Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Barbara
Klein. This week on our program, we explore American folk music, the music of
"Good Night Irene," is an example of a
traditional folk song. That means the song is so old, no one really knows who
Huddie Ledbetter, the singer and guitarist known
as Leadbelly, first recorded "Good Night Irene" in nineteen
thirty-two. Since then more than a hundred other versions have been recorded. "Good
Night Irene," was a huge hit for the Weavers in nineteen fifty.
Folk music researcher Bob Carlin notes the historic
importance of protest songs. They help give voice to cultural and social
movements, he says.
of the members of the Weavers was Pete Seeger. He was among those who
popularized folk music in the nineteen forties. Later, he wrote some of the
best known songs of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War protests of the
Seeger could be called the King of the Protest Song, in the words of folk musician
Tony Trischka. Yet his greatest influence may have come from popularizing a
song that he himself did not write. "We Shall Overcome" came from a
As Tony Trischka points out, the
original version was called "We Will Overcome." Pete Seeger thought "shall"
sounded better. And he made other changes, like adding the verse "we are
not afraid" to offer support for the protests taking place across the
Shall Overcome," became the theme song of the American civil rights
songs sometimes tell stories about real events. An example is the story of a
young man whose last name was spelled D-U-L-A but pronounced
Dula was a Civil War veteran in North Carolina. He was tried and found guilty
of the murder of his girlfriend Laura Foster. He was hanged in eighteen
sixty-eight, yet the case left many questions.
story was retold in poems and songs -- including the hit song, "Tom Dooley,"
recorded in nineteen fifty-eight by the Kingston Trio.
Folk singer and songwriter Amy Speace says
the history of American folk music can be imagined as a tree with many
branches. At the center, she says, is Woody Guthrie.
Guthrie wrote almost three thousand songs. But he only recorded about three
hundred of them. His granddaughter Anna Canoni says that was partly because he did
not have enough money to record more. He made only one record with a major
for all his influence, millions of Americans today remember him for just one
song, which children learn in school.
The song, "This Land Is Your Land," seems
like the perfect expression of pride in country. What many people do not know
is that it was meant sarcastically, as just the opposite. Woody Guthrie wrote
it in nineteen forty in reaction to Irving Berlin's popular song, "God
fact, Woody Guthrie first called his song, "God Blessed America for Me."
It was meant as a protest song against private property and the unequal
treatment of citizens.
This meaning is made clear later in the
song, in the parts that most children never learn in school:
Another verse talks about seeing hungry
people standing in line for public aid at the relief office. Woody Guthrie was
a voice for labor unions and striking workers and families beaten down by the
Great Depression in the nineteen thirties.
In the nineteen sixties, folk singers like Joan Baez and
Bob Dylan protested the Vietnam War. Bob Dylan's, "Blowin' in the Wind,"
became a big hit for the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary in nineteen
songwriter Amy Speace says there are still protest songs being written. She
points to the examples of Steve Earle and Neil Young as well as what she calls
more contemporary folkies.
That would include herself, a child of the eighties.
Amy Speace describes one of her songs as a protest song, but more of a story
with the protest quietly built into it. The story is about a girl whose brother
is a soldier who gets killed in a desert war.
song is called, "The Weight of the World."
new kind of folk music mixes elements of traditional folk and rock with mostly
acoustic instruments. Some call it "freak folk." Others hate that
you call it, one artist often used as an example is the singer, songwriter and
harp player Joanna Newsom. This song is called, "Sprout and the Bean."
Some people probably think of a folk singer as a fossil
from the nineteen sixties. A long-haired, guitar-playing idealist who sings
about bringing the world together.
these days, with music production software, digital video and social networks all
easily available, folk artists really can bring the world together.
Our program was written by Nancy Steinbach and produced
by Caty Weaver. I'm Barbara Klein. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA
in VOA Special English.