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.
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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."