I’ve written about days like this before: days that are pinpoints on the timeline of music history, when paths crossed and discoveries were made. Days that changed lives and (ultimately) changed music.
August 1, 1927: The day that The Carter Family auditioned for Ralph Peer.
July 16, 1933: The day that John & Alan Lomax were introduced to Huddie Ledbetter.
August 16, 1939: The day that Charlie Christian auditioned for Benny Goodman.
July 6, 1957: The day that John Lennon met Paul McCartney.
This story is about two such days in 1940. The significant event on each of these days was an evening concert. It has been said that the after effects of these two concerts altered the course of American music; giving birth to what is now officially referred to as the “American Folk-music Revival.”
So, the first day…
On Sunday, February 25, 1940, the Mecca Temple (at 56th Street and 6th Avenue) was the setting for a huge benefit concert for Spanish Loyalist Civil War refugees. Well-known folk musicians Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter and Alan Lomax were among the many artists on the diverse roster of performers that evening. Woody Guthrie, the heralded singer/guitarist from Oklahoma, was a last minute addition.
This was Woody Guthrie’s first public performance since arriving in New York City two weeks earlier. Guthrie had been encouraged to come to New York by the actor and activist Will Geer. The two had met and become friends in California the previous July. Geer served as master of ceremonies for the Mecca Temple event and specifically arranged for Woody to have a spot on the program.
Woody Guthrie did not perform until well into the long concert, finally appearing somewhere between a “workers’ chorus singing Russian folk songs and classically trained baritone Mordecai Bauman.” Bauman (Broadway star and Columbia Records recording artist) remembered Guthrie that evening as being “a talent we had never heard in New York. In a minute he had the audience in his hand.”
Alan Lomax later recounted Guthrie’s performance that night at the Mecca Temple in a bit more detail: “He stepped out on the stage, this little tiny guy, big bushy hair, with this great voice and his guitar, and just electrified us all.”
The first song that Woody sang was one of his own: “Pretty Boy Floyd.”
“Well,” Lomax continued, “I realized, listening to this song, that I was meeting a guy who was a ballad maker, in the same sense as the people who made ‘Jesse James’ and ‘Casey Jones.’ I thought they were from anonymous people. Well, here was Mr. Anonymous singing to me.”
Woody closed his short set with a new original song, “Why Do You Stand There In The Rain?” This clever, funny and well-received number was inspired by a New York Post article about a speech recently given by President Franklin Roosevelt to a meeting of the left-leaning American Youth Congress.
Lead Belly (Library of Congress, ARC and Musicraft recording artist and “King of the 12-String Guitar”) followed Guthrie to the stage. “But,” Lomax recalled, “only after a long wait filled with encores and roars of delighted laughter.”
Alan Lomax was more than an observant and well-versed folk singer. He was a renowned musicologist and, at the time, Assistant Director of the Archive of American Folk Music at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Also, Alan Lomax was the writer, director, producer and host of the weekly “American Folk Songs” series for the New York-based CBS radio show American School of the Air.
Backstage at the Mecca, Lomax excitedly approached Woody, inviting him to come to Washington, D.C., visit the Library of Congress and to sing on his radio show. Guthrie was put off by Lomax’s fast talk and big city hustle and managed to side step his offers. He did, however, get Alan to introduce him to Lead Belly.
Then, the second day…
On Sunday, March 3, 1940, the Forrest Theater (230 W. 49th Street) was the setting for “A ‘Grapes of Wrath’ Evening” presented by “The Theatre Arts Committee and Will Geer of the Tobacco Road Company.” The 8:30 pm show was “For the Benefit of the John Steinbeck Committee for Agricultural Workers.” Ticket prices ranged from $.55 to $1.65.
The featured cast was announced as “American Ballad Singers and Folk Dancers: Will Geer, Alan Lomax, Aunt Molly Jackson, Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Pennsylvania Miners, Margo Mayo, Golden Gate Quartet and many others.” The “many others” included Bess Lomax, performing with her brother, Alan, and singer/banjo-player Pete Seeger making his public debut.
The show opened with Aunt Molly Jackson, a folk singer and United Mine Workers activist from Kentucky. Woody Guthrie, “a real dust bowl refugee,” followed.
Seeger recalled the evening for Mainstream magazine in 1963.
“Will Geer was MC of the show. Burl Ives was on it and also Lead Belly and Josh White. And there was Woody. A little, short fellow with a western hat and boots, in blue jeans and needing a shave, spinning out stories and singing songs that he had made up himself. His manner was laconic, offhand, as though he didn’t much care if the audience was listening or not.”
Guthrie sang three original songs that night at the Forrest: “Talking New York Subway Blues,” “Do Re Mi” and “Why Do You Stand There In The Rain?.” He interlaced his songs with observations and stories from his time in New York: “You know, they could have more people on these subway trains if they’d lay ’em down: when you got to your station, they could shoot you home like a torpedo… Trains were so crowded today, you couldn’t even fall down. I had to change stations twice, and both time I came out with a different pair of shoes on…”
The way Pete saw it, “Woody was the star of the show. He’d tell a joke and sing a song, and then he’d tell another joke. He must’ve been on stage for twenty minutes, more than any other member of the cast.”
As for his own performance, Seeger recounted in 1999: “I was allowed to sing one song on the program because my friend folklorist Alan Lomax insisted on it. I remember walking out to the front of the stage and singing, very amateurishly, the outlaw ballad ‘John Hardy.’ I got a smattering of polite applause.”
Woody Guthrie himself summed up the evening’s success: “We showed ’em where singing started. We showed ’em how songs come to be… We didn’t have no fancy costumes, nor pretty legs, but we showed ’em old ragged overalls, and cheaper cotton dresses… shows [folk music] can be useful.”
After the “Grapes of Wrath” show, Alan Lomax talked with Woody Guthrie again. He again invited Guthrie to visit Washington, D.C., to record his songs and stories for the Library of Congress and to be a guest on American School of the Air. This time, Woody accepted Alan’s invitations.
Finally, before their conversation was over, Alan Lomax pulled the evening’s rookie performer forward and said, “Here. Woody Guthrie, I want you to meet Pete Seeger.”
At the time of those concerts, Pete Seeger was 20 years old; Alan Lomax was 25; Woody Guthrie was 27; and Huddie Ledbetter was 51.
The work that those four men went on to do in the months and years after those two days in New York – along with the efforts of a roster of musicians that included Josh White, Burl Ives, Big Bill Broonzy, Jean Ritchie, Oscar Brand and Cisco Houston – resulted in a phenomenal rise of national interest in Folk music that stretched into the 1960’s.
The vast collection of recordings and writings that Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Alan Lomax and Huddie Ledbetter produced in their lifetimes will continue to enlighten, inspire and delight musicians and music lovers around the world for many decades to come.
The information and quotes used in the writing of this post were gathered from many sources including:
This Land Is Your Land: Woody Guthrie and the Journey of An American Folk Song (2012) by Robert Santelli
Woody Guthrie: A Life (1980) by Joe Klein
Woody Guthrie: American Radical Patriot (2013) by Bill Nowlin
How Can I Keep From Singing: Pete Seeger (1981) by David Dunaway
Pete Seeger in His Own Words (2012) Selected & Edited by Rob & Sam Rosenthal
The Life & Legend of Leadbelly (1992) by Charles Wolfe & Kip Lornell
Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded The World (2010) by John Szwed
Alan Lomax’s liner notes to the 3 CD set: Woody Guthrie: Library of Congress Recordings (1988) Rounder Records