The songs of Bruce Cockburn

I am an unabashed Bruce Cockburn fan. He is an amazing guitarist, he studied briefly at Berklee in the 60s but not long enough to heart his playing. His writing is among the best ever and he is a wonderful and gentle man. I had the pleasure of interviewing him on several occasions and introducing him in concert on several more. Back stage he is almost shy, and totally unassuming. When he hits the stage he is magic. The kind of Christian that I respect, he doesn’t proselytize and lives his beliefs. His is about the only songwriter I can think of that has had a book written about the theological implications of his songs. And oh, what songs they are.

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Salamander Crossing was an Amherst based Bluegrass band that featured, among others, Roni Arbo on Fiddle, Dave Dick on Banjo and Andrew Kinsey on Bass. They disbanded in 1999 with members of the band going on to form Roni Arbo and Daisy Mayhem. This is their BG take on Cockburn’s “Child of the Wind.”

In 1970 Bruce was invited to write the theme music of the first movie produced with support of the National Film Board of Canada. The movie “Going Down the Road” told the story of two friends who, like so many, leave their homes in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia to find work in Toronto. Even though he’d probably never even been to Cape Breton at that point he got it right. The song was later recorded by Cape Breton Legend John Allen Cameron. This version is by the Barra MacNeils, a family band from Cape Breton. Cockburn himself joins them for a verse. (For your convenience, and mine, I’m including the movie itself at the bottom of this post.)

Claire Lynch is simply one of the most respected singers in Bluegrass Music today. When she decided to do an album of songs by Canadian songwriters it was no surprise that she chose one of Bruce’s. This is her take on one of his most beautiful: “All the Diamonds in the World.”

Grace Griffith is out of the Washington/Baltimore music axis. What I love about her recording of Cockburn’s “Wondering Where the Lions Are” is the vocal group backing her. Very reminiscent of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by the Tokens. Grace is suffering from MS. Please keep a good thought for her.

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It was my misfortune to do the last radio interview, before the last performance, on the last tour, by the duo Gregson & Collister. It was, well, awkward to say the least. No matter, as both have gone on to fruitful solo careers. Just listen to how Christine handles Cockburn’s “The Whole Night Sky.”

People will tell you that Maria Muldaur no longer has as good a voice as she did when she recorded “Midnight at the Oasis.” To me, it doesn’t matter. She still has an amazing way with a song, as evidenced in her version of Cockburn’s “Southland of the Heart.”

Normally I limit myself to six songs, but I adding a seventh because this may be my favorite version of what may be my favorite Bruce Cockburn song, and so I can tell you this story:

Oysterband was scheduled to open a US tour at Nightstage in Cambridge, MA. That was how long ago it was. You probably don’t even remember Nightstage. Turns out, their plane was delayed getting into Logan. Steve Forbert, who was opening the show performed, and after an hour stopped and said “That was supposed to be the end of my set but I don’t know if Oysterband is going to get here or not, so, if it’s alright with you, I’m just gonna play until they get here or I run out of songs. Whichever comes first.” Of course it was alright with us, nobody left, and he continued. After another hour a line of taxis screeched to a stop on Main Street in front of the club and Oysterband came bounding up the stairs carrying their suitcases and instruments. They deposited their stuff at the front of the stage, threw their jackets on an empty table and started opening cases. John Jones was the first to get his accordion out. He leaped over the suitcases to the stage and started playing. Before the song was over the rest of the band was unpacked and plugged in, and, as they used to say, the joint was rocking. They played until well after curfew for live music in Cambridge at that point, showing little effect from coming directly off a transatlantic flight to the stage. That, my friends is a band. This is their version of Cockburn’s “Lovers in a Dangerous Time.”

Here, as promised, is the movie “Going Down the Road, with Cockburn’s theme. By Hollywood standards the production values may seem a little low budget, but I think that adds to the atmosphere of the story. It you like independent films or just a good story well told, please give it a watch.

