Documentary series about American folk music. The 1930s saw folk redefined as the voice of protest and the outsider. Woody Guthrie fitted the mould perfectly.
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A fiery young drifter took this traditional hymn tune
and transformed it into what would become America's alternative national anthem.
# This land is your land, this land is my land
# From California to the New York Island
# From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
# This land was made for you and me... #
The Carter family promised justice in the world to come, but Woody Guthrie wasn't willing to wait.
He wrote this on his way across an America devastated after ten years of depression.
# There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me
# The sign was painted, it said "private property"
# But on the back side, it didn't say nothing
# This land was made for you and me... #
He was heading for New York City, fast becoming the Mecca of the folk world.
There, in this house, he met a group of friends who would reinvent folk
music for their time as a voice of protest, the voice of the oppressed.
There was the Communist son of a classical composer,
a folk song collector, a black sex symbol and civil rights campaigner,
and a convicted murderer who brought old songs with him out of a southern jail.
All but he were still in their 20s, and life in the house was a party.
We all lived together and very happily. It wasn't a mission.
It was just a happening. It just happened to all come together.
I look back on it now as the golden age of conviction
that we could make a better world if we all got together and just sang about it.
MUSIC: "Goodnight, Irene" by Leadbelly
Ten years before, early in the Depression, the bank at which John Lomax worked failed.
He had to phone all his customers to tell them that their investments were worthless.
Unemployed and with a family to support, he slumped into a depression of his own.
But he pulled through and made history by returning
to an early passion, when he published a groundbreaking collection of cowboy songs.
In 1933, with a car boot full of the very latest recording equipment
supplied by the Library of Congress,
he set off with his 18-year-old son Alan, scouring southern prisons for traditional black songs.
They thought they'd hit the jackpot when they came across Leadbelly.
He had a huge repertoire of songs and he was recognised in the prison.
He was asked to come out and entertain sometimes.
MUSIC: "Goodnight, Irene" by Leadbelly
I think Leadbelly recognised in my grandfather somebody who could help him advance his musical career.
He wanted to be a successful, popular musician and this had long been his ambition, from childhood.
John Lomax saw the prisons as time capsules, uncontaminated by
the modern world and its commercial music.
He believes when you put black people in isolation, they will revert back
to the music that they'd grown up with, the songs of their childhood,
the real black music before all this modern technology came along.
Leadbelly did sing old songs, in an old style, but he also listened to the pop songs of the day.
When Leadbelly got out of Angola state penitentiary, he was released on good time.
Not because he made a record for the governor, which was kind of the myth
that both he and my grandfather allowed to circulate, because it made a good story.
It was at this hotel in Marshall, Texas that Leadbelly met John Lomax in 1934, on his release from prison.
Leadbelly wrote to grandfather, asking him for a job,
and he wrote Leadbelly back, "Be here, bring your driver's licence and guitar."
That's where they set off on this historic trip around the South,
where Leadbelly acted as his assistant and driver.
It was highly unusual in that time and place for white and black to work together.
You had to be really careful, because if you were seen to be stirring up trouble, so to speak...
That was a very tense period.
They did get Leadbelly into their hotel sometimes, they would sneak him in.
But that was absolutely not permissible.
Lomax was a showman, and he couldn't resist writing to his friends in New York
and saying, "I've found this phenomenal singer, and wait till you hear him!"
So he got a couple of invitations from
the Modern Language Association, this collection of English professors.
In between a session on Elizabethan madrigals
and a session on sea shanties,
John Lomax stood and delivered a lecture about Negro folk song
and Leadbelly performed the numbers. It was absolutely electric.
This was very revolutionary, just even to talk about black song,
let alone have a real actual person get up there and do it.
And the story of Leadbelly, that he was a former convict
and that he had sung his way out of prison, that caused a big stir.
'Hailed by the Library of Congress's music division
'as its greatest folk song find in 25 years,
'Leadbelly's songs go into the archives of the great
'national institution, along with the Declaration of Independence.'
-And that wasn't all.
-Leadbelly, what are you doing here?
Leadbelly, what are you doing here?
Boss, I've come here to be your man, I've come here to work for you the rest of my life.
The newsreels made a scripted reconstruction of their first meeting.
-It was shown in cinemas before the main feature.
-All right, Leadbelly, I'll try it.
Thank you! I'll drive you all over the United States, I'll tie your shoe strings for you.
You'll never have to tie your shoe strings as long as I work for you.
And I'll sing songs for you, you'll be my big boss, I'll be your man.
Thank you, sir, thank you, sir!
My grandfather was very patriarchal, domineering, complicated, sentimental.
No doubt he bossed...told Leadbelly what to do, but he told everyone what to do.
The Lomaxes took Leadbelly on a tour round some northern colleges.
The Lomaxes would give him what money
they thought he should have in his pocket.
