Friday, August 29, 2008

Country & Western & Us Folk

Eberle & I had the great pleasure of playing with our Bay Area pals, Chris & Dani Leone, & our McCall, Idaho pal, Lois Fry a couple of weeks ago at the 7th annual Council Mountain Music Festival—that’s us, The Spurs of the Moment in the pic—(Lois, yours truly, Eberle, Dani & Chris, l-r). It was a fun, if somewhat hectic gig—playing the role of “house band” in between the headline acts on Saturday evening—less fun for the Leones going & coming, as they were in Chris’ van with no a/c, & the temperatures were pushing triple digits lots of places on the route from Sonoma County to Indian Valley…. But we did get a kick out of doing old country songs with steel drum, melodica & tenor uke! (how’d that guitar & fiddle get in the picture?)

Anyhoo, it does get me thinking about Country & Western music, & how it connects to folk music, etc. It also—just for the sake of a gratuitous anecdote—reminds me of an Alice in Wonder Band gig at a garden party in Council. Before we started playing a fellow asked me what kind of music we played—I said, “old jazz standards & stuff like that,” or words to that effect, & he told me, “Around here, we like both kinds of music: country & western….”

But more to the point (if there is one) it gets me thinking to the days when country & western music was at least partially subsumed by the folkies. Back in the early 60’s, the Newport Folk Festival could showcase everybody from Pete Seeger to Bob Dylan to the Stanley Brothers & the Foggy Mountain Boys (not to mention Mississippi John Hurt & Reverand Gary Davis, et al.) But somewhere along the line—I’m assuming for political reasons—the old time bluegrass & country people gravitated away from the folkies, & then Dylan plugged in & Seeger didn’t cut the guitar cables, & the rest was history….

& it also gets me thinking about one song in particular: “The Great Speckled Bird.” As you may know, “The Great Speckled Bird” is an old country gospel song. The site lists 145 recordings of this song, a number of them by Roy Acuff, but all sorts of other well-known names come up: from Uncle Dave Macon to Johnny Cash, & from Kitty Wells to Lucinda Williams. In case you didn’t know (& to quote from the lyrics) “the Great Speckled Bird is the bible.”

But what interests me about “The Great Speckled Bird” is how the tune keeps re-surfacing with new lyrics: “I Am Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes,” “The Wild Side of Life,” “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” & more recently Townes Van Zandt’s “Heavenly Houseboat Blues” & Butch Hancock’s “Stars in My Life” are all essentially the same tune with different lyrics; & I doubt that’s an exhaustive list. & this strikes me as a good thing.

We were listening to a documentary about Woody Guthrie a while back (to go back to a place where country & western & folk converge) & Bruce Springsteen was talking about how no one these days could really duplicate what Woody had done. Well, one reason for that is that Woody Guthrie felt perfectly fine about taking any old folk or gospel song & fitting it out with new lyrics—something that the current copyright laws do kind of discourage. I looked up Woody on the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame site & noticed that of the five songs they specifically mentioned (“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”) Woody only wrote the music for two, at most. “This Land Is Your Land” is set to the old gospel tune “When the World’s On Fire”; “Grand Coulee Dam” is set to “The Wabash Cannonball”; & “I Ain’t Got No Home” is just a re-working of an old gospel song by the same name. “Pastures of Plenty” is a re-working of “Pretty Polly”; “Jesus Christ” is the old ballad “Jesse James”; “The Reuben James” is “Wildwood Flower”—etc.

In doing this Woody was following an old tradition (& as Utah Phillips has pointed out, one that was also followed by the Wobblie songwriters). It’s the real folk tradition—taking material that everyone knows & re-shaping it.

Of course, these days our folk songs are different. Eberle & I once conceived of a hootenany for the 00’s where we’d have the Alice in Wonder Band perform the theme songs from TV shows & get everyone to sing along. That’s probably the new campfire songbook. & of course, there you enter into the land of commercial songwriters, corporations, copyright, etc. So how is that “folk music?” A question to ponder….

Photo is by Tim Hohs.

1 comment:

  1. The end of the post, about TV theme songs, reminded me of a comment by one of my profs about the "blue-gray glow of the modern American campfire." I think it's a good idea.

    Of course, the last theme song I can remember that has words was from Friends, and that went off the air ... in 2003? Are there any TV shows with real theme songs?

    Last year there was a show on about a lawyer who suddenly started seeing visions which were either of people performing, or accompanied by, George Michael songs.

    And on THAT note, I wonder what from our era will last as long as some of the folk songs you mentioned at the beginning. (I've heard a very young U2's obscure version of "Jesus Christ" which I immediately recognized as "Jesse James" from Springsteen's Seeger Sessions.)

    Almost all of what's on the radio is disposable in the extreme. Which is why people are going with iPods.


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