As I was searching YouTube to find the movie so I could include it in this post, I was gobsmacked to find that in 2011, the original director had produced a sequel using the surviving members of the original cast. It is set, appropriately, 40 years after the first. For the record, Bruce Cockburn’s theme is used but in a haunting version by Toronto based singer/songwriter Michelle Willis. As I write this, I have just finished watching it for the first time, and I am not ashamed to say that I am in tears. Yes, it’s a little mawkish and sentimental, but, then again, so am I. My Grandfather was from Kerry, so I’m allowed.

Answer Songs Part 9

Patsy Cline’s is the kind of success followed by tragedy story that you might find in a Country & Western songs, or a movie. In fact, there is one, and it’s a good one. It’s called “Sweet Dreams” and stars Jessica Lange as Patsy. If you have HBO, I think you can watch it on demand. If you’ve not seen it, skip this post and go watch it. You could do worse with your time.

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If the can’t find the movie here are the bare bones of the Patsy Cline story:

Country girl with a beautiful voice signs with a small record label and finds first success. (1955)

Is signed by Decca, hits the charts hard, makes national TV debut (1957)

Leave the business after the birth of a child (1958)

Returns to the recording studio and scores her biggest hit yet (1961)

Is nearly killed in a head on auto collision that sees her thrown through the windshield (June 196)

While recuperating, and still on crutches, records her biggest hit ever… in a single take (August 1961)

Has, what turns out to be her final recording session (February 1963)

Dies in a plane crash (March 1963)

The song “I Fall to Pieces” has it’s own strange story. Written by Hank Cochrane and Harlan Howard, both songwriter/performers who met in California but later moved to Nashville. A demo was recorded by Harlan’s singing sister Jan Howard and they shopped the song around Music Row with little success. They were turned down by everybody from Sandra Dee (who thought the song was too country) to Roy Drusky (who thought it was too pop.) Patsy over heard producer Owen Bradley turning the song down on Drusky’s behalf, and asked to record it. When the time came, she almost backed out. First because Bradley had hired the Jordanaires to sing backup and she thought they’d drown her out. Once the session got under way, she almost backed out again when she discovered that there was no way to include her signature growls and yodels.

Her recording of the song was released in late January of 1961, and it took until April to hit the charts, only to begin the climb in history. It was August before it hit #1 on the Country charts and topped out at #12 on the Pop charts. Luckily, its tumble down the charts took as long as its climb up. Today, the song nobody wanted, that Patsy almost backed out of recording, is considered one of the greatest in not just Country Music history but American Music history in general.

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The answer comes from Gerrie Lynn, a Country singer from Chicago, of all places. In 1964 and 65 she recorded a single each year for the small Nashville label. In 1966 she signed to Columbia and produced an album “Presenting Gerrie Lynn” and a single. Ironically, the album included a version of “I Fall to Pieces.” In 1967 she recorded one final 45 for Columbia featuring “Down Home Country Girl” backed with “I’ll Pick Up the Pieces” written by someone credited as E.Miller. And now I’ve told ya all I know ’bout that.

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Pops Extra – proving, once again, that nothing was sacred to H&J.

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Tomorrow – In the kind of song that probably wouldn’t be recorded today, we learn the story of Mexican Joe and his marriage.


Fire the Canon

Johann Pachelbel was classical music’s original one hit wonder. You have heard his Canon in D whether you know it or not. For awhile it was everywhere, from classical radio to supermarket Muzak. It was so ubiquitous that during my decade long stint as a Classical Music radio host, I felt compelled to do a regular feature called “Pachelbel wrote some other stuff too you know.” Peter Schickele (DBA P.D.Q Bach) was moved to create WTWP.

Wtwp Classical Talkity-Talk Radio

Now consider if you will, the least likely musical instrument you can think of to play Pachelbel’s Canon in D. Got it. You probably said banjo, but it was a trick question. Remember, I said musical instrument. How ’bout this for unlikely?

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The Swingle Singers made a career by creating vocal pieces out of instrumental works by Bach, and others. It took Christine Lavin to do the same for Pachelbel.

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Musicians in a variety of genres have used the Canon in one way or another. Here Dave Swarbrick medleys it with his beautiful song “Rosie”

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Irish-American Fiddle innovator used the Canon as the jumping off point for her “Pachelbel’s Frolics.”

