A Letter from Woody Guthrie to Alan Lomax

By: Brendan

An excerpt from a letter from Woody Guthrie to Alan Lomax…

“You hadn’t ought to try to be too funny because if you just tell folks the truth they’ll laugh at every other word. The best of all funny songs have got a mighty sincere backbone. These are the old deathbed and graveyard and parted lover songs that I sing more than any others when I need to cheer myself up. And there is something very funny about almost everything that happens if you do a good job of a telling just exactly what took place.”

Read or listen to the rest of the letter at the following link…

A Letter from Woody Guthrie to Alan Lomax (mp3 download page)

Worlds Of Sounds: The Story of Smithsonian Folkways

Is it possible to fall in love with a record label? Because I think I have, at least a little. The book Worlds Of Sounds: The Story of Smithsonian Folkways by Richard Carlin chronicles the origins and evolution of Smithsonian Folkways. The nonprofit music organization was born in 1940 from a conversation between original Folkways label founder Moses “Moe” Asch and Albert Einstein. Asch was an immigrant who dreamed of breaking ethnic stereotypes and Einstein encouraged him to capture “all the sounds of the world”. And he did just that.

From the very beginning, Moe Asch endeavored to explore obscure and exotic genres of music, spoken word, and other sounds that had been abandoned or entirely neglected by major labels, working closely with any artist who walked through his door with the desire to record. Some of the artists he welcomed, nurtured, and befriended were Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, and more recently, Lucinda Williams.

Asch issued the very first live jazz recordings, and it’s not a big leap to say that concert series like Mountain Stage owe him a credit. He was also the originator of the fully documented liner note booklets that are one of my personal favorite features of Smithsonian Folkways albums.

Asch shared my view that “jazz is folk music”. Though one of the more interesting anecdotes tells of Asch’s ill-fated sole foray into commercial jazz. There aren’t many who could claim Nat King Cole drove them into bankruptcy. Also of note are the vivid descriptions in the book of the field recording process, culled from correspondence between Asch and his collaborators. I especially enjoyed reading about the perils one folk guitarist faced when playing with three hundred turkeys.

Though it is of course difficult to differentiate fact from legend in such a biography, the perception I get of Asch is one of a kindred music enthusiast. He valued albums over individual hits and sincerity over popularity. This principle resulted in a young Bob Dylan being turned away from his studio due to what Asch deemed a false twang in Dylan’s singing voice that Asch felt was designed to appeal to more fans.

Unlike major labels, Asch was determined to keep his recordings in print even if there was little or no demand. In his words, “Just because the letter J is less popular than the letter S, you don’t take it out of the dictionary.”

One of the more controversial aspects of Asch’s business was his practice of reissuing recordings made and owned by other labels without obtaining permission. This resulted in Asch being labeled “a musical pirate”. Sound familiar? Asch’s response was: “cultural property belongs to all”.

Asch’s reasoning was that he was “creating new audiences for the music, which actually benefited the labels”. He felt that the major labels were “destroying the culture” by suppressing less popular recordings simply because they owned them, and he was determined to make the recordings available to the public. I think any music blogger would be inspired by Asch’s battle with major labels in the early days of copyright litigation.

However, Asch was no saint to his artists. Though he granted them total creative freedom, he gave them little compensation for their work and many later accused him of not paying royalties to them at all. Asch had no qualms about putting the survival of his oft struggling label ahead of the interests of the artists. While historically we may appreciate the huge part Asch played in preserving these recordings, one can’t help but sympathize with singers who felt betrayed by the man they placed so much trust in.

All of this and much more is detailed on Carlin’s book. The reader’s absorption in the material may vary with the genre or era discussed in each chapter. I was personally drawn more to the sections on blues and folk music than the albums for children. The contents of the book are just as diverse as the Folkways catalogue.

The latter portion of the book deals with the transfer of the Folkways archives to The Smithsonian, the creation of the new Smithsonian Folkways label, and the organization’s efforts to continue Asch’s vision of bringing sounds of the world to everyone – including the institution’s embrace of the digital age, which led to their work with music websites like Muruch.

Woody Guthrie – Buffalo Gals (mp3 expired) *

*mp3 posted w/ permission of Smithsonian Folkways

Muruch Smithsonian Folkways Reviews

Smithsonian Folkways Official Site

Buy the Book

Buy Smithsonian Folkways Albums

Jonatha Brooke: The Works

Jonatha Brooke’s The Works will be released on August 26th and features guests Keb’ Mo’, Derek Trucks, Eric Bazialian, and Glen Phillips. Though I didn’t realize it when I first listened to and fell in love with the brilliant new album, The Works is a kind of tribute to Woody Guthrie. Jonatha was invited by Guthrie’s daughter Nora to glean previously unreleased material from The Woody Guthrie Archives and set lyrics written by the legendary singer-songwriter to new, original music. In Nora Guthrie’s own words, “For the first time ever, a woman has composed, arranged, produced and performed a complete album of Woody Guthrie’s songs. The gods must be shaking their heads, ’bout time!”

There are several songs on this album that stand out, but the opener “My Sweet and Bitter Bowl” is one of the very best with verses possessing the haunting dark edge of a traditional Appalachian folk tune. “You’d Oughta Be Satisfied Now” is another stunner, building on that classic Guthrie folk style with a bluesier depth to the guitar work. Both songs bring out the throatier tone of Jonatha’s voice.

Keb’ Mo’ sings and plays wooden Dobro on the sultry “All You Gotta Do Is Touch Me”, and Eric Bazilian tosses his voice and guitar into “There’s More True Lovers Than One”. The latter is certainly the most catchy tune on the album, but not the strongest. The album contains two completely original songs – the lusterless “Little Bird” and the much more interesting “Taste Of Danger”. Yet it’s the Guthrie-Brooke songwriting combination that produces the real magic here.

Jonatha’s voice sends the homespun lyrics of “My Flowers Grow Green” soaring over a jazzy piano and gospel organ arrangement, while the acoustic Glen Phillips duet “Sweetest Angel” is a purely pretty love song. “New Star” is a wistful ballad that Guthrie wrote during a 1954 hospital stay as he battled with Huntington’s Disease, and the piano-centric finale “King Of My Love” is a wildly whimsical romantic jaunt. This is an album that I will definitely remember at the end of the year.

Jonatha Brooke Official Site

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