Vera Hall: The Exception to the Rule?

Alan Lomax was a groundbreaking music collector who recorded and preserved underrepresented music, highlighting the differences between white and black musical styles in the South.

Alan Lomax, Asheville NC, c. 1938-1950.

In this sense, Lomax is an improvement from scholars such as Neil Rosenberg, who wrote an extensive history of bluegrass music with little mention of race.[1] Though this type of erasure is not present in Lomax’s collection, some of his processes are nonetheless problematic. He seemed to genuinely believe that African American musical culture should be understood, yet he often requested specific songs because it fit the stereotypical idea of black folk music. He also wanted to find a sound not influenced by white folk music, and sought out black singers who didn’t spent time around white musicians.[2] This creates problems of authenticity because it neglects the fact that white and black musicians did listen to and play off one another.  

This begs the question: Was any of Alan Lomax’s revolutionary work truly authentic? I would argue that, though undoubtedly problematic, parts of it were. Vera Hall, an African American folk singer from Alabama, is a prime example of this. Many of her performances can be found in the full collection from Lomax’s 1939 recording trip. One example attached here is her recording of Awful Death, which reflects her powerful voice and the spiritual weight behind her songs.

Lomax thought highly of her talents and remarked that her voice was one of the best. Hall learned to sing traditional spirituals from her mother, but despite her talent, never became a professional singer.[3] Because of Lomax persistence, though, many of her songs are widely accessible, and she eventually gained national acclaim. “Another Man Done Gone,” one of Hall’s most famous songs, has been covered and modified by countless performers, including Johnny Cash and the Carolina Chocolate Drops.[4] In 2005, Hall was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame.[5] These accomplishments are no small feat for a low-income black woman in 19th century Alabama.

On the one hand, Hall’s success was significantly limited by her gender, class, and race. We would be settling for unfair societal systems by praising Lomax for introducing her voice despite the scarcity of African American musicians receiving recognition at that time. She was still branded as a black folk singer in a way that benefitted Lomax professionally, and she might not have garnered his attention had it not profited him. On the other hand, though, it might be fair to say that, by recording Hall in her environment and allowing her some agency in song selection, Lomax respectfully represented her. There are obviously countless problems with such an expansive project, and it’s likely not as authentic as Lomax would like to think. But, we can take comfort knowing that not all his work was flawed, and his introduction of Vera Hall to a larger national audience, at the very least, provided moving recordings of African American folk music.

 

[1] Rosenberg, Neil V. Bluegrass: A History. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005.

[2] Paul, Richard. “In the Field of Folk Music, Alan Lomax is a Giant – If a Flawed and Controversial One.” Public Radio International. February 10, 2015. Retrieved from https://www.pri.org/stories/2015-02-10/field-folk-music-alan-lomax-giant-if-flawed-and-controversial-one.

[3] Vera Hall -1964. Online Text. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200196840/. (Accessed February 26, 2018.)

[4] Wade, Stephen, and Stephen Wade. “Vera Hall: The Life That We Live.” In The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience, 153-78. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015.

[5] Stone, Peter. “Vera Ward Hall (1902-1964).” Association for Cultural Equity. Retrieved from http://www.culturalequity.org/alanlomax/ce_alanlomax_profile_hall.php

Making Black Influence in Bluegrass Visible

Neil Rosenberg’s book Bluegrass: A History presents a greatly different idea of bluegrass history when being compared to Rhiannon Giddens’ keynote speech at the International Bluegrass Music Association Business Conference. I took particular interest to Giddens’ point that scholars and historians, which surely includes Rosenberg, have contributed the erasure of black history in bluegrass. This general lack of representation led me to wonder if there is anyone who has worked to include the black narrative into the history of country music and bluegrass. It is likely that some individuals, such as Rosenberg, would argue that there is a lack of written or recorded history of black people within these genres because they simply did not contribute a lot to this type of music. However, in searching for Black Appalachian music, I stumbled upon this album, titled Deep River of Song: Black Appalachia. Although it is unclear as to why the album specifically refers to Appalachia (which perhaps should be a topic of research in itself), the songs in the album are labeled as “Country”, with the sub-genres of “Old Time” and “String Band”. This album is from the Alan Lomax Collection, sparking my curiosity in Alan Lomax as an ethnomusicologist, since he seems to be one of the few people who has strived to record the history of black country music.

