"I thought since today is Andy's 75th Birthday now might be a good time to post this look back at the links between Andy & his all time hero Woody! Enjoy...If you have anything to add please do get in touch!" - AndyIrvineNews.com
Andy Irvine loved music from the earliest time he could remember. His mother had a stack of old, cracked 78s that he used to play on a wind-up gramophone.
“They were mainly songs from long forgotten musical comedies but I wish I had them now.”
At thirteen, he studied classical guitar for two years, initially with Julian Bream and later under one of Bream’s pupils but switched to folk music after discovering Woody Guthrie during the Skiffle boom of the 1950s.
Guthrie was to become an enduring influence on his music, on his choice of additional instruments (mandolin and harmonica) and general outlook on life. In a 1985 interview, Irvine expanded on how, in the mid-1950s, he discovered Woody Guthrie through Lonnie Donegan’s recordings on the EPs Backstairs Session and Skiffle Session:
He had two EPs and I thought: ‘That’s it!’ – “Midnight Special”, “It Takes A Worried Man”, “Railroad Bill” and “When The Sun Goes Down”. On the back of the jacket, I read that Donegan learned these wonderful songs from the recordings of Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston. This fired my youthful imagination and I wanted so badly to hear the originals. […] In 1957, [I got] this record called More Songs By Woody Guthrie And Cisco Houston and it blew my mind. Eventually, I bought Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads, the original 78s, in mint condition for $40 each. I used to sit all day, alone, and listen to Woody Guthrie and practice. I was playing with my thumb. I didn’t know anything about a flatpick, but I could do the best imitation of Woody. I wanted to play every instrument he played. That’s why I took up the harmonica and mandolin. When I discovered Irish and British music, I figured out how to adapt my basic Woody Guthrie ‘scratch’ style on guitar to playing traditional songs on the mandolin.
—Andy Irvine, Celtic Roots… Dustbowl Inspiration by Joe Vanderford.
“On the back of one of Lonnie’s EPs, I found the name Woody Guthrie. Even as I type it now, I feel the same thrill at this name. I had never imagined that anyone could be called Woody. I determined to find out more about this mysterious man. I started by sending a letter to: —
Mr. Woody Guthrie, USA.
After six weeks, it came back …
Some weeks later, I was passing by a small record company when I saw a yellow album sleeve in the window. I did a series of double takes but sure enough, it was called More Songs by Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston. I bought it.
I can remember now the first bar of Columbus Stockade and the tingle that went down my spine as the instrumental intro was followed by this Oklahoma voice, singing,
“Way down in Columbus Stockade
Want to be back in Tennessee”.
I had finally found my inspiration and mentor.”
—Andy Irvine, About Andy
Ramblin’ Jack (1958)
Ballads and Blues Club
In May 1959, Irvine began frequenting the Ballads and Blues Club—started at the Princess Louise pub in High Holborn by Ewan MacColl in 1957—which, by September 1959, had moved to 2, Soho Square under the sole leadership of Malcolm Nixon. American folk musicians who had been closely associated with Guthrie would perform there: Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Derroll Adams and Cisco Houston; Irvine befriended all three of them, particularly Elliott, who taught him how to play the harmonica in Guthrie’s style:
“I use a harmonica holder that I have had for over 50 years! God knows how I never lost it! It was given to me by Rambling Jack Elliot at the time I was learning how to play. He also gave me the crucial information that Woody Guthrie used to play the harp upside down!!
Apparently so did the southern blues players of that period. There is no dis/advantage in this but I’m glad I learned to play it upside down like Woody! Jack played it the normal way…”
—Andy Irvine, Andy’s Instruments (Dec 2013).
An Old Shirt
“Andy Irvine was one of Jack’s more notable disciples. Irvine, later the guitarist and singer of such seminal roots music groups as Patrick Street and Planxty, had been introduced to the music of Woody Gutrie through skiffle, and he breifly befreinded Elliot sometime around 1958. Elliot was a decade older than Irvine but had taken an immediate liking to the enthusiastic kid who once discreetly followed him home through the streets of london just so he could learn his address. Elliot demonstrated some of the nuances of Guthrie’s guitar methods to Irvine and even gave him the prized gift of an old shirt that had once belonged to Woody. Irvine admitted he wore that old shirt “until it fell of my back”.
—Excerpt from “Ramblin’ Jack Elliott: The Never-Ending Highway” by Hank Reineke
Around this time, I went to see Jack Elliott play a hootenanny at The Ballads and Blues Club.
Jack had traveled with Woody in the early fifties and sang Woody’s songs and told stories about Woody that thrilled me. At the end of the evening, he was surrounded by hardier souls than I and I waited until he left the club and followed himself and his wife, June, home on the train. I stalked them from train station to lodgings, made a note of the number of the house and sent a letter. Good at sending letters I was in those days!
