All Hopped Up Music and Maps: Chapter 4
This playlist accompanies Chapter 4 of my book All Hopped Up and Ready To Go. The Village to the Left of New York describes the birth of an urban folk scene through the coming together of people like Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Josh White, Pete Seeger and others, the influence of the Almanac Singers and the importance of the labels Keynote and Asch. It focuses in particular on the political and social history of Greenwich Village and how that corner of Manhattan came to stand so distinct from the rest of the island.
Earl Robinson’s performance of his song “Joe Hill” indicates the manner in which “folk music” – even political folk music, like this enduring ballad about the execution of a the famed Wobbly and songwriter – was performed by New Yorkers prior to the 1940s. As with Paul Robeson singing “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” Robinson approaches the song with a professional formality that seems more suited to cabaret than a hootenanny.
A transition of sorts occurred in 1940, when Leadbelly and Josh White, each of whom had arrived in New York from the south during the preceding decade, and each of whom had been confined to blues recordings for the label ARC, recorded individual albums of prison songs for major labels that clearly saw profit in the subject matter. On The Midnight Special and Other Southern Prison Songs, Leadbelly was accompanied by the Golden Gate Quartet’s “gospel gloss.” Backed by his own group the Carolinians for Chain Gang Songs, and produced by John Hammond Jr., Josh White had more room to breathe, as is evident on “Trouble,” which also deal more openly with the racial discrimination that often landed “black boys” like him (as referenced in the song) in jail in the first place.
Both Leadbelly and White’s 1940 albums paled in comparison to the arrival in New York of Woody Guthrie, who was quickly brought to RCA Records by Alan Lomax and invited to record his Dust Bowl Ballads. He had arrived in New York with most of the songs written – itself unique amongst folk singers – but he composed “The Ballad of Tom Joad,” a synopsis of the Grapes of Wrath, at Pete Seeger’s East 4th Street apartment. Along with songs like “Dusty Old Dust” (which he subsequently rewrote for a tobacco-sponsored radio show), Guthrie single-handedly propelled the concept of “folk blues” into the present day. (Several of the Dust Bowl Ballads had the word “blues” in the title; the racial distinction had yet to take full hold.) Though it has come to be considered a classic, Dust Bowl Ballads reputedly sold as little as a thousand copies at the time.
Guthrie would eventually join Pete Seeger, Lee Hays and others in the Almanac Singers, whose 1941 debut release, Songs of John Doe, became immediately infamous for an anti-War sentiment that failed to disguise its pro-Communist sympathies. Several tracks were buried under the weight of their polemics, as per “The Ballad of October 16”; one notable exception was “Billy Boy,” an entertaining if propagandist exchange between Josh White and Millard Lampell.
When the Nazis invaded Russia all the same, Songs for John Doe was quickly recalled by label Keynote and soon replaced with Talking Union, on which Woody Guthrie’s “Union Maid” made its first appearance, though Guthrie was not in New York to sing it. He returned in time to join the Almanac Singers for two less controversial albums, both produced by Alan Lomax: on Sod-Buster Ballads, he introduced “House of the Rising Sun” for the first time, while “The Dodger Song” provided an excellent forum for Lee Hays’ distinctive bass. Newly energized by a war effort that found the Soviets on the same side as the Americans, the Almanac Singers recorded a 1942 album entitled Dear Mr. President, the title track of which was especially amusing for Pete Seeger’s listing of grievances against President Roosevelt despite apparently announcing, just a few lines earlier, something approaching an armistice. The most memorable song on that album was the square dance “Round and Round Hitler’s Grave”; the Almanac Singers performed it on an officially sanctioned American propaganda show before, in a warning at what was to come for many of the same players in the Weavers, their Communist sympathies were revealed and, soon enough, they disbanded.
Josh White made his own strong political statement in late 1941 with Southern Exposure. Released on the Keynote label, with lyrics by prominent Harlem Renaissance poet Waring Cuney, Southern Exposure earned White an invitation to perform at the White House, a daring move by President Roosevelt given that the song “Uncle Sam Says” was clearly directed his way. (Roosevelt and White soon developed a close friendship.) Leadbelly, though friends with all these musicians, was considerably older and much less comfortable with the political lyrics; his 1941 album was entitled Play Parties in Song and Dance, recorded for future Folkways founder Moe Asch’s first label. Leadbelly had such a distinctively resonant voice (and 12-string guitar style) that even a nursery rhyme like “Skip to My Lou” sounds special.
Asch became folk music’s primary archivist during the later war years. In 1944 he recorded Bess and Butch Hawes, Burl Ives, Tom Glazier, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Josh White, Pete Seeger and others as the Union Boys, whose Songs For Victory album included the unapologetically earnest White vocal “Jim Crow.” (The session also included the resounding “Move Into Germany,” dominated by White, Terry and McGhee, though it was not released until the 1980s.)
That same year saw Woody Guthrie return to the studio in earnest, recording an astonishing 123 songs in three days, many of them, like “When The Yanks Go Marching In,” with Cisco Houston (and, in this case, Sonny Terry) at his side. Those sessions, released in various forms over the subsequent decades, also included two songs that he had written upon his arrival in New York in 1940. “Jesus Christ” referenced the wealth and poverty of his new home city. “This Land Is Your Land” took a wider view, reflecting on the state of the entire country. The original lyrics were written on the notepaper of the Hanover Hotel in Times Square. The 1944 recording was its first (of many).
Asch also brought Leadbelly and Josh White into the studio together, recording a duet on on “I’ve Got A Pretty Flower” years after they’d shared a 1941 residency at the Village Vanguard. As many of his contemporaries went off to war, Josh White cemented his reputation as America’s most popular folk singer in 1944 with two albums for Asch. Strange Fruit was named for the Abel Meeropol song that Billie Holiday had previously claimed for herself. Sings Easy landed him with his first big hit courtesy of the pop song “One Meatball,” but it closed out with “The House I Live In.” This was a patriotic (and subtly leftist) song co-written by Earl Robinson and Abel Meeropol, and it would soon be made more famous by Frank Sinatra. Given that Robinson was also the composer of “Joe Hill,” White’s recording appears to have taken this chapter, full of interweaving folk singers and their steady politicization, both full circle and yet to a new place.
View 4) The Village to the left of New York in a larger map
This map shows many of the locations referred to in Chapter 4. These include old-time bars like the Grapevine and Chumley’s; political meeting places like those of the Liberal Club and Mabel Dodge’s Salon; the Village Vanguard and Cafe Society; and the two documented locations of Almanac House. Click on the link underneath the map to open and expand in a separate page.