As I sort out what to do with the old blog, one of things that may happen is that I dump interesting other posts and vids here. In that spirit, here is the "band" playing at Maundy Thursday. For those not in the know, we have at the Eliot Church a liturgical Old Time band with rotating members. The core is Lee Manuel, Chris Lindquist, and myself. We are called upon to play at church when we can lend something to the proceedings. Occasionally we play at parties for free beer and burgers. Anyway, this Maundy Thursday we took up our usual place as the house band for the evening communion service. Rev. Tara Humphries officiated, which freed me up to be in the band. Chris also played guitar and my old college pal (and college bandmate) Alex Rapp joined us on fiddle.
Anyway, it has been a while. There was a plague. But it was great to be back! We played four songs in the Americana gospel genre. All of them have lives outside of church contexts, which we try to do with whatever we select.
I usually keep the Ukestra videos somewhere else on my page but I wanted to put this one here. Recorded under a variety of names, this song began life as a poem by Woody Guthrie to commemorate the (at that time) anonymous Mexican victims of a plane crash in 1948. The song was set to music by a schoolteacher named Martin Hoffman and it has been sung ever since. The passengers were migrant farm workers being transported back over the border to Mexico. Reports at the time did not feel the need to mention their names.
A name is important. It has practical uses, of course. It is also a recognition of our existence as holy children of God. To erase someone's name doesn't really erase their existence or their holiness, However, it makes it very hard to tell their story. What is happening today is a willful ignorance--a gross perpetuation--of our past and present injustices. It is suppression and oppression of people. It is an attempt to erase the reality of our shared humanity to comfort the status quo.
We cannot stand with the status quo. We cannot allow the victims of today's crackdown on immigrant families--separating them from each other and in some cases "losing" their identities--to become mere numbers. We cannot allow ourselves to be numb. We must know their faces and their names and speak them loudly to the powers and principalities of this world.
Obviously, this song still has meaning for us today. Our nation--both before and since the plane crash at Los Gatos--has grappled with recognizing the humanity of people who do not fit a "traditional" (that is, white) concept of "America". We played this song on Sunday in recognition of past and ongoing acts of injustice. It is a reminder that the more things change the more they stay the same.
One postscript to the story is that years later, thanks to some diligent work, the names of the victims of the plane crash were discovered. Here they are so that they are not forgotten again....
The 28 Mexican Citizens Who Died in the Plane Wreck Over Los Gatos January 28, 1948
Miguel Negrete Álvarez. Tomás Aviña de Gracia. Francisco Llamas Durán. Santiago García Elizondo. Rosalio Padilla Estrada. Tomás Padilla Márquez. Bernabé López Garcia. Salvador Sandoval Hernández. Severo Medina Lára. Elías Trujillo Macias. José Rodriguez Macias. Luis López Medina. Manuel Calderón Merino. Luis Cuevas Miranda. Martin Razo Navarro. Ignacio Pérez Navarro. Román Ochoa Ochoa. Ramón Paredes Gonzalez. Guadalupe Ramírez Lára. Apolonio Ramírez Placencia. Alberto Carlos Raygoza. Guadalupe Hernández Rodríguez. Maria Santana Rodríguez. Juan Valenzuela Ruiz. Wenceslao Flores Ruiz. José Valdívia Sánchez. Jesús Meza Santos. Baldomero Marcas Torres.
There were prayers this Sunday as well. Our Congregational Associate prayed for the displaced people of the world. I closed with a prayer for the dream of that Commonwealth of Heaven, or as Woody Guthrie put it in one of our readings, "One Big Union."
