Tag Archives: woody guthrie



Screenshot of Woody's Journal taken from "The Making of The Works," album with music by Jonatha Brooke and lyrics by Woody Guthrie (click for video)

Screenshot of Woody’s Journal taken from “The Making of The Works,” album with music by Jonatha Brooke and lyrics by Woody Guthrie (click for video)


ly·ric  (lir ik),  adj.  [ < Fr. Or L.; Fr. Lyrique; L. lyricus; Gr. lyrikos],  1.  of a lyre.  2.  suitable for singing, as to the accompaniment of a lyre; songlike; specifically, designating poetry or a poem expressing the poet’s personal emotion or sentiment rather than telling of external events: sonnets, elegies, odes, hymns, etc. are lyric poems.  3.  writing or having written lyric poetry.  4.  in music, a) characterized by a relatively high compass and a light, flexible quality: as, a voice of lyric quality.  b)  having such a voice: as, a lyric tenor. Opposed to dramatic.  n.  1.  a lyric poem.  2.  Usually pl. the words of a song, as distinguished from the music.



the words of a song/as distinguished from the music



“The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself.”

 –Sherwood Anderson, letter to his teenage son, 1927



Lyrics have always been a kind of savior.  From times before written word when sounds were bellowed round a fire, when epic poems were sung as a way to pass down history and legend of how a people came to be. Even the sound of the word om, a mantra for invocation, deemed sacred in part because of the vibrations sent out and the resonance of the sound when sung, a-u-m.


Lyrics have saved me at various moments in my life. I think perhaps the greatest gift of these words set to music is their ability to do away with the notion that we are alone. When I am in pain, that is the moment I find it hardest to see beyond myself. There is a meditation practice Pema Chödrön writes about called tonglen. Tonglen is a practice where you get in touch with your own suffering and then breathe in the pain of others. This is in direct opposition to many new age practices that promise relief through visualization: go to your happy place, imagine a bridge covered with ivy and a brick cottage, breathe in the scent of your favorite flower. Tonglen instead asks that you connect with and breathe in the intensity of your own pain and breathe out relief. Then, tonglen asks that you think of all the people in the world who at this very same moment are experiencing the same pain as you—whether grief, loneliness, anger, jealousy, or fear—and to breathe in their pain and breathe out relief. Tonglen makes you aware that you are not the only one feeling what you are feeling. Tonglen gives you an opportunity to offer relief by seeing outside the parameters of your own pain. Lyrics do the same thing.


I have an uncanny memory for song lyrics; they are stacked, filed, catalogued in my brain—the ones I want to remember and the ones I wish I could forget. I also have a habit from when I was very young of spontaneously breaking into song, singing about what’s happening to me or things I see, or inserting song lyrics when someone says a word that reminds me of the song they come from.


I noticed past this fall that I listen to music less and that I sing along less in the car. I’m not sure exactly when this began, but I recognize some of it. Sometimes, even things I love can become things I resist or deny myself. I go through periods of not writing when I am overcome with doubt, when I become focused on product instead of process. When I’m not feeling good about my songwriting or my singing or when I feel I’m not doing enough, I deny myself the moments of even singing along in the car or playing guitar for fun in my home. I even start watching movies as I move about my home instead of listening to music, so permeating is the feeling that I should be doing more. I resist that which matters to me when I don’t allow myself space for it. This is a harsh reality for so many of us: When do we not provide space and time for that which we love out of fear? When does what’s made become more important than the making?


I think in truth that most of us have ideas and words and architecture running just under the surface of our skin. The power of all that we could create scares us into not making time, into making excuses, into making work that is so much more superficial than that which our deepest knowing dares us to make.


Too often, we are liars.


We tell ourselves that the world doesn’t need one more song, one more story, one more sketch.


We are wrong.


The best songs I have written have been the ones that have come out quickly and seamlessly, seemingly out of nowhere. I have sat down with a pen, a notebook, a guitar, and the song has spilled out. This is not evidence of the quickness of art but rather how quick art can come if we pay attention and allow space for it to emerge. Songwriting is a sort of channeling. I know there are people in Nashville who can turn a phrase, who make their living shaping songs for superstars. But like writing, even those who are prolific, would tell you of a certain spark, a certain word or turn of phrase, the key turning in the lock that opened the way to the rest of the song. A crack in the dam. A snap in the hinge. A pull in the thread that unravels the whole hem,  one seam untying to stitch another.