Well, now, Leadbelly got tired of that. Just degrading, very degrading.
He said, "I got tired of him giving me money like I'm a little boy -
"'Go out and buy some candy or something' - that's why I left"
There was a very unpleasant fight that they had and that was the end of that.
My grandfather was offended for ever and ever.
They had worked together for only eight months, but between them,
they had achieved something remarkable - the redefinition of American folk.
Suddenly, you had this idea -
folk music was not just genteel old songs
from the mountains, or nostalgic songs from the plantation South.
Folk music had a kind of edge to it. Folk music was outsider music.
It was sung by Negro prisoners on chain gangs, by all kinds of outcasts.
That was the world that Leadbelly's songs conjured up.
It was just one step away from saying folk music was actually about protesting the way things were.
The man who would fit this new mould perfectly was Woody Guthrie.
Every year, this festival is held in the town where he was born.
I would do anything, anywhere, anytime for my brother Woody Guthrie.
I am tickled to death that I can be here
for that little scrounging rascal!
He was very small and slender, little bitty legs, little bitty arms.
Woody made you feel like you were very special.
And when Woody talked, you listened.
A drifter, a rebel, always siding with the down-and-outs,
Woody was known only to a small, radical audience
and never had a hit record.
Now, he is seen as a national treasure.
He was a classic American archetype.
He was every teenage American boy's dream of running away from home,
seeing what's over the next hill.
The clever little guy.
The clever little guy with the social conscience.
In a sense, Woody was his own invention.
He was born middle class - his father was a land speculator and local politician.
But the family fell apart. Woody's father went bankrupt,
and his mother was shut away as insane, though in fact, she had Huntington's chorea.
Age 14, Woody was left to fend for himself.
# Oh, if you ain't got the do-re-mi, folks
# If you ain't got the do-re-mi... #
Because Woody was an underdog himself, he began to identify
with other people who were poor and oppressed.
The Depression had destroyed farmers' livelihoods, and now the dustbowl destroyed their land.
A great movement started out to California, where there were migrant farm worker jobs.
Woody joined the drift west. This is when he wrote his first song.
# So long, it's been good to know you
# So long, it's been good to know you
# So long, it's been good to know you
# This dusty old dust is a-blowing me home
# I've got to be rolling along... #
They stopped him at the California border
and said, "Do you have any money?" And he went, "Isn't this America?
"I didn't realise I needed a visa to go across the California border."
Once he started saying, "I wonder why it's like this,"
the feelings started planting ideas in his head,
which started coming out as words and language of his music.
When I was at high school, I listened to So Long It's Been Good To Know You
and I thought, "This guy can't sing at all, he's a terrible singer.
"But I love his songs."
It took me a while to learn to like music with the bark still on it.
# And the rustlers broke on us
# In the dead hours of night
# She rose from her warm bed, a battle to fight... #
He knew how to put words together and make it be meaningful and poetic.
A rich collection of slang words that came from oil well drilling
and gamblers that they sing about in the blues and in the cowboy songs.
It's not the way they speak in New York City.
# Come all of you cowboys and don't ever run
# As long as there's bullets in both of your guns. #
Woody's songs fitted the mood of the times.
I am prepared to recommend the measures that a stricken nation
in the midst of a stricken world may require.
When Franklin Roosevelt became president, he immediately implemented the new deal
to create work despite the Depression.
And folk music was expected to spread the word.
In the 1920s, folk music had been built around a nostalgia for a pastoral, rural world.
By the 1930s, that phrase "folk music" gains a different sort of electricity about it.
It's hijacked, I suppose, by the Left.
At first, the Left had dreamed of modern classical music as the path to a bright future.
Pete Seeger was from a well-off New York family.
Both his parents were classical musicians who wanted to take music to the people.
My father was in a group called the Composers' Collective.
After all, in Russia, they had collective farms,
why not have a composers' collective in New York?
But the proletariat was not interested in their songs.
My father brought a Kentucky miner's wife to the meeting of the collective
and she sang, "I am a union woman, just brave as I can be,
"I do not like the bosses and the bosses don't like me."
The other composers said, "Charlie, this is the music of the past.
"We're supposed to be creating the music of the future."
My father said to her, "I'm sorry they didn't understand you,
"but I know some young people gonna want to learn your songs," and I was one of them.
In the '30s, the Communist Party was as mainstream in America as it would ever be.
It abandoned modernism and threw in its lot with folk music.
But the two heroes were not yet quite ready to man the barricades.
Guthrie now had a job playing for his cousin Jack
on a Los Angeles country radio show.
Many of the southern white recording artists of the '20s had died or gone back into obscurity.
Others were swept into this emerging commercial country scene.
Folkwas already becoming folksy.
Country music leant to the Right.
But Guthrie was different - he had a sideline writing a column for a Communist paper.
