Amram and Woody...suite!
Listen to Variations of a Song by Woody Guthrie
(l. to r. Nora Guthrie, David Amram and
conductor Andrew Bales)
awhile now I’ve been thinking that it would be both interesting
and challenging to have Woody’s music made more accessible
to classical music groups – either large orchestras or smaller
ensembles. Although there have been some arrangements and recordings
of This Land Is Your Land over the years - the Boston Pops Orchestra
for one - there hasn’t been an arrangement, or composition,
that I feel presents Woody’s idea behind the song, albeit
in the classical tongue!
got me to thinking. And after thinking, the creative juices just
train of thought, as always, took some unexpected turns bringing
up more than I anticipated; from personal memories, to musical compositions
and performances I’ve heard over the years. Sparks of ideas
began to fly. Working backwards on some inner trail, I was taken
back to 1955.
mother, Marjorie Guthrie, was a member of the Martha Graham Dance
Company from 1935 to the early 1950’s. She was in the original
cast of the ballet Appalachian Spring when Aaron Copland was commissioned
to compose the score for Graham. Brilliantly incorporating the Shaker
hymn “Simple Gifts” into his score, Appalachian Spring
has since become a classic – both the ballet and the musical
children, we were taken annually to see all the Graham Company performances.
I remember the first time we saw Appalachian Spring. Although we
were very young, the experience was profound. I remember holding
back my tears at the conclusion of the ballet as I watched the young,
married couple settle on to their porch. With their life together
just beginning, their postures held a steadied excitement as they
prepared themselves for the work that lay ahead, and the challenges.
I could feel all their innocent dreams and hopes and their inner
strength. For me, Copland’s use of “Simple Gifts” conveyed the simple idea that having such a beginning was the gift
Spring was played regularly in our home. My mother played the record
on Sundays as she worked around the house. I felt her pride when
we heard it on the classical radio station as we drove in the car.
It was a very intimate experience for her, reminding her of her
own beginnings as a young adult starting out as a dancer, meeting
my father in New York during this period, and sitting on their own
porch – a little tenement stoop in front of their apartment
in Coney Island – as they began their own combined life and
destiny. Somehow we children understood the tremendous meaning of
this beautiful work and we would become still and silent, listening
to the melody which resonated something of our own existence to
suppose I could say that to this day Appalachian Spring is our family
song, representing our own beginnings, our family history, and the
tone of our family life together as dreamed of by our parents. You
could say it is our family anthem.
the years, many people have considered This Land Is Your Land to
be America’s alternative national anthem. Although most of
us learned the song in schools, around campfires, at hootenannies
and in folk circles, arrangements of the song have also been played
by hundreds of marching bands around the country – from high
school marching bands to the our military marching bands. This style
of arrangement has become a staple at everything from Presidential
inaugurations, national holidays to other public events and ceremonies.
It is most often the chorus, rather than the verses, which are celebrated.
My father certainly would have laughed at the irony. Go figure!
I’ve been struck by the similarities between Appalachian Spring
and This Land. Appalachian Spring is, in my opinion, a quintessentially
American composition expressing much about the beginnings of our
young, national soul with much ahead to learn and so much energy
to work with. This Land holds a similar place in our national repertory,
and I’ve often felt that it could be understood and heard
as Woody’s continuation of the story. One could almost feel
This Land as the child of Appalachian Spring.
Woody’s song, this same Appalachian Spring soul now appears
slightly more grown up. Adolescent in tone, it is now heard as a
young “citizen” –a new watcher, a thinker, a doer,
an activist. Although still wondrous by nature, Woody notes that
along with budding maturity comes the budding of critical thinking.
Woody’s soul, which he names “you and me”, is
revealed anew as a ripening participant – one who continues
to feel wonder but can begin to frame the question “why?”
It is also in a state of wonder that he begins to ask “what
can I do?”
calls this combination of attributes a Worker. But not only workers
of jobs. Woody says we are also workers and growers of a country.
Woody suggests that “you and me” are one continuous
flow of workers of citizenry. He tells us that our most important
job is to grow up and work up our best Ideas. This will naturally
reflect in our individual, specific “job of work”.
Land Is Your Land is often trivialized, and it’s true meaning
– as I understand it – simplified to a modest common
denominator; an “America” defined by a temporary group
of a few. This is always bound to happen. No matter who is in office,
who is in charge, and which side they’re on, the translation
of the song will inevitably be modified to serve someone’s
agenda. And it often proves to be everyone’s agenda except
all this in mind, I approached acclaimed composer David Amram to
ask if he would be interested in composing a new score based on
This Land. In addition to having known Woody personally, David has
been at the center of much of our cultural history, working and
collaborating with the most diverse group of artists – from
Dylan, to Kerouac, to Arthur Miller and on and on. Having composed
a multitude of orchestral suites and film scores, including the
original score for The Manchurian Candidate, it’s been firmly
acknowledged that David is a musical genius in his own right.
than creating an arrangement, I asked him to create a composition
that would express some of the song’s truer meanings - to
use the text and melody as an inspiration, a foundation, from which
he could expand on. Just as Aaron Copland honored “Simple
Gifts” as his muse, so might David create an honest and honorable
tribute to the many seed-thoughts which Woody planted within the
lyrics of This Land.
and I have spent many hours talking about the lyrics, their meaning,
and about Woody. We’ve talked about his life, his experiences,
and talked about how they might have shaped him, and how they appear
in all the six verses of the song. We’ve talked about society,
culture, and politics. This summer, David traveled to Okemah, Oklahoma
where he performed at the Woody Guthrie Free Folk Festival and where
he talked with Woody’s family, friends, musicians and fans.
had a lot of fun sharing our thoughts and feelings on all these
topics. Of course, any conversation about This Land could (and will)
go on and on. And I’m sure many of you reading this have additional
points, comments and pieces of the puzzle to offer. That’s
what makes This Land such an interesting piece to work with. I don’t
think we’ll ever be able to nail it down, just as we can never
nail down Woody. His vision might just be too broad and test our
understanding. (With a wink, he might ask us to hear something in
the marching band arrangements as an expression of something that
could be equally used for some good).
Amram is now busy at work creating what he titles “Symphonic
Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie”. We are hoping that
it will have a premier sometime in 2006, and have begun looking
for the right conductor, the right orchestra, the right town and
the right time.
truly look forward to the night when I will be able to sit in the
orchestra hall and hear David’s work for the very first time.
It will be as thrilling for me as the very first time I went to
see Graham’s ballet Appalachian Spring. But this time, like
the young couple, we will be the ones who will settle into our seats,
our postures steadied with excitement as the conductor lifts his
that night, I hope the conductor, the musicians, and the audience
will experience the same pride my mother always felt when she heard
Appalachian Spring – knowing that she was present when this
new work was created and unveiled. I hope they will become still
and silent, and listen to this melody – being one that is
both so old and so new - and that it will resonate something of
our own existence to us as citizens in this still young country.
I hope it will touch us, mentor us, teach us, and guide us.
hope that future audiences will enjoy this new exploration of This
Land and feel in it another new beginning. I hope it will sound
of the work ahead of us and praise the many, many citizens that
will do it. I hope it will pulse with the rhythms of our challenges
and that we’ll feel like dancing through them! I hope we will
feel our own much needed strength in it. I hope it will touch our
to David Amram, sitting on his own front porch – the composer’s
seat – I hope it will be a moment where he feels us all around
him, as audience and as community, as we send him off with a smile
and a hug. We wish him well as he takes on his own job of work -
introducing “Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie” to the world.
about David Amram, please visit his website: www.davidamram.com