Why tinker with a song?

Every seasoned folksinger I’ve ever met tinkers with at least some of his/her repertoire. Some do it well, others abysmally. The issue is not whether to do it, but why. It’s all about motive. Does it respect the lineage or (where there is a specific author or creator) the original source? Is it aimed at completing a fragment or getting the story across? Adapting to your style or instrumentation? Reuniting a full text with a more interesting melody? Arranging an ensemble piece from a solo? Correcting an obvious degradation in the text? Or is it just because it’s only come to you via illiterate commercial ‘covers’ whose main motive is to maximise sales through systemic, sanitisation, blandness and not provoking strong feelings. At the end of the day every performer has to make the song his/her own or die. But authenticity should still be evident to the listener, preferably an informed one who understands the distinctions between folk and other forms of music.

Certain attributes can be regarded as indispensible here:

1. acoustic – amplification should be used only to reinforce the natural voice and instrument where the room is large.

2. range of material – remember that all traditional music served its working class creators in some way- to accompany (or complain about) work or play, lament a tragedy, court a sweetheart, recite an old legend, celebrate a victory, protest an injustice, fight an enemy, pose a moral, etc. Limiting the repertoire to navel gazing soap opera, drinking or ploughing edges towards rigour mortis.

3. Instrumentation – don’t add instruments or impose rhythms onto free arrhythmic ballads just for the sake of it. Massed accordions, pianos, electric guitars, drum kits and philharmonic orchestras have zero authenticity by definition. Traditional musicianship requires as much specialist expertise as any other form. Neither banging away with basic chords nor applying complex classical arpeggios in place of a good vernacular style will do.

4. Voice – barbershop harmony, operatic production, crooning and over dramatising are as alien to folksong as Woody Guthrie would be to a Schubert Lieder.

5. Sex – subtlety is everything. Wiggling, displays of flesh, Dolly Parton costumes etc, may turn guys on but have nothing to do with folk appeal.

6. Age and authorship – Old songs often lend themselves to some tinkering for the above good reasons, relatively recent songs by known authors should not be casually messed with.

7. Directness – real folksongs are not open to multiple interpretations of meaning. They state what they are about. If you write one, be direct and don’t be afraid to take sides. You may still need to explain the background, place names or vernacular words of a song to an audience.

8. Interpretation – trying to cross your own cultural heritage by mimicking a Delta Blues or Highland Scots singer seldom works, but neither does forcing everything into Oxford English. A good folk artist interprets without looking down on the source, drawing from many, sometimes involving reconciling ‘primitive’ back porch material with the expectations of a concert hall audience. But be careful of plundering from around the world just because it is so available today.

If from this you divine that I have a long term commitment to these values you’d be absolutely right. I try to represent them in my work- see e.g. www.jackwarshaw.com. As the great Lee Hays (Methodist preacher in early life and author of “If I Had A Hammer”) said, “Folksongs are dangerous.”

Disagree? Come on then, challenge me.

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Thoughts on Trump and folksongs

I have made a blues, “Dear Mr. President”- I think it’s the first time I’ve used the form. The “Dear Mr…” is really sarcastic, because, unlike Pete’s which asked Roosevelt to give him a gun to fight fascism, every verse of mine points a finger at his lies and hate mongering, even forecasts impeachment, which may not be far off once the Mike Flynn cover-up plays out.  One of my Trump songs and a Brexit song are on Youtube, but I think the best is the Migrant song, which is getting noticed. More to be recorded once I’ve got back to the studio.

All of us have always wanted to speak to the working class, often seeing the unions as the conduit, while we lamented the reality of usually singing to the converted. Even during the Vietnam period when there were many more converted, The Singers Club was packed with CP people every week. Only the concerts, rallies, pickets, special shows and the like allowed us to occasionally break out.

Now only 10% of the workforce belongs to a trade union, but communication is revolutionised through social media. Like the record industry before it, global corporations own social media, other corporations exploit it for profitb, and broadcast media won’t touch anything political. Nearly everything labelled folk these days is the kind of easy listening pop that sounds like it’s been computer generated.

The big change, in just the last several weeks, is that millions are now waking up, marching, organising, holding rallies, staging events. The new converted if you will. The majority who voted against Trump, the near majority who voted Remain. The millions who don’t believe the lies they are fed daily.  They are more than ready for hard-hitting songs. Songs like Ballad of Accounting, The Big Muddy, Kent State Massacre, Fields of Vietnam, Pie in the Sky, Do Re Mi, and thousands of others are still relevant. Ken Loach reaches millions. Soon, there will be a anthem as powerful as We Shall Overcome, probably written or adapted by some 20 year old, like it was then. For me all there is now is to keep on, not give up and try to reach out to whoever will listen. We all need to collaborate more. Unity is strength.

