This is a very long post (which I am now making even longer) but I didn’t want to edit what David Amram wrote. I hope you find his composition and program notes as enjoyable as I did.
I had the pleasure of re-connecting with David Amram at IHS. I had met him many years ago when he studied composition with my mother. At IHS David Amram led a jazz improvisation class that was just superb. Before IHS I hadn’t realized that he played the horn. He also spent some time in Scott Bacon’s booth where he and Rick Todd improvised for at least an hour. What a treat that was! After this I was able to spend some time talking to him both about his time studying with my mom and what he’s been up to for the past thirty years to which all I can say is wow. David’s a brilliant composer and a truly interesting guy.
Recently he emailed me and provided a link to his 32 minute orchestral work, ‘Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie’, which was commissioned by the Guthrie Foundation. The link leads to a Symphony Silicon Valley world premiere of this piece. I really enjoyed it and decided to share it with my blog readers. The following program notes are written by David.
=====PROGRAM NOTES AND REVIEWS FOR Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie
NOTES FROM THE COMPOSER for Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie
It 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.
In 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.
I 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.
All this helped me when writing Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie.
The 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.
Variation 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 Dance.
Variation 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.
Variation 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 itself.
Variation 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.
Variation 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.
Variation 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.
The 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.
Finally 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.
Just 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.
The biographical nature of Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie, served as a point of departure to write the best piece that I could, just as Hector Berlioz did when composed Harold in Italy, inspired by the life and times of Lord Byron.
I receved invaluable help from the research provided by Nora Guthrie, as well the inspiration when performing the song in concerts over the years with her brother Arlo, All this helped me to write the piece. I also 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. And I thank Woody Guthrie for sharing his gifts with the world, which enables all us today 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.