Something I find particularly interesting is a letter Lomax wrote to Joseph Hickerson at the Library of Congress, which is included in his manuscripts in A Recorded Treasury of Black Folk Song, 1978-1981, Black Appalachia. In this letter, Lomax describes his account of recording Murphy Gribble, a black banjo player, and his band. Lomax highlights characteristics of their music, including the presence of polyphony, and the instrumentation of banjo and fiddle, that are often described as traits of bluegrass. Lomax even acknowledges:

 

“If you listen carefully… you will hear the steady 3,3,2 complex measure of so-called Bluegrass. From before Earl Scruggs and his mentors were born.”

Here, Lomax clearly states the contradiction within the history of bluegrass. Earl Scruggs is the one credited with this core sonic marker of bluegrass, yet Lomax has recorded, physical proof that it existed before him. Not only that, but Lomax found it in music performed by individuals part of a group that is virtually nonexistent in dominant bluegrass history. Listening to other performances by Murphy Gribble and his other band members, the similarity with bluegrass is undeniable.

Lomax clearly greatly contributes to the documentation of black music/musicians and in conveying the role black music played in the creation of bluegrass. That being said, there is still a gap between his work and getting others, such as Rosenberg, to acknowledge it. It is unfortunate that this research and collection of black country music sets Lomax apart from others. He undoubtedly deserves credit because of his role in preserving the music and existence of black people in genres that generally ignore it. But it is precisely that failure of others in recognizing it that is disappointing. Appreciating black contribution within this type of music is something that should be done more widely. If it was, rather than Lomax being recognized for representing an underrepresented group within the world of country and bluegrass music, it would be the black musicians being recognized for their musical contributions to the world.

Sources:

  • Lomax, Alan. “Alan Lomax Collection, Manuscripts, A Recorded Treasury of Black Folk Song, -1981, Black Appalachia, to 1981, 1978”. Manuscript/Mixed Material. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/afc2004004.ms120226/
  • Murphy Gribble, Albert York, & John Lusk, Pateroller’ll Catch You, youtube, 2:33, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KfD_pkVRGbA
  • Niel Rosenberg, Bluegrass: A History (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985).
  • Rhiannon Giddens, “2017 IBMA Business Conference Keynote Address” (presentation, IBMA Business Conference, Nashville, TN, September, 2017).
  • Various Artists. Deep River of Song: Black Appalachia. 1999. Rounder Records, CD.

Folk Music In Greenwich Village

The artifact I found was a poster advertising for a folk and blues music festival that took place on January 26th of 1952. This happened during what we now refer to as the American folk music revival. The festival took place at a concert hall called Loew’s Sheridan, located in Greenwich Village in New York City. The location of this event is significant. Many artists central to the Beat Generation, an important American literary movement, lived in Greenwich Village in the 50s and 60s. As the Beat movement expanded, other counter cultural movements, such as Hippies, adopted similar mentalities. Greenwich Village later became a major hub for folk musicians during the 60s, where many major acts got started in the music club scene. Fun Fact: The Greenwich Village folk music scene in the 60s is the primary subject of the Cohen Brother’s film, Inside Llewyn Davis.

“The evolution of rhythm and blues into rock and roll as a high art form, as evidenced by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and other popular musicians influenced in the late fifties and sixties by Beat generation poets’ and writers’ works,” shows the Beat Movement’s pervasive effect on Western culture.    ~Allen Ginsberg

The Smoking Poets: Michael McClure, Bob Dylan, and Allen Ginsberg

The festival contained an unbelievable lineup, containing some of the most important musicians to the folk revival movement. Included were Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee.

This festival was organized by our familiar friend, Alan Lomax. The festival also featured narration by Alan Lomax, probably to provide context for these performances. It is often stated that without Lomax, we would have no knowledge of acts from this lineup. Lomax is credited for discovering such musicians giving them opportunities for performances to reach a larger audience, such as this one. One man who saw the importance of Alan Lomax, Bob Dylan, had this to say about him:

“There is a distinguished gentlemen here who came … I want to introduce him – named Alan Lomax. I don’t know if many of you have heard of him [Audience applause.] Yes, he’s here, he’s made a trip out to see me. I used to know him years ago. I learned a lot there and Alan … Alan was one of those who unlocked the secrets of this kind of music. So if we’ve got anybody to thank, it’s Alan. Thanks, Alan.”       ~Bob Dylan

