The Weight: When a Song Becomes an Anthem

landy4There are a number of songs that serve as a musical roadmap in my life, and for every one of them, I can remember the exact moment when I heard the song – the exact moment that the song made me stop in my tracks, grab the record sleeve, look at the album photos and read the liner notes in a desperate attempt to learn everything I could about the music.

And, yet, I have no recollection of the first time that I heard the song which may have had the greatest influence on my life, because for as long as I can remember, “The Weight,” has always just been in my life. Like any song that’s morphed into our musical vernacular, “The Weight” has come to exist as a backdrop in American folk culture. It pops up in films when the scene is meant to express something uniquely “American” that dialog just can’t seem to capture. It’s become a staple in concert encore-sing-alongs across the country, and a simple YouTube search of “The Weight” yields thousands of videos with genre-bending covers by everyone from Dionne Warwick to John Denver.

Unlike traditional American songs, however, where there is often a vague understanding of where and when the song originated, or how it has changed over time, the origin of “The Weight” isn’t nearly as mythic and mysterious as what it has come to represent. And, unlike traditional songs where the original recording is either archived in a museum somewhere – if there even is a recording – or forgotten, having instead been left for other musicians to immortalize its legacy, “The Weight” is uniquely contemporary, with the original recording still widely accessible to the masses and still accepted as the incomparable version of the song.

Maybe I can’t remember the first time I heard “The Weight,” because every time I hear the Music From Big Pink recording, I still feel the music shake deep in my soul, like it’s the first time I’m hearing the song in full – like I haven’t yet heard all that there is to hear. In a great musical paradox, as “old” and “traditional” as “The Weight” sounded in 1968 set against the flaming guitars of the San Francisco counterculture, there was a genuine newness to the blending and layered sounds of “The Weight” that no band had ever captured before. Robbie Robertson’s acoustic chords opening the song, Levon Helm’s wooden drums starting the pulse, followed by his slow, southern-accented first verse, Richard Manuel’s plaintive harmony vocals, Rick Danko’s steady bass and Garth Hudson’s church piano setting up the chorus’ crescendo created something unmistakably original, unmistakably authentic and unmistakably American. This was unmistakably The Band, and they would change the course of American music, as we knew it.

By now it’s well known that The Band was four Canadians held together by an Arkansas drummer. They started out backing Ronnie Hawkins and later, Bob Dylan, before becoming their own group – a musical collective of multi-instrumentalists with a seemingly endless archive of obscure characters, road stories and survival tales acquired from playing years in clubs so rough you “had to puke twice and show them your knife before you could get in,” as Levon Helm once said.

The Canadians learned about America through its music. Delta blues radio, Nashville country stations and the traveling rockabilly shows that swept through Canada in the late 1950s reinforced themes of outlaw individualism, frontier living and a land where diverse music didn’t just coexist, but coalesced and thrived in the backbone of the country. When they met Levon Helm, a teenage cotton farmer who lived near Sonny Boy Williamson and played drums for Hawkins, it was as though he had come straight from Mecca, as Robbie Robertson has said. His sheer existence legitimized the possibilities of an unknown land.

This mythic lens into America led to a catalog of songs which have become musical precursors to the Americana movement today: “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Across the Great Divide,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Shape I’m In” and, of course, “The Weight.” I’ve found myself wondering lately, out of all of these songs – and many others – why has “The Weight” emerged as the iconic American standard? Why is this the mood-setting song in Easy Rider? Why is this the song that 22 year-olds still put on when they start their first road trips across the country? Why, since Levon Helm’s passing nearly a year ago, do Americana musicians overwhelmingly close their shows with “The Weight”? Why did the GRAMMY Awards choose “The Weight” as its group sing-along for the musicians we lost this year – and why was it the only performance of the night that had everyone in the audience singing and dancing?