Prayer for the One Big Union
Yes, we do all believe in “One Big Union”
We may not call it that
We may use terms like “The Just Society”
Or the “The Utopian Ideal”
Or the “Commonwealth of Heaven”
But what draws us together in places like
The Eliot Church
Is the dream of something greater
The will to oppose inequality
To find a home for the displaced
And to see the humanity of the stranger
We also gather here to recognize the call
In the words of the prophet Micah
To do Justice, Love Mercy, and walk humbly with God
We know that this new world
This new society will not come
Without the sacrifices and labors
Of those who envision it
And we know that we need help
To maintain our vision
And so we pray:
We know that we have fallen short
Of the call to equality, peace and justice
To the building of a world
That is free of violence and oppression
That give to each according to their needs
In the spirit of radical welcome that Jesus
And other prophets taught
We know this and we are sorry
And promise to commit ourselves
To the One Big Union again
Dear God please give us the strength
To keep on traveling down that road
A road with many distractions
Many struggles and discomforts
Please give us the assurance
That (even though we may never see the day
Of the Commonwealth here on Earth)
Please give us the assurance we need
To still work toward that day
In Faith, in Hope, and always in Love
These days when you see something with the title of "White House Blues" a million possibilities spring to mind. Perhaps it is about the election and who will be entering the White House. Maybe it is an expression of sadness concerning Obama's upcoming departure. Those blues themes would make sense where this a protest song. It would be an expression of unhappiness with the country and where it is going.
In this particular case, however, I am thinking of something else. You might have to turn up the volume on the video but it is what we've got. "White House Blues" is an old song, first recorded by the banjo player Charlie Poole back in 1926. However, it is probably even older than that. Poole, himself, knew a thing or two about the blues in both his musical and personal life. A factory worker, musical visionary, and hard drinker, Poole died of heart attack in 1931, bringing a 13-week bender to a close. Yes. He had been drinking steadily for 13 weeks.
The purpose of this song--other than to entertain--is actually historical. That is, it preserves a moment in history. The song, itself, is about the 1931 assassination of President McKinley by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz. Mckinley was shot twice. One of the bullets was found. However, the other one got lost somewhere in the soft tissue of the corpulent president and gangrene set in.. This is why both our version and Poole's begins with the lines "McKinley hollered, McKinley squalled, the doctor said 'McKinley I can't find the ball.' You're bound to die. You're bound to die.." It is historically accurate! Cheerful.
In fact, this song is oddly perky, which is what initially attracted me to it. The juxtaposition of words and tone may be part of the reason for its survival. Folk music loves a dance-able murder ballad. In addition the chord progression is very simple and fun to play, so many gifted bluegrass musicians use it as a platform for their improvisational solos. There are plenty of examples of this online. The singers mess a bit with the tune to fit their own treatment as well as that of the soloists. That is OK. It is a folk song. Again...you can't break it.
I also find it interesting because of its rather casual treatment of violence. A couple of weeks after we played this in church, The country experienced the Orlando nightclub shooting and a number of similar events in short order. Shootings of and by police have increasingly appeared in the news. Even politicians began to make threats toward their opponents. This song reminds us that we have struggled with issues like these for a long time.
On the technical side, this song makes ample use of 7th chords. This is a key aspect of much of the blues. 7th chords make the song sound ragged and "unfinished" to modern pop-infested ears. Thank God for that! As with the last one, I encourage you to sing along with recordings to learn the words. However, here are the chord changes: G/G7/C7/G7/D7/G. Some folks make that middle G7 (after the C7) a regular G. You can if you want. I do not.
In the video I actually have the uke capo'ed at the 9th fret. I did this to get it out of the range of the banjo. The song is still in G but the chord forms are in C (C/C7/F7/C7/C). Also, I violated ukulele orthodoxy by using a pick! The was done for reasons of texture and volume. Volume is also why I used the "Fluke" instead of a more conventional uke. It is the loudest thing I've got...other than the mando of course.
As you can see we have a slightly different instrumentation on this from what one might think. We have a uke, a banjo, and a bass. Each instrument keeps out of the way of the others. We didn't use a regular guitar because this way it had more of an "Old Time" feel. Guitars were actually a bit late to American music (certainly when compared to the banjo). Also, the uke and the banjo are two of the greatest instruments our country ever produced. They deserve to be heard!
Anyway, here it is, a song from another era that--like ours--was filled with stress and division. Maybe that is one of its most important functions for today. As a country we have been bitterly divided before but have found a way to come back together and move on. Perhaps looking into the past, we can gain some assurance that we will survive yet again.
