I want to begin by thanking a great University for its contribution to my love of music.
When I was a fifteen-year-old kid and a student at Regis High School, the Jesuits did not think that the school day ended at 3:00 PM. Instead, they insisted that we drink from the astonishing cultural fountain that was and is New York City. It was at Fordham that I saw my first Shakespearean play and my first opera, presented by two companies that were amateur in name only. It makes sense that, fifty years later, I return to Fordham to talk about music.
I cannot pretend that what I am about to say is history supported by the traditional footnotes. Let it be, instead, reminiscences of an old man who had the joy of being a New York kid when an old American music form was transformed by the extraordinary efforts of a group of musicians who saw a new creative force that they thought could cause revolutionary social change. Much of it happened right under my nose in Greenwich Village, close to where our Italian-American family made its first home in, what was then, Little Italy.
Let me begin with a strange meeting between a desperately ill man, named Woody Guthrie, and a kid from Minnesota, then named Robert Zimmerman. Guthrie was near death from a genetic disease that had enfeebled him, and Zimmerman had come on a sacred pilgrimage to see him in a state hospital in New Jersey. What transpired between them is not really known, but it was such a transformative moment that a book for young children has now been written about it. (1)
The world knows that the kid named Robert Zimmerman would change his name to Bob Dylan. With the passage of time, the significance of the life of the other man has faded, but its influence on Dylan, and the rest of the generation that sang "folk music" in the 1960s is incalculable. Indeed, Dylan wrote a song, Song to Woody, that expressed his admiration for Guthrie in hero-worship terms.
Guthrie's music, "folk music," finds its roots in the music that emerged from the experience of rural America in its hymns, field hollers, and work songs. It is the antithesis of the slick Tin Pan Alley or Broadway song, with their orchestrations and catch-line choruses with simple rhymes--"If you knew Susie, like I knew Susie." Instead, folk music is either a variation on the sort of hymn one would hear at a church or prayer meeting--captured so perfectly by the music in the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?--or pure narrative. If it was the latter, it was a simple melody based on a few chords in which the singer told a story. Thus, the first big "folk music" hit was Tom Dooley, a story told by a convict named Tom Dullah of why he must hang in the morning.
The tradition is, of course, an ancient one stretching all the way back to the French troubadours who sang of courtly love in medieval France. In the American tradition, however, it was not the songs of the court but of the farm, of the small town with a small church where most folks earned a meager living from an often unforgiving earth. The singer of the song is the wandering minstrel who moves from town to town like the wind, never staying anywhere long enough to be rooted in that soil. In Dylan's tribute to Guthrie, Dylan starts by saying that he is a thousand miles from his home, and ends by announcing that he is leaving tomorrow. To be faithful to the tradition, the singer can never stay; he has to move on down the line to remain faithful to his calling.
Guthrie is the archetype: he was incapable of remaining in one place and his life was pure wanderlust. He drank too much, was rarely faithful, and often failed to support his family. Indeed, he had contempt for making money; he did not bother to copyright a single one of his hundreds of songs, although those royalties could have helped his family. Yet, while his life was perhaps not admirable, his music captured the narrative tradition of the wandering American minstrel. …