I’ve struggled over the past month to determine an answer to these questions. I followed the lyrics, first – the idea that they read like a traditional folktale with a cast of characters like Crazy Chester, Anna Lee, Luke, Carmen, Miss Moses and Miss Fanny who we can all envision in our lives. I then thought about the ethical theme: the narrator facing a libertarian dilemma of holding true to his nomadic lifestyle or staying put to deliver on the favor he promised to take a “load off” his neighbor in need. What I’ve come to realize, however, is that while this all may contribute to the place of “The Weight” in American culture, the answer more likely lay simply in the music.

In 1968, “The Weight” was a rock song, but since then, Aretha Franklin and Duane Allman have shown us that it’s an R&B song; Mavis Staples has shown us that it’s a gospel song; Gillian Welch and Old Crow Medicine Show have shown us that it’s a bluegrass song; Waylon Jennings has shown us that it’s a country song; Weezer has shown us that it’s an alternative song; Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield have shown us that it’s a blues song; and Cassandra Wilson has shown us that it’s a jazz song. In the past 44 years, “The Weight” has lent itself to nearly every cultural context and musical genre in this country because it is infinitely singable. Like all great traditional songs, there’s nothing so esoteric about “The Weight” that makes it unattainable to the audience, and it has a chorus that allows us to all sing our own small part in a much bigger song.

The beauty of countless versions of “The Weight” is what’s shared among them: despite the musical form the song has taken, everybody in the audience sings along, and everybody sings along together. If Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson first came to understand American music through the joy and release that Ronnie Hawkins and Levon Helm imparted to Canadian audiences in the early 1960s, then “The Weight,” has forever come to represent this same celebration of American music – of its spirit, its diversity, its soul and most importantly, it’s universality.

Closing Out 2012 with Brandi Carlile’s Bear Creek

BearcreekThe music world suffered some deep losses in 2012. We saw pioneering talents in nearly every genre leave this world for the great beyond: Kitty Wells, Dave Brubeck, Earl Scruggs, Etta James, Whitney Houston, MCA, Duck Dunn, Ravi Shankar and one of my own personal and musical heroes, Levon Helm. And, yet, as is often the case with keeping the balance of all things, audiences were also given some of the finest new rock ‘n’ roll albums in recent memory.

Bob Dylan’s Tempest is already being hailed as a modern-day classic, with its breezy “Duquesne Whistle” solidifying yet another musical identity for Bob as a 21st Century cowboy troubadour. John Hiatt’s Mystic Pinball, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals’ The Lion, The Beast, The Beat, Gary Clark Jr.’s Black and Blu and David Wax Museum’s Knock, Knock, Get Up have all offered important contributions to music this year, finding niches that had yet to be found, melodies that had yet to be sung and musical hybrids that had yet to be formed.

Over the past week, I’ve been thinking about a top ten albums of 2012 list that I’ve been asked to compile. It’s always nearly impossible to rank something so subjectively influenced by the moment when you first hear a song or an album. It’s even more difficult to think about what would top such a list. The only way that I know how to choose is to think about that one album that I can’t quite classify – the album that I always seem to hear for the first time every time I listen to it, and the album that has stuck by me as my go-to musical backdrop for any number of occasions.

It’s with that understanding that Brandi Carlile‘s Bear Creek rings in as my number one. Bear Creek is a unique musical gift for anyone who can’t define their musical tastes in one simple sentence, and for anyone who finds themselves reflecting on getting older and loosening the reins a bit on youth to embrace some of life’s more intricate complexities.

I first heard Bear Creek as I was in the process of moving across the country. I can remember sitting in my Brooklyn apartment, packing boxes on a warm and humid summer Saturday when “Hard Way Home,” the lead track, played through my iTunes radio. In three quick minutes, this stranger had poetically articulated my full range of emotions – particularly that uneasy excitement that comes with leaving your home in order to find it once again. It was the last thing I had expected to hear, but damn, I was hooked. I bought the album and played it endlessly during those days of packing that lay ahead.