If you check out other videos you will see the range of approaches and treatments. I am including two here.
The first is the original recording by Charlie Poole.
Here is a different video featuring the bluegrass tendency to use it as a platform for solos...
I wanted to share this video with you. I had held off doing so before because of a variety of reasons. The sound isn't quite right. Lee forgot her strap. The lens on the camera made it seem like we were in different rooms when we are actually right next to each other. We did not reject Lee! There was also mic trouble. Anyway, we had plans to clean it up or make a slide show, but things didn't work out that way. Still, we thought we would put it out even with its imperfections. The message of this song is important to hear right now.
We hoped that the context would be different. “Marching Together” is an old song from the women's suffrage movement, used in the state of Kansas (among other places) to urge men to support women in their quest for equal rights. It was part of our Reformation Sunday service honoring the 19th Century trailblazer, Rev. Olympia Brown. You can hear the congregation singing it with us. We were proud and pleased and hopeful that the work of people like Brown would finally result in the election of a female president in these United States. As we all know now, it was not to be...at least this time.
Of course, it makes even more sense to post this now. It makes even more sense for us all to learn it and sing it. Polls show that most white men supported Trump over Clinton. Many, many did not support him and I am one of those white men. However, we have our work cut out for us. It appears that our society has not come as far as we had hoped from that Kansas suffrage campaign in 1867.
Now, about this song; Songs from the Kansas movement were collected and published together in a variety of forms over the years. This one comes from a book published in 1909. There is a lot of great stuff in it, including the lyrics we are using. I will link to it below.
Actually, there are other versions, too. After we performed it at church we learned that the tune--also used for a happy song about Sherman's march to the sea--had been used for a song supporting the candidacy of President McKinley! There were also many variations to the suffragist version. However, most of of them played the “mother/daughter” card. These days we should be careful about men defining women based on the relationship those women may have to men (sorry Louis CK). I didn't vote for Hillary Clinton to honor my mom. I did it because she was (and is) the right person to lead the country at this time.
We also chose this version because of the Kansas connection. It is quite likely a version that Olympia Brown would have sung during her work organizing there. I know I have mentioned her elsewhere. She is a hero of mine. A gifted minister, businessperson, and politician, she was the first woman ordained and recognized by her denomination (Universalist). She was also one of very few first generation suffragists who lived long enough to vote, herself.
The song has simple chord pattern which, of course, is best for something everyone should sing.
Bring the good old bugle, boys!
And let the truth be shown
That woman has as many rights
As any man has known;
And let us help her win the fight
She may not win alone
A(7) D G
While we go marching together
G G C G
Hurrah! Hurrah! We bring the jubilee!
G G A D
Hurrah! Hurrah! For woman shall be free!
G C G G (Em)
And have as many sacred rights as God gave you and me,
A(7) D G
While we go marching together!
This is our arrangement, more or less. The other lyrics are in that songbook linked below. Lee Manuel set this up for us. Anything in parentheses is optional. 7th chords (in case you don't know) will make it sound old timey. We used them in the video but usually had someone else just play the regular chord at the same time. It keeps things exciting! Don't worry about changing stuff around to suit your style, skill level, and taste. You can't break it. It is a folk song.
So there you go. Apparently some Trump supporters want to take the country back to a magical before-time. Let's give it to 'em and fight the patriarchy the 19th Century way!
Here is a link to that book. It is wicked cool! You will notice that most of these songs are set to older tunes. This is a common practice in actual folk as singing along is a key part of the exercise. Just like hymns in church.
OK, so I taught my first class at the "experimental school" this morning. I have sent the email to begin the Dungeons and Dragons class. I have even spent some time on that pesky RE curriculum. So now I am sitting down with a cup of coffee to spend a little time on the least of my sabbatical projects..."Burbania Folk".
You may recall what the plan is. I will find some folk songs (as defined by me), post a recording of me playing them, provide some supporting materials, and write a little essay about why I picked it. I was hoping to do 20. We'll be lucky if I get to 8. I am kicking this off with a song that has been a part of my life forever. Yep...it's Freight Train...
