'… a much more straightforward, touching tribute to the singer-songwriter, who is one of the iconic figures in the history of American music…It’s all done with a light, affectionate touch that often disguises its sheer musical fluency and ingenuity…'  The Guardian (Andrew Clements), 4 June 2020


(radio announcer) - cl(=bcl).bsn - tpt(=flhn).tbn - perc(1) - (harmonica) - vln.db


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Programme Notes

This Land Sings: Inspired by the Life and Times of Woody Guthrie (2016) was commissioned and premiered by the Tulsa Camerata, conducted by the composer with Annika Socolofsky, soprano, John Daugherty, baritone and Jason Heilman, radio announcer at the Philbrook Museum of Art Tulsa, Oklahoma on April 22, 2016.  Traveling America from coast to coast with his acoustic guitar and harmonica, Woody Guthrie performed folk songs of love, wandering and social justice, including his famous anthem “This Land is Your Land,” at Workers Union gatherings, radio stations, street corners and concerts halls during the Great Depression and World War II.
To prepare for my musical tribute to this Dust Bowl troubadour, I drove for several weeks along the desolate barren and dusty backroads of Texas and Oklahoma where Woody once roamed, while listening to just about everything that Woody recorded during his brief lifetime (1912-1967). I also spent time at the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, researching his fascinating life and wide-ranging artistic output.
Returning to my studio in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I composed my own original songs and instrumental interludes inspired by the life and times of Woody Guthrie. Since he often performed with other folk singers and musicians on radio shows in the 1940s and 1950s, I decided to structure the work into seventeen vocal and instrumental “numbers,” like a Grand Ole Opry radio broadcast. To convey the lean times of the Great Depression I pared down the ensemble to a female singer, male singer, violin, clarinet/bass clarinet, bassoon, trumpet/flugelhorn, trombone, contrabass, percussion (one player) and optional harmonica and optional radio announcer. The music I composed gives haunting expression, ironic wit and contemporary relevance to the political, social and environmental themes from Woody Guthrie’s era.
1. In the instrumental Overture, we hear brightly orchestrated fragments of an old American folk hymn, “O My Loving Brother.” The Carter Family borrowed the tune and recorded it in 1930 as “When the World’s on Fire.” A decade later, the same melody was used by Woody for his iconic American anthem, “This Land is Your Land.”
2. The Ghost and Will of Joe Hill is a rumination on the tragic end of Joe Hill who, like Woody, was an influential labor activist and songwriter. Framed by Union bosses for a murder he did not commit, Hill was executed in 1915 by firing squad in Utah, but not before he wrote his famous last will. For this duet, I have composed original melodies for the baritone, who sings the final words of Joe Hill, and for the soprano, who sings three stanzas from the 1934 poem “Joe Hill” written by Alfred Hayes. The complete poem became widely known in the1938 song by Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson, “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night.”
3. In Perpetual Motion Man, I evoke the idea of Woody as a man who was always on the go, “itching to hit the road” by hitching a ride on a train, in a bus, in a car or a boat.
4. For the instrumental interlude Marfa Lights, I imagine Woody roaming across desolate plains to the Rio Grande River and the ghostly hills of the Mexican border to Marfa, Texas. A lonely flugelhorn plays music that reflects on the mysterious nocturnal lights of Marfa.
5. Hear the Dust Blow recalls the devastating dust storms that destroyed towns and farms in Oklahoma and Northern Texas, as depicted in John Steinbeck’s seminal 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath. Woody, and thousands of others like him, had to abandon their homesteads and attempted to migrate to the Promised Land of California. I have recast the old American folk song, “Down in the Valley,” into a slow and melancholy Dust Bowl lament sung by the soprano.
6. Woody was a champion for the rights of workers who toiled for little pay in the factories and fields, while the bosses reaped all the profits. Stealing from the poor, the rich spent their fortunes on fancy tombstones in cemeteries like Chicago’s “Graceland.” In my song Graceland, I combine excerpts from Carl Sandberg’s 1916 parodic poem of the same title, with my own text and the musical flair of Elvis.
