CD's to date:
Songs of the West

Four Cords 

REFLECTIONS PROMPTED DURING AND
AFTER RECORDING THIS FOUR CORDS CD

By Dave Fredrickson

 

     Like many young people, for me singing and learning new songs was important self-entertainment. I never guessed when I started singing that I would have known perhaps 500 songs or more throughout my life. I still recall two songs, small portions of which I learned from my family's crystal set radio, and could sing them when I was four or five years old, about 1931 or 1932, just out of kindergarten. The songs were "Hallelujah I'm a Bum' and "If I had the Wings of an Angel" (actual name was "The Prisoner's Song"). In the early 1940s I learned what I believed were all the words of both songs. Later I learned that the Bum song had an almost endless number of verses.

     By the end of 1932 music dropped out of my mind for several years because I was diagnosed as having tuberculosis and because of the very damp and relative cold Berkeley where we lived and absence of medicines for the disease at that time, my parents had the choice of sending me to a sanitarium or moving the family to a warmer environment where bed rest at home was feasible. The move was to the then outskirts of Redwood City ("Climate Best by Government Test") where my bedrest lasted for two years after which time the doctors decided I had completely recovered. During this time both my older and younger sisters were sent to live with siblings of my mother, the older to the San Joaquin Valley where her brothers were farmers and the younger to Hayward, where one of her sisters was a grammar school teacher. I do not recall any music from that time period, but I did learn how to read, far above my age level.

     When the doctors decided that I was no longer contagious, several months after I was up and about, my sisters came home to live in Redwood City for the first time in their lives, in time to begin school at the beginning of a new school year. From that time on I felt badly that I was responsible for them being similar to orphan kids for at least two years.

     The following year the doctors decided that I could be allowed to go back to school. The local school placed me in an ungraded class for students with a wide range of problems, medical to behavioral. After several weeks, the school teachers recommended that I be placed in the fifth grade because of both my learning abilities and reading skills. My parents felt I was too young and lacked both the academic and social experiences of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grades, and few normal social experiences outside of extended family members to enter the fifth grade. It was with considerable concern that they allowed me to be placed in the fourth grade. I still recall many of my 4th grade experiences, none of them bad, but including times when the teacher, probably for educational reasons, guided the class in singing together, songs such as "Home on the Range," which is included on this CD.

     Although for several years I had missed most contacts with what might be called my peers I had no difficulty getting along, but had no skills in organized outside games, such as baseball, football, even catch, which were part of the physical education curriculum at that time. Also I had very little knowledge of different brands of automobiles and other brands of consumables that existed in the world of 1935 when I started school again and 1936 as I discovered many other things as I was promoted to the 5th grade. In many ways I had entered a foreign world and in some ways stayed in that world even today.

     Not at all unusual during the 1930s, both of my parents were from rural backgrounds with strong rural values of important family ties, the importance of individualism and mutual assistance when friends and neighbors needed help, for example, bringing in crops when situations (such as family illness or bad weather) beyond their control occurred. My father's family was still active in Colorado and Wyoming and well into my teens my mother's family was still farming in California's San Joaquin Valley. My parents decided after their marriage to stay in California where they felt they had more options than on the Great Divide. My mother was a registered nurse and my father had been in the Navy and was injured during submarine training just after the World War I ended. The two of them met in the hospital where my father was being treated and where my mother was one of his nurses. They courted in the old fashioned sense and eventually married. My father was immediately accepted and well liked by my mother's quite large extended family. My mother was one of nine siblings and the extended family included many aunts, uncles, and cousins, with regular get-togethers, most important of which was Thanksgiving, referred to as a family reunion, not unusual to have more than 50 family and fictive family participants.

