Travelling into London one morning last summer Bruce Springsteen’s live version of Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your Land’ came up on the iPod, the one from the ‘80s live set where he talks about it being an ‘answer song’ to ‘God Bless America’. It reminded me that the very first music I heard that I ever really liked came via my Uncle Jack, my father’s eldest and slightly ne’er-do-well brother, who in the 1930s had spent time hitching around America and on his travels picked up a ukulele and taught himself to play a few American folk songs.
In the early ‘50s Jack lived with my paternal grandparents in Scarborough and when I was around six or seven he sang ‘This Land Is Your Land’ to me in their flat on Esplanade Road. Another of his songs was Guthrie’s ‘Grand Coulee Dam’ while a third, by Burl Ives, was called ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’ and had mysterious, playful lyrics about ‘cigarette trees’ and ‘lemonade fountains’. This was the first American music I ever heard, indeed the very first music of any kind outside of kid’s songs like ‘Teddy Bears’ Picnic’ or dull-as-dishwater hymns sung in school, and it made a deep and abiding impression on me, so much so that later in life I made a point of finding out who composed and sang these songs, and seeking them out on record.
At the time Uncle Jack opened my ears to this music he’d become a travelling salesman, selling hardware and carpenters’ tools. He was only 51 when he died in 1956, and it seems to me now that maybe I have him to thank for him singing ‘This Land Is Your Land’ was probably the first tiny step on the road towards my eventual appreciation of American roots music, and my life as a music writer and archivist. Thanks Jack!