was forty-nine years ago, on a cloudy afternoon in 1956 on the Lower East Side
of New York that I first met Woody Guthrie. Ahmed Bashir, a friend of Charlie
Parker, Sonny Rollins, and Charles Mingus (with whom I was playing at that time),
took me over to meet Woody at his friend's apartment a few blocks from mine.
Woody was lean, wiry, and brilliant, with a farmerly way that reminded me of the
neighbors I grew up with on our farm in Feasterville Pennsylvania during the late
1930s. In the late afternoons after long hours of work, they would often congregate
to chew the fat in the side room of Wally Freed's gas station, across the street
from our farm. I used to get fifty cents to mow Wally Freed's lawn and when I
was done and stayed around the gas station, I never got caught while eavesdropping
on all the conversations of the local farmers and out-of-work men who would commune
at Wally's for their late afternoon bull sessions after their chores were done.
They always told
it like it was, without wasting a word or a gesture, leaving space for you to
think about what they were saying, and in spite of the grinding seemingly endless
horrors of the Great Depression, they had better jokes and stories than most professional
comedians or politicians. Woody had this same quality, and I felt at home with
him the minute we met.
As Woody, Ahmed Bashir, and I sat swapping tales and drinking coffee at the tiny
kitchen table from noon until it was dark outside, Ahmed and I spent most of the
time listening to Woody's long descriptions of his experiences, only sharing ours
when he would ask, What do you fellas think about that?
The rest of the time, we sat transfixed as he took us on his journeys with him
through his stories. Woody didn't need a guitar to put you under his spell, and
you could tell that when he was talking to us, it wasn't an act or a routine.
Like his songs and books and artwork, everything came from the heart.
Looking back at these memorable first few hours with Woody, I still remember the
excitement in his voice, as if he himself were rediscovering all the events and
sharing them for the first time, as he told Ahmed and me his incredible stories
of his youth and subsequent travels. Both Ahmed and I marveled at his encyclopedic
knowledge of all kinds of music, literature, painting, and politics, which he
wove into his narratives, all delivered in a poetic country boy style that was
all his own. During these descriptions of his travels and adventures around the
country, he often included references to events of his early boyhood days in Okemah.
Ever since that day we first met a half a century ago, I have always hoped that
someday I would get the chance to go to his hometown of Okemah, but with my crazy
schedule I never had the opportunity to do so. Shortly after Nora Guthrie asked
me to compose this piece to honor Woody's classic song, I was invited to perform
at WoodyFest, the annual summer festival in Okemah. I have now done it for the
past three summers.
his hometown, I was able to meet his sister Mary Jo, her late husband, and Woody's
remaining old friends from long ago who were still living there. And by playing
music and spending time with people who were also natives of Okemah, I felt that
I was able to better understand Woody and his work in a deeper way.
was now able to make a connection, since that first meeting with Woody half a
century ago, to the ensuing years during which I have played countless times with
his old friend Pete Seeger and his protege Ramblin' Jack Elliot, and times spent
with Woody's late wife, Marjorie, and the numerous concerts I have participated
in with his son, Arlo, over the past thirty-five years.
this helped me when writing Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie.
opening Theme and Fanfare for the Road has the percussion introduce the actual
theme played by the marimba, followed by a fanfare, expressing Woody's desire
to go out on that open road.
l Oklahoma Stomp Dance, is my own melody, depicting Woody attending a nearby Pow
Wow and hearing an Oklahoma Stomp Dance of the Western Cherokee, on a Saturday
night through dawn of Sunday morning. During the dance, slightly altered versions
of the Theme appear, as they do in almost every other variation. The variation
ends quietly, joined by fragments of the initial fanfare, blending with the Stomp
ll Sunday Morning Church Service in Okemah is a musical portrait of by gone times.
The oboe, clarinet and harp introduce a mournful melody, restated by the strings,
and the theme is heard, as Woody heard it in church played on the organ, but with
extended harmonies. The theme is later stated by the English horn and harp and
traces of the fanfare are woven in with the first melody and distant church chimes
are heard as the variation ends.
lll Prelude and Pampa Texas Barn Dance is the beginning of Woody's journeys from
Oklahoma through America. The solo violin introduction to the dance is followed
by the double reeds, indicated in the score to sound like Celtic Uilleann Pipes.