Jack rang me a day or two later and said : “Come on over!” Little did he know what he was letting himself in for … I used to ride my bicycle over there every morning after that. I’d arrive at about 10am, bang on the door and sit on the end of the bed till they got up! Davy Graham was another frequent visitor. Jack, June and I would go out, leaving Davy to play Jack’s guitar. When we got home, Davy would be gone and Jack would be lamenting that his “goddam strings” had been new that morning!
Derroll Adams and his Belgian wife, Isabelle came over from Brussels where they were living and Jack and Derroll, who were old friends and playing partners, did some great gigs together. Derroll was much taken with my mother and he and Jack listened with interest to her stories of “treading the boards” in the Thirties.
Derroll and Isabelle went back to Belgium and Jack went off to Israel where he parted with June. She wrote me a letter, telling me this and asking me to look after Jack when he came back that spring. Jack was pretty cut up about the split when he got back to London. I went down to Waterloo station to meet him with his agent, Malcolm Nixon.
Jack seemed a bit lost without June but he wasn’t alone for too long. He used to come round to my flat with various girlfriends and we’d sit and record tapes for Woody. One evening we recorded a Woody song and Jack turned to me in amazement and said, “Andy, you sound more like Woody than I do!” As Woody had once said to Jack, “Jack you sound more like me than I do!” I felt pretty proud.
Jack showed me how to play the harmonica in Woody’s style, holding the low notes on the right hand side and ‘’sucking when the instructions tell you to blow and blowing when they tell you to suck’’.
—Andy Irvine, About Andy
Letters To Woody (1959-1960)
After locating Guthrie at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in Morristown, New Jersey, Irvine began corresponding with Sid Gleason who, with her husband Bob, would take Guthrie out of hospital and entertain him at weekends. She was the first person to call him “Andy”, and thereafter remained a conduit between him and Guthrie.
I can’t quite remember how I finally located Woody. It must have been around 1958 and he was lodged in a hospital in New Jersey with a genetic wasting disease called Huntingdon’s Chorea, which he had inherited from his mother. I sent off another letter. This time I was very excited to get an answer from a woman called Sid Gleason. She and her husband Bob had taken it upon themselves to entertain Woody at weekends. I wrote sometimes twice a week, asking questions about various aspects of Woody’s life. Woody was mentally alert and meticulous in making sure that I was given the right answers. I made plans to go over and live with the Gleasons.
The Woody Guthrie Newsletter was a mimeographed couple of sheets sent out to those interested in knowing how Woody was and what was happening with his records and songs.
I received a copy that listed a whole page full of famous names that Woody wanted to thank. I waded through Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax, Ralph Rinzler, Oscar Brand, Lionel Kilberg, Ernie Marrs, Harold Leventhal, Bill Doerflinger, Jack and June Elliott……
I think I was hoping against hope that I might see my name in there and I read through all these famous names and came to the end of it and right at the bottom it said, ‘’…And to Andy Irvine from Woody personally’’.
I was always very proud of the fact that I knew Woody…personally… if only by letter.
—Andy Irvine, About Andy
Andy’s letters to Woody are catalogued in “S2 Box 2 – Folders 01/02/03 (1959-1960)” at The Woody Guthrie Centre
S2 Box 2 – Folder 01
S2 Box 2 – Folder 02
S2 Box 2 – Folder 03
Andy Dreams of Hard Travelin’ (1959-1961)
The Gleason’s got me a job at a petrol station in East Orange, New Jersey, but then I got invited on to the BBC Radio Rep and couldn’t get out of it. I did that for a couple of years and grew out of the desire to be a petrol pump attendant at East Orange, New Jersey.
—Andy Irvine, The Greeking of the Irish by Colin Irwin
I also met Cisco Houston that summer. I had written to him in California and he had sent me a couple of signed photos. He came over to play a few gigs after touring India with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. At the beginning of his tour I missed my great opportunity. He invited me over for tea and I was about to cycle over when I suddenly thought, “I’ll take a mandolin and I can be Woody and he can be Cisco”. Remembering that I had not practised the mandolin for a while, I sat down and played it for what I thought was about five minutes. It wasn’t, it was 40 and when I got over there, there was a message saying he’d had to go out! I’ve agonised over that missed moment ever since. I went to both his London concerts and was just a little disappointed. He never sounded like he had with Woody when he was singing alone. I met him a few times subsequently but never again had the chance to get him on his own. He seemed like a really nice person. I told him I was going to live in New Jersey near Woody and he said that I should come out to California.
