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Music: Hootenanny

3 minute read

“We was playin’ for the Lumber Workers’ Union. We was singin’ around in the shingle mills. There was a lady out West out there in the lumber camp and her name was Annie and so every time they’d have a songfest Annie would outshout all of them. So people got to call her Hootin’ Annie but the name got spread all over and so out there when they are going to have a shindig they call it Hootenanny.”

And that’s how Hootenannies began, according to Woodrow Wilson (“Woody”) Guthrie. Last week one of the shoutin’est Hootenannies ever was held in Irving Plaza’s faded second-floor dance hall a block from Manhattan’s Union Square. On stage were 20 folk singers with guitars, mandolins and harmonicas. In the audience were 1,000 men, women & children (some also with guitars) who sang along with them. Smallest and loudest of them all was curly-haired Woody Guthrie. He sang:

Down in the henhouse, on my knees, I thought I heard a chicken sneeze, It was only a rooster, saying his prayers, And giving out thanks to the hens upstairs.*

Most of the other ballads sung had nothing to do with the farm, except as a problem. Singers tried to best each other at songs whose tunes were simple, and whose lyrics were black & white (or sometimes red) versions of current events. The result was not always good singing or good logic, but it had some of the spontaneity and enthusiasm of the competitive chants of calypso singers in Trinidad (TIME, Jan. 29, 1945).

Brown-eyed Betty Sanders of Brooklyn sang The Mighty Atom Bomb (“Hear the squawking friends of Hearst, they think we ought to use it first”); Lee Hays, son of an Arkansas preacher, told of his Rankin Tree (“It poisoned my potatoes, it poisoned my squash . . .”), and a pretty young union maiden named Eleanor Young did a slightly bawdy ballad about Mary Lee of the Bourgeoisie (“I’ve married Joe of the C.I.O.”). Other topics: the Western Union strike, Churchill and Franco, housing (“I spend my days in Central Park and my nights on the I.R.T.”).

The Hootenanny was sponsored by People’s Songs, Inc., a new organization of left-wing folk singers who in the past three months have given concerts to strikers in Pittsburgh, New York City, and Schenectady. Its board of directors includes the No. 1 collector of American folk music, 31-year-old Alan Lomax (TIME, Nov. 26). Said he: “We’re going to put more into our songs than June moon croon spoon swoon, and sing Bilbo out of Congress.”

* Copyright 1946 by Bob Miller, Inc.

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