     The significance of this was that I had several years being one of 37 cousins, and thus was not as socially isolated and peer deprived as it might have been perceived by those who had no knowledge of my extended family. I always had many cousins, both male and female with whom to interact. I have many wonderful memories of my visits prior to being withdrawn because of my tuberculosis. Reentry into the world of the cousins was quite rapid. By the time I was ten years old I was spending the entire summer vacation with relatives who ran dairy farms, learning and participating in routine work with relatives who ran such farms in California's San Joaquin Valley. I recall that I learned quite a few cowboy and western songs, including "Little Joe the Wrangler" (included on this CD) and "Jesse James," while with the relatives. I also learned many songs from the radio, listening, for example, to songs such as "Cool Water" by the Sons of the Pioneers on early morning musical programs that were enjoyed by many, including me and my relatives when we were active with the cows and working on other dairy chores.

     It was difficult for me to learn songs I heard in the radio context, because I had an unsure memory that needed many repetitions before learning occurred. I had no way to obtain repetitions except by continuing to search out and find the disk jockey programs. I had little money and what I obtained from time to time I was urged to save. Although our family was not "well-to-do," we always had food. Although the location of the T.B. house was in a subdivided area, the depression suppressed development of the area. Although back in the 1930s and the early portion of the 1940s, the closest house was about a quarter mile and there were few even that close. We had a subsistence garden, kept by my mother with my assistance in preparing the ground for planting vegetables, and enough space to plant fruit trees, and with contributions of sweet potatoes and other surplus vegetables from our relatives, we always had plenty to eat. We also raised chickens for eggs and meat, turkeys to sell when Thanksgiving and Christmas approached as well as for a few of our meals too, and also ducks, though we usually had only two or three ducks, I don't recall ever eating duck. One of my chores was to milk twice a day our cow that was given to us as a young animal by one of our uncles in the Valley. We were occasionally given a small piglet to raise for a couple of years until it was large enough to eat. Home freezers were not available in those times, but a locker in a commercial freezer could be rented on a monthly basis at a reasonable cost. One of my jobs was passed on to me by my older sister as she found other paying jobs, the job was to milk the cow of a female owner over a mile away who raised thoroughbred horses for sulky races. She was very pleasant and friendly and paid us well.

     My parents had a few 78 rpm phonograph records and a wind up phonograph that they allowed us kids to use if we were careful. There were only two songs that I really enjoyed, "The Letter Edged in Black" which was included on my 1961 Folkways album (FH-5259), "Songs of the West," and "The Wreck of the Shenandoah," which is included on this CD.

     In the very late 1930s and early 1940s, when I was back in Redwood City starting school again when summer vacation ended, my memories inform me that I listened to the National Barn Dance on Saturday night as well as other western and so-called hillbilly songs organized by disk jockeys. I recall one Saturday night eating dinner with my parents, both my older and younger sisters, and my young brother born in 1938, the radio playing moderately low in the adjacent room, I heard a song that sounded to me beautiful. I do not know the program, but as time passed I determined it had been Roy Acuff. As for the song, I'm not certain what it was, although for years I thought it most likely to have been the "Precious Jewel." I asked to be excused from the table so that I could listen to the remainder of the song closer to the radio, I was surprised that my parents allowed me to move to the radio. As far as my memory informs me, that was the first time that I was truly emotionally moved by music. I enjoyed it often, but never with the fullness of feeling that I experienced then. I'm pleased to say that it was not the last time.

     By this time I had my own radio in my own room, the same room and bed I made use of during my bout with T.B. After my chores and school homework were finished. I was allowed to listen to the radio as long as it was not so loud that it would bother other house mates. This was not difficult. It was quite late at night that I discovered one of the high wattage Mexican radio stations, the letters of the one I remember were XERB with its station I believe in Rosarito Beach, Mexico. I have never investigated to discover whether I was correct as to its location. But I heard many wonderful songs, nowadays I suppose they would be called Old Timey songs. Although I didn't yet have a guitar and had no understanding how to play one if I did have one, I did hear a guitar accompaniment to singing that I had heard earlier and enjoyed, but without knowing the name of the singers or guitar players, I learned through the Mexican radio station that it was the Carter Family. I knew then that if I ever learned how to play the guitar it would be as similar in sound to what I heard on XERB as I was able to achieve, a strong base string melody with strumming the higher notes. Over the years I have met quite a few persons who also listened to old time music on the Mexican radio stations. The ads were also worth listening to for occasional smiles. This pattern continued through most of my high school years, September 1940 through June 1944.

