Music legend David Amram on his creative process, why he loves the Colorado Symphony, and meeting Woody Guthrie
From collaborating with jazz legends to hanging out with Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, David Amram has accumulated quite an impressive resume. He's written multiple books as well as musical pieces, and he's in Denver this week performing at a variety of events to celebrate the hundredth birthday of Woody Guthrie.
We recently spoke with Amram about his creative process, why he loves Denver, and hanging out with Woody Guthrie one day in 1956.
Westword: What made you want to participate in a Woody Guthrie tribute?
David Amram: Well, I met Woody Guthrie in 1956 and had a wonderful time speaking to him and saw how different he was from the public perception. He was so much more than the man who rode around on boxcars playing the guitar and getting in trouble. First of all, he was so brilliant in terms of his knowledge of classical music, classical European music, jazz, world politics, a view of America and his understanding and reverence for the native people of Oklahoma. He was one of the first people, aside from Will Rogers, to make people around the world understand that we have a very precious heritage in this country and that all of us who come here from all over the world are in a very special country that has its origins with very special people. And he also had a great reverence and appreciation for all the cultures that were brought here from all the great European nations and all the other places around the world where people came to this country for a better life and a chance to excel and be free.
So he was really a very old-fashioned super-patriot. He served in the Merchant Marines in World War II, but because of the nature of politics a lot of people who spoke out for basic human rights that we all have today and don't even think about were considered to be un-American, which was exactly the opposite case, of course. Now he's revered in his home state of Oklahoma and his home town of Okemah as a hero. He was kind of a reporter that during those hard days of the Dust Bowl and the hard days of the Great Depression, and always spoke up for people who had no voice. And in such a beautiful way. When we hear those songs today, and people hear them all over the world in different languages, it sounds as if he could be writing about today. He was an inspiration for me way back in 1956 and I just spent that wonderful day with him. He was way more than just a folk musician, he was a musician and a person for all our folk.
How did you meet him?
I had a young man I was playing with, Charles Mingus, the great bass player, and another great musician I was blessed to play with, Sonny Rollins, had a very good friend who was an excellent scat singer named Ahmed Bashir and Ahmed was playing with me. I played on what they called the Lower East Side, I was going to the Manhattan School of Music on the G.I. Bill studying classical composition and conducting, playing with Charles Mingus's jazz group and beginning to write music for Joe Papp's Shakespeare in the Park. I didn't get much sleep. And one night we were up late talking about music and philosophy and trying to do homework and practice, and he turned to me, and he said, "Dave, you don't have school tomorrow, you're not playing, you wanna go meet Woody?" And I said, "You mean Woody Herman?" And he said, "No, Woody Guthrie."
So we walked over about one block, we went into this very nice woman's place with a tiny kitchen, and there was Woody Guthrie, a thin, wiry, very intense-looking man. And I noticed that he had on cowboy boots, and it was 1956 and I never saw anybody wearing cowboy boots at that time. And jeans. He looked just like people I had seen when I went out to visit my uncle in New Mexico or the time I first came to Denver and went through Colorado in 1945 when it was still pretty much the old-fashioned West. And he didn't look like someone who was a Hollywood actor imitating somebody. I said, man, this guy's the real deal, and he talked in this wonderful style that sounded like just folks, a lot of them still speak that way in Okemah and parts of Oklahoma. It was so fascinating to see somebody like that right in the concrete jungles of New York City, and I just never forgot meeting him.
How did you begin writing Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie?
I met his wife later on, Marjorie, and found out that she had danced with Martha Graham in the premiere of Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland. And her little kids Arlo and Nora told me when they were grownups, years later, that was the piece that they listened to at home all the time. And they said to me, forty years after I met Woody, that they would like to have a piece honoring him. They said, "We would like it to be like Appalachian Spring."
So I figured, okay, I think I can do that. So I thought I would use the melody from "Deportee" or "Pastures of Plenty," which are almost like a kind of melody that Tchaikowsky or Brahms or Aaron Copland would have used in their wonderful pieces based on folklore. "No, no," Nora said, "I love those melodies, but we need to do 'This Land Is Your Land.'" I said, "Uh oh. How can I possibly do anything?" Because I played that with Woody's son Arlo probably nearly 100 times over the years from the time he started playing up until we played together the last time a few months ago. And I did it with Pete Seeger probably 200 times. I've done it with Willie Nelson every Farm Aid that we play. And every time we do it that way, with the audience singing, just doing the song is so perfect that you don't really need an orchestra, you don't need anything. It just worked by itself. So I was sitting there for a month and a half thinking, "What the heck am I gonna do?" And even though I really believe in ecology I must've poured through a tree and a half of paper that hit the wastebasket without ever being used. I hope it was recycled, okay? I just couldn't figure out what to do. And then Nora said, "How's the piece coming?" And I said, "It's great, but you know, I'm not sure." And she said, "Here's something to think about. You met my dad way back when. You know all of his friends. Why don't you read Joe Klein's wonderful biography and also retrace the steps that Woody took when he was writing that song?"
He didn't just write that, as he very often did, in one afternoon. He spent years writing a verse here and there in his travels to all the places he went. So then I said, "Wow." I suddenly got a flash. I said, "I know what to do."