Sources

D’Arcangelo, Gideon. “Alan Lomax and The Big Story Of Song.” Album Liner Notes. Accessed October 16, 2017. http://aln2.albumlinernotes.com/Popular_Songbook.html

“Guthrie, Woody with Leadbelly, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and Pete Seeger at Loew’s Sheridan, New York, New York.” Http://www.amdigital.co.uk/. Accessed October 16, 2017. http://www.rockandroll.amdigital.co.uk.ezproxy.stolaf.edu/Search/DocumentDetailsSearch.aspx?documentid=1065366&prevPos=1065366&vpath=searchresults&pi=1.
“Folk Music and the Beatniks.” Accessed October 16, 2017. https://folkmusicandthebeatniks.weebly.com/

 

 

What’s a Stavin’ Chain?

In 1938, American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax and the self-proclaimed inventor of jazz Jelly Roll Morton came together to lay down the definitive timeline for the birth of jazz. Their recording session resulted in a 9-hour collection of Jelly Roll Morton songs and interviews between Morton and Lomax. In the first song recorded during these sessions, Winin’ Boy Blues, Morton sings the lines

I’m the winin’ boy, don’t deny my name

I can pick it up and shake it like Stavin’ Chain’s

 

(Caution: this song contains some of the most explicit lyrics I’ve ever heard)

The phrase Stavin’ Chain stood out to me. What exactly is a Stavin’ Chain? Upon investigation, I found that this is not the only instance of a blues/jazz singer singing about Stavin’ Chain. There were songs by Lil Johnson (Stavin’ Chain) and “Big” Joe Williams (Stavin’ Chain Blues) that refer to Stavin’ Chain. From browsing various blues forum websites, I have found a variety of interpretations to what a Stavin’ Chain is. Some say it is a tool used to make barrels. Others claimed that Stavin’ Chain is a figure in African-American folklore famous for conducting trains. One man claimed that it’s an expression for having sex. Luckily, I was able to find an interview between Lomax and Morton about this very subject in Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings.

Taken from the recording Bad Men and Pimps

Lomax: And what about Stavin’ Chain?
Jelly Roll: Stavin’ Chain, well he was a pimp. Supposed to have more women in this district than any other pimp.
Lomax: Did you actually know Stavin’ Chain?
Jelly Roll:  No, I heard everybody talk about him, never get into his way…
Lomax: What what did you hear about him, this is very interesting cause, you know, they have a song about Stavin’ Chain
Jelly Roll: Well, you know, he slept like Stavin’ Chain.
Lomax: Good tune, too.
Jelly Roll: Yes, I like the tune, I can’t, couldn’t  memorize the tune, you know…
Lomax: Popular around New Orleans as well.
Jelly Roll: Yeah, at one time it was. Let’s see… that was around….19….8.
Lomax: Was Stavin’ Man a white man or colored one?
Jelly Roll: A colored one.
Lomax: Supposedly good looking.
Jelly Roll: Yes, he………. Women was supposed to be crazy about him.

As it turns out, Lomax knew this Stavin’ Chain character that Morton was singing about. Stavin’ Chain, also known as Wilson Jones, was an American blues musician that Lomax photographed and recorded in 1934. Stavin’ Chain was famous for his sexual prowess became a legend in the American blues scene. I’ve found that American blues music is one with an extremely rich history and is full of similar, obscure references. Hours of research can be done unpacking and contextualizing the lyrics from this music. For being able to do this, we owe much gratitude to Alan Lomax for preserving this music for future study and enjoyment.

Sources

“Bad Men and Pimps.” YouTube. February 11, 2015. Accessed October 02, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iwxP8uT-zQ4.

“Jelly Roll Morton – Winin’ Boy Blues – Library of Congress 1939.” YouTube. June 02 2015. Accessed October 02, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fxkvu_gWlQI

Lomax, Alan 1915-2002. “Lomax Collection.” [Stavin’ Chain playing guitar and singing the ballad “Batson,” Lafayette, La. (fiddler in the background)]. January 01, 1970. Accessed October 02, 2017. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/lomax/item/2007660070/.

“Winin’ Boy Blues.” Community Guitar Home. Accessed October 3, 2017. http://www.communityguitar.com/students/Songs/WininBoy.htm.