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Yves Lambert (formerly of La Bottine Souriente) is joined by Le Bébert Orchestra for “Pachelbel Paquette”

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And, wouldn’t you know, look what popped up on YouTube while I was working on this post.

I give up. I have no words.

Answer Songs Part 8

OK, this is gonna be fun. Firstly, it deals with the classic Country Music themes of murder and infidelity. Secondly, if you’ve listened to Folk or Folk/Rock over the last forty years you know the song already. When The Band revived it for their “Music From Big Pink” album, many people took it as a traditional song, but nothing could be further from the truth. It was written in 1958 by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin on Music Row in Nashville. The writers have said that the song was based on three influences:

  1. A contemporary newspaper report about the unsolved murder of a priest
  2. The legend of a mysterious veiled woman who regularly visited Rudolph Valentino’s grave
  3. Red Foley’s recording of “God Walks These Hills with Me”

I am chagrined to find that I don’t have Foley’s version, but to give you an idea of the genesis of this song, listen to this version by Don Gibson. I also have a version done with a white-boy gospel quartet that, I’m sorry to say, since I loves me some Porter Wagoner, is really hard to listen to.

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I’ll get to Marijohn shortly, you’ll see why I waited when we get there. Danny Dill started out as a singer. He even trod the boards of the Ryman for the Grand Ole’ Opry as part of the duo Annie Lou and Danny. He did some solo recordings but his greatest fame came as a songwriter. He is, justifiably in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and he wrote so many great hits that I’m not even going to try to list them. I will mention that he wrote Bobby Bare’s hit “Detroit City.” Anybody who can condense the mundane nature of working class life into one line, “by day I make the cars, by night I make the bars” has to be one of my personal heroes.

By 1959, when he recorded the song in question (which you’ve probably guessed by now) Lefty Frizzell was already a major star. He began recording nearly a decade earlier and had already charted 17 with 5 of them hitting #1. Oddly though this song, and Saginaw Michigan, are his most enduring and best know, it topped out at #8. His sound at the time was solidly Honky Tonk and people have speculated that the increasing popularity of Folk Music influenced the decision that caused him to record this ballad.

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After he hit #1 with, the aforementioned, Saginaw Michigan in 1964, the quality of his performances started to falter do to a developing problem with alcohol. He continued to record until 1975, when he was felled by a massive stroke and died at age 47.

Over the years there have been just too many versions of the song for me to even try to list them. I’ll just hit a few high spots.

Johnny Cash not only recorded the song, but sang it on his first network TV show, in a duet with Joni Mitchell. Joan Baez recorded it multiple times. Mick Jagger joined the Chieftans for a version. You can add the Dave Matthews Band (their recording charted,) Bruce Springsteen, Harry Manx, Jerry Garcia, Bill Monroe, The Bluegrass Gentlemen, The Country Gentlemen, Tim O’Brien, and Marianne Faithful to the list. Ronnie Hawkins recorded it, but long after his former backing musicians The Band did. Dave Mallett include his take on an album of songs he used to do when he was starting out. There is even a Soul version by Brian Owens.

Now on to the answer and Marijohn Wilkin. She toured with Red Foley in 1955, which is probably how she knew “God Walks These Hills….) but by 1959 she was settled down on Music Row as a songwriter turning out hits for Wanda Jackson, Stonewall Jackson and Jimmy C. Newman, all before “Long Black Veil.” Much of her later output might be considered Gospel or Christian, including the megahit “One Day at a Time.” She also turned out some R&R including a hit by Eddie Cochran and “I Just Don’t Understand” that was covered by the Beatles. Rod Stewart and Mick Jagger also recorded her songs. She was known as the “Den Mother of Music Row” and mentored folks like Ed Bruce, Johnny Duncan and a young Kris Kristofferson. Her son was a musician and led the band Ronnie & the Daytonas. Remember “G.T.O.” back in 1964? Yum. She is, of course, enshrined in the Nashville Country Music Songwriters Hall of Fame. She passed away due to heart disease in 2006 at age 86. A life well lived.