Now--in my biased opinion--this is one of the great American songs. The story of this song is one of the great tales in the history of American Folk. Trapped forever within it are some of the many streams that have followed us to this day. Racism, classism, and the challenge of maintaining a culture in the face of the constant push toward "progress" all make their contribution to the narrative. The song is old yet it is still relevant.
At the center of this story we find the author/composer Elizabeth Cotten. Born in 1893 and raised in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, she wrote this song when she was 12 years old. A couple of years later she was asked by her church to put music aside to serve God with more intention (an interesting idea these days, particularly if you attend the uke-playing Eliot Church). She married a year later at the age of 15. After a divorce, she moved to Washington DC. There she worked a variety of jobs and would have been pretty much forgotten except for a strange coincidence that altered the course of music.
One day Cotten helped a mother find her missing child in the department store where she worked. The mom was the pianist Ruth Crawford Seeger, wife of ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger. Both of them were instrumental in the early years of the intentional "collecting" of folk songs. The missing child (thankfully found unharmed) was their daughter, Peggy. Later--along with her brothers Mike and Pete--Peggy would help to popularize traditional and acoustic music in North America and elsewhere.
Long story short Elizabeth (known as "Libba") moved in with the Seegers and worked for them as a "domestic" (caring for the kids and doing other household chores). One day, Peggy and Mike heard her playing music in the kitchen and the rest, as they say, is history. It should be noted, though, that this "discovery" (one could argue whether she was missing or "hidden" in the first place) occurred in the 1940's. However, she didn't get the rights to her song until 1957. This was not unusual. Many early folk artists had trouble getting paid for their work as their white (usually well-educated, usually well-meaning) "discoverers" frequently took the first cut.
Of course, when she wrote that song, Cotten didn't ever think she would get paid for playing. She composed for herself. That said, her style was innovative. She was left-handed and taught herself to play (as many left-handed people do) by turning the guitar "upside down", with the bass strings on the bottom and the high strings on top.. Later on Jimi Hendrix would do the same thing. However, unlike Hendrix (who usually played an electric guitar with a flatpick), Cotton played a fingerstyle eventually called "Cotten Picking". Many years after developing her technique, other fine younger guitarists would despair of capturing her sound.
I have always been in awe of this song and this woman. It is a song that my parents sang to me as I fell asleep. It is one that I sang to my children. As a kid, I loved it. I could see the train in my head. I could feel the wheels rolling along the tracks. Built into this song and tune is a desire, a yearning to escape to somewhere else. For Cotten, of course, there was the specter of segregation and continued racism as well. She came into this world in 1893! One cannot help but think of what experiences might have have informed her and her work.
For me there was just the pull and the promise (as there was also for her) of finally getting to see what is around the corner. Hopefully we will all get a peek in this life. If not, then maybe we will in death. Either way, it puts word and feeling to the dream of turning from the past to never look back. "Please don't tell them which train I am on"
We have sung this song in church a few times. Why wouldn't we? It is hard to imagine this as anything other than deeply spiritual and religious. It is a song of hope, after all. It is also a song of grace. It is a song of freedom, too. I hope you love it as much as I do.
How do you play it? By listening to the words and singing along. I will not give the lyrics to you because then you are stuck weening yourself off a piece of paper. I am doing you a favor that I wish had been done for me with numerous tunes. HOWEVER, I will give you the chords we use in the video above: C/G/C/E/F/C/G/C. Listen for the changes or watch the video below marked "Uke Tips". even if you don't play the ukulele, the chords are the same and I show where to place them. Most of you won't need to watch it unless you want to.
Finally? There is a video of Cotten herself, still crushing it. Honestly, you should check it out. Guitarists won't be able to even look at their instruments for the rest of the day.
Here is "Uke Tips". It was recorded in haste by me, but it works...I think... and covers the challenge of playing that pesky "E".
Here is Elizabeth Cotten. Check out her playing. It is phenomenal.
Just in case you were interested in what, exactly, we played on Folk Sunday, I am including the insert where we explained a bit the songs we played. We recorded all the music and--eventually--some of these recordings will be used for my sabbatical "Burbania Folk" project, the outlines of which are described elsewhere on the blog. All the songs except "Freedom" currently fit the working parameters. Anyway, here they are in the order presented...