For me, listening to Bear Creek is like following a musical roadmap back to yourself after ten years of introspective exploration. There’s a type of realized freedom and confident individualism emanating from Bear Creek‘s soul that has continued to draw me to the album since that summer day. Maybe it’s because I’m the same age as Ms. Carlile, or maybe it’s because this album grabbed me at precisely the right time in life, but I’ve found a spark of feisty independence, softened by honest vulnerability in these songs that make the album inherently relatable and attractive.

It’s as though after a decade of recording and touring the country, Brandi Carlile took bits and pieces of musical pioneers before her, embraced the fun-loving good times and heartbreak that life is all about, and set out to write her own chapter in the traditions of musical wanderlust. What came of it is an album ranging from rockabilly-punk in “Raise Hell,” to the soulful McCartney-esque ballad “That Wasn’t Me,” to “Keep Your Heart Young,” quite possibly the best country song not being played on country radio today. I imagine Loretta Lynn is smiling proudly somewhere in Butcher Hollow singing and laughing along to this illustrative third verse:

Dad took the wheels off of my bike and he pushed me down a hill
But speed got the best of me and I took my first spill
That was back when alcohol was only used on cuts
Stung like hell so I jerked my leg and mama said it would give me guts.

I’ve been listening to Bear Creek for seven months now, and I still find myself drawn to its resonance – like somehow I’m listening to an old college friend who’s come into her own, thrown her heart upon her sleeve and is sharing important life lessons for the rest of us. Bear Creek doesn’t subscribe to any forced musical or philosophical agenda; it is simply an exceptional, original album – one with its own sound, its own musical, vocal, and lyrical identity, and its own rightful place in music today.

Sunday Evening Service With the People’s Reverend: Ralph Stanley

Somewhere 32,000 feet above West Virginia, I sat in a crammed small airplane reading notes from famed folklorist Alan Lomax’s southern journey in the late 1950s. As the plane started its gradual and bumpy descent into the New York City area, I highlighted this line that Lomax had written in preparation for one of his trips down south: “the essence of America lies not in the headlined heroes… but in the everyday folks who live and die unknown, yet leave their dreams as legacies.” If such is the essence of America, then Ralph Stanley may very well be singing the soundtrack of the legacies — and never have we felt so honored to be the “everyday folks.”

The first time I had seen Ralph Stanley perform live was under the most unlikely of circumstances. It was just 10 years ago, when he and his musical comrades — Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris, James Carter and Alison Krauss — showcased songs from the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack at Carnegie Hall. It was a “special” show, intended to bring together New York City art critics for a night of back porch music on the most un-back porch of all stages. A sense of displaced formality crept over the audience as they dressed in their Sunday best, as though to pay homage to the living and breathing cultural institution that was resurging in front of them.

Ralph Stanley’s solo show at New York’s City Winery on November 11 required no such formality, no such marked distinction to separate the performers from the audience — only a shared embrace of the music that has emerged from deep within the walls of an American culture that seems so distant from these days of immediacy, instant gratification and a bit more indulgence than is necessary. Standing no more than five feet tall with a white cowboy hat adding five extra inches, and dressed in his neatly pressed suit, as though headlining the Grand Ole Opry for the first time, Dr. Stanley was both the bandleader and narrator for the night, momentarily converting City Winery into a 21st Century urban vaudeville stage.

“We hope you enjoy some of this old-time, mountain-style-what-they-call-bluegrass-music,” the 85 year-old Stanley said in his charming southern Virginia accent before launching into the anthemic “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow.” And, carrying on the great tradition of community music that birthed so many of these songs, Dr. Stanley and his standup bass player, fiddler, banjo player and guitarists played only audience requests, often punctuating the songs with comedic tales of the sort of life you imagine only exists in folktales, but hope is still possible somewhere.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Dr. Stanley is still every bit the legendary performer that precedes his iconic status in American music. He may leave the lead banjo playing to his band, but when he temporarily strapped on his banjo and played in the slowly fading clawhammer-style, he played with a vigor and pace so fast that 200 boot heels stomping shook the wooden floors harder than a passing subway beneath City Winery. His voice has only grown more authentic with age — it’s now a delicate rasp lending a haunting, yet mesmerizing, element to the lyrics:

O, Death,
Won’t you spare me over til another year?
Well what is this that I can’t see,
with ice-cold hands takin’ hold of me?
Well I am death, none can excel,
I’ll open the door to heaven or hell.
Whoa, death someone would pray,
Could you wait to call me another day?

