….I’ll kiss you for each leaf on every tree

In the 1940s many of his recordings included the following “Copyright Warning”:

“This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright # 154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin’ it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.” 

Of course there are many factions who still claim the copyrights to many of these songs  and the obfuscated legalese contained within their warnings is no longer quite so friendly and folksy.

Born in Okemah, Oklahoma in 1912 and named after the Democratic Governor of New Jersey, and soon to be President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Guthrie’s folk compendium includes well over a thousand traditional, political and children’s songs. Cited for his natural ability to play by ear (and never learning to read or write music), Guthrie began to learn old ballads and English and Scottish folks songs as an adolescent. Although he never graduated from high school those who knew him noted how he always seemed to be reading.

With the onset of the Great Depression, Guthrie joined the wave of migrant workers, moving from Oklahoma to California, learning countless folk and blues songs along the way.  After “borrowing” a plethora of styles, he began to write and perform songs about his own experiences, and came to be known as the “Dust Bowl Troubadour.”

Eventually the twice married and twice divorced Guthrie accepted an invitation from his friend Will Geer (that’s right “Grampa Walton”) and moved to New York City where he performed in various venues and on the radio, his guitar displaying the slogan, “This Machine Kills Fascists”.  It was in New York, in 1940, that his most famous song came into being. After growing tired of listening to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” (which he considered to be complacent and unrealistic) he wrote “This Land is Your Land” (subtitled: “God Blessed America For Me”).

Although he thought the best use of his talents would be to perform his anti-fascist songs as a USO performer, the US Army disagreed and conscripted him for the draft.  As some of his friends were going into the Merchant Marine he decided to join them, serving as dishwasher and troop entertainer on the long transatlantic voyages.  However, in 1945 some of Guthrie’s “left-leaning” associations came to light (although he never considered himself to be Communist he was accused of being one) and, now barred from the Merchant Marine, he was drafted into the Army.

While on furlough he married his third wife, Marjorie, and after the war they moved to a house on Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island, where they had four children, including Nora and little Arlo (who would follow in his father’s folk footsteps). The years that followed were Woody Guthrie’s most productive as a songwriter and the resulting collection (much of it never recorded) was archived by Marjorie after his death in 1967 (from Huntington’s Chorea) and later by his daughter Nora.

In 1992 Nora, who wanted to introduce her father’s songs to a new generation of musicians, approached (our old friend), English “non-folk” singer, Billy Bragg, after attending his Guthrie tribute concert in Central Park.  As Woody didn’t write music, the lyrics Nora presented to Bragg included only stylistic notations.

Bragg then approached the band, Wilco (none of whom he’d previously met) and asked them to participate in the project, which included writing contemporary music for a selection of Guthrie’s lyrics and then recording the songs. The resulting album, Mermaid Avenue, was Released in 1998.

Hailed as a huge success and nominated for a Grammy Award as Best Contemporary Folk Album, after it’s release two follow-up albums were produced and other artists began to follow suit by recording unpublished material by Woody Guthrie.  Not that the Billy Bragg and Wilco were first at the door. As a matter of fact, as Bob Dylan noted in his autobiography, “Chronicles” Woody Guthrie had offered his unpublished songs to him back in the early 1960s, but he was unable to access them because Arlo Guthrie wouldn’t let him in the house.

Performed by Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, This is track number 13.  Between his mother and his daughter, Guthrie clearly thought a lot of the name, Nora.

LISTEN TO TODAY’S SELECTION – Thursday 7 June  

Hesitating Beauty

 For your sparkling cocky smile I’ve walked a million miles

Begging you to come and wed me in the spring

Why do you my dear delay

What makes you laugh and turn away

You’re a hesitating beauty, Nora Lee

 Well I know that you are itching to get married, Nora Lee

And I know how I’m twitching for the same thing, Nora Lee

By the stars and clouds above we could spend our lives in love

You’re a hesitating beauty, Nora Lee

 We can build a house and home where the flowers come to bloom

Around our yard I’ll nail a fence so high

That the boys with peeping eyes cannot see that angel face

My hesitating beauty Nora Lee

Well I know that you are itching to get married Nora Lee

And I know how I’m twitching for the same thing Nora Lee

By the stars and clouds above we can spend our lives in love

If you quit your hesitating, Nora Lee

 We can ramble hand in hand across the grasses of our land

I’ll kiss you for each leaf on every tree

We can bring our kids to play where the dry leaves blow today

If you quit your hesitating, Nora Lee

 Well I know that you are itching to get married, Nora Lee

And I know how I’m twitching for the same thing, Nora Lee

By the stars and clouds above we could spend our lives in love

If you quit your hesitating, Nora Lee

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