids with guitars would be playing and signing. Here comes Bill Monroe and he starts playing and I realize, "I'm playing with Bill Monroe," and life changes. He never saw me. It didn't matter. I went home to my street in Queens and I told my friends, "I was playing with Bill Monroe and they say, "Who?" That was the folk boom-- meeting all these people. The truth of the matter is folk songs have nothing to do with the sound, but the tradition of handing down these songs. That's a folk tradition.
And addressing big political issues?
You can't talk about the times through the music you have to talk about the times in total. At the same time the folk boom was happening, the civil rights movement was happening, the anti war movement was happening, the ban the bomb movement was happening, the environmental movement was happening. There was suddenly a generation ready to change the course of history. There were people putting themselves on the line to change things, like Martin Luther King who you could just be memorized by; whose every word seemed like a gem. There were singers like that too whose every note and word seemed so genuine and real and there were some talking about little things and some talking about big things and it was equally genuine. That was a time of sincerity.
Did the songs have an influence?
The songs were the only vehicle for communicating with people around the world. There was a whole language, a whole texture of consciousness being told in songs by Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones. All the sudden popular culture was not just fluff. It became real for a while.
What do you remember about Dylan?
In New York City there was a whole group of these older country guys like Bill Monroe, Mississippi John Hurt singing their songs. Then this young guy in his twenties shows up. There were different stories as to where he was from. He has a look in his eye and a sense of humor. And his songs were so well written, so immaculately said-- words that were almost flying at you; words that were erupting rather than just being sung.
Do you remember Dylan going electric at Newport?
Every kid on the block knew there were two kinds of music-- there was the kind you could get away with playing and the kind you really wanted to play. And so when Bob Dylan started cranking stuff out at Newport, I was like, "All right man! This is our music." I didn't want to deny the tradition that I had come from, but this was a different world and a different music and I said, "Yes!" When Bob Dylan got up on stage at New Port and started playing electric people were actually stunned. They just didn't get it. They didn't know what was happening. But I don't think that was the intent. It makes for a great tale. We're still talking about it, this was how many years ago? There must have been something in that moment. To this day it still irks some people.
I think a lot of people mark that moment as the end of the folk revival in a lot of ways.
Folk music is having the biggest time in its history right now. They are selling more acoustic guitars. There is a whole world of homemade musicians singing homemade songs with fabulous instruments with the technology that can record, go to the internet and everyone in the whole world can hear it. It's a fabulous thing and these festivals are booming. It's overflowing and yet there's nothing in Hollywood at all. They're not in movies, or TV, or the radio. They're nowhere except in real life.
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