And the lyrics that are made and sent into the world become a place for others to rest within. For hours after a college boyfriend, the first guy I really fell hard for, left to return to the country he was from, I lay on my bed listening to the same song on repeat for hours. It was a Sundays song called “When I’m Thinking About You.” I remember my dorm room and where my bed was positioned by the window. I remember feeling that I had never loved like this before, fearing I would miss him so much my heart would surely break open inside my chest. There were many tears: so many verses and so many choruses worth. I found comfort in the repetition of the same lyrics over and over again. I listened and I cried and by the time I turned the cd player off hours later, I felt better, even if my heart was still broken.


Lyrics become a way of organizing our experiences in life, a place to store our suffering and our solace. The spectacle of karaoke feels less about nostalgia or the desire to be the center of attention than it feels like confession. Singing in unison, the resonating feeling of these words that everyone knows. I, too, have felt this way. Like communion, me too.



“I hate a song that makes you think you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim. Too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling. I’m out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work. And the songs that I sing are made up for the most part by all sorts of folks just about like you.”

—Woody Guthrie



Several friends have spoken with me about the songs that saved them. These songs held words they needed to hear during dark times. And somehow the fact that the song existed provided a shelter. These lyrics, a place for solidarity and witness. These lyrics, a kiva, where a voice reaches out of the speaker to our waiting bodies, mouths, hearts, skin as these parts of us echo back a simple reply, yes.


One of my favorite songs is Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times, Come Again No More.” The first time I heard it, I was in my early twenties and these three young men, handsome and brilliant musicians, were coming through town on a Woody Guthrie Tribute tour. They played this song in harmony on guitars and accordion and it broke something open in me.


Foster wrote the song about people living in deep poverty and deep despair, something I knew  nothing about at the time, something I know a little more about now but not in the way the people he is writing about knew it. And yet, I could hear myself in the chorus. Hard Times, Come Again No More. I feel a sort of yearning in this song and a feeling that the song itself beckons a wish, that in singing the song loud enough, often enough, we could somehow stave away suffering. A hope. An impossibility. When I play the song now, I experience it as a remembrance and a tribute, an acknowledgement of the pain and suffering that is an inevitable part of being human.


Researcher Brené Brown talks about how: “When you ask people about love, they tell you about heartbreak, when you ask them about belonging, they tell you their most excruciating experiences of being excluded. When you ask people about connection, the stories they tell you are about disconnection.” It makes sense then that for many of us the songs that resonate most are the ones that reveal that aching aspect of being human: having loved and lost, having reached out and been turned away, and the hope we hold for a future when things will turn out in a way that meets our needs and desires.


Lyrics feed us. Because we require constant attention and ever-present opening. Because we cannot do it alone. Because we have lived through heartache and heartbreak and have to learn what it means to stand again. Because we must uncover our hands once more from atop our hearts. Because if you needed me, I would come to you. Because there is no other way. Because this fuel, this fire, this field, this flood; this avalanche, this arc, this arch, this aspen; this meeting, this movement, this martyr, this made; this sacrifice, this sepulcher, this sergeant, this soot; this tandem, this tangent, this target, this tongue; this blanket, this buckle, this banter, this bare. Because in singing and seeking, we come to know each other better and we come to know ourselves.


I sing because I’m grateful for having been sung to. And I sing because it is when I am singing that I feel most alive. And I sing because no matter how hard my day has been, no matter how uncertain the road ahead is, no matter the current state of things, I need to be reminded of the beauty that can be found curled up inside a long held note and the calm of the silence in between one sound and another. Songs are of us and for us. They are of our making and they are how we are made.





Filed under weekly words


1strum \ˈstrəm\  noun : an act, instance, or sound of strumming

2strum \ˈstrəm\ verb strummed  strum·ming

transitive verb 1.  a : to brush the fingers over the strings of (a musical instrument) in playing <strum a guitar>; b: to play (music) on a stringed instrument <strum a tune>           2. : to cause to sound vibrantly <winds strummed the rigging — H. A. Chippendale>

intransitive verb

1: to strum a stringed instrument 2: to sound vibrantly

strum·mer noun

(definitions this week taken from merriam-webster.com)

I took piano lessons for eight years. I started when I was six. I don’t remember if I asked for lessons or whether my parents just signed me up. In any case, the decision would have been a logical one as I adored music. From an early age, I loved to sing and did so pretty much all the time to anyone who would listen. My dad remembers me sitting fixated in front of the television as a young child, watching ballet and opera. As a toddler, I carried around my Fisher Price tape recorder with attached microphone everywhere I went.

I was always very moved by music, but as memory serves, I never really enjoyed playing or practicing the piano. I appreciated the delicacy of the movements of fingers over the keys and the sort of sweetness that emerged when a classical piece was played by someone who understood the instrument. It’s just that I always had the feeling that that someone was not me.