A Muddy link from Blues to Rock

As blues gained popularity through publication and performances it became blended with other types of popular music. Blues and rock music were obvious candidates for combination, both drawing on folk instrumentation and sharing similar subjects. In Chicago, which was a hotbed of blues music when many black musicians migrated to Chicago to leave the South. Possibly the most influential musician of the blending is McKinley Morganfield AKA Muddy Waters. Waters got his start at home in Mississippi when Alan Lomax traveled there on behalf of the Library of Congress in 1941 and again in 1942. Waters was later released on the album “Down on Stovall’s Plantation” from these recordings.

DownonStovallsThis recording shows us that Muddy Waters is a legit player of the blues from the south and would be taken seriously by white audiences in the North.

In 1943, shortly after Lomax’s visit, Waters moved to Chicago in hopes of making it big as a blues musician. As Muddy Waters made his way as a blues performer he made with friends with Big Bill Broonzy who helped Waters become popular. This article from Cultural Equity highlights some of the connection between Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy. Muddy Waters was put on singles in the late 40s and through the 50s in Chicago. RecordAdWaters gained popularity from recording Robert John tunes who had been on the blues mind since 1938 from the “Spirituals to Swing” concert in New York (Here’s a short RadioLab episode about this concert and Robert Johnson, it’s great!).

Muddy Waters became very popular in Chicago and was seen as a performer who was keeping the folk in the blues and rock that he was performing. Because he had such a close connection to the south and his history there. The Defender wrote an article to this effect in 1972. Muddy Waters keeps alive an Afro-American culture

The Timeless Light of the “Midnight Special”

When John and Alan Lomax visited the Louisiana State Penitentiary of Angola, Louisiana in July of 1933 they were in search of folksongs. Little did they know that they would instead come across a musical star, whose treatment of a popular prison song would transcend the boundary between folk and pop styles. The musician was Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, and the song was “Midnight Special”.

Angola, Louisiana prison compound. Leadbelly in the foreground.

Angola, Louisiana prison compound, July 1933. Leadbelly in the foreground.

Born in the late 1880’s to the oppressive cotton fields of Louisiana, Ledbetter feared only one thing: failure. It was from this determination that he received the nickname “Lead Belly”, as he could outwork, outfight, and out-sing anyone who dared challenge him. “I wants to be the best – the king” he would say. He even went so far as to call himself “The King of the Twelve-String Guitar”, a talent that he used to exploit the Texas prison system he entered in 1917 on a thirty year sentence for assault. He famously used his musical talent to garner the attention of Texas Governor Pat Neff, who pardoned and released Ledbetter from prison in 1925.

It was in this same spirit that he was brought to the Lomax’s attention in 1933. Incarcerated once again for assault, Ledbetter sufficiently wooed the Lomax’s that they convinced Louisiana Governor O.K. Allen to pardon Ledbetter. Thereafter, he worked as John Lomax’s chauffeur and relocated to the Northeastern United States, often traveling to Washington D.C. to record for Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress.

Volume I of the LOC Lead Belly collection.

Midnight Special as it appears in "The Leadbelly Songbook"

Midnight Special as it appears in “The Leadbelly Songbook”

Midnight Special by Lead Belly, Library of Congress: http://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200196310/

Volume I of the LOC collection is titled “Midnight Special”, and though it contains memorable treatments of many classic folk-tunes, the titular song is Ledbetter’s most famous and influential adaptation. Thought to originate among prisoners in the South, the refrain of the song references a passenger train of the same name, the light of which shone into cells as it passed by:

Let the Midnight Special shine her light on me,                                                                Let the Midnight Special shine her ever-loving light on me.

If the “ever-loving light” of the train landed on a prisoner, the inmates believed that man would soon be set free.

When Alan Lomax first recorded Ledbetter’s version of the song he attributed the authorship to Ledbetter. However, this is fundamentally untrue. In addition to the fact that it was a popular prison song, it had been recorded commercially by Sam Collins as the “Midnight Special Blues” in 1927. His version seems much more like an extemporaneous performance of a folk song, while Ledbetter’s is a precise arrangement of the melody, harmonic progression, and guitar accompaniment.

In this vein, it may be fair to say that Lead Belly didn’t write the song, but did ‘compose’ a version of it that achieved mass popularity and lasting influence in the public conception, as heard in versions by Creedence Clearwater Revival….

…. and ABBA.