White House Blues (Traditional)
First recorded by Charlie Poole in 1926, this classic song tells part of the story of the assassination of President William McKinley (by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz) in 1901. It lives on today thanks to its role interpreting one of the important events of the progressive era. In addition, it is fun to play and has become a bluegrass and old-time standard. As with many folk songs, there are more verses then there is time to sing them. One classic version reviews the assassination and its aftermath in epic detail. Today, however, we will be performing the shorter version similar to the one recorded by Poole.
Keep Your Eyes on the Prize (Traditional)
With deep roots in the African American folk tradition, this song became an essential part of the soundtrack of the civil rights movement. It grew out of a number of older songs including the church hymn "Gospel Plow". As with many civil rights songs it has a life in the church that continues to this day. Part of its long life stems from its ability to speak truth in both sacred and secular contexts.
Fields of Athenry (Pete St. John)
At one time this song was considered to be quite old. However, while it addresses the plight of the Irish during the great famine (1845 to 1850), it turns out to have been written in the 1970s! It's simple and accessible tune no doubt led people to ascribe a greater age to the work. It is a popular song in Ireland where it is sung by fans at rugby games and other sporting events. Here in New England it is best known in its folk-punk incarnation as performed by The Dropkick Murphys.
Even though it is a relatively new song, we are singing it anyway as it fits today's theme of music commenting on society. Also, it reminds us that folk music in its purest form (that is, songs that transcend the performance of their originator and become the property of all the people who who perform, modify, and interpret in their own way) is still being made.
Freedom (Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan)
This is the newest song in our service today. Written for their 2015 album Monterey, the Milk Carton Kids (Pattengale and Ryan) examine the current questions around the concept of freedom in our country. This is a particularly timely song in light of modern fears around immigration, terrorism, and gun violence. Whether it becomes a classic or not remains to be seen. However, it is a fine example of political and social commentary within the singer-songwriter tradition that began during the mid 20th Century.
This Land is Your Land (Woody Guthrie)
This song needs little introduction. The words were written by Woody Guthrie in 1940 as a direct response to "God Bless America" the Kate Smith version of which was played regularly on the radio as the nation prepared to enter the Second World War. Guthrie wanted a song that reflected the diversity and potential on the country while also underlining some of its more pressing problems. The tune was modified from an old Baptist hymn.
Of course, the McCarthy era was a difficult time for progressives, who found much of their work repressed. Thanks to the upbeat and easy tune, this deeply political song survived in the elementary schools (with the more political versus removed) and remains one of the most popular songs in the United States. Our version today may sound somewhat unfamiliar as we are relying heavily on those more political verses that have been avoided at times out of fear, censorship, or politeness.
If I Had a Hammer (Hammer Song) (Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes)
Written for the Weavers in 1949, this song has been an integral part of the American progressive landscape. Interestingly, most people probably remember learning it in school or in summer camp. This is particularly surprising when we consider that its first live performance was at a testimonial dinner for leaders of the Communist Party of the United States! Many of the more political folk songs in history have depended on their popularity with children for their survival.
There hasn't been much action on the blog. I have been spending more time videotaping sermons, apparently. To remedy that, here is a sermon (adapted somewhat to fit some semblance of written rather than spoken word) about "Folk Sunday" which was this past week. Obviously with the sabbatical coming up I am thinking about the place of Folk in our culture. Anyway, it is short (we had a lot of music to play and a service project to attend to) but it is an attempt...
Music is a tone of voice, the sound life uses to keep the living alive. They call us back many times a day from the brinks of torture—the holes of superstition. There never was a sound that was not music—there's no real trick of creating words to set to music—once you realize that the word is the music and the people are the song.
Now, I know we don't have much time right now. We have a service project to attend to. But it seemed to make sense to take a moment to explain why we go through this exercise [of Folk Sunday] every year. It isn't just for fun, you know, although I certainly think it is. No, what we are doing today (gathered together in our amateur, non-professional condition in order to sing and hear songs) is taking back something vital to human expression; taking it back from the corporate culture that wants to put a price on everything. This includes art, itself, to the point of judging its quality based on how much it can be sold for.
