Departure lounge ramblings on music, places, climate change and stuff outdoors

Folk songs are on their way in

I have already used an excerpt from the sleeve notes to Woody Guthrie's 'Poor Boy' in my last blog, about Record Store Day. But having just had the chance to experience at first hand what Woody was singing about when he reminded his compatriots that 'This Land Is Your Land', and because Guthrie's words are just so good, I have decided to reproduce the whole thing:

I've heard several pretty smart thinkers tell me that folk songs are on their way out. That folk music as we hear it and know it is on its way out the old gate of history. That a folk song, to be called a folk song, must wear a snatch of hair and whiskers older than an oily leather skin drum.

They say that folk music and folk songs can't be clocked and timed, cut nor polished, whetted, whittled; nor ground to fit into your high artistic concerts and onto the grooves of our three-minute records for our nickel machines, radios, movies, dances; and keep up all the sparks of natural and native fires which burn in the blood of all good folk songs and folk stories set to folk music.

I say that folk music and folk songs, folk ballads, are just now getting up onto their feet, like Joe Louis after acouple of sad knockdowns. Every other kind of art that you can mention has been peeled about the jaw and eyes, mainly because you can't fill out any kind of civil service paper and find a green government check in your mailbox for making up and playing folk music and folk songs.You've got to go to work at a factory and spend two thirds of your time doing a job you hate in order to have enough janerio to go on with your folk songs and your folk music. You can tute your flute in a military band and get GI pay for it; you can slide your rod in a whoopyjive herd and get GI pay for it. But there's not any GI kale that you can lay a finger on to make up folk songs and folk music.

About sixteen years back down my road I started making up little songs, true stories, wild tales, long and short hauls abot things I saw happen to the oil people, cattle people, wheat folks, on the upper north plains of high Texas, where the wind and the dust was born. I got onto a Pampa Texas radio station of six or eight watts, every morning, and I sung and played by myself and with other musicians around at outdoor platforms or parking lot beer joints. My Dad and myself made up crazy songs just for the fun of it. FLAPPER FANNY'S LAST RIDE, BARBARY ELLEN'S LIKKER POT, WINDY RIVER BLUES, DUST PNEUMONIA,TALKIN' DUST BOWL BLUES, and all kinds of tall tales with the names of our kinfolks stuck in. If I didn't like my uncle that week, I'd make up a song where he would get shot, hung, swung up, and drowned. If you made me like you, I'd sing your name into a song where you struck out down the rock road feelin' sorta funny an' found a big pocketbook chuck full of money.

I'd do these same things with the names of people well known around town and keep the aerial waves posted with the latest gossip, news, and blues of the day. I kept this up for thirty minutes a day on Los Angeles radio station KFVD, telling and singing tall windy tales with a labor movement slant, oh, for two years. I got more than twenty thousand handwrote letters from folks in Canada down to Tia Juana – desert rat prospectors, seamen on the Pacific boat decks, snowy skiiers, Reno divorcers, as well as all the trade union local halls up and down the westerly coastline.

This was really where the first little lights dawned on me of what a folk poem, a folk tale, a folk ballad, a folk tune really was. And my own original songs now have been on not just the big three radio dragnets, but I've been on most of their big and little programs in my flesh and on my fifteen albums of commercial records, both by the box and by the bulk.

No. I've not got rich. I've made up scaddles and oodles of songs, ballads, about fires, floods, droughts, stabbings, rapings, killings, robbings, fist-fights, gaming gamblers, riverboat rustlers, outlaws, inlaws, bad men, bad girls, wrecks of trains, cars, planes, ships, terrible accidents, political rally songs, songs of protest, trade union songs, ballads to tell you how racial hate's done got another good man and gone, sugarloaf jumps to tell you how pretty you dive and swim, to tell you how I love you, hate you, need you, and can't stand you. I mix up old tunes; I wheel them and I deal them; and I shuffle them out across my barking board; I use half of two tunes, one third of three tunes, one tenth of ten tunes. I always save back my notes and words left over and pound them out to poke fun at the Democrats and the Republicans and these Wall Street ramblers.

As long as I can slap my hands against my britches' legs and holler out how pretty Marjorie looks when she's dancing, folk songs are on their way in, not out. Just as long as Papa and Mama Bird sing for their newlycome babies, folk songs are still on their way in, not out. As long as we've got wrecks, disasters, cyclones, hurricanes, explosions, lynchings, trade union troubles, high price and low pay, as long as we've got cops in uniform battling with union pickets on strike, folk songs and folk ballads are on their way in.

As long as a woman and a man walk off somewhere and fall in love with each other, talk, sing, hum, whistle, and dance around one another, folk songs will be on their way in. I thump my wood block here and hum to myself, and I yell out this chorus ten jillion times, that, just as long as the folks are on their way in, the folk song will be on its way in.

'Folk Songs are on their way in', by Woody Guthrie, reproduced from the book 'Born to win' and used as sleeve notes to the album 'Poor Boy' (1968), on Transatlantic Records.


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