The audience, as much a part of the music as the musicians themselves, called for traditional songs — “Angel Band,” “White Dove,” “Little Birdie,” “Green Pastures,” “Pretty Polly,” and “I’ll Fly Away.” The old songs, it seems, are new again — or maybe, they never did get old — as they echo the simple and timeless themes of redemption, humility and perseverance. Following a prolonged period of politically contested definitions of what it means to be “everyday folk” and what it means to live in urban-blue states or rural-red states, Ralph Stanley’s traditional hymns of salvation mixed with foot-stomping, hand-clapping and knee slapping songs of hope beyond hardship, resonated universally through that diverse New York City audience in a way that suggested some themes might just transcend even the greatest of our cultural differences.

As long as Ralph Stanley is recording and performing, we are reminded of songs that still need to be heard, telling these tales from the country that still need to be told.

We’re All Doing Just a Little Bit Better Thanks to John Hiatt

Somewhere on a two lane state road where speed limits are a suggestion, about 150 miles from Phoenix and 300 miles from Albuquerque, “We’re Alright Now,” the leadoff track to John Hiatt‘s 23rd album, Mystic Pinball, is blasting through my car. Each time I try to let the album play through onto the second song, I can’t help but hit the repeat button — over and over again. It’s not long until I’ve memorized the first few verses and the chorus. The volume has now well overpowered my own voice, and weaving between the rolling meadows and red rock mountains, I sing the chorus — a hypnotic, energizing and inspirational anthem of rebirth and reassurance, reminding us to once again, have a little faith in ourselves, each other and times to come.

The song is ultimately a simple one: the drums drive its roaring heartbeat tempo, and the Nashville-twanged garage guitars hold it together with a looping pulse. But, it’s up to the audience to round out the sound — to clap our hands, stomp our feet and sing along:

We’re alright now.
Got a love so strong.
Baby, we’re alright now,
Even when it’s wrong.
So, won’t you stay with me tonight?
We’ll cry some tears and sing some songs.
Honey, it’s alright now.
All those battle days are gone.

And, just like that, after almost 40 years of recording music, John Hiatt has done it again. He has written a hit song, so relevant, so melodic, so universal, so human that it hooks deep within the listener’s soul and takes you on a musical journey into the beautiful world of John Hiatt — a world of love, heartbreak, hope and rebirth that we have come to understand, embrace and even anticipate, with each new record.

I eventually did allow myself to move on and listen to Mystic Pinball in full. As one of the most prolific contemporary songwriters recording today, John Hiatt continues to astound and humble the creative process by releasing albums, almost on an annual basis, that stand distinctly on their own and relevant to their own moment. Mystic Pinball is no exception; it paints its creator, yet again, as one of the true, authentic, romantic American troubadours, who may just be one of the few still thriving in a dying breed.

There’s a certain comfort and familiarity with Mystic Pinball — a sense that these songs tell the stories of the everyday folks whom John Hiatt has met during his 40 years on the road. “I Just Don’t Know What to Say” and “Blues Can’t Even Find Me,” are lonely and heartbreaking with the gentle melodies to follow; “One of Them Damn Days” is a swinging blues bad-boy-good-girl standard, sure to catch you grinning amid the “unrelenting haze” of the scratchy-voiced narrator. And, yet, as diverse as these stories and songs may seem, they are rooted in what John Hiatt does so well; they are ingrained in the universal foundation of relationships — friendships and otherwise — and our collective soul journeys to explore them.

