Del & Woody: Tapping a Folk Hero’s Hillbilly Roots
Between them, Woody Guthrie and Del McCoury’s voices have blown like wind through much of the last century. Each has traveled the length and breadth of the United States. The depth of the American soul these two men have mined in songs and stories has been without measure. As an album due in early 2015 will attest, even across a mortal distance they’ve forged a partnership through sound machines and hope machines – one that “kills fascists” and messengers of hate. As they collaborate on that recording’s 16 songs – Del’s melodies with Woody’s lyrics – these two troubadours have a story to tell, of common threads that have pulled them through time and bound them together, through dust, wind, and bluegrass, like musical brothers. Here is their story:
Woody Guthrie blew into New York Town in February 1940. On the 23rd day of that month, while staying in a small boarding house, he wrote a response to the Irving Berlin hit of the day, “God Bless America.” Berlin’s song just rubbed him wrong. With Kate Smith bellowing out the words, it felt like an elitist nod to America’s superiority and exclusivity. It left out too much of what was real. It wasn’t the America he saw during his years in Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl, or the one he witnessed in a small West Texas border town or traveling the land by way of hitched rides in cars and on trains, as the Great Depression devastated the land and its people. With resolve akin to The Grapes of Wrath’s Tom Joad, he wrote his signature song. Even today, “This Land Is Your Land” persists as an alternative to the blind patriotism of songs like “God Bless America” and our national anthem. Back then, keeping in mind the America he saw over the previous decade, at the bottom of his original handwritten document of the song, he commented, “You can only write what you see.”
Woody’s daughter Nora Guthrie, who now governs the Woody Guthrie Foundation, says that, true to his word, when Woody looked out his window the very next day, he wrote what he saw once again. The obscure lyric is called “Wimmen’s Hats,” a humorous song about the ladies he saw on their way to work along the sidewalks of New York City.
Some wind round like serpents
Some look like ice-cream cones
Some look like flower gardens
That blossom on their domes.
One may have a feather
Ten feet in the sky
With 15 yards of fishing net
That falls into her eyes.
That song stands in contrast to the often stark poetic seriousness of “This Land Is Your Land.” Rather than confronting inequality, as he did in “This Land,” he pokes fun at it. Unfortunately, “Wimmen’s Hats” was destined to be forgotten in the shadow of one of America’s great anthems, consigned for decades to Woody’s seemingly bottomless archive of lyrics, sketches, and songs. Even so, Woody must have felt pretty good about the song. At the bottom of the lyrics he cleverly wrote, as if to confirm his resolve:
Inspired by a quick glance out of my window at an office girl going to work, Feb. 24th, 1940, New York town, out of jail, quart of pretty fine wine.
Natural as Kentucky Rain
Seven decades later, Nora Guthrie gave 26 copies of her father’s original handwritten lyrics to the silver-haired deacon of modern bluegrass music – guitarist/vocalist Del McCoury – for him to bring back to life. In those papers, among the copies of original documents, McCoury found “Wimmen’s Hats,” appearing as it was originally written on February 24th, 1940, after that “quart of pretty fine wine.”
The opening of Guthrie’s lyrical songbook is not new. In 1990, Nora offered unpublished lyrics from that same collection to Billy Bragg and Wilco, who collaborated on the Grammy-nominated album Mermaid Avenue. Since then, a slew of artists and projects have emerged, putting music to Guthrie’s lyrics for new songs. Among the many noteworthy efforts are Ellis Paul’s “God’s Promise,” Janis Ian’s “I Hear You Sing Again,” and punk band Anti-Flag’s “Postwar Breakdown.” Now, however, it is McCoury who will provide the most thorough outing for Guthrie’s unpublished work since Mermaid Avenue. And he will be the first pure country-bluegrass artist to delve so deeply.
The album – recorded early in 2014 with McCoury’s sons Ronnie and Rob (also known as the Traveling McCourys) backing Del up – holds 16 songs, including “Wimmen’s Hats” and “New York Trains,” a humorous telling of Guthrie’s first experiences on the New York City public transit system.