Here’s the song:

Dear Mr President ©Jack Warshaw 2017
A blues inspired by Pete Seeger’s 1940 song of the same title, in which he asks Roosevelt to give him a gun to fight Hitler. The form and sentiments of this one are very different. It works well to Mule Skinner Blues.

Dear Mr President, I just don’t understand
Dear Mr President, I just don’t understand
Why you think we believe you
When you lie to every body in this land

You don’t care about your people, you been spoiled since you were born
You don’t care about your people, you been spoiled since you were born
You can call yourself a strong man
But you don’t know right from wrong

You made your riches, cheating folks all over town
You made your riches, cheating folks all over town
Some day all them people
Gonna tear your towers down

You set neighbour upon neighbour, like them fascists did before
You set neighbour upon neighbour, like them fascists did before
Don’t you know Abe Lincoln said
You can’t fool all the people anymore

You think women are born just to be your property
You think women are born just to be your property
‘Till you learn we’re all equal
It’s you than can’t be free

Dear Mr President, please tell me if you can
Dear Mr President, please tell me if you can
Why you lie to all your people
Every woman, every man

They say if you know the truth, then the truth will set you free
They say if you know the truth, then the truth will set you free
That’s how I know you’re not my President,
And never, ever will you be.

Hey Mr President, tell me what you gonna do
Hey Mr President, tell me what you gonna do
When you learn that your people
Have had enough of you

We’re gonna put you on the stand, and we’ll impeach your ass
We’re gonna put you on the stand, and we’ll impeach your ass
When you lie one more time
You’re goin’ down so fast.

 

 

On being famous- or not

Hi, this is an extract from Michael Cooney’s article on the drawbacks of putting fame above art

There are indeed many drawbacks to becoming famous compared to the dubious advantages. Perhaps most importantly, it can seriously hamper or even destroy artistic vitality. This can be seen to some extent in the songwriting of Bob Dylan. Most of his good songs were created before he got really famous. Maybe one can only write with conviction about one’s real concerns, and as fame comes, those concerns turn toward new topics: money, business, etc. Being surrounded by agents and managers, accountants and lawyers, investment advisors and adulators, one’s fountain of inspiration can diminish to a trickle or dry up.

But the damage doesn’t stop there. Again Bob Dylan is a good example. When he “went electric” in the mid-sixties, he repudiated all of the songs of social protest he had written earlier. He said he just wrote them to get famous so he could do what he really wanted to do: be a rock star and a poet. But those songs were his best songs, and aside from a few songs written in the following five or six years, very little of value has come from Bob Dylan since. And here’s the hard part: Dylan knows this, and the songs he sings in concert now (Rolling Thunder Review, Before the Flood, and Hard Rain albums) are his old protest hits. And he sings them as though he hates them, and hates his audience for demanding them, and hates himself for singing them. Listen to his earlier recordings of some of these songs (Don’t Think Twice is a good example) as compared to the above recordings. Gone is the sensitivity and care, replaced by screaming and venom. Bob Dylan isn’t too happy with himself.

But fame doesn’t cease with loss of artistic ability. Aye, there’s the rub. Fame begets fame. You don’t have to be any good to be the idol of millions, you just have to be famous. An indication of this is seen in the method by which many recording contracts are negotiated these days. One of the figures most haggled over is the amount to be committed by the recording company to publicizing the new record, for as everyone knows, a new performer doesn’t get famous by being good, but by being well-publicized.

 

Posts to Listeners

Sent on: 9/17/2015
Subject: Message from the Artist: Jack Warshaw

Hi everyone

Many of you must feel compassion for the millions fleeing war, famine and persecution with nowhere safe to go. Our country parades its past as a safe haven for refugees but does too little now. So I wrote a song about the good they brought to us then and regret at our closed doors now. Listen, download free and share at https://soundcloud.com/jack-warshaw

Best wishes

jack

Sent on: 8/06/2015
Subject: Message from the Artist: Jack Warshaw

Wow everyone

The new album previewed in the last newsletter is out. It can be downloaded from the usual music sources. However, if you go to http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/jackwarshaw2 I have included all the album and song notes from the physical album. Priced at $9.99 (yes, that’s US dollars) for all 16, or $0.99 each. There seems to be a lot of interest in it already, especially current topical numbers like Charlie Hebdo, The Killing of Michael Brown and Snoopers. Oh, if you want the posh physical album it’s £10 + £1.20 postage from me direct, but you’ll have to send an email first to jack@jackwarshaw.com

That’s it for now, enjoy the summer. Tel me what you think of the songs and what new songs are aching to be written!

Cheers

Jack

I played the Aldbeurgh (Alternative) Festival in June and will be featured at Lyme Regis Folk Weekend, Friday, 21 and Sat 22 August, a great atmosphere at a great place if you can get down there.