Until this past Saturday night, I had often wondered how John Hiatt could write with such frequency — how he could churn out these musical tales with such authenticity and apparent ease. But then, my southwestern voyage brought me to the Crescent Ballroom in Phoenix, where he and his band of southerners were sampling songs from Mystic Pinball and taking requests for old classics — “Crossing Muddy Waters,” “Feels Like Rain,” “Slow Turning,” and “Memphis in the Meantime.”

With a smile that never broke and an audience cooled by mist machines in the midnight desert heat, John Hiatt played with the enthusiasm, excitement and honor of what seemed like his first paying gig — like playing music was a gift not to ever be taken for granted, and we were unexpected witnesses to a dreamer’s dream come true. He can write these songs because less than writing about the everyday folks, John Hiatt, himself, is the everyday folk, and in him, we, as the audience, find an approachable, humble, traveling companion — an old friend — with whom we can roll down the car windows, sing songs off key and celebrate the simple joys, love and even heartbreak, of life.

Mystic Pinball will be released on New West Records on September 25, 2012.

Down Home in New York With Ollabelle

I’ve often heard of New York City referred to as America’s largest small town. It’s that strange interconnectedness that happens to people in a city of eight million — it’s the not-so-rare moments of serendipity when you bump into a friend on the street who you haven’t seen in years. And, like all small towns, summers in New York City give musicians their respective back porches to play on — Central Park, Madison Square Park, Prospect Park and countless other public stages set up as momentary oases amid the surrounding jungle of buildings and urban chaos.

Last week’s temporary back porch was a loading dock in an open alleyway behind City Winery. Hot dogs smoked on grills, peach iced tea chilled in coolers and a crowd of New Yorkers sat on asphalt, fashioning seats out of that morning’s New York Times, ready to leave the day’s work behind them and enjoy a free, two-hour Ollabelle concert. I could hardly think of a more appropriate band to usher in an informal, outdoor music series than this collaborative group of multi-instrumentalists whose seasoned sound lands them somewhere between gospel and country — between funk and folk. Somewhere, in many ways, between the past and the present.

I had first heard Ollabelle unexpectedly on a summer night in 2004. I was with a group of friends, speeding down a quiet, winding road in Putnam County — the warm breeze from rolled-down windows a welcome substitute for air-conditioning. We were listening to the great, 90.7 WFUV, when a song came on that swiftly forced the volume up. There were thumping drums, hands clapping, roaring vocals and a sound that seemed to have come straight from a 1930s chain gang in Georgia. We drove a bit faster, played drums on anything that would make a sound, and sang along like we’d known the song for years.

I learned later that we were listening to “Before this Time,” the opening track of Ollabelle’s debut album. We were 20-something years old — a hop away from New York City, secretly wishing to be a closer hop to Memphis — allowing that soul-filled, gospel road map of an album lead us on a spiritual journey through the mythic American south that had for so long captivated our musical imagination.

By late 2006, Ollabelle had released their second album, Riverside Battle Songs and the country Putnam roads had been replaced with narrow Italian cobblestone streets. I was living in Rome, now listening to WFUV streaming online, and had yet to be homesick, until I heard a block of songs from the new album: “Riverside,” “Gone Today,” and “Troubles of the World.”

The music was communal and accessible; fiddles, pianos and guitars danced delicately around each other, and the haunting and forgiving lyrics led me back to a familiar place. Collectively, the songs spoke of life’s fleeting presence, relinquishing control to faith in the great beyond, and accepting life’s triumphs and tragedies as they come — themes that gently pulled me toward the Smithsonian Folkways version of America that had only temporarily fallen out of reach.

Last summer, Ollabelle released their long-awaited third album, Neon Blue Bird. Heavy on grit, funk, blues and a bit more rock than country, the pulsing chorus of “Be Your Woman,” the ethereal journey of “Wait for the Sun,” and a rocking version of Chris Whitley’s, “Dirt Floor,” marked yet another layer in Ollabelle’s rich musical landscape. The songs may be steeped in Americana tradition, but the music is contemporary, carried forth by fresh voices, youthful energy and deep respect for the foundation on which it stands.

