In 2010 I participated in the Artclash Collective’s Fun-a-Day challenge with my Lomax-a-Day project. Each day in January I adapted a folksong from Alan Lomax’ 1960 Folk Songs of North America, recorded it on Garage Band, wrote an analysis and posted it on my blog. This project changed my life. It inspired my to start me the Red Yarn blog, which grew into my folk music and puppetry side-project, which grew into my new, fulfilling career. This year I’m doing a similar project, but with Carl Sandburg’s 1927 The American Songbag.
Sandburg was a true American Bard, the kind that Walt Whitman called for in his introduction to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. In the early 20th century Sandburg toured the midwest lecturing on Whitman, reading Whitman’s poems, and eventually sharing his own poetry. In 1910 he bought a guitar and began mixing American folksongs into his performances. In 1921 he wrote to a friend, “I am reading poems and singing Casey Jones, Steamboat Bill, and medleys… This whole thing is only in its beginnings, America knowing its songs.” Sandburg’s song collection soon took shape into The American Songbag, a sprawling anthology of “pioneer, railroad, work-gang, hobo, Irish, Negro, Mexican, gutter, Gossamer songs, chants and ditties.”
Since college I’ve been obsessed with Whitman’s idea of the American Bard. My senior thesis project explored Bob Dylan’s fulfillment of the bardic project. My former band Bark Hide and Horn’s 2008 album National Road attempted to give voice to the voiceless people and animals of old magazine articles. Red Yarn is my unabashed attempt to create a bard persona accessible to the younger generation. I am deeply committed to “America knowing its songs.”
I am also excited to embark on another grand and public mistranslation of the American folk vernacular. While I’m loosely familiar with much of the material I’ll explore over the next month, I am deliberately avoiding other recordings of these songs. Unlike Lomax’s collection, the Songbag doesn’t have guitar chords, only piano arrangements. So I teach myself just the top line–the melody–and develop a chord progression by ear. With this method I hope to synthesize my amateur knowledge of traditional folk music with my own musical sensibilities and whims.
Yesterday I recorded “The Boll Weevil Song,” a song Sandburg learned from Alan Lomax’s father John. Today “I Ride an Old Paint.” I hope to dig into song analysis as I go, but with my busy schedule I’m making no promises beyond the recordings. Enjoy!
I Ride an Old Paint