It is that time of year when winter turns to a season of hope. We hope for a beautiful spring as we welcome warm weather. Also, we hope that this year will be “the year” for our baseball team. But no matter what happens with the season, every team at least has a chance on opening day.
For anyone who played baseball growing up, there is one position where they would stick the kids who were not very skilled at the game. These were the kids who were hopeful enough to play the game. But the coaches did not have much hope in them. I know, because I was one of those kids.
I still love baseball. So it is worth celebrating those of us who grew up in right field.
Peter, Paul & Mary wrote a touching ode to playing right field “watching the dandelions grow.”
I’d dream of the day they’d hit one my way; They never did, but still I would pray, That I’d make a fantastic catch on the run, And not lose the ball in the sun; And then I’d awake from this long reverie, And pray that the ball never came out to me, Here in . . . Right field.
Below, Peter Yarrow, Paul Stookey, and Mary Travers perform “Right Field” at their 25th Anniversary Concert. Check it out.
Leave your two cents in the comments. Photo of Ruth card via public domain.
Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten was born on January 5, 1895 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, although some sources list the year of her birth as 1893. Cotten began playing the banjo at the age of eight and soon thereafter turned to the guitar and at the age of twelve wrote “Freight Train,” a timeless folk song that would eventually stand beside other classics in the canon of great train songs.
Early Life, Discovery, and “Freight Train”
As a young woman, Cotten put aside any hopes of being a musician for marriage, motherhood, and work. But after a divorce in 1940 led her to Washington, D.C., Cotten’s work in a department store led her to be discovered by the world, according to Nigel Williamson’s The Rough Guide to the Blues.
While working in Landsburgh’s Department Store around the mid-1940s, Cotten found a lost girl and helped reunite the girl with her mother. The mother turned out to be Ruth Crawford Seeger, and the little girl was Peggy Seeger, who was the sister of Pete Seeger. The chance encounter led Cotten to working in the Seeger household, where the family’s interest in music rekindled Cotten’s own musical talents.
Eventually, Peggy’s brother Mike Seeger produced Cotten and her unique finger-picking guitar playing for an album with Folkways, Folksongs And Instrumentals With Guitar (1958). The album included the song about death that Cotten wrote as a 12-year-old, “Freight Train”: “When I die, oh bury me deep / Down at the end of old Chestnut Street, / So I can hear old Number Nine / As she comes rolling by.”
Audiences came to love Cotten’s performances at folk festivals, where she would tell stories about her life and perform songs with her distinctive guitar playing. As her friend and musician Dana Klipp would later explain, “It wasn’t just her music; it was her entire personality and her spirituality. It was a very gentle and graceful spirituality.”
Still, she kept her day job of doing domestic work until 1970. She made additional recordings, and the album Elizabeth Cotton, Live won a Grammy award in 1984 when Cotten was 89.
Later Life and Death
Cotten spent the last years of her life in Syracuse, New York, which in 1983 named a small park “The Elizabeth Cotten Grove” in her honor. But Cotten still continued to perform in her later years. Cotten’s last performances occurred at the 1986 Philidelphia Folk Festival and at a New York City performance arranged for her by Odetta in 1987.
Cotten passed away on June 29, 1987, and although in “Freight Train” she asked to be buried “Down at the end of old Chestnut Street,” her body was cremated.
Cotton’s music and spirit, however, live on. Cotten left behind a lot of fans, while others are still discovering her today. Below is one of her late interviews, when she was interviewed by Aly Bain for his 1985 series Down Home.
Cotten’s songs have been covered by many performers, including Jerry Garcia and Peter, Paul and Mary. Another of her many honors is that she was included in Brian Lanker’s book I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America.
What is your favorite performance by Elizabeth Cotten? Leave your two cents in the comments.
On September 1, 1914, the last passenger pigeon on earth passed away. The passenger pigeon once was the most numerous species in North America and perhaps the world. In the mid and late 1800s, there were millions of passenger pigeons in the United States, but the species dwindled down from hunting and other reasons, until on this date a passenger pigeon named Martha died in the Cincinnati Zoo.