I think most of you know that I take music pretty seriously. I don't play it well, but I enjoy it a great deal. Over the years I have built up a pretty solid collection of the recorded variety. I have recordings of music produced by professionals both famous and not so famous. I have mix-tapes from my youth, bootlegs, CD's and itunes. I even possess a small collection of vinyl records, too. Also, like many of you--I know this because we have gone together--I have invested a good deal of money and time with the objective of attending live concerts. Some of them have been here at the church, of course. However, I also regularly seek out bands at clubs in Boston and in other towns. Of course, I can also be found music festivals around New England and in upstate New York. So I listen to and enjoy a wide variety of styles with various levels of artistry.
However, I have to say that folk music--which in this case means not the acoustic music marketed as “folk” by record companies (which I also enjoy) but actual folk music played by people like us for little or no money--is just as important, just as relevant as any other form. In many ways it is even more relevant. Folk works with a broader topical palette than commercial popular music does. At its heart it reflects the sounds and feelings that come from people's actual lives. It frequently reflects sounds and feelings from areas that many may not see as worthy or worthwhile topics when economic gain is the primary filter.
A song about the assassination of a president like we heard today would be one example. There are others too. Songs about a public works project or about an unpopular war, or gun control or civil rights would have (and has had in the past) a hard time getting air play in the midst of the constant wave of semi-romantic and self-referential songs that have usually made up the bulk of commercial forms.
Folk songs live in a way that most recorded popular music does not. When a song goes through the process of becoming a more general part of the human sonic landscape, it changes. Folk singers (which is to say people like you and me) don't worry so much about getting the words right or the tunes and the meter just so. What is important is the intent, the message, the feeling it produces as it is passed from hand to hand over generations. In folk music, as in life itself, our limitations frequently provide the catalyst for inspiration as much as our strengths do.
Also--just as we do in church With our readings both sacred and secular--we apply those songs to new contexts and new situations. So over time a church song like “Eyes on the Prize” can become a protest song. Or--perhaps more telling--is that story about “This Land is Your Land”. This is a song that began as a protest song, survived the second Red Scare as a children's song, was rediscovered as a patriotic song, and is now in the process of becoming a protest song once again.
This is a cycle that is as old as music, as old as humanity. Woody Guthrie tells us that “there never was a sound that was not music”. In fact, it is a cycle that has been part of all creative forms for most of human history. If you wanted a story, a song, a painting, a chair, or a sermon you wouldn't go out and buy one, or find other more passive means of acquisition. You or your friends and family would have to make one, or share one, modify one, grow one. For most of human existence, art was just like everything else that people made. It required numerous individuals with numerous ideas. It required collaboration, of course, and time. Time to develop and nurture those ideas into something with structure and order and grace.
For most people the closest they would get to a concert was sitting around with their friends, everyone contributing to the process in some way. Performers today still try to reproduce that participatory element. They seek out some of that connection in shows and concerts. Here at Eliot we also seek that connection. We don't just do this on Folk/Service Sunday. We do it on every Sunday with volunteer musicians and readers; coffee hour contributors and raised bed planters. We are a community, a family, a congregation bringing what we have to make something together.
Folk music--like folk art and folk worship--us an act of resistance Against the forces of uniformity and conformity. Therefore it is holy. Therefore it is sacred.
Now, the time has come for us to move this service along. We have one more song to sing. Then we have to grab our coffee and go do some planting. However, as we prepare ourselves for these tasks let us strive to remember the special sound that we make. It may not be as polished as we might like. It may not reflect all that we want to say or dream but it is ours. It is special, unique, and good.
I need your help.
I have a sabbatical coming up and am in the process of figuring out what I can do to add value to my ministry. I am looking for places where my own interests intersect with those of the church. I am also looking for projects that will be fun to do. This quest naturally led to folk music.