Sent on: 6/08/2015
Subject: Message from the Artist: Jack Warshaw

Hi guys, Just wanted to let you know I’ve finished recording my next (fourth) album and am working flat out to get it out there in the next few weeks. It’s entitled “ENDAGERED SPECIES,” a reference to singers and writers who break the bounds of commercial control and censorship with songs that look at the real world. It’s a studio album, with fantastic support from great musicians like fiddler Ben Paley, son of the legendary Tom Paley who also plays and sings on it. Then there’s Neil Warren’s mouth harp, with cello and bass from my musical children Zoe and Bart. 15 songs in all, new arrangements and performances of songs you’ve liked such as The Killing of Michael Brown, Tornado Alley, and Troubadour are included. I promise it’s like no other artist or range of songs. Look out for it.

Cheers

Jack

Sent on: 4/18/2015
Subject: Message from the Artist: Jack Warshaw

High guys

Just to keep you up to date, I go into the recording studio tomorrow, with super musicians Ben Paley, fiddle and Neil Warren, mouth harp amongst others to make a new album. It will feature many of my songs you’ve been listening to, some you haven’t and several great traditional ballads, like “Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender” and “The Fatal Flower Garden” Woody Guthrie’s “Ballad of Pretty Boy Flloyd” will be on it too.

I’ve already chosen the title- ENDANGERED SPECIES, which can have several meanings in this context. Remember Lee Hays’ famous quote: “Folksongs are dangerous?” Are they still or are real folksongs endangered?

Cheers

jack

Sent on: 2/19/2015
Subject: Message from the Artist: Jack Warshaw

Hi Folks

Who’s next?

Following terror killings in Paris, Copenhagen, Brussels, London, other places in Europe and the world it’s time to stand up for freedom of art and expression and against fear.

Asked if he was tempted to tone down the publication Stephane Charbonnier, Charlie Hebdo’s director, replied, “… I’d rather die standing than live on my knees.”

I wrote 2 previous versions of the Charlie Hebdo Song before uploading this one to Youtube.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1VXXlxn60t8

What do you think now? Can you pass it on by Facebook or other means as an act of support for those who died for their art?

We all condemn terrorism, but also share responsibility for crimes committed in our name by some we elect and some who think themselves above all law and justice. An attack on artists strikes at all culture and creation. The questions “Which side are you on?” and “Who does your art serve?” remain Charlie Hebdo’s watchwords.

Sent on: 1/29/2015
Subject: Message from the Artist: Jack Warshaw

Hi Folks

Yesterday, 28 January was the first anniversary of Pete Seeger’s death. Please join me in remembering his immense contribution to the body of folksongs we know and love by replaying his songs and listening again to “Troubadour” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P_RBt_WGuRY which recalls the key chapters in his life.

Best wishes

Jack

Sent on: 11/21/2014
Subject: Message from the Artist: Jack Warshaw

Hi Guys

More songwriting, singing and listening lately. There’s a love song, Thanksgiving song, and ballad about the killing of Michael Brown on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri.

As we move towards the Season of Good Will let us turn thoughts of charity into local action for good causes where we live. As Pete Seeger says in the “Troubadour,” “The time is now, the place is here.” Remember him in word, deed and music.

Best wishes

Jack

Sent on: 9/10/2014
Subject: Message from the Artist: Jack Warshaw

Come on guys, if you’re in the neighbourhood, join me in Petersfied, Hampshire at the Square Brewery on 16 Sept at 7.30 for a great evening. See http://www.reverbnation.com/jackwarshaw for details.

thanks

Jack

Sent on: 8/10/2014
Subject: Message from the Artist: Jack Warshaw

Hi folks

Just back from Denmark where a serendipitous encounter at the National Museum Conservation Workshops led to me giving a solo concert at the town of Gillelije (pronounced gill-eh-lie-uh) north of Copenhagen. A wonderful reception from wonderful people. I’ll be uploading a sample to Youtube soon so keep a lookout. In the meantime keep supporting authentic live music

Cheers

Jack

Sent on: 5/22/2014
Subject: Message from the Artist: Jack Warshaw

Hi folks

Pete Seeger has been in mind since May 3rd would have been his 95th birthday. So I’ve been performing the song I wrote last year for his 94th, the last time I saw him in concert and met him afterwards. Do you think there would be such deep interest and huge following for folksongs and singers today if it weren’t for him?

Happy listening

Jack

Sent on: 4/03/2014
Subject: Message from the Artist: Jack Warshaw

Hi guys

Just to catch up with you after a very busy period, I pay tribute to Pete Seeger, my first and lasting inspiration, singing some of his songs and reprising my “Troubadour” story of his life. You can hear that and more, including the tale of last years devastating tornado at Moore, Oklahoma, “Tornado Alley” straight from the heart of rescue worker Betsy Randolph. There’s also a couple of new songs as yet unrecorded, including one about snoopers…you know what I mean. Two albums are being planned with some great musicians accompanying, including Tom Paley’s song Ben and maybe Tom himself! Hey, if there’s a burning ache in your heart for a song that needs to be written, why don’t you write one, or tell me about it?