The best instrument that he played was the typewriter.
He would play a lot of fund-raising parties and Communists were his best audience.
His only paying audience, a lot of the time.
Common-ism, he called it.
"It's Common-ism. What we have in common."
One guy told me he couldn't possibly be with Communism.
He could never finish the paperwork!
Three nights a week meetings - this is not Woody. No way.
But it was enough to lose him his job at the country radio station.
Meanwhile, Leadbelly was struggling too,
trying to make a comeback without John Lomax.
He wanted to be a commercial singer.
But his style was passe.
Its rough rawness appealed mainly to the Left.
The general public, especially the black public, preferred a more uptown sound they could dance to.
Josh White had been the youngest star of the race records era.
He didn't want to be danced to, he wanted people to listen.
He found a home in the emerging folk scene in New York.
MUSIC: "Blood Red River Blues" by Josh White
His style was smooth, but his past was brutal.
Born in the South, he had seen his father badly beaten and put in an insane asylum
for daring to ask a white sheriff to remove his hat in their house.
From the age of eight, he travelled around, leading blind, black musicians, 66 of them in all.
One of the blind men he was leading was sleeping
in a field, and the blind man heard some noise, and woke my old man up.
He woke him up by putting a hand over my father's mouth so he wouldn't make any noise.
A crowd of white people had found two black men,
chased them and hanged them.
These men were already dead,
hanging from the trees.
And every now and then, someone would get a hot poker and go...and burn these bodies.
This is what this 8-year-old boy witnessed.
Aged 17, he would go north for good, leaving all the blind bluesmen he worked for behind.
John Lomax's son Alan was put in charge of the folk song archive
at the Library of Congress in Washington.
He did in six years what most men would have done in a lifetime.
He was full of youthful confidence and energy
and he'd call up the head of the Columbia Broadcasting System.
"Mr Paley, I think you should play some of these wonderful melodies."
-Hello there, Peter.
What's that funny-looking guitar you're playing?
Oh, this isn't a guitar, this is a banjo.
Tell me, is a banjo something new?
New? It's about as new as America is.
Alan gave Pete Seeger his first job, sifting through the Southern records
of the '20s to decide which ones could best be considered folk.
The banjo still makes folk dance out in the country.
Well, then, Pete, what are you doing here in New York City?
Well, it's a funny thing, but people in this big town
are beginning to like my kind of music too.
Pete was from the big town himself, but he saw hope for the future
in looking back to the music of the rural poor.
Pete ended up taking a stand as a political songwriter.
That's what he decided to do, but I think it comes from, you know...
the folk traditions were important to him as well.
As time went on, the people that were carrying the tradition on happened to be really political people.
Alan Lomax had swung increasingly to the Left, much to his father's annoyance.
But even more wounding to his father was that he had taken up with Leadbelly again.
Alan put Leadbelly on his new radio show, and recorded him again for the Library of Congress.
Leadbelly had yet to make a commercial record.
He too became part of the emerging folk scene.
He was, you know, contained and very proper.
But he was always the star,
because when he began strumming, and that voice,
that special voice, people would be spellbound.
When you pick cotton,
you've got to jump down to pick a bale of cotton a day.
You can't fool around. And we sang...
My dad and Leadbelly would do radio shows together.
My father was very aware of letting people know, "I can speak as well as you can."
He didn't have an accent like Leadbelly did.
MUSIC: "Pick A Bale Of Cotton" by Leadbelly
On stage, Leadbelly didn't mind wearing the jeans and the thing around the neck and playing.
Dad felt, "Secretly, they're laughing at you, Leadbelly.
"I wanna show you're not coming here to watch the monkey dance."
# Oh, Lord, I can pick a bale of cotton... #
Didn't bother Leadbelly.
The man was born in 1880, things didn't faze him as Dad.
Dad was very aware of... "representing the Negro race."
# Jump down, turn around and pick a bale of cotton
# Jump down, turn around and pick a bale a day
# Oh, Lord, I can pick a bale of cotton
# Oh, Lord, I can pick a bale a day
# Oh, Lord, I can pick a bale of cotton
# Oh, Lord, I can pick a bale a day. #
Josh White's attitude won him friends in high places.
# Well, airplanes flying across the land and sea
# Everybody's flying but a Negro like me
# Uncle Sam says your place is on the ground... #
With the war looming, he wrote a song against racism in the armed services.
# When I fly my airplane, don't want no Negro 'round... #
The head of Uncle Sam right then was President Roosevelt.
My father got a phone call to come to the White House and sing this song.
# ..when ships go to sea, all they got is a mess boy's job for me
# Uncle Sam says, keep on your apron, son... #
It began a friendship between the two families that lasted beyond FDR's life.
Leadbelly also made a trip to Washington, visiting Alan Lomax.
He too wrote a song putting anger into words.