Even at first listen, “New York Trains” is quite a revelation. It’s as though McCoury stumbled on his finest writing partner in the notebooks and antique paper-sheet lyric-sketches Nora gave him to explore. It becomes clear that, if there were ever two artists perfectly fit to make music together, they are Del McCoury and Woody Guthrie. (The album’s working title sounds like it could be a duo record: Del & Woody.) While it may seem a strange collaboration to some, in fact, the distance between folk music and bluegrass is not so far. Like today’s Americana music movement – which allows multiple musical streams to run parallel – folk and bluegrass fit together like neighbors who find, with pleasant surprise, they share a unique family tie. Bringing the two artists together on this release demonstrates just how much kinship there is between them.
For McCoury and Guthrie, the barrier of space-time limitations is just a minor inconvenience when the chemistry is this strong. Their coming together on the same sonic ground seems so inevitable when hearing the results that it’s surprising that it has taken this long to figure out this unique pairing. That it should happen through the family lines of musical heritage and Guthrie’s own daughter fits their respective genre traditions. Once the music kicks up, it feels as natural as Kentucky rain or Oklahoma wind: two brothers of the road criss-crossing history, region, and musical styles, finally meeting in the music.
For Nora, who brought the idea of recording Woody’s lyrics to Del, it is a dream come true to hear her father’s songs performed by an artist who so clearly represents the style of music Woody loved and embraced. He especially loved music that was performed in a straight-up hillbilly manner.
“I first discovered Del when he did the album The Mountain with Steve Earle,” Nora says. “Then I heard him at the Newport Folk Festival and ran up to him afterwards and told him I heard so much of my dad’s roots in his music – especially his early years.”
According to Nora, her father’s earliest musical roots began with hard-core country western groups from his Oklahoma days – bands with names like the Corn Cobb Trio and the Pampa Junior Chamber of Commerce Band.
Beyond the common musical bond, Nora heard similarities when she listened to McCoury’s high lonesome vocal style. “I also heard my father’s voice in Del’s,” she says. “I could hear Woody’s ‘Do Re Mi,’ with his voice and diction. His delivery of ‘So Long It’s Been Good to Know You,’ which [McCoury] did at the Kennedy Center tribute in 2011, is just about the best cover I’ve ever heard.”
“Many people don’t really know Woody’s musical hillbilly roots,” she told McCoury, and then asked him, “Would you be interested in doing some music for his lyrics?” McCoury was honored, even though his own knowledge of Woody was limited. Nonetheless, McCoury is one of the surviving elder statesmen of bluegrass music. He derives his lineage from his time playing with founding father Bill Monroe’s band the Blue Grass Boys. If anyone has ever embodied the high lonesome, blue vocal sound that could be considered the essence of the genre, with unqualified ease and grace, it’s Del McCoury. His pitch, phrasing, and sense of country style come naturally from his Southern bloodline.
Born to Make Hillbilly Music
Born in Pennsylvania in 1939 to a family of North Carolina migrants, McCoury’s Southern roots were firmly planted at home, where “hillbilly music” could be heard daily on radio shows broadcast to the city from the South. During McCoury’s early childhood, he heard the regular broadcasts of WSM’s Grand Ole Opry and perhaps even more significantly, the WWVA Jamboree from Wheeling, Virginia. By the nature of the regional popularity of hillbilly music, that show may have found even more influence and favor in the McCoury household. However, it became clear in the late 1940s, as McCoury approached his teen years and first picked up the guitar and played music with his older brother, that he had a natural gift for the kind of music whose roots came from outside of his native Pennsylvania neighborhood.
As Del and his brother began performing songs by Red Foley, Ernest Tubb, and Hank Williams, the music flowed between them. The soul that he heard and began to play from as he first strummed his guitar was embedded deep within him, waiting for release. He found a connection through the guitar, but his greatest instrument was his voice – a unique sound nurtured through those Nashville and West Virginia radio broadcasts, where “straight-forward hillbilly” was the most common vocal style. His voice found its home in that high, lonesome range.