     Immediately after graduating from high school, I was admitted to the University of California in Berkeley, which at that time during World War II had three full semesters during the year. So, I graduated from high school in June 1944 and a week or two later I also entered the University in June of 1944. Not much musical occurred for me for the next year as I was getting used to the University. But I was getting older and I felt the military draft in the near future. Just by coincidence with no relationship to my musical adventures, I joined the Navy in an officer training program, was sent to Montana, Washington, and finally back to California. It wasn't until 1946, when I was released from the Navy shortly after the end of World War II, that I systematically began to organize a list of my repertory of songs that I already enjoyed, adding to it when I could, and writing their words in a bound note book.

     At this time, after my experience singing in the Navy, I decided that I must learn to play the guitar. When I mentioned this to my parents, it came out that my father, prior to his joining the Navy in the previous World War, had taught himself to play the guitar, fiddle, and mandolin, and when a young man occasionally played for neighborhood country dances in Wyoming, although he never started his music again after joining the Navy, and only an old photograph indicated that he had once played an instrument. It never entered any of our family conversations. When he heard my interest in the guitar, he turned all three of his instruments over to me and gave me a book of guitar chords, which was comprehensive but contained no instructions as to how they related to one another.

     It didn't take long for me to realize that I had no inherent musical understanding. It wasn't until I returned to school and after one of my friends took about 15 minutes to explain to me a bit about relationships between chords that I was able to begin teaching myself to pick out melodies on the guitar and find those wonderful bass notes, and I didn't do too badly in finding simple melodies on the instrument. Relatively soon I was accompanying myself on the guitar and developing musical goals for myself. I had no interest in mainstream popular music, actually avoided it. When in the Navy I learned during informal barracks settings that my fellow enlistees appreciated that I could often add verses for songs rather than just the chorus which they had learned more or less by osmosis, such as "You Are My Sunshine." It was for me a fortunate coincidence that it was country music that they seemed to prefer. This experience, often reinforced in the University environment, stimulated a personal point of view that entertainment need not be a commercial activity or even limited to self-entertainment, but could be a small scale personal activity that tended not only to enlarge my social environment due to the appreciation of others as well, but to help make friends who also had interest in the kind of songs I favored.

     Primarily in retrospect, it slowly dawned upon me that what came to be called the American urban folk music revival was beginning to grow, and I learned many Woody Guthrie songs, mostly from 78 rpm phonograph records that I discovered in a small record shop near the campus. I met a few other musicians with whom I often sang, mostly at small scale parties, and I was always pleased when I was requested to sing, usually songs by name. I had one very interesting experience though I don't recall when it actually took place. When I was asked the kind of music I sang, I often responded as it being "Okie" music or "Hillbilly" music. A University engineering student quite a bit older than I was, who lived in the same boarding house, pulled me aside one afternoon and suggested that I not use those terms to describe my music, but to call it "Folk Music" and he then gave me a gift, an album of Burl Ives records. Although I enjoyed the Woody Guthrie songs quite a bit and they were closer to a life to which I was familiar, I also enjoyed the songs of Burl Ives, there were many wonderful stories, and eventually I learned every song on the album that was given me.

     Another quite arbitrary goal I set at this time was to learn 1000 songs which I was convinced I could achieve beginning with songs I had already learned, including all of those I learned when I helped out on the dairy farms in the San Joaquin Valley, as well as the songs I was able to learn from the radio over the years. Also filling out all the words of songs that I had partially learned in earlier years.

     The introductions to individual songs in this CD contain much more information about contexts about learning songs, including that of continuing school, eventually graduating, admission to graduate school, and archaeological field work in California. I became interested in Folk Music with my Burl Ives album. With my library skills, I found academic views of what Folk Music consisted. I soon learned that many songs I knew by 1948 when I graduated were classified as Folk Songs. But in my experience, most of the songs I learned were from commercial, not word of mouth, sources. But through studying printed collections of Folk Songs, I learned many more songs, and found many more that I had already learned, not through word of mouth, but from commercial sources. At that time, which I would put in the early 1950s, I realized it was the song itself that was important to me, not how I came across it. Nonetheless, often I was defined as a folk singer or a Cowboy singer, and from the mid 50s through the mid 60s I was asked to sing at local clubs and at times invited as a performer to Folk Music festivals and concerts, locally in the greater San Francisco region, and also in Los Angeles, and even in Colorado and Wyoming. I never sought musical jobs, they always came to me.

     Today in 2005 in my late 70s, I can no longer depend upon my memory to produce all the words to all of the songs I wish to sing. Throughout my earlier life words to songs seemed to have an endless flow, today even some melodies need effort to recall or reconstruct. I never considered that this situation would occur, but it has not caused me to lose my love for what I once had available at a moments notice. Many of my present friends, musicians and others alike, actually encourage me to bring out the printed words. In this world of the personal computer, by the mid-1980s I had successfully entered the words of all the songs I could recall, not the 1000 that once I had hoped to know, but close to the 500 or so I was singing by the 1960s. Repetitions over a few days tend to bring words back to me. Unfortunately though, when I cease singing a particular relearned song for as little as two weeks or so, it is not unusual once again for some of the words to slip away. There is no question about my disappointment that I cannot sing for two hours or twelve hours or more as I once did just to entertain myself or to give ad hoc concerts without referring to the written word. Nonetheless, I still have love for probably half of my songs, words of which come back to me fairly easily. Although many of the other half no longer touch me as they once did because changes in my age and my cultural context have changed their attractiveness to me, I am often surprised when I try singing one or more of the songs that I had lost only to discover that it still spoke to me.

     I have a few comments prompted by some of the liner notes for my Folkways LP record "Songs of the West" which was issued in 1961, and is still available in CD format from the Smithsonian. Even today I continue to sing for my own pleasure, now for more than sixty years, and during many of these years I was surprised by the relatively large number of other folks who have expressed their enjoyment of my music during these years. I am surprised by the interest of younger folks, some between their 20s and 50s, who urge me to sing more of the older songs to give them an opportunity to learn songs that for them are a kind of old-timey song that they rarely hear nowadays from their other musician friends. Passing on older songs to younger generations gives me a great amount of pleasure that more than balances my disappointments due to poor memory.

     When I was first approached to record for a CD and eventually began to record, I was at a loss to select appropriate songs. I went over my computerized list, plus other lists of songs that I had already more or less given up. I was a bit surprised by the number of this last group that reawakened very much of the feeling I once had for them up to sixty years ago. I was certain that those would have required a major effort to revive. "The Wreck of the Shenandoah" was one such; I last sang it with regularity in the 1950s when I met my wife-to-be, though I learned it in the late 1930s. For years I sang the song but put it aside without plans to resuscitate it until recently the possibility of a CD gave me the energy to bring it back into my life, aided by several of my musical friends. For years I've maintained a list of favorite songs, which often changed somewhat from year to year. My current list contained more than 200 songs most of which made the CD master list. I wasn't surprised to see that almost every song on the final list focused on unrequited love and broken promises, family ties, many different kinds of stories, or descriptions of work and favored environments. But a bit of reflection made me smile, since as one might have suspected, almost all the songs I've ever learned met the above criteria regarding content. Almost all of the songs selected for recording, I've known and have been singing off and on for about 60 years and several even longer. Despite cultural and physical changes in my life over the years, I do believe that many of the oldies are real goodies.