7. Like Mark Twain, Woody had a sly sense of humor that often crept into his songs. Forbidden Fruit is a musical riff on Twain’s perverse retelling of the biblical story of Adam and Eve. In this musical dialogue between soprano and baritone, perhaps getting thrown out of the Garden of Eden wasn’t so bad after all.
8. Woody was intolerant of anyone full of hot air, like the virtuous Father Coughlin who preached the virtues of fascism and racism on his nationally syndicated AM radio broadcasts, heard by millions across America throughout the 1930s and 40s. In Hot Air, we hear a baritone as an AM radio talk show host, “spinning lies from coast to coast.”
9. Woody sang for the equal rights for all men and women regardless of gender, race or religion. In Bread and Roses, I have composed original music for soprano and bassoon, using the words of James Oppenheim’s 1911 suffrage poem of the same title, as a solemn tribute to the millions of women who struggled and eventually won the right to vote.
10. In This Land Sings, I expand the instrumental Overture and introduce elements from the 19th century folk song “Wayfaring Stranger,” heard again later in the final song.
11. Woody was a pacifist who chose to serve in World War II not as a combat soldier, but as a cook on U.S. Merchant Marine convoy ships. My hunch is that Woody would not approve of the bullet-proof baritone protagonist in Silver Bullet, who sings that owning a gun is a “license to kill.”
12. This Trombone Kills Fascists is a vibrant duet between trombone and percussion. The title is a reminder of the slogan that Woody painted on his acoustic guitar in the early 1940s: “This Machine Kills Fascists.”
13. Woody was a wanderer who routinely left those who loved him behind. Don’t Sing Me a Love Song is an anti-romantic duet in which an abandoned woman tells her restless man to “pack his bags.”
14. Woody was haunted by tragic fires that killed three members of his family: his sister when he was seven, his father when he was twelve, and his four-year-old daughter when he was 35. My Heart is Burning is a wistful requiem, performed by harmonica and contrabass.
15. During his lifetime, Woody covered many traditional American songs, such as I’m Gonna Walk That Lonesome Valley. Incorporating only the words from that song, I have written a new melody and scored it as a soulful duet for baritone and clarinet to “walk that lonesome valley.”
16. In 1945, Woody married his second wife who was a dancer with the Martha Graham Company. They moved to Mermaid Avenue, a vibrant Jewish community located in Coney Island, where Woody learned Yiddish and experienced some of his happiest and saddest days: he began to experience the first signs of Huntington’s disease, which would eventually take a fatal toll in 1967. For the instrumental movement of Mermaid Avenue, I have composed virtuosic klezmer dance music that is interrupted by ominous overtones.
17. For more than two decades, Woody traveled across America, singing his folk songs to anyone who would listen. In the final duet Wayfaring Stranger/900 Miles I juxtapose two classic American folk songs that he often performed. As the singers wistfully whistle the end of the song, I imagine Woody walking and whistling down a dusty road into the sunset, signaling the end of our radio broadcast.
© Michael Daugherty
The following instrumental numbers may be performed as an 18-minute instrumental suite in the following order:
1. This Land Sings
2. Marfa Lights
3. This Trombone Kills Fascists
4. Mermaid Avenue



"'Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make it simple,’ said the American folk musician Woody Guthrie. A classical take on the life of this iconic musician is a risky undertaking, not least because the deceptively simple output of the ‘Dust Bowl troubadour’ is so complete in itself. Yet composer Michael Daugherty has succeeded in creating something wholly engaging and original without tampering with Guthrie’s own musical legacy.
This Land Sings: Inspired by the Life and Times of Woody Guthrie (2016) is an arresting tribute to Guthrie that evokes the themes of his work and landscapes of his travels with wit and imagination...Daugherty’s agile score fizzes with colour to explore the character and preoccupations of Guthrie with both courage and sensitivity."
BBC Music Magazine (Kate Wakeling), July 2020