According to a New Yorker book review of Joe Greenberg’s A Feathered River Across the Sky, the last pair of passenger pigeons, George and Martha, lived in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo. After George died in 1910, Martha lived on four more years as a sad attraction, reminding visitors of the destruction of a once widespread species. Although officials offered a $1000 reward for a male passenger pigeon, no more were found. And Martha passed away in 1914, ending the species. (Jonathan Rosen, “The Birds,” New Yorker 6 Jan. 2014: 62)
Below is a short video about passenger pigeons, featuring a song about Martha called “Martha (Last of the Passenger Pigeons),” written and sung by singer-songwriter John Herald.
Singer John Herald was one of the founders of the bluegrass group Greenbriar Boys, and he worked as a session guitarist for a number of artists like Bonnie Raitt and Doc Watson. He wrote the classic song about a drunk racehorse, “Stewball,” which was recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary. Herald passed away in 2005.
As for Martha, after her death, she was frozen in ice and sent by train to Washington, D.C., where she was stuffed and put on display at the Smithsonian. She is now part of a special exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo. Meanwhile, Project Passenger Pigeon works to educate about the loss of the species. Although Martha has died, we have kept her body to forever haunt humans and remind us that nobody — and no species — survives forever.
Photo of Martha, the last passenger pigeon, via public domain.
What species extinction do you think most about? Leave your two cents in the comments.
On October 6, 2008 at Eastern Michigan University, as the U.S. faced a deep financial crisis, one of the country’s biggest living rock stars took the stage to sing on behalf of a United States presidential candidate. As Bruce Springsteen began strumming his guitar, the candidate stood in a tent behind the scenes with his family. The candidate, who would be elected the country’s first African-American president a month later, sang to his children and danced to the chorus of “This Land Is Your Land.”
“This Land Is Your Land,” along with “America the Beautiful,” is an unofficial national anthem. But this song that presidents sing — and that sometimes is sung in response to presidents’ actions — began as something different. It was written by a non-conforming down-and-out American troubadour more than seventy-five years earlier.
The Origins of “This Land Is Your Land”
Before “This Land Is Your Land” became a beloved American standard, it was a protest song. According to Joe Klein’s book Woody Guthrie: A Life, the 27-year-old Woody Guthrie began writing the song in 1940 out of anger and frustration.
At the time, Guthrie was living alone in a run-down hotel called Hanover House near Times Square in New York. He had moved there after wearing out his welcome as a house guest with singer-actor Will Geer and his wife Herta.
Having seen the struggles of common people across America, Guthrie turned his frustration on Irving Berlin’s portrayal of a perfect America in “God Bless America.” Radio disc jockeys repeatedly played Berlin’s song on the radio in the 1930s. In response, Guthrie began writing a song with the sarcastic title “God Blessed America”:
This land is your land, this land is my land, From California to Staten Island, From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf Stream waters, God Blessed America for Me.
Guthrie wrote five more verses ending with the refrain “God Blessed America for me.” One verse reported on the men and women standing in lines for food.
One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple, By the relief office I saw my people — As they stood there hungry, I stood there wondering if God blessed America for me.
Guthrie continued to work on the song. He soon changed “Staten Island” in the refrain to “New York Island.” And he put the lyrics to the tune of the Carter Family’s “Little Darlin’, Pal of Mine.”
The Carter Family, though, did not originally write the music. They took the tune of “Little Darlin’, Pal of Mine” from the Baptist hymn, “Oh My Lovin’ Brother.”
After Guthrie finished “God Blessed America for Me” on February 23, 1940, he put the song away. The song then sat untouched for several years.
Then, in April 1944, Guthrie began recording a large number of songs for record executive Moe Asch. During the last recording session that month, Guthrie pulled out the old protest song. By now, it had a new tag line and a new title, “This Land Is Your Land.”
The recorded version of “This Land Is Your Land” did not include the verse about the relief office. One may speculate about the reasons, but Guthrie may have made the changes for a nation at war. Or perhaps he no longer saw a need to respond to “God Bless America.”
The artist and the producers did not treat “This Land Is Your Land” any differently than the other songs recorded at the sessions. Asch did not have the money to release any of the songs. So, once again the song sat in limbo. Asch, however, later claimed he recognized something important in the song. (p. 285.)
By December of that year, Guthrie had started using “This Land” as the theme song for his weekly radio show on WNEW. And the Weavers recorded the song too.