Music in general is one of the things that brings Eliot Church together. We love singing hymns, listening to the "special music" provided by our music director and soloists. We enjoy participating in and hearing the choir. Then, of course, there is the Ukestra which has its own spot on this webpage and provides numerous opportunities to play and sing.
What I would like to do for my sabbatical (I have other plans as well) is to learn to play at least 20 folksongs without recourse to written lyrics, chord sheets, or notation. Part of the reason for my wanting to do this simply comes from the social awkwardness of people learning that I play the ukulele/mandolin/guitar, shoving an instrument into my hands, and asking me to play something. It is awkward. The fact is I only know a few songs where I don't need some form of assistance. However, that is not the only reason. I am also on a quest to accumulate songs for the Ukestra and for worship in general. Folk music is a good place to start.
There are reasons for this (some of them obvious) and I am sure that I will unpack that more over time. Right now, though, I would like to accumulate a list of songs that you my loyal colleagues, readers, and fellow Eliot members think I should learn. Since "folk" is a word with many meanings, I have some guidelines for us to think about...
WHAT I AM LOOKING FOR
1) Actual Folk Songs:
As a marketing term, Folk Music can mean a lot of things. Here, however I have a rather restricted vision. Which is to say, I mean actual folksongs. Not semi-acoustic "folky" songs like we hear a Newport. I am not interested in contemporary singer-songwriters from the 1960s to the present. The idea is to find music that is shared (or can be shared) over a broad group of people. In fact, what I am most interested in are songs that we find ourselves singing but are (at first at least) unsure of the author. "Drunken Sailor" or "This Land is Your Land" spring to mind. They are simple and in some sense eternal.
I am not interested in fancy guitar work or introspective ballads. I love Frank Turner. I enjoy Jason Isbell. They and their ilk are great artists but I am looking for songs that identify with a people rather than a person.
Folksongs are meant to be sung and played by actual folks. This means that they are usually structured in a simple, easy to remember way. Repeated lines, only one or two "parts" (verse and chorus), and simple tunes make it possible for a large group of people to know a song, perform it, and enjoy it. To that end, I am looking for songs with from one to five chords and no "bridges". Any more than three chords is probably showing off. It is worth remembering, in fact, that many folksongs (work songs in particular) didn't have any accompaniment to start.
3) "Traditional" or "Anonymous" :
There are many exceptions to this rule, however in general I am interested in traditional songs. Sometimes there won't be an author. Sometimes the tune has been used before or at least echoes other songs.
Certainly some actual folksongs do have authors. Woody Guthrie, Elizabeth Cotton, Charlie Poole, and Robert Johnson are among just a few of the songwriters whose work has transcended their own performance and entered into our cultural consciousness. These are all great choices or suggestions.
A great many commercial acts in the "Americana" vein will throw a couple covers onto their albums. Some of them are obvious and well-known songs. Some of them are not but could be. This is a good place to look. All of them are fair game for us to learn.
Finally, I would like to reiterate that the songs be the sort that people enjoy singing together. Yes, sometimes that means a hymn or spiritual. Yet sometimes it could mean a drinking song, patriotic song, or murder ballad. It just needs to have strong lyrics a steady beat and a simple tune.
WHAT I WILL DO
Once I have a collection of, say, 20 songs that fit the guidelines, I will select 10 that seem interesting and get started. My plan is to research the history of each song, learn to play it, and then record a simple version to place on this webpage. I will throw the chord progressions in there as well.
Ultimately, I will either keep these posts under a separate heading in Burbania Posts or create a "Burbania Folk" page. That will depend on volume, I think.
If anyone (colleagues, bandmates, and congregants in particular) would like to be on the recordings please let me know that as well. I think the videos will get pretty boring without guest performers. Besides--as I said--I envision this project as being a participatory one! Ukestra members of course may very well see some of the songs again... In a good way.
So anyway, what are your thoughts? Are there folksongs that you would like to hear in church? Ones that you would like to learn yourself? Ones that you would like me to learn because you think it would be funny? Let me know! I have some ideas but I am very interested in others.
This is my old weblog of many years. I will probably post here from time to time is there is a subject that does not fit WWG. However WWG is the more active page at this point.