“Back then, we didn’t know what bluegrass was,” McCoury says and laughs. “We just called it country music. Or else, they’d call it hillbilly. Whatever it was you want to call it, I was hooked.”
Even before it had its own name, bluegrass became the vehicle that guided McCoury’s life and career, as it did so many post-war musicians whose roots were found in the Deep South. The music began as a hybrid of folk and mountain styles that combined Irish, Scottish, Welsh, and English roots. It found a unique expression in the grassy hills of Kentucky, where Bill Monroe first laid his fingers across a mandolin fretboard in his early childhood. It was born, in much the way we describe the genesis of new genres of music today, through the blending of various sounds, rhythms, and styles shared between people in various regions. It came from the hills of Kentucky, from North Carolina’s Appalachian mountains and valleys, through the hollers and small towns across the South.
Folk music drove the lyrical side of bluegrass’s birth, with songs woven together from ancient tales and stories from England, Ireland, and Scotland. These became “country” songs – the folk music of rural people – filled with gospel themes, murder ballads, coal mining stories, and railroad legends. Songs of courtship and unrequited love pouring from people who were isolated deep within the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia would also find their way into the songs and stories of the earthy music taking shape in that region. Many of the best-known songs from this lineage were discovered and popularized by A.P. Carter’s travels throughout Virginia. They were eventually heard on the radio and phonograph records, as he performed them with his wife Sara and cousin Maybelle. The trio found a place in country music history as The Carter Family.
Little more can be said about the origins of bluegrass without including the impact of Monroe. Born in 1911, just one year before Woody Guthrie, Monroe grew up with Scottish ancestry, the younger brother of Birch, a fiddle player, and Charlie, a guitar picker. He learned mandolin by default because he was the youngest sibling, and the guitar and fiddle were already taken by his brothers. But, he went on to be considered the creator of bluegrass music, a style named after his own band, the Blue Grass Boys. Bluegrass music was fully realized when Bill Monroe recruited a talented young banjo player named Earl Scruggs into the band. The music they created shook the earth for the rural mountain people of Kentucky. It soon did the same all over America. By the time Del McCoury was born in 1939, Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys were appearing in Nashville at the Grand Ole Opry for the first time.
Bluegrass music flourished through the 1940s and ’50s, with Monroe at the lead of a pack of fine artists. But it remained in the shadow of the mainstream country music of the day, considered a subgenre of the form until the late ’50s. As luck would have it, the rise of American folk music became the force of distinction for the still-fledgling bluegrass movement.
Folk Music, and All Its Forms
Folk music in America has two predominant streams of popularity in its history. The first movement started its rumblings in the late 1930s but began to change the face of American popular music in the decade that followed. As folk music gave bluegrass much of its lyrical content, its own path migrated from the mountains, plains, and small towns of America into the metropolises around 1940, when Woody Guthrie arrived in New York City.
When the folk music of the Deep South and the Appalachians found its way there – through artists like Lead Belly and Jean Ritchie – it was greeted by social activists. It became a voice for the political and social causes of the time. In 1941, Guthrie joined his newfound friend Pete Seeger, along with Arkansas native Lee Hays and screenwriter Millard Lampell, to form the Almanac Singers. For two years, this revolving group of activist folk musicians – also including Josh White, Burl Ives, Sis Cunningham, Cisco Houston, and Bess Lomax Hawes – advocated the end of racism and war and gave their full support to labor unions through song. These commitments limited their commercial opportunities but gave rise to a new era of urban folk music communities.
