Sunday, October 3, 2010

October 3: Woody Guthrie, "Do-Re-Mi"

Artist: Woody Guthrie
Song: "Do-Re-Mi"
Album: The Asch Recordings
Year: 1940

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

Regardless of the genre or era, every artist has their influences; the performers that they modeled to make their own style of performance.  That is true of course, until one goes far back enough in music history to find the true originators of style, those performers that were true musical pioneers and shaped the entire structure of all forms of modern music.  Though they had a massive, lasting impact, these originators were very few in number, and one can make the case that there are less that five individuals who are responsible for the entire state of all of recorded musical history.  Standing high atop these performers, there is one man, one name that may very well be the most important in the entire history of music: Woody Guthrie.  Recording countless "American classics" over his career, Guthrie was the original recorded folk singer, and his sound and attitude have shaped everything from rock to punk and it goes without saying that without his recordings, modern music simply does not exist.  Over the twenty or so years that he recorded, Guthrie laid down a staggering number of tracks, yet due to the lack of accurate note-keeping, the actual dates of many of his recordings are very difficult to place.  Furthermore, Guthrie did a number of "one off" sessions at random studios, and this makes the process even more difficult.  Though it was surely written and performed well before the March 21, 1940 Library of Congress recording date, there are few songs as powerful and representative of the great Woody Guthrie than his classic song of warning, "Do-Re-Mi."

Somewhat due to the literal musical restraints at the time, the music of Woody Guthrie is as simple and straightforward as they get, often nothing more than the man and his guitar.  "Do-Re-Mi" shows this in all its glory as there is a simple brilliance to Guthrie's playing, as his guitar serves as both lead and rhythm section, and it is perhaps the strongest proof of the idea of "less being more."  Truth be told, this recording only occurred due to the chance presence of fellow music legend Alan Lomax at a 1940 benefit for migrant workers in New York City.  After Lomax saw Guthrie play, he invited him to Washington, DC to record, as at the time, Lomax was in charge of the Archive of Folk-Song at the Library of Congress.  It has been well documented that these recording sessions were never meant for public release, but during the massive folk-revival of the 1960's, they were released to the public and people were finally treated to the musical mastery found within these recordings.  In these recordings, nearly every "classic" folk song can be found, and "Do-Re-Mi" shines as one of the brightest, as it perfectly captures the simple, yet mesmerizing quality that makes for great folk songs.  Guthrie's guitar provides a fantastic backdrop for his vocals, as he makes it take on a life of its own, serving as both a musical instrument as well as a harmonizing partner, making "Do-Re-Mi" perfect in a way like no other recording in history.

Though they were always quite good, on nearly every song Woody Guthrie ever recorded, the music played a second spot to his brilliant singing and lyrics, and it is this aspect of his music that made him the legend he remains to this day.  Much like his guitar playing, Guthrie has one of the most plain and honest voices in music history, and this is largely evident by his limited vocal range and that one can often hear him pushing his vocals further than he was likely able.  However, it is this exact same occurrence that gives Guthrie more authenticity than any other artist in history, and it makes his lyrics all the more powerful.  Though most think of folk music as a rather tame genre, it is within the songs of Woody Guthrie than one can find its "true" roots, that of protest music and revolutionary thoughts.  "Do-Re-Mi" stands as one of Guthrie's most powerful statements, as it is largely a warning to farmers who were going to California in search of wealth.  Guthrie attacks the issue from every angle, making statements about the sheer number of people with the same idea to the fact that the age old idea of "the grass is greener" simply not being true in this case.  On "Do-Re-Mi," Guthrie presents a fantastic word-play in the chorus, as he drops a double meaning into the phrase, "...but believe it or not, you won't find it so hot, if you ain't got the do re mi..."  There is an underlying grin that is present throughout all of "Do-Re-Mi," but at the same time, there is a very strong sense of the song being a warning, and this was often the magic that made the music of Woody Guthrie so powerful.

It is quite literally impossible to name all of the artists that have taken their style from that of Woody Guthrie, as his style and song structure were without question the most important shift that led to the development of nearly every genre from the twentieth century.  From his simple, honest voice to the often confrontational lyrics he sang, there was nobody before him that brought a sound and mood quite like Guthrie, and one can trace his impact in everything from his more common folk-brethren all the way to punk rock, as their attitude and lyrical phrasings have a great deal in common.  This attitude was one of the most important aspects of Guthrie's life, as his songs dealt with many "hot" issues of the day, and Guthrie never backed off from singing exactly what he meant, often making him the target of many heated protests to his own music.  Whether he was attacking the government for their incompetence or trying to rally people together as one, there are few artists that showed as wide a range of subject matter in as brilliant fashion as one finds within the music of Woody Guthrie.  Sending out a formal warning to those farmers impacted by the Great Dust Storm, Guthrie paints a far different picture of California than many were led to believe, and it is this honesty that defined him as an artist.  Though every one of his recordings carries with it a massive impact, few define Woody Guthrie as an artist better than the 1940 recording of his classic song, "Do-Re-Mi."

No comments: