Woody Guthrie on John Cage (re: Tenney)

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Yup, you read it right. I just found a comment the legendary Woody Guthrie made about one of Cage’s early prepared piano pieces; the solos from Amores. I found it in this very thorough article by Mark Swed on James Tenney‘s 2002 performance of Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes (videos below). For me, these quotes were a revelation. I always wanted to do a piece juxtaposing Cage’s writings with Bob Dylan’s lyrics, somehow exposing an oddly shared vision. (I was discouraged by Remy Charlip, who was, in effect, Cage & Cunningham’s rebellious son. I’m easily swayed.) Anyway, I feel I have found a bridge between two music traditions that apparently share little but are both equally important to me. (It’s just that one got gobbled up by Big Business. Guess which one.)Here’s the quote from Mark Swed’s article:

In 1947, Maro Ajemian, for whom “Sonatas and Interludes” was written, recorded the prepared piano solos from Cage’s “Amores.” One evening that summer, folk legend Woody Guthrie wrote a fan letter to the Disc Co. of America, as he listened to the scratchy 78 rpm disc. “I need something like this oddstriking music,” he began in the postscript, “to match the things I feel in my soul tonight.” (The singer also wrote that that morning, his wife, Marjorie, had “given birth to a big 7-pound boy” –Arlo.)

“So let me say my thanks one more time to you, Maro,” he concluded, “for recording up and down for me all of this virgin unsettled and wild wide open sounding dancy music there on the keys of your big piano.”

Quite a wonderful and deeply felt description of Cage’s early music.

Also a very insightful way of closing an article on Tenney & Cage. Jim definitely had a sort of western US, folksy quality about him. He was from Colorado after all. Maybe I’m clutching at straws here, but it also seems Jim & Woody shared a single minded devotion to one’s personal truth, consequences be damned. Comparisons are always shaky, but something just feels right about saying Jim Tenney is new music’s Woody Guthrie. (Which would put Larry Polansky in the role of Pete Seeger. But then who would be Jim’s “Bob Dylan”? Nick Didkovsky?)

You can hear this “wild wide open sounding dancy music” for yourself.

James Tenney plays John Cage, part 1:

part 2:

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

sroden September 10, 2007 at 2:05 pm

i was at this concert and it was an incredible evening. tenney’s playing of the works was absolutely stunning, and his meticulous approach to preparing the piano made such a huge difference in the sound of these pieces… plus it didn’t hurt to hear them at such a beautiful site, along with ambient evening noises (you can see the audience is outside!),it was a tremendous evening. i missed swed’s review in the paper at the time, so thanks for pointing this gem out… the notion that guthrie listened to cage the night his kid was born is an absolutely amazing bit of history.

Miguel September 10, 2007 at 7:39 pm

Hey Steve. I’m glad you found it as fascinating as I did. I’m surprised no one has really played it up yet. I envy you being at the concert. Sounds like a magical event. By the way, I checked out your website. Beautiful work! Thanks for checking in.

GerreeCee June 16, 2009 at 4:36 pm

Great to hear Cage music again. In 1972 at the ICES Festival (International Carnival of Electronic Sound) at the Roundhouse in London, I told John Cage that he and Woody Guthrie were the biggest influences on my music. He told me that he had met Woody Guthrie once. My little brain couldn’t think of asking what that occaision was at the time. Anyway, in a bizarre way the videos I started makin 6 yrs later were a marriage of those 2 inspirations.

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