Most early recordings by Guthrie and other artists omitted one of the more controversial verses. The verse criticized capitalism and private property. It evoked a time when Guthrie and other Okies were turned away at the California border:
There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me; Sign was painted, it said private property; But on the back side it didn’t say nothing; This land was made for you and me.
I like the way this version starts with Woody, and then it transitions into his son Arlo Guthrie and other singers. The song stays understated before becoming a joyous hoedown with John Mellencamp.
Bruce Springsteen has performed “This Land Is Your Land” for decades. He included it on his Live 1975-1985 box set. He also performed it with Guthrie’s friend Pete Seeger at a special concert in Washington to celebrate Pres. Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009.
More recently, on February 5, 2017, Lada Gaga included “This Land Is Your Land” in her Super Bowl halftime performance. As the country seemed divided in recent weeks following the inauguration of Donald Trump as president, Lady Gaga began with “God Bless America” and then went into “This Land Is Your Land.” Knowing that Guthrie wrote his song in response to “God Bless America” gives one a deeper understanding of Lady Gaga’s message that this land is for you and me.
Yet, I suspect many people who came of age around the 1960s first heard “This Land Is Your Land” sung by Peter, Paul & Mary. The trio, like many other artists, recognized that the song works best when everyone sings along.
The Legacy of “This Land Is Your Land”
“This Land is Your Land” took on a life of its own, as it no longer belongs to one person. As noted in previous posts on Woody Guthrie, his work and his songs remain relevant today. Like Guthrie’s other songs, his most famous and timeless song, “This Land Is Your Land,” remains relevant too.
If Woody Guthrie had done nothing else besides write “This Land Is Your Land,” we would still honor him. “This Land Is Your Land” is the first song you think of when you think of the singer-songwriter. It is the song that ends every Guthrie tribute show. “This Land Is Your Land” is the song that David Carradine sings on top of a box car in the final scene of the Guthrie bio-pic Bound for Glory (1976). Also, it is the first song listed in Guthrie’s Wikipedia entry.
“This Land Is Your Land” also is the first Guthrie song you learned in school. And it is the song that Presidents dance to.
It all started with a relatively unknown drifter in the 1940s venting his anger and frustration in his lonely fleabag room. In that room, thinking about what he had seen traveling from California to the New York Island, Woody Guthrie wrote one of the country’s most beautiful songs.
On today’s date of February 19 in 1981, the United States government released a report claiming an El Salvador insurgency came from aggression by communists. The report prompted the U.S. government under new President Ronald Reagan to begin to address the perceived threat. The U.S. then assisted the government of El Salvador against rebels by sending money and advisers to the country.
Through the 1980s, the U.S. government spent more and more money on El Salvador. Still, violence and instability continued in El Salvador, with many accusations of torture, kidnapping, and assassination on both sides.
Although Peter, Paul & Mary are best-known for the songs they recorded in the 1960s, they still made some excellent music later in their career. One of their late-career highlights is “El Salvador,” which they recorded in 1982 soon after the U.S. report and the escalations in that country.
In the song “El Salvador,” written by “Paul” — i.e., Noel Paul Stookey, the trio helped bring attention to the continuing atrocities in that country and the involvement of the U.S. government in the mess. Stookey and the other singers were surprised to sometimes hear booing when they sang the song, which later appeared on Songs of Conscience and Concern (1999). Here, Peter, Paul & Mary perform “El Salvador” at their 25th Anniversary Concert in 1986 — without any booing.
At the end of the song, the trio asked a question:
They’ll continue training troops in the USA, And watch the nuns that got away, And teach the military bands to play South of the Border, And kill the people to set them free; Who put this price on their liberty? Don’t you think it’s time to leave El Salvador?
In 1992, the United Nations and Costa Rica President Oscar Arias helped negotiate a deal between the warring parties in El Salvador. Although a U.N. commission condemned the U.S.’s involvement in Salvadoran military atrocities, then U.S. President George H.W. Bush claimed that the peace was a result of the U.S.’s long fight against communism El Salvador.
But today even the U.S. Department of State website recognizes the problems: “During the 12-year civil war, human rights violations by both the government security forces and left-wing guerillas were rampant.”