Woody Guthrie | via Library of Congress
Sleepy Hollow’s Songs of America
Songwriters and musicians have long been inspired by the American setting, and it’s no wonder. From it’s myriad of breathtaking (and seeming never-ending) natural landscapes to its history of independent will paired with the goal of common good (and lest we forget that ever-evolving idea: the “American Dream”), this place offers a wealth of material from which artists continually cull. Here are a few selections that we here at Sleepy Hollow think do a particularly nice job of representing (at least a bit of) the “American” experience.
Danko Fjeld Andersen – “When Morning Comes to America”
Our first selection comes from a decidedly international source–the 1991 collaboration between The Band’s Rick Danko (a Canadian), Eric Andersen (born in Pennsylvania) and Norwegian singer/songwriter Jonas Fjeld, simply entitled, Danko/Fjeld/Andersen. On this Fjeld composition (co-written with Jim Serraden, who is known to many for his involvement with Nashville, TN’s Hatch Show Print), the narrator suggests the power of foreign influence (and in this case, radio and music, in particular) in pulling one away from the place in which they were born, singing:
My grandfather gave me an old radio
it played foreign stations
from crystals that glowed
And just like a comet ready to appear
I knew I’d shine much brighter
in that new atmosphere
when morning comes to America
It is an eloquent representation of the immigrant (and considering some of the imagery used, itinerant) experience on which so much of the United States has been, and continues to be, built.
The Everly Brothers / Bonnie “Prince” Billy & Dawn McCarthy – “Kentucky”
Though “Kentucky” was originally recorded by Karl & Harty in 1941, it is The Everly Brothers’ version from Songs Our Daddy Taught Us that has become the standard, and for good reason. While they would go on to record a plethora of great music throughout their career, that 1958 recording may be the pinnacle of their artistic achievements, showing off their remarkable close harmony in it’s absolute prime. This ode to their home state concentrates on it’s innocent beauty, and the grandeur of its terrain. And while that may be apparent somewhere in the background of Dawn McCarthy and Kentucky-native Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s 2013 version, their discovery of the song’s haunting mystery adds an entirely new approach to “Kentucky” and is an excellent re-interpretation that nearly tops the Everly’s classic.
Billy Bragg & Wilco – “California Stars”
One of many triumphs on this 1998 collaboration that paired the music of Billy Bragg & Wilco with lyrics written by Woody Guthrie, “California Stars” has the defining characteristics of a classic Guthrie tune: simple but affecting lyrics set to an indelible melody, it is a song lent to quick memorization and is something of a contemporary folk classic (even finding itself re-interpreted as a children’s song). A testament to Wilco and Bragg’s masterful understanding of Guthrie’s sensibilities throughout the Mermaid Avenue sessions, the pair manage to update that which makes the icon’s music inherently his, without getting too much in the way. Of course, it helps when provided with lyrics like “they hang like grapes on vines that shine / and warm the lovers glass like friendly wine / so, I’d give this world just to dream a dream with you / on our bed of California stars.” This is direct, unfettered beauty, that not only represents the greatness of the artists involved, but also the state about which they sing.
Leo Kottke – “Saginaw, Michigan”
Leo Kottke’s take on this 1964 composition by Lefty Frizzell is certainly a twisted take on that “American Dream” we referenced earlier. In the tune, the narrator, the son of a working class fisherman in (you guessed it) Saginaw, MI tricks his disapproving father-in-law into purchasing a plot of land in Alaska, who, in a fruitless attempt to strike gold, splits town leaving his daughter and our narrator to live in happiness. Under the surface, though, the song seems to represent the importance of hard work, elevating the humble, multi-generational Michigan fishing culture over a quick cash-grab out-of-state. Kottke captures the spirit of Frizzell’s original, making it his own with his trademark acoustic-slide and deadpan delivery. It’s accompanying album, 1983’s Time Step, would prove to be one of Kottke’s most revered, thanks in no small part to T. Bone Burnett’s production and vocals provided by Emmylou Harris.
And here’s a couple you may recognize from the great Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, himself. From us here at Sleepy Hollow, have a safe, happy 4th of July weekend!
Pete Seeger – “America the Beautiful”
Woody Guthrie – “This Land is Your Land”