# We rode all around in the rain
# No coloured people wouldn't let me in, because I was with a white man
# In Bourgeois Town, me and Marty, standing up there
# Heard the white man tell, "I don't want no niggers up there..." #
Bourgeois Blues is about Leadbelly's own experience
trying to check into a hotel in Washington DC.
And he had been hanging out with all of these leftie folk singers and absorbing a political consciousness.
# Tell all the coloured people, I want them to understand
# Washington ain't no place for no coloured man
# Cos it Bourgeois Town... #
It's about segregation.
It's not really about class war.
# White folks in Washington, they know how
# To chuck you a nickel just to see a nigger bow
# It Bourgeois Town... #
The circle was completed when Guthrie turned up in New York in 1940.
# Take me ridin' in the car, car
# Take me ridin' in the car, car
# Take you ridin' in my car, car
# I'll take you ridin' in my car... #
Woody performed at a Grapes of Wrath fund-raising concert,
where he met Alan Lomax and Pete Seeger for the first time.
MUSIC: "This Land Is Your Land"
# From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
# This land was made for you and me. #
They were just knocked over.
Pete Seeger admired Woody, he saw Woody as the thing itself.
You know, and he tried to emulate him.
Woody's folk classicism with his Left politics
proved to be the ultimate fantasy for the New York Left.
Alan got Woody to come down there, and he spent two days recording every song he knew.
# John Henry, was he was a baby
# Sittin' down on his mammy's knee
# Picked up a hammer in his little right hand
# He said that'll be the death of me
# That hammer will be the death of me... #
This was the first time Woody had recorded.
He'd written dozens of songs - the lyrics, not the music.
He called himself a tune thief.
Woody let me tag along with him to visit his family.
I remember his wife's mother shaking me by the shoulders
saying, "You've got to make that man treat my daughter right!"
Woody was not a good husband.
But he did show me how to hitch a ride on a freight train.
And how to pick up coins in a saloon.
He says, "Pete, put your banjo on your back, go and buy a nickel beer and sip it as slow as you can.
"Someone will say, "Kid, can you play that thing?"
"Say, "Maybe a little," and keep on sipping your beer.
"Sooner or later, somebody will say, "Kid, I got a quarter for you if you pick us a tune.
"Now you swing it around and play your best song."
And I never went hungry.
Pete Seeger started a new group, the Almanac Singers, which Woody was also to join.
Everyone would turn up at their house in Greenwich Village
for hootenannies - informal concerts - and rent parties.
People would come in and maybe pay a quarter and you'd hear Burl Ives,
my dad, Leadbelly, Woody singing, which they would do anyway,
but maybe helping someone make their rent.
The Almanacs took a lot of old country songs
and old folk songs, well, whatever folk was,
and changed the words to fit the political agenda of the day.
They used what they called folk music to argue their cause -
the people whose music they used never called it folk music.
It's fascinating to see how many gospel songs became union organising songs.
Woody was a portable newspaper, and he would change his lyrics to fit the events of the day.
He wrote his most famous union song,
Union Maid, for a specific picket line to the tune of Redwing.
# There once was a Union Maid
# Who never was afraid
# Of the goons and the ginks and the company finks
# And this is what she'd say... #
# ..Oh, you can't scare me I'm sticking to the Union.
# I'm sticking to the union Till the day I die... #
I occasionally did sing Union Maid, when they needed it.
We felt very proud to be part of the Almanac Singers.
# Will you go to the war Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
# Will you go to the war Tom and Billy...? #
But the Second World War presented the Almanacs
with a challenge that was to lead to their downfall.
# ..He's a young boy And cannot leave his mother... #
The Soviets had seemed to be the bulwark against fascism.
But in 1939, the Soviets made peace with Germany.
Woody and the Almanacs followed the party line -
opposing the war, which Britain had already joined.
# ..You can come around to me when England's a democracy
# But he young boy And cannot leave his mother... #
One of Woody's less noble moments was when the Hitler/Stalin pact was signed
and Russia invaded Poland, he wrote a talking blues about that.
That's not one that you hear Bruce Springsteen singing these days.
In May '41, they released a record of anti-war songs.
# Franklin D, listen to me, you Ain't gonna send me 'cross the sea
# 'Cross the sea, 'cross the sea, you Ain't gonna send me cross the sea.. #
One song they did, it was an anti-Roosevelt song.
# Oh, Franklin Roosevelt Told people how he felt
# We damned near Believed what he said
# He said, "I hate war And so does Eleanor
# "But we won't be safe Till everybody's dead." #
# ..Till everybody's dead... #
But then, on June 22nd, 1941, Hitler invaded Russia.
June 23rd, Woody arrived in New York and with a wry grin he says,
"I guess we won't be singing any more peace songs."
