[APPLAUSE] RICHARD POLENBERG: Thanks very much, and welcome everybody. Glad so many of you could come out. It's really nice to see all of you. And March 3rd is an auspicious night. It was on March 3rd, 1940, that there was a concert in New York City that Woody Guthrie appeared at. It was his first performance in New York. It was the night that he met Pete Seeger, because that was also Seeger's first performance, first ever public performance. It was the night that Woody Guthrie met Alan Lomax, and then proceeded to record some of his songs for the Library of Congress. So it just kind of worked out that March 3rd is the night that we're here to talk about Woody Guthrie and sing some of his songs. And that's kind of a nice touch.
Well, Woody Guthrie was born in 1912, before the United States entered World War I. And he died in 1967, as the United States was escalating the war in Vietnam. So he died in 1967. This year marks the 40th anniversary of his death. He wasn't very widely known during his lifetime, and maybe not so widely known outside folk circles for about 25 years after his death. But in the last 15 years, he's become the most famous, the most written about, the most eulogized folk singer of his generation.
Not only have his songs been covered by a galaxy of folk singers, but many of the lyrics which he wrote, but which he never put to music, have now been given music by some very beautiful music, by such singers as Billy Bragg, and Ellis Paul, Joel Rafael, and the Klezmatics.
Now Woody Guthrie might not have been surprised that his songs are still being sung all these years later. But other forms of recognition that he's received probably would have surprised him, in fact, maybe even shocked him. Shocked the man who regarded himself as a radical, as a nonconformist, and as a dissenter.
I don't think Woody Guthrie ever would have imagined that the US Post Office would issue a Woody Guthrie commemorative stamp, or that Oklahoma would hang his portrait in the statehouse, or that the state of Washington would make Roll on Columbia the official state song, or that he would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That 300 of his songs would be available online at MusicMSN.com. Or that you could find two clips of him, the only surviving clips of him, singing on YouTube. Or that he'd have over a million entries in Google. Or that he'd be the subject of a PBS documentary, as he was last year.
He probably never would have thought that his Hanukkah songs would become so popular that a New York Times article on a concert of those songs in 2003 would be entitled This Menorah is your Menorah. And he surely wouldn't have imagined that Gibson guitars would produce a Woody Guthrie banner, southern jumbo, list price of over $4,000. Although, you can get it sort of at a bargain, for about $2,649. However, the Woody Guthrie jumbo Gibson does come with a sign that says this machine kills fascists for that money.
And he certainly could never have imagined that a two-page letter that he wrote while in the Merchant Marines in 1944 would be auctioned on eBay, as in fact, it was, just about a week ago. And that the two-page handwritten letter, signed by Woody Guthrie, would go for $5,000. Now, the eBay-- anybody here, possibly the purchaser? You could let us see that letter.
The listing on eBay quoted from some of the letter. And I felt one of the sentences would be interesting to all of us. Woody wrote, quote-- he wrote the letter to Moe Asch of Folkways Records, to the record producer. Woody wrote, "Hell, the last place I expected our records to sell was upper New York state."
Well, it's a wonderful thing when a deserving person receives the kind of recognition that he has, however belatedly. And the appreciation is in part an outgrowth of the work of the Woody Guthrie Foundation and archives, run by his daughter. The archives now how 600 drawings that Woody Guthrie made, more than 15,000 pages of writings, diary entries, journal entries, as well as letters. And it appears that there are lyrics to about 1,000 songs.
And nearly all of those songs were written in a relatively brief period, the 18 years from 1935, when he began writing, until about 1953, by which time the effects of Huntington's disease, which I'll be talking about later on, were so severe that he wasn't able to compose any longer. Almost always, Guthrie used existing melodies from popular folk or country songs, maybe only modifying them slightly. He even sometimes used existing lyrics.
Here's what his son, Arlo Guthrie, said recently, quoting, "The truth is he did steal old songs from other places. He took the old gospel songs. He took the old traditional ballads. And he put his words to them. I think my dad's theory was that if you wanted people to be singing along with you on your new song, it would be a hell of a start if they already knew the tune or even some of the words."
Well, I hope you'll want to sing along this evening. Because more than half the songs that we'll be doing, both in the first part and the second part of this concert, have choruses that you can join in on, or verses that if you know, you're welcome to sing along on. You would be doing me a great favor. I tell you, if you would sing along, I would really-- I can use all the help that I can get.
You would also be doing yourself a favor. Because according to a University of Western Ontario website, which has conducted some medical research, group singing, choral singing, does many good thing. It increases-- it reduces depression. It increases feelings of well-being. And above all, it improves cognitive function. That's what the website says. What can I tell you?
So since presumably we're all interested in all of those things, here's an opportunity to do it all, and to have a good time, and not only to help me out, and help yourselves out, but it would be a tribute to Woody Guthrie. It would help honor the memory of Woody Guthrie if you join in on these songs. So I hope you'll be doing this.
And I want to thank a few people before I start, because if I wait until the end, I'll forget. I first want to thank my son, Michael, who's here from the wilds of New Jersey, to accompany me, and sing along, and play mandolin and guitar. And I want to thank in advance Annie Burns and Jan Nigro were so gracious as to appear in the second half of the program. They'll each be singing a few songs. And that's going to be a special kind of treat.
I want to thank Joni for making up that wonderful card that was sent out. And I want to thank the people of the Unitarian Church for making it so easy to have access to this facility. And thank Ralph, who's actually filming all of this. And Ray, who's doing the sound. And I also want to thank the students in the Cornell Group, the Friends of Farm Workers. They've baked cookies and gotten all sorts of goodies together that will be available at intermission. And Ali Lex will be making a short presentation of a minute or two, just before intermission, to let you know what the Friends of Farm Workers are all about.
And of course, as I said, later on, we will welcome contributions or donations, all of which goes to this very, very deserving student group, whose work is really important. And Ali will talk about that. So we'll sing and play for maybe an hour or so. And then we'll have an intermission. And then come back for a little bit more in the second half. And that's the way it's going to go. I won't ask for questions. I just [INAUDIBLE].
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Join historian Richard Polenberg in a lecture and concert of the life and songs of Woody Guthrie.
This video is part 1 of 17 in the Woody Guthrie: His Life, Times, and Music series.