I have sometimes wondered if this was the original version of the song and it was changed to a male point of view because there were more men singers to pitch it to. Probably not. I warn you, the arrangement is awful, but you gotta hear it anyway.

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Pops Extra(s)

I’m including this one because I think everything goes better with banjo…. tenor banjo that is.

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This album is dedicated to one of my favorite country singers, Jan Vycital. The song is done by Miroslav Hoffmann.

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Tomorrow – We pick up the pieces of a Patsy Cline classic.

Odd thought for the day…..

Yes, I am upset, and saddened, that today Trump admitted treason, again. After all, what did we expect. What I am most saddened by is that Russia had descended so far into syndicalism that Putin and his gangsters are willing to get into bed with Trump and his puppet masters: the capitalist criminals in the Republican party who have led our country to the brink of fascism and beyond.

I mourn for the Russian people who are the sons, and daughters, and descendants of the Soviets who stood so resolutely against Hitler’s army and it’s megalomaniac march east. Their forbearers opened the death camps and ended the holocaust. If you read history written from any point of view other than American, you know that the war would have been lost had it not been for their untold sacrifices. As Dick Gaughan wrote “one out of every three who died was Russian.”

I mourn for us as well. We are the sons, and daughters, and descendants of men and women who sacrificed so much during WWII. Not only in Europe, Asia and Africa but at home as well. Our forbearers fought the “war to end all wars,” and while it did not, it was still a victory for freedom. Some of our ancestors fought in the American Civil War so that others might live free. Our predecessors left their homes to come to this country with one goal in mind: Freedom. We are the descendants of the farmers who took up arms on the fields of Lexington and Concord. I morn for us as our President makes deals with gangsters, and lies about it, not only to us, but the world as well.

The memory of those children, taken from their parents and put in cages haunts me. How do we explain this to the generation, American and Russian, that opened the Nazi Death Camps. Our President openly describes other sovereign nations as “shit hole countries” and we let it pass. How do we explain this to the generation who, both American and Russian, fought and died to bring an end to Hitler’s Final Solution. We betray their sacrifice with every act by Trump and his criminal cronies, when we don’t stand up, as a people, and say enough!

We are not on the road to fascism. it is at our very door. It’s harbinger, hatred, burns across our land. the flames fanned by the evil men who have so corrupted not just the Republican Party, but every branch of our government. Saying “not in our names” is no longer enough. We must stand up to the fascist who no longer wear Brown Shirts, but clothe themselves in Brooks Brothers suits.

Not Again, Not Now, Not Ever.

Here are two songs by Dick Gaughan, who was prevented from entering our country for many years because of his political beliefs. The first song is dated, having been written during the Cold War, but the truths of both songs still hold.

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While listening to “A Different Kind of Love Song” just now, I was remind of the words of Woody Guthrie who said “It’s a Folk Singer’s Job to comfort disturbed people and to disturb comfortable people.”


New Book!

I’ve been forgetting to tell you this. My friend Rachel’s new book is out. If you are interested in politics, the sixties, country music, or American culture (or what passes for it) this is a must read.

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Let me quote from the blurb by the publisher:

Every now and then, a song inspires a cultural conversation that ends up looking like a brawl. Merle Haggard’s Okie from Muskogee, released in 1969, is a prime example of that important role of popular music. Okie immediately helped to frame an ongoing discussion about region and class, pride and politics, culture and counterculture. But the conversation around the song, useful as it was, drowned out the song itself, not to mention the other songs on the live album-named for Okie and performed in Muskogee-that Haggard has carefully chosen to frame what has turned out to be his most famous song. What are the internal clues for gleaning the intended meaning of Okie? What is the pay-off of the anti-fandom that Okie sparked (and continues to spark) in some quarters? How has the song come to be a shorthand for expressing all manner of anti-working class attitudes? What was Haggard’s artistic path to that stage in Oklahoma, and how did he come to shape the industry so profoundly at the moment when urban country singers were playing a major role on the American social and political landscape?

Just so there’s some music in this post, here’s Merle:

Now go immediately to your local Book Store. If you’re lucky enough to still have one, you have to support it, or you won’t for long. Failing that, here the link to buy it on Amazon.