While both versions seem to emerge from Ledbetter’s arrangement, the ABBA version is particularly notable due to its seemingly contradictory nature: why is a Swedish pop group performing an African American prison song? According to the official ABBA website, this song was performed as part of a medley of American folk songs on a charity record the group contributed to in 1975. The artists carefully selected songs that “were in the public domain as far as copyright was concerned” in order to avoid composer royalties. Despite this, the site recognizes Ledbetter’s “distinctive arrangement of the song that made it truly famous” as the inspiration for this version.

To conclude, “Midnight Special” exemplifies a major problem regarding folk music and its chronicling: differentiating between the folk song and popular versions. When do we lend credit to individuals and their renderings? How do we identify legitimate folk versions? While these questions may be difficult to answer, they ought to be considered as we examine popular reactions to folk music.

Hammering Out “Our Singing Country”

Alan Lomax playing guitar on stage at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, N.C.

Alan Lomax playing guitar on stage at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, N.C.

[1]

John Lomax and his son, Alan, set out for one of the most ambitious tasks attempted in American folk song history: To travel thousands of miles and collect recordings of as many songs as possible in order to preserve them in the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song. Early in their travels, they came upon a black guitarist and singer named Huddie Ledbetter. He would later be more commonly known by his nickname, “Leadbelly.” The Lomaxes were very impressed with his repertoire of folk songs as well as his virtuosic skill as a twelve-string guitarist. As a result of his four year imprisonment in the Louisiana’s Angola Prison for murder, he was cut off from hearing the popular music of the day. For the Lomaxes, he was a prime living example of the folk tradition they were seeking out and sought to bring his voice to the American public. After employing him as a driver and servant, they brought him to New York in order to record and promote his “pure folk” sound.

Leadbelly, three-quarter-length, profile, facing right, lifting car out of snow, at the home of Mary Elizabeth Barnicle, Wilton, Conn.

[2]

However, in order to make Leadbelly’s music palatable to the public, it seems some edits had to be made. Take the work song “Take This Hammer,” which can be found in the Lomaxes’ collection Our Singing Country: Folk Songs and Ballads from 1941 shown here:

“Take This Hammer” as it appears in Our Singing Country

[3]

Library of Congress Recording of prisoners at Florida State Prison singing “Take dis Hammer”

Now compare it to the transcription found in The Leadbelly Songbook, as transcribed by Jerry Silverman in 1962 and recorded by Leadbelly in the 1940’s:

Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 23.59.57

“Take This Hammer” as it appears in The Leadbelly Songbook

[4]

As you can see, the general notes and rhythms are still the same, with some added notes in Leadbelly’s performance. However, in the Leadbelly version, the controversial verses about the “captain” calling him a “nappy-headed devil” and grabbing his gun are omitted. Also, in Our Singing Country, “Take This Hammer” is considered to be a highly rhythmic song that was sung when a slave worked in a gang in order to synchronize the dropping of axes and to “…make the work go more easily by adapting its rhythm to the rhythm of a song.” (citation) In the field recording, which lacks the dropping of picks but is conveyed through the “wahs” of the men singing, the tempo is considerably slower than when Leadbelly sings it.

If the Lomaxes wanted to accurately portray the pure folk tradition in this song, they would have sent the Florida State prisoners to New York to record it how it would have been performed. But no one would have bought the record or even bothered to listen to it. Instead, they realized that in order for the dying folk tradition to be kept alive they had to bring the style into American popular music. Unlike the folk song preservers of the past, they respected the black musical tradition and wanted it to be accessible to white audiences without losing too much of its authenticity. In doing so, the Lomaxes brought folk music to the American popular music sphere and created a new musical tradition.


1. “Alan Lomax playing guitar on stage at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, N.C,” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Lomax Collection, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/lomax/item/2007660160/ (accessed 3/2/15).
2. “Leadbelly, three-quarter-length, profile, facing right, lifting car out of snow, at the home of Mary Elizabeth Barnicle, Wilton, Conn,” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Lomax Collection, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/lomax/item/2007660303/ (accessed 3/2/15).
3. John A. and Alan Lomax. Our Singing Country: Folk Songs and Ballads. (New York, Dover Publishing Inc., 2000), 380-381.
4. Moses Asch and Jerry Silverman, The Leadbelly Songbook. (London, Oak Publications, 1962), 45.