It wasn’t surprising, then, that when Ollabelle and special guests, Jason Crigler and David Mansfield, took to City Winery‘s indoor and outdoor stages last week, they blended a strong mix of original songs with Neil Young classics, new gems from Gillian Welch, Bob Dylan standards and never-to-be-lost Merle Haggard songs, offering the audience a brief escape into hymnals, sing-alongs and the rustic landscape that accompanied it all.

Night started to fall during a crowd-rousing version of “Corrina, Corrina,” and I caught myself leaning back on my elbows, looking toward the sky. I glanced up at the buildings surrounding City Winery and saw people two, three, four, five stories above, leaning out of their apartment windows. Some sat on their fire escapes, others kicked their bare feet out into the air, letting their legs sway along to the changing beats of the songs. The band smiled up toward the buildings, waving and welcoming everyone — fire escape and asphalt sitters alike – to sing along.

20 blocks from Wall Street, three blocks from the Hudson River and 30 blocks from Times Square, Ollabelle casually played for an audience of what genuinely appeared to be their old pals — and, you got the sense that those who weren’t would most certainly soon be. Because, after all, what are small towns and back porches, really, if not enjoying the gift of each other’s company, singing with friends and appreciating the comfort of simply being at home?

A Legacy of Rambling: Music Is (Still) Alive and Well in Levon Helm’s Barn

Music writer Bill Flanagan once said that when people lamented the sad state of rock music, he would tell them to go to Levon Helm’s Barn in Woodstock on a Saturday night and they would find that rock ‘n’ roll was alive and well. For the past eight years, Levon, the legendary vocalist and drummer of The Band, hosted his Midnight Rambles — throwbacks to the medicine shows of his youth in Arkansas that blended all sorts of music that the mighty Mississippi brought south during the early years of what would soon be defined as rock ‘n’ roll. This was before the confines of genre dictated what was being played, and instead let the music sweep its audience through the passing towns and cities — imparting just enough local culture and music to create a much larger sound than anyone could have anticipated.

In April, Levon passed away and there was talk of what would happen to the Rambles. Fans were told that the shows would continue, but in what capacity? If Levon had been the descendent, of sorts, of the medicine shows, could the music still carry with it that authentic voice of musical humility — the natural gratitude of being able to play for and with others for the simple reward of creating music?

And then, this past Saturday night rolled around like so many others before it, and Levon’s Barn was open once again for a Ramble, the third since his passing and the first to welcome back a past Ramble guest. Only weeks before, rumors circulated on Levon’s Facebook page and then, were confirmed: Ramble regulars Phil Lesh & Sons were playing a show in Connecticut and they would make a pit-stop at Levon’s before moving on to their next city.

On the afternoon of the Ramble, I packed my bag and headed north from my Brooklyn apartment towards the rolling hills and farms of Ulster County. The blue skies over New York City stretched 100 miles to Woodstock and the sun pulled greens and blues out of the Catskill Mountains, easily confusing the landscape with the Smokey Mountains or the Ozarks. At 7 p.m., the winding country road leading to Levon’s Barn had a line of 50 cars waiting to come together, not as fans, but as partners — as family — for this mid-summer Ramble.

I stood waiting for the doors to open, overhearing conversations, almost all of which centered around how many Rambles people had attended, who joined as guests, what songs were played and, of course, the personal stories of Levon. Everyone had a moment to recall — a tale of breaking bread with Levon in some capacity, in the same way that you naturally would when one welcomes you into the warmth of his living room.

There was a sense of familiarity among the crowd that so often comes from families and friends joining together under one roof — if only for four hours a week. I had felt this same familiarity years before, when I was 10 years old and my parents took me to my first rock concert. On a similar summer night, we journeyed across the George Washington Bridge to New Jersey — which was a far and distant land to me — to see the Grateful Dead. It may have been 20 years earlier, but with the exception of a sprawling concrete parking lot in place of Levon’s grass, not much else was different: the music was the epicenter, but the community that the music created welcomed people to something much more powerful than a rock ‘n’ roll show.