# Dear Mr President What I want is you to give me a gun
# So we can hurry up And get the job done... #
The Almanacs were FOR the war by the time a 16-year-old girl
came across their music in her boarding house.
There were these four people sitting on cushions on the floor,
and they were singing,
# Round and round Hitler's grave Round and round we go... #
# Round and round Hitler's grave Round and round we go
# Gonna lay that poor boy down He won't get up no more... #
They were lefties, and that was my kind of people, honey!
They were Almanac wannabes. Who wouldn't wanna be an Almanac?
But even though they signed up and went to war,
the Almanacs would not be forgiven for their earlier opposition to it.
In the early 40s, Alan Lomax did two major recording trips in the south,
now without his father.
A young guitarist was playing in the street one Saturday
when Alan Lomax walked up.
I thought he was a white boy wanting to talk to talk trash,
I didn't pay him much attention. He has a book on his arm.
He says, "My name is Alan Lomax, and I'm from the Library of Congress
"in Washington, DC, and I'd like to do some recording."
And I told him where I lived at,
and I half forgot it, just that quick.
BLUES MUSIC PLAYS
Monday morning he drove up in a brand new Hudson Super Six,
green Hudson, brand new. And my Auntie,
she thought he was the police or a sheriff or something,
she didn't know who it was. She was scared.
Alan managed to persuade her he wasn't a cop -
and he drove Honeyboy to a schoolhouse to record.
'He's a man who's been all over the country.
'He very experienced musician and he really knows how.
'All right, David.'
It took a long time. He gave me a twenty dollar bill,
and that was more money than I'd had in a long time.
Then he left, went on down the road towards the Mississippi
and he was recording Muddy Waters.
# Oh, I feel like grumblin'
# Right out the corner... #
# I'll do with you all day long... #
Alan was still visiting prisons, where he recorded and filmed work songs, which would be a revelation.
# ..Stuck and countin' corn
# Yeah, yeah
# Yeah, yeah... #
# And I wish that everybody
# Been trying to find out Where in the world... #
The Library of Congress never recorded Josh White. He'd become too successful,
and city. He was now performing regularly at New York's first integrated nightclub.
I think my father was one of the first people to bring folk music into the nightclub.
He was the first black man who used sex appeal.
And the open shirt was part of it.
He used those talents he had.
If you happened to be good looking, you use it also.
# I meant give me what I want
# And you'll never hear me Howl no more. #
Oh, Josh White. Josh White was so handsome and he was so...
soft. That wonderful cat-like thing.
Josh could just fit into anything.
He was elegant and charming all the time.
I admired his magnificent, beautiful polished guitar playing, which was...
not real down-home blues picking. He grew up with that,
but he had tailor-made a new style of delivery,
for the rich white women in the nightclub in New York.
He broke through the colour barrier.
# Baby, baby... #
He teamed up with Libby Holman - they were the first mixed race duo to tour and record together -
though even they were not allowed to perform for troops overseas -
it was considered too controversial in a still segregated army.
# "Is there hope for the future?" Say the brown bells of Merthyr... #
Pete came out of the army with a goal to get everybody singing folk songs.
He started this thing called People's Songs.
# And who robbed the martyr...? #
Everybody thought, "This is it," you know, "We've been waiting for just something like this,"
-and it became a very big thing.
-The Almanacs were over, but Pete tried to rally their supporters.
"The people are on the march and must have songs to sing," he wrote.
# The union is behind us
# We shall not be moved
# The union is behind us
# We shall not be moved! #
# Oh, pretty ladies, three in a row Oh, pretty ladies, three in a row. #
This was the world Kentucky country girl Jean Ritchie
found herself in when she arrived in New York just after the war.
We used to walk around and see people singing on the street.
At midnight we'd go down into the subway
and we'd sing our rounds and the echoes would, were wonderful.
The, the ambience was great!
And we'd go down. We'd sing and sing.
You couldn't do that now. You'd probably get mugged!
# All in the merry month of May... #
Back where she came from, the old music was less in demand.
Outside music was coming in,
so that our old songs were not as omnipresent as when I was little,
so I said to myself, "Maybe you should learn something else."
But when I came to New York,
people only wanted to listen to my old songs.
CHEERING AND APPLAUSE
How long you kids been standing here?
Shucks, we been standing there the last 10 minutes listening to you.
Well, I'll be darned!
Hey, how about that square dance we're going to have?
Some of the city folks were desperate to be country people, you know,
so they would dress up in blue jeans and a bandanna around the neck
and they would have square dances and act, uh, really silly.
I kept telling them, at home, we put on our best clothes.
We don't put on the rags to go to to go to a party in.
And they'd just laugh at me. They thought I didn't know anything.
# Wish I had a dime
# Wish I had a pretty little gal To kiss all the time... #
But they didn't just want to listen to her old songs - they wanted to set them to work.