Sequel Songs

Everybody loves a good sequel. Look at “Star Wars” for example. Lucas gives us JarJar Binks, and still, we keep comin’ back for more. Or at least some of us have. Personally I’ve never seen a “Star Wars” movie. Movies cut into my music listening time.

I’ve often been surprised that more songwriter don’t write sequels. While telling an engaging story they introduce characters that we get involved with emotionally. They become very real to us. Sometimes it would be nice to find out what happened to them later. Now if you’re Tom Russell or David Olney, you often kill ’em off by the end of the song. Cormac McCarthy left a guy buried under his own woodpile at the end of one song. Doesn’t leave much room for a sequel. “Remember that guy from that other song. Well, he died.” See, not much to work with.

It’s seems odd that songwriters who base songs on real people don’t do sequels. With my late friend Michael Troy, sequels were never necessary. If you went to enough of his concerts in Fall River and New Bedford you’d eventually meet all the people in his songs. He’d often introduce them from the stage. You could ask them yourself how they’re doin’. And I have over the years.

Which brings us to Richard Berman. The people in many of his songs are very real. A waitress he met once, or an old cowboy that picked him up once while he was hitch-hiking. These people he only knew for one moment in time and has no better idea what happened to them than we do. On the other hand the people in this pair of songs are old friends of his, Sue & Verla, who live out west, and he observed the incident related in the first song first hand.

Richard recorded this on an album in 2005 but I believe he’d had the song in his pocket for a few years before that. At least a couple of years before he recorded, it he sent me a cassette of an early version of the song. (When will I ever learn to date things when I get them?) Between that cassette and the official recording, he had modified the name of the song. I’m glad he did as the earlier title gave away too much of the story up front.

Richard Berman | Holding Hands

The sequel is based on a letter he received from Sue, I believe, in 2013, a year or so before this song was recorded.

You might have noticed that I did not label this post as Part 1. I just can’t think of that many sequel songs. If you can, please suggest them in the comments section.


Answer Songs Part 7

As Country & Western music was achieving greater popularity, and crossing into the mainstream during WWII, it’s no surprise that the immediate post-war years saw bunches of songs from the point of view of a guy, away from home, worrying about whether his gal would remain faithful. That’s the basics of this one, written in 1952 by Winston L. Moore. He performed under the name Slim Willet. He recorded it with his band, The Brush Cutters, for the small 4-Star label and it hit #1 on the country charts just about long enough for a cup of coffee. Ray Price recorded it for Columbia next. Considering, by this time, he was performing and recording with Hank Williams band, The Drifting Cowboys (who he called The Cherokee Cowboys), it probably should have done better, but topped out at #4. Then Skeets McDonald got a hold of it and he rode it to #1 where it stayed for an amazing 18 weeks!

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Born Enos William McDonald in Greenway, Arkansas, in the early 30s he followed an older brother to Detroit were he formed a band and performed on radio in nearby Flint and Pontiac. He was drafted in 1941 and served in Africa and the Far East. After the war was over, he headed back to Michigan where he performed again on the radio and dabbled in this new medium called television. He made his first records as Skeets McDonald for Fortune in 1950. At the same time he also recorded for London & Mercury as Skeets Saunders. (Yeah, that’ll fool ’em…..)

In 1951 he headed to LA where he became a regular on Cliffie Stone’s Hometown Jamboree and the legendary Town Hall Party. Though by this time his sound was more R&R than C&W, Capitol Records signed him to compete with Lefty Frizzell, who was ripping the charts up for Columbia. I suspect, when it came time to record this song, there was a major negotiation about the arrangement. The label probably wanted a straight C&W tearjerker, while Skeets wanted to rock out. They settled on a very happy middle ground and, to my ear at least, the result was something akin to Western Swing.

Image result for skeets mcdonald don't let the stars get in your eyes

Skeets continued to record for Capitol, and later Columbia but never achieved this kind of success again. He charted four more songs, the most successful of those topping out at #9. My favorites of McDonald’s catalog were among his first for Columbia and featured the work of, then unknown, guitarist Eddie Cochran. Skeets, without doubt, would have enjoyed a longer career had he not been taken by a heart attack in 1968. He was only 52.