Saturday’s Ramble ran for more than four hours, with over 15 musicians playing at any time. I sat on a stool behind Levon’s drums for the full Ramble, catching myself drifting between the perfect musical blend of rock, blues, country, jazz and folk music that flooded through the Barn and remembering the first time that I had heard so many of these songs. I was a child listening to American Beauty in my bedroom. I was a teenager who wanted little more than to tell stories after hearing those colorful tales of Ms. Moses and Anna Lee. When “Up on Cripple Creek” led gently into “Till the Morning Comes,” I wondered how Levon Helm and Jerry Garcia, two musicians once so different, had their legacies this closely intertwined. Yet, it seems obvious now: the many gifts that Levon and Jerry have offered this world are among the most lasting and significant contributions any musician can impart. They have allowed for thousands of individuals to feel connected to one another through something as intangible as music and the cultural legacy that the music has generated.

At 12:30 am, the Ramble ended as the New Orleans horn section mixed with mandolins and violins for a Dixieland take on “Ripple.” A voodoo-blues rendition of “This Wheel’s on Fire” followed, and may very well have roused Rick Danko’s resting spirit through a type of musical exorcism. Larry Campbell, Teresa Williams, Amy Helm and Fiona McBain joined Phil and his sons for “Attics of My Life” and “Not Fade Away,” before closing the night with a verse swapping, raucous version of “The Weight.” The Barn’s wooden walls absorbed echoes of the audience singing along to old familiar songs, holding onto the 150 part harmonies for another day — another Ramble.

What the Rambles have gifted to both audiences and musicians is the freedom for these songs to live far beyond the records — beyond the radio, beyond the iPods. Without a formal stage, no arbitrary boundaries separating the audience from musicians, fans can sing freely, lending their voices to the songs and bringing forth the feeling that this music is ultimately for all us to carry as our own. Just as Levon modernized the medicine shows of the 1940s and 1950s eight years ago, we are left today with another iteration of music that is harvested from the land and released out into the world.

I can only imagine that the Rambles will continue to change and grow over the next year and beyond — that they will morph into whatever it is that they are destined to become in this new phase. And, while I would never try to speculate on the natural course of musical evolution, I would venture to guess that the spirits of those souls on whom the Rambles are built will be honored and celebrated, and that music will be played in the way that it was always meant to be played — by everyone, for everyone and about everyone, leaving the audience and performers to once again blur musical boundaries and simply come back home to each other.

Remembering Woody: The Man and the Myth

A few months ago, I saw Ramblin’ Jack Elliott play a one-man, acoustic show in New York City.  He’s 80 years old now – but he stills plays strong chords and his voice, though struggling to hit those high notes, is weathered poignantly by a life very well lived.  Whatever notes he can no longer hit are triumphant and sobering reminders of the adventure and hardship of living the life of a workingman troubadour.  Like many others at the concert that night, I went to enjoy a glimpse of a singer from another time and place – I wanted to hear songs from such a time and place sung by a voice that was there, at least for a moment.  And, I went to simply hear stories about Woody Guthrie – to peer into an open, yet distant, life that Ramblin’ Jack so illustratively and comically recounts in his singsong storytelling.

The Woody stories shared that evening were much like ones we’ve heard in Woody’s lyrics or in the multiple books and films made about Woody Guthrie: stories of Woody sleeping in cars in the southwest for weeks at a time. Stories of him disappearing one night not to be seen or heard from for months. Stories of him moving freely and curiously through destitute lands of thousands of Americans hoping for better days. I’ve often felt that it’s difficult to know where the myth of Woody Guthrie ends and the reality begins, but isn’t that an indicator of most great folk heroes?

