In the summer of 1941, a musical group of labor activists known as “The
Almanac Singers” climbed into a midnight blue Buick and blazed a trail across
the USA, spreading the gospel of unionism and bringing folk music back to the
people. The group, with members Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Lee Hays & Millard
Lampell, created a new kind of topical music, using old folk melodies to tell
the stories of the times. They played in union halls, on picket lines, theaters
and radio shows, planting seeds wherever they went. The Almanacs’ now
almost-mythical journey has become an inspiration for legions of musicians,
free thinkers, and gasoline gypsies, and has paved the road for many of today’s
singer/songwriters. At the core of it were some of the greatest labor songs ever
written, including “Union Maid,” “Talking Union,” and “Which Side Are You On?”
Some seventy years later, with the help and guidance of Pete Seeger and The Woody Guthrie Archives, two modern-day troubadours are following in the footsteps of the old Almanacs. With banjos and guitars and a bag full of union songs, “Totem Pole” Rik Palieri and George Mann are traveling down the road from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles, up the west coast and then from Seattle to Buffalo, singing at some of the same places and towns, and inviting local musicians to join in, as in the original tour. The Almanac Trail will be like an old-fashioned “Hootenanny”-- an evening of history, music and fun for all generations!
Risks and challenges
The idea of creating the Almanac Trail started 30 years ago with a letter I wrote to my friend Pete Seeger about recreating the 1941 tour. Pete was excited and wanted me to go ahead and take this tour across the country. I was very young at the time and did not have the experience or contacts to pull it together. The letter just sat in my files collecting dust for many years until I met George Mann, a former union organizer and fellow folksinger, and we started performing together. As we got to talking about this idea, it seemed that with our mutual love of this music, and his union contacts around the nation, we might bring this old dream back to life.
The first challenge was that I had to do an interview with Pete Seeger to really get the story behind the tour. I was lucky to be able to interview Pete twice for this project, once at his house and another time in the front seat of my pickup truck. We then had to take my interviews with Pete and edit them to work in the CD.
Next I had to gather more information about the Almanacs and the 1941 tour, so I spent a day reading through the original letters of Woody Guthrie from 1941 at the Woody Guthrie Archives. The information that I collected helped to flesh out many of the stories that Pete Seeger had shared with me. This helped me to create the show that will be the Almanac Trail.
As I was getting the research done, George was getting the nuts and bolts of the tour assembled. We are trying to follow the original trip “route” as much as possible, and the challenge of linking up the bookings in a chronological manner in union halls, as The Almanacs did in 1941— and according to a schedule that we think we can maintain over 32 days, 7,000 miles and 25 concerts—seemed daunting at first. But with a lot of perseverance from George, and as word is spreading, we have been able to pull it together.
While plans for the tour were coming to life, the next challenge was to record a new CD based on the original Almanacs recordings. As the recording proceeded we found that although we knew a lot of the old labor songs from many years of singing them, we each had our own versions. We had to agree on what worked best for the project, and which songs to include among the many that The Almanacs recorded and sang— our focus being on the labor/union songs of the era.
Another challenge was finding a way to get some of our busy friends who wanted to help us out by playing on the record into the studio. The vision of this project was so strong that our friends made the time to get into local studios to get the job done, sometimes in the only available time slot that worked! We are very happy with the record we are making, which will also feature Pete Seeger narrating bits and stories about the Almanacs and some of the songs, as well as the 1941 tour itself.
We are more than halfway there, with the songs recorded and most of the tour booked. We have been financing this project on our own, out of love for the music and, specifically, for Pete Seeger’s contributions to folk music and the cause of unions. But there is a lot of work ahead with mixing, mastering, and CD production, plus the tour itself; renting a union-made, American car, the cost of gasoline, and traveling across the USA in these modern times.
Well, first off, the tour itself is challenging— putting together a network of at least 25 concerts, plus radio and possibly television shows, picket lines or rallies, etc., as we go through much of the nation over the course of five weeks, that alone will be challenging. We have to give a good show each night, no matter how much we’ve traveled that day, how little sleep we might have gotten the night before, or how we are feeling that day. So the financial help gained through this Kickstarter project (if we are successful) will put us a little more at ease.
It is also difficult to get people out and motivated in these times. An uncertain economy, not enough employment, a standard of living that is only going up for the wealthiest in our nation— people are going home and staying home each night because they are short on money, and they are tired. But Rik and I are putting together an event that is truly multi-media: centered on the songs, no doubt, but full of information, education, tales of those times and the travels that Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger undertook with the Almanacs, with a film to open the evening that features Pete Seeger, the only surviving Almanac Singer. It will be a night for all ages, and a night to inspire the spirit, in each city we visit!
Another challenge is just breaking through all the other options that people have, both on Kickstarter and in general. We are making a specific kind of folk music here, songs that tell the struggles of working people to establish what by law was their right—to have a voice, and a union, in the workplace. We are not promoting ourselves, or our songs, here. We are paying tribute to the earliest music that Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Lee Hays and Mill Lampell wrote and sang together, with an eye toward firing up the working class of our nation. Your help will make sure that this journey takes place, and our message gets out.
- (30 days)