Later, some members of the Almanacs formed the Weavers – the first popular folk group to emerge from urban America, with original members Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman, and Ronnie Gilbert. Less overtly political than the Almanacs, the Weavers became one of the most successful popular music sensations in the country, ushering in a new national, mainstream interest in folk music. They were the most popular vocal group for the first two years of the ’50s, charting Top 10 songs like Guthrie’s “So Long It’s Been Good to Know You,” and Lead Belly’s “Good Night, Irene.” However, their career was stalled by the Cold War government and McCarthy era of the early 1950s. Their labor union background and Communist Party ties from the days of the Almanac Singers (and Seeger’s refusal to testify against his Communist friends) barred them from mainstream radio and many concert venues. So, in 1954, Seeger began traveling the country playing primary schools and universities, introducing younger audiences to American folk music and the songs of his friend, the Oklahoma troubadour Woody Guthrie.
As the ’50s – and the McCarthy Era’s “Red Scare” – drew to a close, the urban folk music movement began its second, and considerably larger, surge. Inspired by the Weavers and Seeger’s travels, the Kingston Trio met with phenomenal success. Not only did they outsell every folk artist before them, but also they ushered in the era of the long-playing vinyl album. Their albums were the first LP recordings to sell in the millions. But, more importantly, they sang the songs of the Weavers, Lead Belly, and Woody Guthrie. They were virtually untouchable by naysayers, with their apolitical attitude and collegiate clean-cut appearance. Besides, with the new folk music revival came an increased interest in roots music and a demand for live appearances from its stars.
This led to another important development that sprung from the folk music revival of the late ’50s and early ’60s: the birth of the outdoor folk festival. While the touring National Folk Music Festival was the first such outing, dating back to the 1930s, it was the advent of the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island in 1959 that took hold and inspired a multitude of similar gatherings. Newport Folk was dreamed up as a counterpart to the Newport Jazz Festival, and was organized by Pete Seeger, Oscar Brand, Theodore Bikel, and Albert Grossman. It introduced a broad, inclusive spectrum of artists representing the same kind of diversity familiar to today’s Americana music movement. As a result, in 1960, Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt, who had left Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys a decade earlier to form the Foggy Mountain Boys, were on the bill alongside familiar folk singers like Seeger and Bob Gibson and blues artists like John Lee Hooker. By the time this happened, it was clear that bluegrass had found a home on the growing folk festival circuit, and it started to make its name apart from country music as a result.
The national festival exposure began a momentum that was unstoppable. In the early to late ’60s, national television brought bluegrass to a new audience on shows like The Andy Griffith Show and The Beverly Hillbillies. With the release of Bonnie & Clyde, bluegrass music crossed over to the pop charts via Flatt & Scruggs. It went international. The music once vaguely dismissed as “hillbilly music” – featuring acoustic banjos, fiddles, guitars, mandolins, and a distinctive high, lonesome vocal – had come of age and become permanently known as bluegrass.
The Real Deal
Meanwhile, Woody Guthrie’s musical veins ran thick with the Dust Bowl and the lean, raw, country blues music from his hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma. His first instrument was the harmonica, which he picked up from a black street musician in Okemah when he was a boy. Jimmie Rodgers (the popular “Singing Brakeman”) and Virginia’s Carter Family were as familiar to Guthrie as the any of the mainstream popular songs of the day.
As an Oklahoma native growing up in the shadow of the myth of the Old West, he was a fan of western music and returned to the image of the cowboy throughout his life. Country and western music would define his early career as he learned entertainment skills from the traveling medicine shows and musical caravans that passed through town. That influence was so pervasive that he continued to write and sing in this western style throughout his career. The best example of this can be found in his only bona fide hit song released during his lifetime, “Oklahoma Hills,” written with his cousin Jack about the life of a cowboy. Jack, who was a real cowboy raised around horses and even a rodeo rider, brought the song to #1 on the country charts in 1945. A second version by Hank Thompson also hit the country charts in 1960.
