I got my love of narrative and my awareness of social justice very early in life, from my father’s vast repertory of American folk songs.
My dad, Joe Browdy, learned guitar as a teenager in the 1950s, taking his inspiration from the great folk singers of the time, like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Odetta, Cisco Houston, The Weavers and the New Lost City Ramblers. He developed his repertoire while working as the music counselor at the camp where he and my mother met, and he continued to sing and play guitar for audiences while he earned his B.A. in history at Oberlin, and his law degree at NYU.
Some of my earliest memories are sitting with a group of relaxed, happy people by a crackling bonfire listening to my dad belting out his signature songs, with everyone joining in on the chorus. Although there were some special children’s songs in his repertoire, he didn’t censor his songbook for me and my brother: we learned about the tragedies and the murders, the drunkenness and the fighting, wars, poverty and injustice, making sense of it as best we could over years of repetition.
Although he got busy with his law practice around the time that I was born, my dad never stopped singing. On Friday nights we’d get into the car around 8 p.m. for the two and a half hour ride to our country house in Hillsdale, N.Y., and to keep himself awake my dad would start singing, my mom adding her sweet tones in harmony on the chorus, my brother and I joining in sleepily when we knew the words. On Saturday nights all through my childhood, our entertainment was to build a fire after dinner—outside in the summer, in the living room in the winter—and sit around it for a few hours, my dad leading us in the familiar songs that took us traveling far and wide in time, space, and experience.
The folk song tradition is a living oral history, passed from one generation to the next. As soon as we could, my brother and I learned how to play guitar, and the words and tunes of those old songs now live on in us, and in our children who are learning them too. With folk music, it’s not about the perfection of the sound, or the accuracy of the lyrics: it’s about the interest of the stories being told through music, and the emotion with which they’re conveyed.
My father has the ability to make the songs he loves come alive through the heartfelt nature of his singing and playing—getting slow and quiet for the tragic love songs, letting it rip and roar on the fighting union songs, modulating into a plaintive tone for his signature delivery of “One Meatball,” about a poor man who is sneered at by the waiter because all he can afford to buy is a single meatball for his dinner. When my dad plays guitar, he’s not just singing some songs, he’s taking us on a journey through the American spirit.
Dad’s repertoire includes cowboy songs, songs about the laying of the train tracks across the West, and songs about the building of dams across mighty American rivers. There are feisty union songs from the 1920s and 30s; songs inveighing against the greed of bankers and bosses, and lamenting the hardships faced by miners, factory workers and farm hands. There are stirring political songs, about the founding of the United Nations, or the dream of world peace.
There are work songs from the African American South, about picking cotton or working on a train line, and older songs from the slave times, about dreaming of freedom, and making a break for it. There are songs—some sad, some funny—about traveling around the country during the Dust Bowl refugee time.
There are many love songs, most of them mournful, bluesy songs about loves lost to drowning, train accidents, or just never heard from again. But there are also some sweet romantic ballads about lifelong happiness spent by the side of one’s beloved. The songs never fail to come alive when my dad adds his voice and driving guitar to the mix.
These days, my dad sings for the public most often with the Berkshire Ramblers, led by his old friends Alan and Roselle Chartock, and joined by a varying cast of other folk musicians. But I still like it best when we sing together around a fire, not for an audience but just for our own amusement and delight. This Father’s Day, I want to thank my dad for sharing this powerful, inspiring musical legacy with me, and so many others. May the circle be unbroken!
When the union’s inspiration through the workers’ blood shall run
There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun
Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one
For the union makes us strong.
Solidarity forever, solidarity forever, solidarity forever
For the union makes us strong.