The Song Train
FAQ    Contact    Home

Interview About The Song Train

This is the complete unedited & unpublished interview with Harvey Reid & reporter Bob Keyes of the Maine Sunday Telegram that led to the March 2008 article.

How did you learn to play the guitar? By listening? By book? By observing?

I had no relatives, friends or neighbors who played guitar. I had never seen anyone play one when I started. As I look back at it now, I was able to get going playing music because when I stumbled onto a guitar and a simple songbook when I was 13 or so, I was already familiar with many of the songs in this book. It showed me the words and chords. I had the tunes and many of the words in my head. You can't learn a song from a book unless you either know the song already, or unless you read music. When I looked at the simple songs in this book, I had already heard Burl Ives sing "Aunt Rhody", the Kingston Trio do "Tom Dooley," the Beach Boys great version of "Sloop John B", Judy Collins' big hit "Amazing Grace," Peter Paul & Mary's "Rock My Soul" and so on. This is the hardest part for people to understand why we made the Song Train. If you have not been exposed to a song, it does not exist in your world. Teaching people music using songs that don't even exist for them is almost impossible, and before you can show them how to play the song, you have to make them aware of the song, and make them like it and want to play it. That's what The Song Train is trying to do, but we are not speaking to people like their music teacher, but as musicians who know and like these songs, and play them "for real." That's why we used the metaphor of the train, since we like the idea that to play a song, you sort of jump on board something that is already happening.

Starting in the 1930's, there was a lot of effort put into trying to expose American school children to American folk songs, and to a large extent it worked. People who were in public school between 1940 and 1975 or so got exposed to at least some songs this way, and the rest of their lives those songs are in their heads. We now can see with hindsight that they might not have been the best songs America had to offer, but they allowed there to be some musical common ground among people, beyond what the pop charts offered. With school budget cuts and music now almost gone from public schools, young people are essentially not systematically exposed to common folk songs, which are the only ones that are legal to put in books and teaching materials. And importantly, because of my place in history I was exposed to real artists singing those simple songs. Artists like Pete Seeger, Burl Ives and Peter Paul & Mary were quite famous in their time. As far as I can tell, "House of the Rising Sun" in 1964 was the last folk song to reach #1, and that was 44 years ago now.

I had immediate success bringing music to life with simple chords and sangs I liked and knew. That is the fundamental realization that led to The Song Train. If people have not heard an accessible, musical version of a song either on record or from someone in their life, they cannot absorb that song from an instruction book. Books are essentially useless for learning music unless you already have heard the music and "know how it goes."

When and how did you get into this book/CD project? Is this something you've been picking away for some time, or did it come quickly? I imagine you've been thinking about it for years.

The fact that Joyce and I have a 2 year old boy who is showing interest in music clearly sparked this whole thing. I learned "John Henry" when I was a toddler from a Josh White record, and I still love that song, and our little boy loves it and knows a lot of the words already. We wondered why kids can't just learn some songs at the beginning that will serve them their whole life. Why should kids learn songs and then never need or want them again? Our little boy Otto loves Doc Watson and Mike Seeger, and JJ Cale. So do we.

I wrote the first college textbook for folk guitar over 25 years ago, and have not done any teaching since then. I have been wondering for a long time how and when I was going to get re-involved in music education. I already knew most of the songs in The Song Train, but it took a full year of hard work to pull all the research and recordings and everything together. In many ways, it is the culmination of many things that go back to my beginnings in music. Another spark that got the whole thing going was a phone call I got from a guy who had bought my guitar textbook, and wanted a CD to go with it. It hit me like a brick that I assumed that people "knew" songs like "On Top of Old Smoky" and the kinds of un-copyrighted songs you always see in instruction books. I had tried to put Gordon Lightfoot , John Prine, and Bob Dylan songs in my textbook, but was refused permission by their owners.

You can no longer assume that anyone knows any song any more except "Happy Birthday" and that is copyrighted. My friends who teach guitar tell me this, and I did some research and read some PhD theses on the subject and it is just amazing. The fact that people don't hear traditional folk songs much anymore, combined with the fact that most of the songs people know and want to play are owned by somebody, and can't be put into a book, make teaching music really hard. The songs it is legal to put in the book are the songs people don't know and aren't motivated to learn. With the 50's and 60's folk boom thing now 50 years old, it's almost unthinkable to turn on a TV and see a famous and cool person playing a simple traditional song. "Tom Dooley" is 2 chord song, and was the #1 song in the world in 1961. It sold 6 million records, and launched untold numbers of boomers who were trying to play guitar.

