Notes From the Composer|
for Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie
It was forty-nine years ago, on a cloudy afternoon in 1956 on the Lower East Side of New York that I first met Woody Guthrie. Ahmed Bashir, a friend of Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, and Charles Mingus (with whom I was playing at that time), took me over to meet Woody at his friend's apartment a few blocks from mine.
Woody was lean, wiry, and brilliant, with a farmerly way that reminded me of the neighbors I grew up with on our farm in Feasterville Pennsylvania during the late 1930s. In the late afternoons after long hours of work, they would often congregate to chew the fat in the side room of Wally Freed's gas station, across the street from our farm. I used to get fifty cents to mow Wally Freed's lawn and when I was done and stayed around the gas station, I never got caught while eavesdropping on all the conversations of the local farmers and out-of-work men who would commune at Wally's for their late afternoon bull sessions after their chores were done.
They always told it like it was, without wasting a word or a gesture, leaving space for you to think about what they were saying, and in spite of the grinding seemingly endless horrors of the Great Depression, they had better jokes and stories than most professional comedians or politicians. Woody had this same quality, and I felt at home with him the minute we met.
As Woody, Ahmed Bashir, and I sat swapping tales and drinking coffee at the tiny kitchen table from noon until it was dark outside, Ahmed and I spent most of the time listening to Woody's long descriptions of his experiences, only sharing ours when he would ask, "What do you fellas think about that?"
The rest of the time, we sat transfixed as he took us on his journeys with him through his stories. Woody didn't need a guitar to put you under his spell, and you could tell that when he was talking to us, it wasn't an act or a routine. Like his songs and books and artwork, everything came from the heart.
Looking back at these memorable first few hours with Woody, I still remember the excitement in his voice, as if he himself were rediscovering all the events and sharing them for the first time, as he told Ahmed and me his incredible stories of his youth and subsequent travels. Both Ahmed and I marveled at his encyclopedic knowledge of all kinds of music, literature, painting, and politics, which he wove into his narratives, all delivered in a poetic country boy style that was all his own. During these descriptions of his travels and adventures around the country, he often included references to events of his early boyhood days in Okemah.
Ever since that day we first met a half a century ago, I have always hoped that someday I would get the chance to go to his hometown of Okemah, but with my crazy schedule I never had the opportunity to do so. Shortly after Nora Guthrie asked me to compose this piece to honor Woody's classic song, I was invited to perform at WoodyFest, the annual summer festival in Okemah. I have now done it for the past three summers.
In his hometown, I was able to meet his sister Mary Jo, her late husband, and Woody's remaining old friends from long ago who were still living there. And by playing music and spending time with people who were also natives of Okemah, I felt that I was able to better understand Woody and his work in a deeper way.
I was now able to make a connection, since that first meeting with Woody half a century ago, to the ensuing years during which I have played countless times with his old friend Pete Seeger and his protege Ramblin' Jack Elliot, and times spent with Woody's late wife, Marjorie, and the numerous concerts I have participated in with his son, Arlo, over the past thirty-five years.
All this helped me when writing Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie.
The opening Theme and Fanfare for the Road has the percussion introduce the actual theme played by the marimba, followed by a fanfare, expressing Woody's desire to go out on that open road.
Variation l Oklahoma Stomp Dance, is my own melody, depicting Woody attending a nearby Pow Wow and hearing an Oklahoma Stomp Dance of the Western Cherokee, on a Saturday night through dawn of Sunday morning. During the dance, slightly altered versions of the Theme appear, as they do in almost every other variation. The variation ends quietly, joined by fragments of the initial fanfare, blending with the Stomp Dance.
Variation ll Sunday Morning Church Service in Okemah is a musical portrait of by gone times. The oboe, clarinet and harp introduce a mournful melody, restated by the strings, and the theme is heard, as Woody heard it in church played on the organ, but with extended harmonies. The theme is later stated by the English horn and harp and traces of the fanfare are woven in with the first melody and distant church chimes are heard as the variation ends.
Variation lll Prelude and Pampa Texas Barn Dance is the beginning of Woody's journeys from Oklahoma through America. The solo violin introduction to the dance is followed by the double reeds, indicated in the score to sound like Celtic Uilleann Pipes. A lively original melody, composed in the style of Irish folkloric music, is later joined by the trombones and tuba, playing the theme as cantus firmus, in an extended version beneath the dance melody itself.