Guthrie’s talent, while certainly musical, was found primarily in his lyrics. Many of his songs were melodies borrowed from old hymns, ballads, and the Carter Family treasure chest of songs. As he wrote on his first copy of “This Land Is Your Land,” he always put to words what he saw and experienced growing up in Southern Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle during the ’20s. The songs were his lifeblood. His creativity was unstoppable when it came to writing words about the world he saw around him. As he wrote lyrics out on notepads, he was careful to document dates and places. On many of them he made comments, drew sketches, and always indicated they were original copies of the songs. As restless as he was, Guthrie’s discipline in documenting his words was a key to creating the archive that has become a national treasure for generations beyond his own.
According to Nora, an often-overlooked part of her father’s legacy is the influence he drew from his love for pure, hard-core country music. The music that influenced him the most was very different from the “folk music” familiar to the New Yorkers he met when he hitchhiked to the city to perform.
By the time he was a young teenager, Guthrie’s hero Jimmie Rodgers was a country music sensation. His music was drawn from the traditions of hillbilly, folk, and blues. He became known for his distinctive blue yodel. His vocal and stylistic impact on Guthrie was significant, especially in the song “California Blues.” In an interview with Alan Lomax in 1940, Guthrie referred to the “hundreds of people in Oklahoma who heard how Jimmie Rodgers sang of going to California, where ‘the water tastes like cherry wine.’” It appears this line may have influenced at least part of Guthrie’s classic “Pastures of Plenty.”
The Carter Family’s impact on Guthrie was even more pronounced than that of Rodgers. The melody for “This Land is Your Land” is similar to that of The Carters’ “Little Pal of Mine” and “When the World’s On Fire,” both derived – using the folk process – from an old Baptist hymn titled “Oh My Loving Brother.” In his book, Ramblin’ Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie, Ed Cray says the Carters’ influence also extended to Guthrie’s guitar playing. He would listen for hours to Maybelle Carter’s flatpicking style, trying to emulate the intricacies of what was known as the “Carter scratch.”
After a series of family setbacks and tragedies, Guthrie’s father moved him to the Texas panhandle town of Pampa – an outpost on the Texas/Oklahoma border. It was in this rural country where Guthrie’s musical taste was refined. When he was 18, he spent his days learning songs by street-busking and playing town hall dances with his half-brother Jeff on the fiddle. Around that time, Guthrie met Mary Jennings, whom he married, and the two began a family. He also started making music with his friends Matt Jennings and Cluster Baker, and they became known as the Corn Cobb Trio. Eventually, he joined the Pampa Junior Chamber of Commerce Band, which, in surviving photos, makes no shame of the group’s cowboy longings and leanings. In the photo, Guthrie holds the stand-up bass, and he and the other band members wear matching ornate cowboy outfits. It was, for Guthrie, an uncharacteristic uniform.
In 1937, after years of what he later sang about as “hard traveling” during the Great Depression, Guthrie rolled into Los Angeles and scored one of the great gigs of his career: a radio show on KFVD singing old-time country classics and some original songs. His partner was Maxine Crissman, or “Lefty Lou” as she was called on the air. The show’s audience was the multitude of migrants who had come to California during The Grapes of Wrath era and who met cruelty, harsh judgment, and socio-economic oppression from native Californians. Guthrie’s response to what he saw was songs like “Do Ri Me” and “Pastures of Plenty.” Guthrie and Lefty Lou’s program went out to the labor camps and helped to give a human face to the conditions of the day. It was during the critical decade from 1929 to 1940 that Guthrie went from being a student of pure country music to a master songwriter, a down-to-earth, charismatic storyteller.
When he arrived from a cross-country hitchhiking trip from California to New York City in 1940, Guthrie began his most productive period as a singer-songwriter and an activist who brought his own distinct hillbilly style and vernacular to big city social causes and audiences who were hungry for authentic folk music. His Okie and Texas background – the country, hillbilly roots – made him a rare out-of-towner. To many folk enthusiasts, Woody Guthrie was the real deal.