I didn't like the fact that my ballads
would be taken and just sung to make a point, for the left-wing people.
I didn't think that was right. I thought music should be music.
The songs that I was raised with were sort of sacred to me,
and I didn't want to sing them through big foghorns and things like that.
On the street. Uh, Pete Seeger, one time, said,
"Sing through this and yell through this,"
and I said, "I can't. I'm not that kind of person!"
# It blowed away
# It blowed away
# My Oklahoma home blowed away
Woody and Pete had their differences, too.
Pete recognised that Woody was a great songwriter,
but personally I don't think he could stand him much, being with him.
Everything you weren't supposed to do, Woody did.
If he saw an injustice, he was with Sonny Terry in a restaurant and they wouldn't serve him 'cos he was black.
Woody just got so angry, he just trashed the whole restaurant.
He didn't have time to write a letter to Congress!
He was just really pissed.
# It blowed away... #
Pete didn't smoke, didn't drink,
was organised and Woody smoked,
drank, womanised, wrote great songs.
So they were like really opposite.
# I ain't got no home I'm just a-ramblin' 'round... #
Leadbelly was better able to tolerate Woody's chaos.
# I go from town to town... #
He and Woody Guthrie were like two peas in one pod.
They all would come to Leadbelly house playing half of the night.
they enjoyed that. I was there all the time,
and he'd say, "You go in and tell them it's getting late,"
so I'd go back there and tell them and everyone getting ready, getting their things ready to go.
But Woody. Woody's laying up in a corner.
I say, "Woody, you better come outta there, because you gotta go,"
"I ain't going," I'd say, "OK."
"I'm telling you everyone left except that one old white boy back there,"
and he said, "That's Woody Guthrie, leave him right there!
"He'll come out some time in the morning," so he would.
He was his best friend. He loved him and Woody loved him too.
# I'm stranded on that road
# That goes from sea to sea
# A hundred thousand others Are stranded, same as me... #
He was totally, as they say, outside the grid.
There was a space around him that just is untouchable.
He doesn't even claim to be a song-writer.
In all of his writings he claims, "I was walking down the street, and I heard someone say this,"
and he'd write it down, and he'd take it in, and he'd write a song.
With the Cold war bearing down on the left, political folk song wasn't doing too well.
But it was about to take a surprising new turn.
Peoples Songs had become quite an organisation ,
but they were broke, and, what do you do when you're broke?
You have a big hootenanny! SHE LAUGHS
So four of us got together to sing this song,
# In every land hey, li, le, li, le, lo
# Stand together hand in hand hey, li, le, li, le, lo
# Hey, li, le, li... #
Well, the banjos was playing and the guitars were playing,
and the people were stamping their feet and we were singing our heads off
and it just absolutely went - the place went wild,
and I remember Pete saying afterwards,
we were standing together looking at this thing happening, and he said, "I think we have something here."
And that's how the Weavers started.
We got a job down at the Village Vanguard for two weeks for 200 a week.
That was for all four us.
And hamburgers, hamburgers too.
Well, it turns out that the two weeks turned into six months, you know.
And it was during that time we became the hot item to see in New York.
# Tzena, Tzena, Tzena, Tzena
# Can't you hear the music playing
# In the city square...? #
Their fame spread, and they got a contract with Decca.
# Our friends will find us With the dancers there... #
Within 20 minutes after that song was released you could walk up and down Broadway
and it was coming out of every single record shop.
The song was a number-one hit. Every radio station was playing it.
It was, it was remarkable.
'This song came to us from the new land of Israel.
'it was written for lots of people to sing and dance together.'
# Tzena, Tzena, Tzena, Tzena... #
And then I guess people were getting sick of it and they'd say,
"Let's turn this over see what's on there,"
and that was Good Night Irene, and there we went again.
# Irene, goodnight
# Irene, goodnight... #
So here we were, now big pop stars.
Good Night Irene was Leadbelly's signature tune. He died just before the Weavers took it to number one.
We learned this song, Irene, from a friend of ours.
Some people thought he was the greatest folk singer ever lived in America.
# Good night, Irene Good night, Irene
# I'll see you in my dreams. #
# Has a man gone wrong He can name? #
Leadbelly, when I met him, was very ill...
# ..Gone wrong, take a name... #
..and he played for us, and his niece was there,
and she danced for us. And he made me hold his guitar.
I said, "I can't play the guitar."
But he said, "Just hold it and I'll show you some things,"
and he gave me a lesson on his guitar, on his 12-string guitar.
So that was one of my big moments, I guess.
# Take a warnin' how you... #
And he died not long after that.
Martha asked me to sing at his memorial.
# First they'll appear And then they're gone... #
He was a nice... He was a nice man.
Leadbelly's friend Woody also played at a memorial concert for him, along with Tom Paley.
They had to wait to go on.