Variation IV Sonando con Mexico (Dreaming of Mexico) is a musical portrait of the Mexican workers with whom Woody spent time, and about whom he wrote some of his most memorable songs. The opening trumpet call, marked in the score to be played cuivre ed eroico, al torero (brassy and heroic, like a bullfight ceremony) is followed by a nostalgic melody in the strings, suggesting the workers dreaming of their home and families south of the border. The melody is developed and leads to a tuba solo, reminiscent of the Mexican polkas played by folk ensembles throughout the West. The principal song-melody returns, with the theme reappearing in the horns, weaving through the Mexican song as an obbligato, showing how Woody could not get this melody and the idea for the song out of his mind.
Variation V. Dust Bowl Dirge, for strings alone, honors the brave people who survived the national nightmare of losing everything during this ecological catastrophe and still found a way to survive. One of Woody's greatest songs, "So Long, It's Been Good to Know 'Ya" was reportedly written as a farewell note during one of the terrible storms when it was feared that everyone present with him would suffocate. This minor variation of the theme is played by the violas and then restated by the whole string family.
Variation VI Street Sounds of New York's Neighborhoods is a compilation of many kinds of music that Woody loved to hear when walking through the neighborhoods of Manhattan and Brooklyn, during an era when music was played everywhere out of doors during the warm seasons. We hear the lively sounds of a Caribbean Street Festival, with the rhythms of the West Indies, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, and the theme appears in counterpoint in the middle of the march. this is followed by a Klezmer Wedding Celebration and the festive sounds of a middle Eastern Bazaar, where again the theme is used with the exotic sounds of Greek, Turkish and Armenian music superimposed over it. We ten hear the brass family play a hymn-like version of the theme (again using harmonies far from the three chords of the original song) evoking a Salvation Army band, which was a fixture on many corners of New York City's neighborhoods during the late 1940s.
The same harmonies are used for a short section entitled Block Party Jam, often an occurrence to welcome returning veterans of World War Two to their neighborhoods, where jazz bands played celebratory as well as innovative music.
Finally the theme returns in a stately fashion with the original fanfare of the road playing in counterpoint, followed by a rousing conclusion restating the opening of the piece and a triumphant ending.
Just as in the case of Beethoven's' Symphony No. 6 in F major Pastorale, where he titles each movement with a brief description, the program notes for Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie serve as a guide to listener but are not essential to enjoy the piece.
The biographical nature of Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie, just as in the case of Berlioz's moving Harold in Italy, (which Berlioz said was inspired by the life and times of Lord Byron), served as a point of departure to write the best piece that I could.
With the help and research of Nora Guthrie, the goodwill and gifts of her brother Arlo, the excellence of the men and women of the Symphony Silicon Valley, the brilliant young conductor Paul Polivnick and the innovative programming of Executive Director Andrew Bales, I knew while writing this piece that the premiere would be a guaranteed moment of a life time. Music is a collective effort, which is why it is so important, when presented with that selfless spirit.
I thank all of my colleagues, as I thank my children for understanding why I often seemed to disappear for long stretches of time while putting in endless hours day and night to complete this new piece.
And I thank Woody Guthrie for sharing his gifts with the world, and hope that this piece can honor his spirit of bringing people together to share the blessings we all have with one another.
The dedication in the score reads as follows.
Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie by David Amram Theme and Fanfare for the Road Variation 1, Oklahoma Stomp Dance Variation 2. Sunday Morning Church Service in Okemah Variation 3. Prelude and Pampa Texas Barn Dance Variation 4. Sonando con Mexico (Dreaming of Mexico) Variation 5. Dustbowl Dirge Variation 6. Street Sounds of New York's Neighborhoods a) Caribbean Street Festival b) Klezmer Wedding Celebration and Middle Eastern Bazaar c) Salvation Army Hymn (theme) d) Block Party Jam e) Theme and finale
Dedicated to Nora, Arlo, Joady and all the members of the Guthrie Family, whose devotion to Woody's legacy enables all of us to feel welcome in those pastures of plenty which he sang to us about.
This piece is a thank you note to him for all the joy his spirit still gives to people all over the world.
He showed us all the beauty part of this land and all the people who live here, and taught us to honor and respect one another.
The composition was commissioned by Woody Guthrie Publications and received its World Premiere September 29th, 2007, performed by the Symphony Silicon Valley in San Jose California, conducted by Paul Polivnick.