Romanticizing the Struggle of the Common Man in Folk Music

For black Americans in the 1930s and 40s, Jim Crow laws made it impossible to forget the color of their skin, even for celebrated musicians performing in upscale venues.  Lead Belly, discovered in a penitentiary, was no stranger to these racial prejudices.  In a trip to Washington DC in 1937 requested by Alan Lomax, Lead Belly wrote the song “Bourgeois Blues” in response to the unfair treatment he received.

Me and my wife went all over town
And everywhere we went people turned us down
Lord, in a bourgeois town
It’s a bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around …

I tell all the colored folks to listen to me
Don’t try to find you no home in Washington, DC
‘Cause it’s a bourgeois town
Uhm, the bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around

Prison compound in Louisiana, Lead Belly in front.

Prison compound in Louisiana, Lead Belly in front.

Although his life contained many of the hardships described in blues and folk songs, Lead Belly was never quite portrayed as a poor folksperson.  Instead, to gain the respect due his talent, he adopted a more professional persona, working extremely hard and finding passion in every aspect of life.  In an interview with PBS, Alan Lomax said that “he simply felt that he triumphed over everything”  (PBS).  In this, he left his early life in the penitentiary far behind.

00660r

Huddie Ledbetter and Martha Promise Ledbetter. Wilton, Conn., Feb. 1935.

 

Woody Guthrie, on the other hand, tried to embody the folky image, but never achieved it fully.  He became a spokesperson for the hardships of ordinary Americans but due to his popularity was never a common man himself.  And, as a white American, his persona never needed the sort of professionalism that Huddie Ledbetter needed to adopt.

Woody with his guitar.

Woody with his guitar.

Alan Lomax, a champion of folk music and a believer in its romanticism, spent years recording both Ledbetter and Guthrie and championing their cause as remnants of true American voices.  Many Americans who listened to folk music idealized the singers as tortured souls moaning out their troubles.  But while Lead Belly and Guthrie experienced the sorrows of racial prejudice, the Great Depression, and dustbowl-era America, neither one completely represented the hardworking common man so heavily lauded in the work of the Lomaxes.  Their fame and status as alternative folk heroes lifted them way beyond the label of common man.  Instead the common man remains in his dusty home, toiling his hours away and singing folk songs to bring up his spirits.

Sources:

Lomax, Alan.  [Prison compound no. 1, Angola, Louisiana. Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter) in the foreground].  Photograph.  Louisiana, 1934.  From Library of Congress: The Lomax Collection.  http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/lomax/item/2007660073/

Lomax, Alan.  Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly) and Martha Promise Ledbetter, Wilton, Conn.  Photograph.  Connecticut, 1935.  From Library of Congress: The Lomax Collection.  http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/lomax/item/2007660385/

Aumuller, Al.  [Woody Guthrie, half-length portrait, facing slightly left, holding guitar].  1943.  From Library of Congress: Prints and Photographs Division.  http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/95503348

Woody Guthrie’s Letters

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Letters from Woodie Guthrie to Alan Lomax on September 25, 1940 reveal many insights into the personal beliefs and character of Woodie Guthrie and help shed light into his music and philosophy behind it. As direct writing from the composer itself, it provides the least biased source available and gives Woodie Guthrie’s exact words, and a helpful context for them. Woodie Guthrie’s conviction of using music as politics can be seen in his writings here. He states that “if you see something thats wrong and needs to be fixed, and you get up and tell it just how you feel, that makes you a showman.”

He writes later that, “you cant entertain nobody unless you can do two things be yourself and forget yourself and imagine you’re helping everybody, cuss the ones that don’t like.”  you, by what you do.”

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His somewhat cynical view of politics comes out in another letter to the same recipient written a couple of months later. He writes that, “I am writing this [letter] on Christmas paper and I think all election speeches ought to be wrapped in gift boxes with a red and green string tied around them, and that a way we would be sure at least of a Christmas package whether there was anything in it or not.”  He desires to fix things and make the world a better place and states that his purpose in voting is to fix things, “and if I dont fix it by a voting one way, I’ll vote another way, and finally, I’ll find out the right way.”

These letters of Woodie Guthrie help shed light on his passion, philosophy, and music. And as primary source material, as well as Guthrie’s own words, they can be relied on quite strongly to gain insight into Guthrie’s understanding of his life and musical career.

sources:

http://www.loc.gov/resource/afc1940004.afc1940004_036/?sp=1&st=text

http://www.loc.gov/item/afcwwgbib000038/