There’s not much to say about Woody Guthrie’s legacy in life and death that hasn’t already been said. We’ve seen his influence live on in Bob Dylan, John Hiatt, Steve Earle, Billy Bragg, Wilco, Emmylou Harris, Bruce Springsteen and thousands of other singers, songwriters, poets, storytellers and artists across the world – well beyond the barriers of the United States. But, at the time of the Ramblin’ Jack concert, I remember thinking that the songs and stories from those days often reflect an interestingly nostalgic time in America, when our cultural memory of the 1930s can sometimes eclipse the hardship of those times.

The memorialized version of Woody Guthrie is often one of a Dustbowl pioneer – of a political activist, who made his intentions well known with that one blunt statement emblazoned onto his guitar: “This Machine Kills Fascists.”  There’s something very attractive about embracing the train hopping Woody Guthrie of the 1930s who seemed to live somewhere between Dorothea Lange photographs and John Steinbeck novels.  He was the living and breathing character otherwise captured in still photographs and he put into songs what was written in hundreds of pages of heartbreaking prose.  He had a sense of nomadic adventure and attraction to the unknown – and he followed a life on the road, not only for the music, but also for social justice, before that was even a commonplace term.

With the recent 100th birthday of Woody Guthrie, I wondered how Woody would be remembered – how would we remember such a complex and multi-influential presence?  I had listened to days of radio celebrations leading up to Woody’s centennial; hour-long shows were dedicated to him, to his life and legacy. Concerts took place across the United States and Europe – high profile tributes were staged in Okemah, Oklahoma, Woody’s hometown and Coney Island, Brooklyn, Woody’s adopted hometown. Through the radio commentary and during the concerts in New York that I attended, there was that expected balance of Woody’s music and his activism.  The music was fun, exciting, comical, emotional and delicate.  The politics were echoes of Woody’s and most people’s contemporary take on them.

It was to be expected, of course, that the tribute show at New York’s City Winery would end with “This Land is Your Land,” Woody’s critical response to “God Bless America.” We sang it in downtown Manhattan, with Steve Earle and Billy Bragg leading the charge on stage. My table of strangers included a union labor lawyer from Queens and a Sociology professor, both of whom I had just met that night.  They generously placed Woody’s lyrics in a broad social context and shared very thoughtful insight into what Woody Guthrie represented in their respective movements.

And, even with that, I found myself drifting back to being a child and hearing “This Land is Your Land” in elementary school. Sure, the song is controversially condensed to not include all of the verses, but the verses that I did hear at that young age talked about a redwood forest, a ribbon of highway, a diamond desert, gulfstream waters, wheat fields, and roaming and rambling.  All of those images were mystical and majestic to me sitting in a gymnasium in 1985. I didn’t understand sarcasm or cynicism at that age – but I did understand that there was a big, old world out there to be explored and I wanted to roam and ramble through it in the worst way.

As I grew older, I never forgot those images or the desire to see them for myself. When I was old enough, I took a two-month train journey from New York to California with a backpack and computer to document the stories of America and the Americans whom I met along the way.  I couldn’t play the guitar all that well and I couldn’t carry a tune worth my life, but I wanted to tell the stories of America like Woody Guthrie did, because that’s what Woody’s legacy has been to me.

Maybe it’s too idealistic for serious cultural scholars and activists (and I certainly respect that), but the Woody Guthrie who I celebrated last weekend was a storyteller who played a simple guitar and told important stories, that were both humorous and tragic – that were both engaging and infuriating. The songs recounted complex tales of who we were, for better or for worse, and they told them in a way that could hook at 5 year old girl’s attention in 3 minutes, such that they would stay with her far into adulthood.

That’s how I’ve reconciled the legacy of this great American folk man – it’s his ability, long after his death, to inspire in others the need to see the country for ourselves, and to find meaning in its various characters and struggles. It’s to not take his word, as Woody Gurthrie – or any other person’s word – on what to believe in and how to believe in it. But, rather, he inspires us to embark on our own journey with the country, its music, its belief system and our own values and desires within it.  From there, we are free to experience our own adventures and forge our own relationship, joyful and tumultuous though it may be, with an America that we have come to embrace as our own.