Take care

jack

Sent on: 12/26/2013
Subject: Message from the Artist: Jack Warshaw

Hi folks,

Hope you’re enjoying the fruits of the season. Thought it’s time for a love song this week, so selected the traditional “My Little Carpenter” from the “Long Time Gone Album” which I learned many years ago from Mike Seeger. It’s about a girl who holds to her true love despite the offerings and temptations of many suitors. Good for today, isn’t it?

Best Wishes

Jack

Sent on: 11/29/2013
Subject: Message from the Artist: Jack Warshaw

Hi guys

This week’s feature is “Good Road” the title track of my latest album with Texas singer/writer Stuart Michael Burns. He wrote it in memory of his mentor, Rolf Cahn. Check out the album- a range of original and traditional songs with an emphasis on authenticity.

http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/burnsandwarshaw

Best wishes

Jack

Sent on: 11/23/2013
Subject: Message from the Artist: Jack Warshaw

Hi guys, Did you know Woody Guthrie’s great ballad “Vanzetti’s Letter” has never been recorded by anyone else- except me in 1979? It’s on my album “Long Time Gone,” and can be downloaded with the whole album or singly from CD Baby, Amazon, itunes and other sites. I think it’s one of the greatest testimonies against injustice ever. Hear it and remember the story of Sacco and Vanzetti- martyrs to political bigotry, that made it part of our heritage.

Yours as ever

Jack

Sent on: 11/15/2013
Subject: Message from the Artist: Jack Warshaw

Hi folks

Thanks for listening to some of my latest efforts. Southbound Train is a simple, country “train” song in the Grand Ole Opry tradition. For complete contrasts which cut to the soul of postwar Britain and US Midwest you might like to go to http://www.reverbnation.com/jackwarshaw and listen to “No Country for Poor People” about the rise and fall of the welfare state and “Tornado Alley” which puts the actual words of a leader of the rescue team into song.

Keep listening, keep singing and pass it on.

Jack

Sent on: 10/28/2013
Subject: Message from the Artist: Jack Warshaw

Hi again

Want to know more about the real John Henry? Here’s the story

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2007/05/john-m15.html

Keep listening

Jack

 

Sent on: 10/25/2013
Subject: Message from the Artist: Jack Warshaw

Hi, I’ve had a good week knowing you listen to folk music of and for real folk. The power-hungry keep us down where I live, but self-made music is on the up. My sites and outlets have stuff for free, cheap album and song downloads, links to videos, my likes and some bloggy stuff. Pass it on. Folk songs can be about anything. Need one? I’ll have a go.

As Yip Harburg said, “Words make you think. Music makes you feel” Who was he? Only the author of all the songs in “The Wizard of Oz” and many more.

Love from

Jack

 

Comment – NY Times Review of Books 7 August 2015

To: letters@nytimes.com Subject: Re. ‘Folk City: New York and the American Folk Music Revival’ By RONALD RADOSH AUG. 7, 2015 Importance: High

Dear Editor

As one who was inspired to sing folksongs at Washington Square and sang at Folk City alongside Bob Dylan and others in the 60s I think it’s important to correct any impression left by either the book or the review that “…There is, after all, quite a distance between “Pretty Polly” and “Which Side Are You On?””  The implication of course is that political content injected by left wing activists somehow contaminated authentic tradition.  Nothing could be further from the truth. The seminal Child, Sharp or Bronson collections for example embrace stories and themes ranging from incest through war, famine, work, liberation, sickness and death as well as “lost loves.”  American 19th century anti-slavery, Civil War and other conflict, farming, factory, seafaring, and many other song types fill countless libraries. Leadbelly, Guthrie and Pete Seeger, union women like Aunt Molly Jackson, Sara Ogan, Mother Jones and blues men like Bill Broonzy predate the 50’s revival by a long way with songs as powerful as any of the best 60s protest.  Songs like these have seldom been commercially acceptable. Even Seeger’s biblical reflection “To Everything There is a Season” aka “Turn Turn Turn”  languished until the Byrds made a rock number out of it. Come to think of it, the Pretty Polly melody was used by Guthrie for arguably his greatest ballad “Pastures of Plenty,” about migrant workers.  Aunt Molly adapted it in “The Death of Harry Sims.”  Dylan wrote new lyrics for “Hollis Brown.” I used it for “The Kent State Massacre”  in 1970.  All of which goes to show, as Pete observed, “You can’t keep a good song down.”

Yours,

Jack Warshaw