By 1945, Guthrie was living on Mermaid Avenue in Brooklyn. Having divorced Mary Jennings back in Texas, he married Martha Graham Company dancer Marjorie Mazia and started raising another crop of children: Cathy, who died tragically in a house fire in 1947, Arlo, Nora, and Joady. From 1944 to 1945, producer Moses Asch began recording Guthrie in a series of sessions that hold many of the best of Guthrie’s original songs, including “This Land,” “Pastures of Plenty,” and “Do Re Mi.” This was the peak of Guthrie’s career, the work that became the foundation for his musical legacy.
He was at his creative best. But, before long – by the early 1950s – his fading health and alcohol abuse took a heavy toll: Guthrie’s songwriting, as well as his prose, grew increasingly erratic. He traveled back to California and his marriage to Marjorie came to an end. But, before leaving New York City, Guthrie’s deepest fears were realized when he was diagnosed with Huntington’s chorea, the genetic disease that had sent his mother to an asylum.
He lived for a few years in Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon, a colony of blacklisted actors, writers, and folk musicians. He remarried and divorced, then eventually made his way back to New York City, where Huntington’s finally caught up with his health and independence. Guthrie lived out the rest of his life in institutions until his death in 1967.
By the time Bill Monroe, bluegrass music, and the folk revival were hitting their stride in the late ’50s, Guthrie was sidelined in Brooklyn State Hospital, being cared for by Marjorie and their three kids. He spent weekends with his family and, later, in the early ’60s, with an admiring young songwriter named Bob Dylan. With Dylan’s appearance during his decline, Guthrie came as close as he ever would to the folk and “hillbilly music” revival his own musical journey inspired. In near mystical fashion, as Dylan played his songs for Guthrie, the torch was being passed along to another troubadour. As he lay dying, Guthrie’s musical legacy was being split between singer-songwriters like Dylan and the hillbillies of bluegrass.
“Just Right for Bluegrass”
Meanwhile, a couple hundred miles away in Pennsylvania, Del McCoury was breaking into the world of country music. In 1958, he began playing guitar and singing country songs around Pennsylvania and traveling down south. In 1963, McCoury was hired to play banjo for Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. But, Monroe honed in on McCoury’s vocal talent and assigned him to rhythm guitar instead, also making him the band’s lead vocalist. McCoury stayed in the Blue Grass Boys for one year.
In 1964, while on tour in California, McCoury was led astray by the Dillards. As California was a turning point for Guthrie, it also proved a full drink for McCoury, when he first arrived to play the Ash Grove with Monroe. “We’d play several nights at that club,” he remembers. “Then, I met the Dillards. You know, they were being taken care of by Andy Griffith and playing those hillbillies on his show. You know, those guys, they’d shoot the show all day, then go home to Topanga Canyon and party all night. I’d come to play for Monroe with bleary eyes and he’d kind [of] give me that look of his. But, man, the Dillards would party all the time, which meant they played music all night long sometimes.”
So, in ’64, McCoury left Monroe’s band and extended his stay in California long enough to spend a short time with the Golden State Boys, a seminal West Coast bluegrass band, which included Vern Gosdin, his brother Rex, and for a short time a pre-Byrds Chris Hillman. Having had his fun, McCoury soon left the music business for a job in the lumber industry back home in Pennsylvania to provide reliable support for his new family. But, McCoury’s musical rebirth was only about to begin.
“This fella called me at home and said he’d booked Monroe at festivals before,” he recalls. “His name was Chris Strachwitz. He had a small record label [Arhoolie] in Berkeley, California, and wanted to record me. When he told me he was from Berkeley, I thought we were looking at a long-term kind of thing. Turns out he said he wanted to do the session ‘tomorrow!’ He was two miles from my house.” He laughs. “We set up in my house and I had my brother sing with me. We hired Bill Emerson to play with us. We made that record in just a few days. It came out on his label.”
What followed began McCoury’s “solo” career, as he formed Del McCoury and the Dixie Pals. Together, they recorded albums for the groundbreaking Arhoolie label and Rounder Records during the late 1960s and early ’70s. As those decades wore on, the Dixie Pals became a fixture on the folk and country music festival circuits. Over the years, McCoury replaced the Dixie Pals with the Del McCoury Band, which includes his sons – Ronnie on mandolin and Rob on banjo. The band has forged a distinguished career with Del’s voice and guitar at the center, most recently winning a Grammy for Bluegrass Album of the Year for their 2013 release, Streets of Baltimore.