My father played the guitar in the evenings when I was small. If he knew more than two songs, I don’t know them. My memories are of dancing around in my Annie nightgown and accompanying him with my toy tambourine to the sounds of Peter, Paul and Mary’s “I’m in Love with a Big Blue Frog” and Captain and Tenille’s “Muskrat Love.”

When I was in seventh grade and a guitar class was being offered at my new school, I decided to take it. I packed up my dad’s old Takamine in a soft case and toted it with me to school. The first week we learned “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” (This was a logical choice for the instructor: All of us attended a Catholic school and the entire song is two chords: G and D). We also learned to pick the riff to “Can’t Touch This”: neer-neer-neer-neer-neer-neer-neer-neer (And by now, you should be able to pretty accurately assess my exact age). I scanned the room that first day, and I noticed quickly that I was the only girl there. I didn’t know hardly any women who played guitar. I had vaguely heard of Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez, but I hadn’t heard of Joan Jett, Bonnie Raitt, Sarah McLachlan. Instead of feeling empowered, I felt like I didn’t belong, and I quit.

Dar Williams

In college, I met my friends Julie and Sarah, who both played guitar, and I became curious again. I was also exposed to a world of music I hadn’t heard before. I found a home in contemporary folk music and here there were women playing guitars all over the place: Dar Williams, the Indigo Girls, Ani Difranco, Erin McKeown, Lucy Kaplansky, And yes, some of my early attempts at finger picking were to songs from Jewel’s first album.

I got a guitar for Christmas my freshman year of college and I began to play. And immediately, there was something different here than with piano. From that first strum, I felt a current in my body. It sounded like a heart beat. It sounded like a footstep. It sounded like the hitting of a boot on a plank of wood, like the hollow clang of a metal, like a voice echoing in a tower.

Woody Guthrie

Also, I was really, really bad. It took me three hours to make chord changes, and initially, I couldn’t sing when I played unless I phrased my singing in time with chord changes. But I didn’t care. There was something about the sound that kept me coming back. There was something about the sound that was satisfying, even if I wasn’t good. There was something about the sound that made me want to be better at making it.

The music I am most attracted to is music that over all else feels sincere. I love music that is sung on porches or in living rooms. I love music that has imperfections, where voices crack or one note is picked a lot louder than the rest. It gathers its beauty not from its proficiency but from its earnestness. It is beautiful because I can tell that the person making it needed to make it. This music is made to fill a void or to celebrate a milestone. This music is made because in the making, life becomes a little easier. Or suffering is shared. Or something needs to be said and this is the way to say it.

Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee

One of the definitions of strum is: “to cause to sound vibrantly.” I guess this is what drew me to the guitar and what draws me to folk music, to the blues, to old country. There is a vibrancy in these songs that ultimately reminds me of what it means to be alive—in all its loveliness and heartbreak, in its seamlessness and messiness.

A few years ago, a very talented singer/songwriter friend of mine and I recorded some songs together. We had sung together in college and after years apart, we reconnected and we sang again. The first time we attempted to record one song, Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times,” we did it in parts. I played the guitar. Then I sang. Then she did. But it felt mechanical. It didn’t work. We decided to do it the way we actually performed it. And when we sang, I played guitar and we harmonized, singing together with eyes closed because we didn’t need to look at each other to know when to begin or when to end. And that creation of sound is one of my favorite moments.

Elizabeth Cotton

Just a few songs that come to mind in relation to strum:

Disclaimer: Some of these don’t have “strumming” at all, the first one is acapella, actually. Many of them are finger-picked. But I mean strum as in “to sound vibrantly.”

Hazel Dickens “Little Pretty Bird” (even though there is no strumming involved in this one; it’s acapella)

Gillian Welch & David Rawlings “Time (the Revelator)”

Stephen Foster “Hard Times (Come Again No More)”

Elizabeth Cotton “Freight Train”

Woody Guthrie “Do Re Mi”

Dar Williams “If I Wrote You”

Bob Dylan “Don’t Think Twice”

Mark Erelli “The Only Way”

Lucinda Williams “World Without Tears”

Joni Mitchell “A Case of You”

Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee “A Better Day”

Doc Watson “The Coo Coo Bird”

Patty Griffin “Sweet Lorraine”

Po’Girl “Old Mountain Line”

Jeff Buckley “Hallelujah”


*It’s funny that this word is assigned this week as I’m playing a gig with an old bandmate Mark at The Neutral Ground in my hometown New Orleans.

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