A lively original melody, composed in the style of Irish folkloric music, is later
joined by the trombones and tuba, playing the theme as cantus firmus, in an extended
version beneath the dance melody
IV Sonando con Mexico (Dreaming of Mexico) is a musical portrait of the Mexican
workers with whom Woody spent time, and about whom he wrote some of his most memorable
songs. The opening trumpet call, marked in the score to be played cuivre ed eroico,
al torero (brassy and heroic, like a bullfight ceremony) is followed by a nostalgic
melody in the strings, suggesting the workers dreaming of their home and families
south of the border. The melody is developed and leads to a tuba solo, reminiscent
of the Mexican polkas played by folk ensembles throughout the West. The principal
song-melody returns, with the theme reappearing in the horns, weaving through
the Mexican song as an obbligato, showing how Woody could not get this melody
and the idea for the song out of his mind.
V. Dust Bowl Dirge, for strings alone, honors the brave people who survived the
national nightmare of losing everything during this ecological catastrophe and
still found a way to survive. One of Woody's greatest songs, "So Long, It's
Been Good to Know 'Ya" was reportedly written as a farewell note during one
of the terrible storms when it was feared that everyone present with him would
suffocate. This minor variation of the theme is played by the violas and then
restated by the whole string family.
VI Street Sounds of New York's Neighborhoods is a compilation of many kinds of
music that Woody loved to hear when walking through the neighborhoods of Manhattan
and Brooklyn, during an era when music was played everywhere out of doors during
the warm seasons.
We hear the lively sounds of a Caribbean Street Festival,
with the rhythms of the West Indies,
Cuba, and Puerto Rico, and the theme
appears in counterpoint in the middle of the march. this is followed by a Klezmer
Wedding Celebration and the festive sounds of a middle Eastern Bazaar, where again
the theme is used with the exotic sounds of Greek, Turkish and Armenian music
superimposed over it. We ten hear the brass family play a hymn-like version of
the theme (again using harmonies far from the three chords of the original song)
evoking a Salvation Army band, which was a fixture on many corners of New York
City's neighborhoods during the late 1940s.
same harmonies are used for a short section entitled Block Party Jam, often an
occurrence to welcome returning veterans of World War Two to their neighborhoods,
where jazz bands played celebratory as well as innovative music.
the theme returns in a stately fashion with the original fanfare of the road playing
in counterpoint, followed by a rousing conclusion restating the opening of the
piece and a triumphant ending.
as in the case of Beethoven's' Symphony No. 6 in F major Pastorale, where he titles
each movement with a brief description, the program notes for Symphonic Variations
on a Song by Woody Guthrie serve as a guide to listener but are not essential
to enjoy the piece.
biographical nature of Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie, just as
in the case of Berlioz's moving Harold in Italy, (which Berlioz said was inspired
by the life and times of Lord Byron), served as a point of departure to write
the best piece that I could.
the help and research of Nora Guthrie, the goodwill and gifts of her brother Arlo,
the excellence of the men and women of the Symphony Silicon Valley, the brilliant
young conductor Paul Polivnick and the innovative programming of Executive Director
Andrew Bales, I knew while writing this piece that the premiere would be a guaranteed
moment of a life time. Music is a collective effort, which is why it is so important,
when presented with that selfless spirit.
thank all of my colleagues, as I thank my children for understanding why I often
seemed to disappear for long stretches of time while putting in endless hours
day and night to complete this new piece.
I thank Woody Guthrie for sharing his gifts with the world, and hope that this
piece can honor his spirit of bringing people together to share the blessings
we all have with one another.
dedication in the score reads as follows.
Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie
by David Amram
and Fanfare for the Road
1, Oklahoma Stomp Dance
2. Sunday Morning Church Service in Okemah
3. Prelude and Pampa Texas Barn Dance
4. Sonando con Mexico (Dreaming of Mexico)
5. Dustbowl Dirge
6. Street Sounds of New York's Neighborhoods
a) Caribbean Street Festival
b) Klezmer Wedding Celebration and Middle Eastern Bazaar
c) Salvation Army
d) Block Party Jam
e) Theme and finale
to Nora, Arlo, Joady and all the members of the Guthrie Family, whose devotion
to Woody's legacy enables all of us to feel welcome in those pastures of plenty
which he sang to us about.
This piece is a thank you note to him for all the
joy his spirit still gives to people all over the world.
He showed us all the
beauty part of this land and all the people who live here, and taught us to honor
and respect one another.
composition was commissioned by Woody Guthrie Publications and received its World
Premiere September 29th, 2007, performed by the Symphony Silicon Valley in San
Jose California, conducted by Paul Polivnick.