Hootenanny Revisited: Photo Essay of Old Songbooks

“As Woody Guthrie advised those who heard and sang his Songs to Grow On, ‘Now I don’t want to see you use these songs to divide nor split your family all apart. I mean, don’t just buy this book and take it home and keep it to yourself. Get your whole family into the fun. Get papa. Get mama. Get brother. Get sister. Get aunty… The friends. The neighbors. Everybody.'” Mose Asch quoting Woody is found in Asch’s “Foreword” to Pete Seeger’s “American Favorite Ballads: Tunes and Songs as Sung by Pete Seeger.” Moses said, “It was not until after World War II that young people in all walks of life and all parts of the United States made use of this folk music tradition and adapted it to their way of expressing their feelings and of tying up the past to their future…Now it is up to the children and grandchildren to take it from here.”  But that was 1961, and those children now have children and grandchildren of their own.

Oak Publications put out all kinds of folk music books in the 1960’s. Ramblin’ Boy and other songs by Tom Paxton was one of the best. My copy, well worn with taped binding, is a second printing of the book first published in 1965.

Says Tom in his “Introduction,” “I have a habit – the habit of sitting in Joe’s on West Fourth Street or the kitchen of the Gaslight…trying to carry on the work that Woody began.” 2012 is Woody Guthrie’s centenary.

Paxton, in his intro., wonders if the songs he’s written are folk songs. He says, “…it takes years to know for sure.”

A guy by the name of Jerry Silverman put together several instruction books. The Folksinger’s Guitar Guide came out in 1962, and was followed by The Art of the Folk-Blues Guitar in 1964. These books contain chord diagrams; traditional music notation and tablature; lyrics; photographs of players and scenes; and comments on the songs and how they might be played.

Happy Traum was another instruction book anthologist and player. His The Blues Bag came out in 1968, and remains an outstanding introduction to blues guitar song playing: includes lyrics, tab and classical notation, study notes, photographs, and additional resources information.

By far the most curious song book in my collection is Dylan: Words to His Songs. There is no publisher named, no price. It appears to be a bootleg project. Here is what the introduction page says, completely: in the upper left hand corner, “november 1971”; then, centered: “this book has no pretentions [sic] but to offer you the words to dylan’s songs including the ones released on his albums, singles and broadside recordings and a gathering of songs released on the white records: daddy rolling stone, great white wonder and little white wonder. you will find an alphabetical index in the back of the book”; and in the bottom left hand corner: “illustrated by holy cat.” The book is organized by chapters corresponding to Dylan’s albums, beginning with “march 1962 bob dylan,” and ending with “nov. 1970 new morning,” but that is followed by pages marked “broadside,” “singles,” and “other recordings.” The book is 79 pages in length, and 8 & 1/2 by 11 in size. The text is set in basic, pica-like, manual typewriter font. For years, my copy travelled with my old ES neighbor and friend Jon, but it’s been back home for awhile now. It’s falling apart, the pages falling out, songs spilling out, the way I think Woody would have enjoyed.

For anyone planning a hootenanny or a hoedown, a few songs from any of these books might play and sing happily well. Be sure you invite the children and the grandchildren.

Related Post: Schopenhauer’s Blues; or, On Jazz & Folk Music, from Hoedown to Hootenanny: A Happening Post

Schopenhauer’s Blues; or, On Jazz & Folk Music, from Hoedown to Hootenanny: A Happening Post

Over at JazzWax, jazz journalist Marc Meyers pulls out an old discussion, with Stan Kenton trying to explain a depressed jazz market. Marc focuses on Kenton’s suggestion that the emergence of folk helps explain the jazz recession, but finds Kenton’s explanation historically inaccurate: “I find this entire folk-as-jazz-killer thing a hoot,” Marc says.

Hoot of course is the folk mating call, suggesting hootenanny, a down-home “happening.” Yet the etymologies of both hootenanny and its precursor, the hoedown, suggest that folk and jazz have common ancestral roots in Blues People.

A flat note of interest in the Kenton comments transcribed by Marc suggests an adulteration of jazz through the commercialization processes: “The jazz we have known, explained Kenton, from 1890 to the late 1950s, has spent itself and has become absorbed by American music in general.” But, by definition, we might argue that jazz is that music which absorbs every other musical form without losing its own identity. Jazz is, at its roots, a folk music, and to suggest that folk music isn’t now or wasn’t ever popular is a self-contradictory proposition.

In any case, foraging through the OED this morning, researching the etymology of hootenanny, hoedown, and happening, I culled the following hoots, displayed below:

1963 Daily Mail 11 Sept. 8/4 Hootenanny. …is to the folk singer what a jam session is to the jazzman. 1964 Mrs. L. B. Johnson White House Diary 13 Jan. (1970) 44, I love folk music, but the name ‘Hootenanny’ rather repels me. 1967 ‘J. Munro’ Money that Money can’t Buy ix. 114   Two more cowboys appeared. …They played hoe-down music. 1969 Guardian 2 Sept. 8/2 The atmosphere was that of…a hoedown in—well, perhaps in Hibbing, Minn. 1970 Daily Tel. 29 Dec. 10 Tomorrow the 1,600 delegates will see a ‘happening’ called ‘Thank God We’re Normal’ performed by 70 boys and girls from…comprehensive schools in London.

Music is a language of feeling (as opposed to a language of thinking), though it might sound illogical to think of music as a language, since music not being a language is what gives it its universal character. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “with respect to the theme of achieving more peaceful and transcendent states of mind, Schopenhauer believes that music achieves this by embodying the abstract forms of feelings, or feelings abstracted from their particular everyday circumstances. This allows us to perceive the quintessence of emotional life — ‘sadness itself,’ ‘joy itself,’ etc. — without the contingent contents that would typically cause suffering. By expressing emotion in this detached or disinterested way, music allows us to apprehend the nature of the world without the frustration involved in daily life, and hence, in a mode of aesthetic awareness that is akin to the tranquil philosophical contemplation of the world.”

As good a definition of the blues as I’ve ever heard.

Lord I’m 500 words away from home

Burkhard Bilger points us toward a definition of folk music: “Before 1945, Ledbetter liked to say, you could tell which side of a ridge a banjo player was from; after 1945, most just played like Earl Scruggs” (New Yorker, April 28, p. 56). Beyond that pointing, what’s folk remains unclear. Bilger argues that folk evolves to a distilled purity that is the defining characteristic (p. 55). When the music in the isolated communities where folk originates becomes watered down with outside influences, that defining characteristic of purity is lost.

Yet variation is characteristic of folk. The author of folk music is not anonymous as much as communal. Folk songs are created by a community, passed down and sent away, and come to rest in other places, changing shape to suit local needs. A key characteristic of folk music therefore includes improvisation. A contemporary example is Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” the lyrics augmented and modified in many covers. This is why Bob Dylan rarely sings his own songs the same way twice. When folk passes from the community to the individual, its defining characteristic of variation is lost.

“900 Miles” morphs into “500 Miles.” It’s a train song, a folk shape, and the folk musician understands the form can be filled with any number of miles, train rides, destinations, lonely whistles. Keys change to suit voice and instrument; words change to update the form to contemporary, local needs. We find examples of this morphing in literature: Huckleberry Finn turns up in Holden Caulfield; Melville’s Ishmael gets a nod from Vonnegut’s Jonah; Romeo and Juliet sing Maria and Tony in West Side Story; the Henry of Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage meets Hemingway’s in A Farewell to Arms. The origins of literature are found in the origins of folk music. The individual relocates traditions. At the end of the cycle, the individual disappears back into the folk community, the folk song re-emerging as something new.