What did you do?
See, the very beginning of the piece starts with some of the fanfare of today and then the first variation is based on the Oklahoma Indian stomp dance, and just in the middle of it suddenly you hear the melody for "This Land Is Your Land" coming into it. Then the next variation is Woody in church at an Okemah Sunday morning church service because Pete Seeger told me that the melody for that song was an old church melody from way back and undoubtedly Woody heard that as a kid when he went to church, because his whole family were all churchgoers. Then the next variation I made was when he moved to Pampa, Texas, I said, "Okay, I'll have something like a barn dance." Of course, the variation I did wasn't as refined, and in the middle of that you hear the theme again coming back. Then the next one was based on dreaming of Mexico, when he worked with Mexican workers; in what sounds like Mexican music suddenly you hear that melody. It keeps coming back in some form in every variation. And after that I have one which I call the Dust Bowl Dirge, because he had lived through that Dust Bowl.
And then the last part he came to New York, where he lived longer in Brooklyn than in any place else in his life, because he was always traveling. And I have a series of neighborhood scenes because Nora told me that when he was, especially later on in life, when he was not in very bad health he would take the subway or walk or get out of the subway and go through all the different neighborhoods. He was fascinated by all the different people and the food and the languages and the history and the lifestyles of all the different people who lived in this big city who had brought something with them from another place. And then finally it comes back to the very beginning. It's almost like a biographical journey of the places that Woody went when he was playing the piece. And this is just something, like so many things in life, that can happen if you remain open and receptive and take the tiniest idea and then develop it.
When you're writing, how do you know when you've hit upon something that's good?
Well, that's a feeling to me. It's all based on feeling. And very often the feeling comes about after I try about thirteen times and it just isn't happening. Then suddenly, womp, I say, "Boy, I feel that's the right thing." I can make that choice of the feelings because of the fact that aside from writing stuff down I've also spent as much time in my life making stuff up, improvising lyrics, improvising freestyling. When you live in that world of what seems to be natural, then when you're writing something down and then you look back at it and say that doesn't sound real, then you hit the old wastebasket and try to do it again. And eventually you can come up with the right thing because your instinct will tell you that's what feels right. And if that's what feels right, that's the correct thing to do because you're telling your story. And everyone has a story. Everyone has a song. Everyone has a family and a history and everyone has a heritage, and each one is different and they're all beautiful and all of us are born being creative.
It's a question of just harnessing all those things that are kind of gifted to us at birth and then as they get beaten out of you, rehabilitating them and re-energizing yourself and trying to be around people or around works of literature or art or excellence at sports or carpentry or law or whatever you're doing where you could have some sort of high standards to aspire towards.
What do you hope people take away from your performances?
A lot of the schools that I go to, I'm gonna try to show the young folks how the folk instruments, all the ones I play, have become sources for our modern-day symphony orchestra and encourage people young and old to come and hear the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. Because that's an orchestra I've been following personally since 1945 when a great musician named Saul Caston left the Philadelphia Orchestra, of which he was the associate conductor -- that's like a giant job in music, to come all the way out to Denver because he felt there was this exciting orchestra in a beautiful town that most people on the Eastern seaboard just weren't even aware of out there with tremendous potential. And he did so many amazing programs that in 1951 Time magazine wrote a whole article about Saul Caston and what was then called the Denver Symphony. And Saul Caston in 1945 was a friend of my father's, because my father was a big music fan and being born in Philadelphia had a lot of friends who played in the orchestra and he used to always tell me about that. And when we visited Denver way back when when I was a kid we went to hear them.
And I always remembered that and I had many many friends over the years who played with the orchestra, and every time I was in Denver I would go and hear them play and they just keep getting better and better and better. And now they're one of the top orchestras in the country and it's such a thrill to be able to come for the first time to guest-conduct them and have them do my music and music that I love. My hope is that some people who might come to the concert, who might get the recording over the years, will realize wherever they are in the world that if they come to Denver they not only have the greatest sports teams and the most beautiful city and the healthiest people and a great jazz scene and great universities and a wonderful opera company and great theater, but they'll also realize they have one of the best orchestras in the country and one where the musicians in the orchestra have a lot to do with determining the future of the orchestra.
And that's a very beautiful thing, to see that that is happening. So it's just so exciting to see that, and it's worth waiting till I'm 82.
You seem to visit Denver a lot.
Well,you know, Jack Kerouac was my old buddy and he loved Denver. He wrote about it so beautifully and Neal Cassady, who was the hero of On the Road, who was his friend, was from Denver. And now they have a Neal Cassady Day every year and I'll be back in February for that. It's a special joy in life to see old friends no longer here, who really, frankly, like Woody and Jack Kerouac for that matter and Neal, never during their lifetime got what you think they should have gotten.
But I always tell people in our culture what you deserve and what you get have nothing to do with one another. Therefore, you just gotta do your best, period, and just keep doing it no matter what. And also I always tell young people that whatever you have to do to pay your rent has no bearing on your value as an artist or as a person. And if you have something that you love to do, no matter how hard it is or hopeless it seems, just to go ahead and do it because it's worth the effort. That's scarcely an original thought, but it's worth thinking about.
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