He had been going backstage, and taking a nip of some drink,
so when we actually did get up,
he was a bit lit,
but he did talk and talk and talk about Leadbelly and about various things.
It felt like at least a half hour before we ever got to sing anything.
# Dream a dream, dream a dream Dream a dream a little sweeter... #
Often Woody didn't turn up at all.
I remember calling his wife, I said, "Where's Woody?"
"I don't know, he went out on Tuesday to get some cigarettes,
"he'll probably be back in a couple of weeks."
He was one of my heroes,
but I got a little bit annoyed at his not showing up for some of the gigs.
It was the Weavers' professionalism and jauntiness that fitted the mood of the time.
Folk, ranch-house style, was now commercially viable.
# Do you remember Sweet Betsy from Pike...?
I loved Burl Ives' recordings.
I would glom on to anything I could get a hold of
that sounded like folk music.
# ..Big yeller door
# One Shanghai rooster And one spotted hog... #
You know, there would be folk-like songs like, er,
Ghosts Riders in the Sky and Cry of the Wild Goose,
and stuff like that. And I liked that music, it told stories.
# I'll see you in... #
The tunes the Weavers did became common currency.
# Last Saturday night I got married... #
The Weavers had the golden touch.
Woody Guthrie didn't get an American royalty until the 1950s
when The Weavers, uh, had taken some of the rough edges off of folk music
and popularised it and were singing songs
like So Long, It's Been Good to Know You...
# It's been good to know you So long... #
which was, indeed, the first hit that Woody Guthrie ever had.
But despite their smart clothes, the Weavers were almost the Almanacs reincarnated,
and that past was coming back to haunt them.
# I've sung this song But I'll sing it again
# Of the people I've met And the places I've been... #
The blacklisters were surprised as we were,
"How did we let those Commie so and so's slip through our fingers?"...
# ..Singin' so long It's been good to know you... #
..and they started chopping us down.
# It's been good to know you So long... #
The world was closing in on the left.
In June 1949, the man who was an idol to many in the American folk movement gave a concert in Moscow.
Paul Robeson, ex athlete and lawyer, often sang folk-type songs from Broadway musicals.
# ..Plant taters He don't plant cotton
# Them that plants 'em Is soon forgotten... #
His open support for the Soviet Union saw him pilloried at home.
# ..He just keeps rollin' along... #
Paul Robeson was under severe attack as a Communist, traitor and all of that,
but he was still our hero, and a hero of many thousands and thousands of people.
Just three months after that Moscow visit, the embattled Paul Robeson
held a benefit concert for the Civil Rights Congress in Peekskill, New York.
# And the livin' is easy... #
On the way out, people were lined up on this narrow road out,
the police right next to them.
They had piles of stones.
I got on a bus that was going out and they smashed everything.
# And your ma is good-looking... #
They dragged people out of cars, they hurt people.
#..So hush, little baby... #
We didn't know that we had fascism in America.
Not us nice, liberal, white people.
We didn't know.
We found out.
A publication called Red Channels
pointed the finger at most people in the '30s and '40s folk movement.
Alan Lomax decided to leave the country.
And it was the death-knell for the Weavers.
Little by little, the radio stations wouldn't play our records,
and we became pari... You know, musical pariahs.
After about three years, we finally had to call it quits.
It was a terrible time.
I could be walking down Broadway,
and I would see someone that I know very well coming towards me,
and as they approached, they would cross the street,
because they couldn't afford to be seen talking to me.
In Kentucky they said, "You don't have anything to do with Pete Seeger, do you?"
And I said, "Yes, he's a... He's a friend of mine."
And they would look at me kind of strange and, uh, walk away.
Josh White was touring Europe with Eleanor Roosevelt
when Red Channels named him.
Josh actually went to the people involved with Red Channels and said,
"Look, why are you naming me as a Communist?
"What do I have to do to persuade you that I'm not?",
and they suggested that he go
voluntarily in front of the House Committee On Un-American Activities.
Pete was saying, "Josh, don't go down there until they call you.
"Don't." And my old man said, "I'm gonna do it."
Black entertainers were not asked to name names.
Black entertainers were only asked to say that they disagreed with Paul Robeson,
and that if they had been associated with Communist groups, they felt used.
So that's what Josh White did.
My father was attacked from both left and right because of his position.
# The land that we call freedom
# The home of liberty... #
He thought, "All I can do is walk my walk, and maybe somewhere down the line you will realise,
'Oh, I should see it a little differently.' "
# With its promise for tomorrow
# That's America to me. #
Josh White was banned from American television for 13 years,
when the Civil Rights movement put him back in the limelight.
# Oh, da-dang fal, di di-do
# Dang, fal-di-dee... #
Burl Ives did name names - old friends like Pete Seeger.