One year later, Cisco died of cancer. Same day as my mother died of the same disease.
Well, I grew up pretty fast after that. I got a job on the BBC Repertory company that lasted for two years and gave up all thoughts of going to New Jersey…
—Andy Irvine, About Andy
Woody Guthrie By Andy Irvine (1968)
Tønder Folk Festival 1984 – Woody Tribute
1984 saw Andy at the Tønder Folk Festival in Denmark for a major Woody Guthrie tribute. Derroll Adams read some of Woody’s lyrics and introduced a glittering array of fellow artists, among them Odetta, Geraint Watkins, Joe Locker, Hans Theessink, Mike Whellans, Gary Richard, Allan Taylor, Hannes Wader, Holly Near, Andy Irvine, Hamish Imlach, Tom Luke, Ian MacKintosh, Davis Craig, Kieran O’Connor, Robin McKidd and Arthur Kitchener.
Never Tire Of The Road (1991)
In 1991, Irvine wrote his tribute song to Woody Guthrie: “Never Tire of the Road”, first released on the solo album Rude Awakening. He recorded it again for the album Rain on the Roof, released in 1996, after including another verse plus the chorus from a song Guthrie recorded in March 1944: “You Fascists Are Bound to Lose”.
“This started out as a song about my great hero, Woody Guthrie. Somewhere along the way it made a slight diversion and took in the early days of the “Wobblies” (Industrial Workers of the World) who followed the harvest in the Western States of America and, I suppose, just about anybody who finds themselves with a job of Hard Travelling.”
In a 2000 interview, Irvine stated: “I never met Woody, but I corresponded with him in hospital. […] The kind of values that Woody represented are one of my great passions.”
I was just a smalltime country boy
When I left that dusty town…(more)
Alternative Last Verse
Andy has often sang an alternative last verse to this song which directly mentions Woody:
“Don’t let them ever fool you or take you by surprise
That dirty smell of the politician and the man with the greed in his eyes
Woody might be dead & gone
But the words he wrote they still live on
May his spirit ever shine upon
The cause that never dies”
The Woody 100 Concert (2012)
Billy Bragg & Andy Irvine performed “The Woody 100 Legacy Show” at Vicar Street, Dublin – Monday 17th September 2012.
Andy wrote on of the event at the time in his online journal:
“I’m very flattered to have been asked to share the bill with Billy Bragg for the Woody 100 Concert in Vicar Street, Dublin on 17th September.
Having been a devotee of Woody Guthrie’s since the age of 15, it’s a great chance for me to re-learn the songs that I used to play way back when!
I recently located my old Gibson L0 guitar. It was in the shed where it has been languishing for some years.
I used to be able to do a pretty good impression of Woody’s guitar playing. Hope I can get it all back!
Playing 6 single strings instead of the bouzouki’s 4 double strings presents a few problems – it’s amazing the way the single string of a guitar is ‘stopped’ by the left hand, precisely between the callouses built up by the double string of the bouzouki!! There will be roars of pain after the first couple of practices!!
Also the plectrum held in the right hand has a wider string span to cover when doing Woody’s ‘Church’ lick.
I have asked Dónal Lunny to play my set with me and I hope he has put it in his diary!! I’d better get practicing…”
—Andy’s Journals 22nd June 2012
Andy with his Gibson L0 6 guitar from his Woody days. Photo by Chris Larkin Guitars.
Possible Tribute Album
It has long been a goal of Andy’s to record a full album of Woody material as he has mentioned in interviews over the years. However, to date Andy has not found the time. Perhaps he will get there soon, it would surely be a real treat.
Andy Plays Woody
Talkin’ Dust Bowl Blues – Live At Foxrock Folk Club 1970-72 (2015) – Various Artists
The Ludlow Massacre – Prosperous (1972) Christy Moore featuring Andy Irvine
Seamen Three - Parallel Lines (1982) Dick Gaughan & Andy Irvine
The Dodgers Song - Parallel Lines (1982) Dick Gaughan & Andy Irvine
Tom Joad - No. 2 Patrick Street (1988) Patrick Street
The Ranger’s Command – Performed live but Unrecorded to Date
Buffalo Skinners - Performed live but Unrecorded to Date
Andy Sings Woody Playlist
Press and Peer Quotes
“Andy Irvine is Woody Guthrie’s representative on earth.” – Hot Press
“Woody would have been proud.” – Denver Post
“Andy Irvine is Ireland’s Woody Guthrie, with a philosopher’s ear and a prophet’s passionate voice.” – Si Kahn
“Never Tire Of The Road, the Woody Guthry tribute, is a wonderful song with such a glorious unbending spirit, it might easily have been written by the man himself!” – Colin Irvin for “Folk Roots”