After years of recording, touring, and winning multiple awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA), McCoury has reached a new peak with this Woody Guthrie project. “It was a bit scary messing with Woody’s stuff.” he admits. “Nora sent me 26 songs to put to music. But, once I looked at the words, I could imagine a melody with them. Some of the words, I believe he already had music to, but [it was] lost along the way. I could see from the rhythm of the lyrics, he wrote many of them with 3/4 time in mind. They fit perfectly into an old-time country melody. They were just right for bluegrass.”
Even though Guthrie’s music was always oriented toward a hillbilly-bluegrass feel, McCoury, like many veteran bluegrass artists, was not that familiar with it. “I never knew a whole lot about Woody Guthrie,” he says. “But, over the years, there were some songs I’d played with Bill Monroe that were Woody’s songs.”
While McCoury’s career has never been oriented toward political causes or controversies, Guthrie’s legacy practically defines the integration of political and civic issues with songwriting. “I noticed some of the words were written about some kinds of political things,” McCoury says, “but they were always practical. I think it was written with the Roosevelt era in mind. There’s one about the government building roads toward the end of the Depression. Most of the songs are still current, like they could have been written yesterday. He liked to write songs about everyday life. It was like he was here today. He also wrote a lot about children and babies. He really thought a lot of little kids.”
To hear McCoury tell it, the first song that captivated him was “Wimmen’s Hats.” “It was just so funny. He had never seen anything like it, the hats on the women in New York City. He described it exactly the way he saw it. He wrote that they were like mousetraps over the women’s heads. Woody wrote exactly the way he thought. The first words that would come out were those first thoughts and they were so true!”
For “New York Trains,” McCoury employs a sturdy “Wabash Cannonball”-like melody to envision the comic portrayal of the hustle and often mindless bustle of New Yorkers running from train to train, being pushed and prodded along by the city police force. “He’d sent for his wife and children to come from Texas,” McCoury says. “He met them at Grand Central Station and the story he tells in the song is hilarious. They would just push them off the train and into the crowd and they try to find their way to another train, where they’d get pushed along again.”
“New York Trains,” is a fine example of how comfortable a fit it is for the words of a great folk music songwriter to be carried by the voice of a bluegrass artist. It rails along with such ease, it’s hard to realize there is a mortal distance between the lyricist and the singer. McCoury brings Guthrie’s words to life in the same way he has always sung bluegrass music, with grace and effortless skill. The song feels less like something McCoury pulled from an archive than it does something he experienced himself. It creates a cartoonish episode, where a country newcomer shares his impression of the fast-paced life of New York City in 1940:
The subway trains are crowded
when they make a stop
You’re at the wrong derned station
and you’re pushed off by a cop
They heave and push and squeeze
and squirm and slip and slide and crowd
when your station comes along
its then you can’t get out.
McCoury said it best: “These songs were written at a certain time, but they could have been written today.” Indeed, when you listen to McCoury and Guthrie separated only by time, you are hearing the legacy of America, the greatness of its people and its musical traditions. In McCoury’s hands, Guthrie’s songs bring together the streams of folk, country, blues, and bluegrass, like a highly anticipated family reunion. Their common bond is this unbroken circle of words and music.
As the ever-present regeneration of American music through current folk and bluegrass revivalists continues, it is clear, in many ways, they follow the same road Guthrie and McCoury have walked down. The musical chemistry and destiny that underlies this new music from these two journeymen is a treasure chest for a new generation – defying mortality, time, and space.
It’s also a good lesson for us all: Follow the flow of the song. Listen closely to the voices from near and distant hills. And always write what you see.
Photo of Woody Guthrie Courtesy Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc. Photos of Del McCoury courtesy Del McCoury.