[I’m currently looking of a pair of McDonald albums. “Skeets” issued by Sears in 1967 (Yes, Sears-Roebuck!) and a posthumous collection of his Fortune recordings called “Tattooed Lady & Other Songs”]

The song itself turns out to have had major legs, with the biggest hit being a version by Perry Como with The Ramblers. (Como sings Country. Don’t think about it too long, you’ll just get a headache.) Just searching my iTunes collection I find versions by Peter Griffin’s favorite, Conway Twitty, Johnny & Jack (Johnny was Mr. Kitty Wells,) George Jones, Boxcar Willie, Faron Young, The Browns, and more.

Let’s get back to Winston “Slim Willett” Moore. He collaborated on an answer song with singer Tommy Hill (though he gave the credit to his sister) and Virginia Subar. Tommy’s sister was the singer Goldie Hill, The Golden Hillbilly, who I wrote about in Answer Songs Part 6. Since the answer needed to be in a woman’s voice the inevitable took place.

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Pops Extra – No explanation is necessary, in fact, no explanation is possible.

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Tomorrow – We discover the identity of the woman who “walks these hills” in funereal garb. OK, that’s kind of enigmatic, but trust me, you know the song and you have never heard the answer.


Woody Guthrie on Trump Sr.

When Woody Guthrie and family were living on Mermaid Avenue, Coney Island, his landlord was Fred Trump, the father of our Commander and Thief. Of course he wrote a song about him. This is the only known audio of Woody singing it. Remember, by time he recorded this Huntington’s Disease had already forced him in hospital. And yes that is a picture of Trump the Elder. What is it they say about the tangerine not falling far from the tree?

Here are the complete lyrics:

I suppose that Old Man Trump knows just how much racial hate
He stirred up in that bloodpot of human hearts
When he drawed that color line
Here at his Beach Haven family project

Beach Haven ain’t my home!
No, I just can’t pay this rent!
My money’s down the drain,
And my soul is badly bent!
Beach Haven is Trump’s Tower
Where no black folks come to roam,
No, no, Old Man Trump!
Old Beach Haven ain’t my home!

I’m calling out my welcome to you and your man both
Welcoming you here to Beach Haven
To love in any way you please and to have some kind of a decent place
To have your kids raised up in.

Beach Haven ain’t my home!
No, I just can’t pay this rent!
My money’s down the drain,
And my soul is badly bent!
Beach Haven is Trump’s Tower
Where no black folks come to roam,
No, no, Old Man Trump!
Old Beach Haven ain’t my home!

Ryan Harvey set them to music and performs them here with Ani DiFranco and Tom Morello (aka The Night Watchman.)

Tim Grimm used this song and parts of Woody’s autobiography “Bound for Glory” to create “Woody’s Landlord”

There are many songs about Woody. Here are a few of my favorites. Yes, I know I should have done this yesterday which was the anniversary of Woody’s birth. Ya can’t think of everything…. or at least I can’t….

This is Alun Parry, a songwriter and organizer from Liverpool who wears his heart and his working class politics on his sleeve. This song is based on writings by Guthrie published in “Woody Sez” This is a collection of columns that he did for The Sunday Worker (or as he called it, The Sabbath Employee) which was a publication of the West Coast Branch of the CPUSA. Sadly the book is long out of print and Amazon is asking as much as $172.89 for a new copy. Here’s a link where you can order used copies for a tenth the price. You should, you know. The original is on his album “Corridors of Stone.”

A lot of people call Bob Childers an Americana songwriter, but he’s better than that. He was the narrator for that wonderful stage production about Woody called “Ribbon of Highway”. This is a live version of a song that appears on his album “Nothin’ More Natural.”

Finally, here’s Alastair Moock with a live version of his song “Woody’s Lament” recorded at the Rose Garden Coffeehouse in Mansfield, MA. I’m proud to say that Moock is a product of the Camberville music scene. (Or are we calling it Somerbridge this week?) The original version is on his album “Fortune Street.”



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