'Mr Seeger, you declined the protection of the Fifth Amendment
'in refusing to answer the committee's questions. Why?'
In all my life, I've never committed any kind of act,
conspiratorial or even conducive,
and I resented the implication that... By being called before the committee,
that because my opinions might be different to Mr Waller's - he has a right to his opinion -
I have a right to mine, but as my opinions might be different to his, I was any less of an American.
I just feel it's improper for anybody to ask an American citizen
his views for religious... What church he goes to, how he prays...
Philosophical - he might be a vegetarian or a nudist or whatever it is.
But a man has his right to his own opinion and I feel I have, too.
# There was an old woman Who swallowed a lie
# I don't know why She swallowed the lie
# Perhaps she'll die... #
He was to spend the rest of the '50s under investigation.
The case wasn't dropped until 1962.
I went round singing at schools and summer camps,
and I didn't make much money, but I managed to feed my family.
It was almost funny, the John Burt Society
would picket my concert at some college,
and all they did was give me free publicity and sell more tickets.
I was one of those kids and I had my Pete Seeger banjo with me, you know,
and I was asking him questions and he'd just come up with that...
-knock and the door will be opened.
Pete Seeger was a Johnny Appleseed of folk music.
He inspired me to want to do it.
# I wish I was a mole In the ground... #
But as Pete Seeger was forced underground, an earlier generation of singers
was bubbling to the surface, thanks to an unknown record collector
with no political agenda for folk music.
# ..A mole in the ground I'd root their mountains down
# And I wish I was a mole In the ground. #
Most records of the '20s had been pulped for the war effort,
but Harry Smith scoured second hand stalls, picking up the leftovers for a few cents.
It's midnight, and we're walking around the streets of Harlem.
Harry jumps into a garbage can,
head first, like this, and he comes up with a stack of photographs.
And he starts laying them out on the street in piles and by categories.
And people are coming out of the doorways saying, "What's going on here?"
And Harry picked them up and handed one to each of the people around, they were all very satisfied.
And then we got on the subway and went home.
# I used to be around I'd sit around in town
# I used to be around there I'd sit around in town
# I courted pretty Polly And the duty's never been found... #
Harry put together his own anthology of the best songs by the best artists he found.
In the notes to the record, he had a statement, "Civilised man thinks out his problems.
"At least he thinks he does.
"Primitive man dances them out".
He was a wild genius. That anthology brought that kind of music to a lot of people,
and by a lot of people, I mean probably 500 or 1,000.
And eventually, more and more.
But it's like a dropping a pebble into a still body of water.
These rings were felt far and wide.
It would be ten years before the wave broke over a new generation.
The folk music community at that time was very small,
and our apartment was very small, so you could only fit 10 or 20 people in.
Woody wasn't performing that much any more. But people would come round, like Rambling Jack Elliot.
I remember once riding in a subway train with Woody,
we were going into Manhattan to get some picks and strings.
He's sitting there on the train and he says,
"You know, people around here don't understand our music very well
"because we sing in a dialect."
But Woody Guthrie was reaching the end of his road.
Like his mother before him, he had Huntington's chorea.
I went out to visit Woody at the hospital,
and he sensed our solicitousness and he says, "You don't have to worry about me here.
"I mean, this place is fine, if you, if you get up on the street corner and you say,
'Hey, I'm a Communist!', they'll stone you, they'll arrest you, they'll do everything."
Here, I can say I'm a Communist and they say, 'He's crazy.'!
It's the last place in America where you have free speech.
Soon, Bob Dylan would be knocking on that hospital door.
The group of friends was scattered and silenced.
But from this rag tag and bobtail army which appeared to be defeated,
folk music would emerge victorious,
looking to an idealised past, searching for an ideal future.
# Here's to Sisco and Sonny And Leadbelly too
# And all the good people That travelled with you
# Here's to the hearts And the hands of the men
# That come with the dust And are gone with the wind
# Hey, hey, Woody Guthrie I wrote you a song... #
Three-part documentary series on American folk music, tracing its history from the recording boom of the 1920s to the folk revival of the 1960s.
In the depression of the 1930s, John Lomax found convicted murderer Leadbelly in a southern jail. Leadbelly's music was never quite as pure and untouched by pop as Lomax believed, but it set a new agenda for folk music, redefining it as the voice of protest, the voice of the outsider and the oppressed.
Dustbowl drifter Woody Guthrie fitted the mould perfectly and the two of them teamed up with Lomax's son Alan, Pete Seeger and Josh White - a group of friends who believed 'they could make a better world if they all got together and just sang about it'. Their songs and their radical politics took them to high places of influence, but brought about their downfall in the blacklisting 1950s.
Contributors include Pete Seeger, Rambling Jack Elliot, Anna Lomax, Tom Paxton, Roger McGuinn, Woody Guthrie's sister and daughter and Josh White's son.