Talk a little bit about the learning curve between two- and three-chord songs. Why is it so steep?

It's actually not easy to switch guitar chords in the middle of a song without dropping the song. It takes adult beginners months usually to get a performable song going. Anything that makes it easier and more manageable is useful. The 2-chord "filter" we used was a way to distill down the enormity of music to a small group of manageable songs, and it still amazes us that the resulting body of songs is so diverse and alive and interesting. In a 2-chord song you always know what the next chord is, and it encourages you to not use your rational brain to play the songs intellectually, but to be more intuitive and impulsive, whch is the way music should be.

You have a line in the book that resonates with me: "Music is still being spread around, but it is driven by market rather than cultural forces, and dominated by the large entertainment corporations whose sole interest is money-making." That single sentence says so much about the state of our society these days, it's almost mind-boggling. The long-term effect of that reality scares me.

It's odd that something as beloved and universal as music is so neglected by organized forms of education. It's probably because there are so many kinds of music and musical tastes, and the way you teach a truck driver who wants to play Johnny Cash songs is not the same way you train someone to play in an orchestra. And of course the issue of copyrights is huge. School music programs are driven by the need to include a lot of kids, so bands & orchestras are pretty much all you see. It takes too much manpower to teach each kid to play solo guitar, for example.

A sensible person would think that whatever information is needed to get people going playing basic music would be readily available. There is no "benevolent hand" that is making sure that American people get exposed to the music that is best for them. It's very hard to explain why schools, government and corporate business have collectively failed to put together something that resembles a "basic course" in beginning folk music, since that is the most common and accessible form of music. Believe me, if there were something out there that I approved of, I would rather use it than to have worked for a whole year and risked my whole life savings making this project. It is clear to me that if the music is going to be passed on in our culture, somebody has to take an initiative to do it right, and the musicians themselves are the logical place where it should originate. We understand it better than anyone. It sounds impossible, but almost without exception, the authors of evey single "how to play basic guitar" instruction book or video out there have almost no real credentials either as musicians or as educators.

We did The Song Train as musicians, not teachers, and it is intended to be educational but not really instructional.We wanted people to have something that gave them songs, as well as encouragment, correct information, and some dignity. People are fixing their houses, gardening and cooking and skiiing without lessons and discipline, and there is no reason why millions of people couldn't bang out some songs at their barbecues as well as make their own salad dressings. What surprises me is that no one tought to do this before. Real musicians taking easy songs seriously. If Willie Nelson or Bob Dylan had done something like this, where they sang their versions of a bunch of the songs on the Song Train, it would have been wildly successful. We were afraid that someone famous was going to release something like this before we got finished. Chefs and golfers all sell instructional stuff, but famous musicians dont' seem to be interested in helping average people learn to play.

I saw an interview with Merle Haggard the other day, in which he lamented the loss of music with each evolving medium. When we went from the old cylinder records to flat vinyl, a certain number of tunes got lost. When we went from vinyl to CD, songs got lost. And now that we've transitioned from CD to digital, another batch of songs are lost.

There really are very few cultural forces at work that resemble they way they have always worked. We've lost our local stories, and kids learn the plots of TV shows and Disney movies instead of their local folklore. Somewhere during my lifetime, the music industry changed from simply "photographing" what musicians were already doing, to something that created and staged and manipulated the whole thing. And along with that, the thing that bothers me the most is that is is now rare to hear a recording that is just musicians playing music. It is almost all pieced together, and a person who hears it cannot relate it to a human activity. We want our child to hear a great singer sing, and to hear a good piano player play the piano, and so on. What does it encourage or teach to hear a computer drum beat and a bunch of weird rhythmic sounds that no one is actually even doing for real? I don't mind that we have lost specific songs, because they are not really lost, just "on hold" till somebody starts playing them again. But what I fear is that we might lose the idea of a person simply playing a song. I would guess that a kid with 1000 songs on their iPod might easily not have a single song on there that was just a live recording of a single person playing a song from beinnging to end. How can you teach people to do something that they have barely ever even experienced? And how did the world get so off-track that we think breast-feeing is abnormal, we dont know what milk or butter tastes like that comes right out of a cow (unpasteurized), we have never eaten a hamburger without antibiotics, and we have never even seen anybody play a fiddle tune? How did things that were always so widespread and so normal get so lost?

My point: The value of this project -- beyond motivating people to learn and creating community -- is preserving these songs in a medium that might have some staying power. This is almost a public service that you've performed here. My question, I guess, is whether that notion entered your thinking.

I have thought these things about music education for years, but until now I have never been sure what I could do to help. "The Song Train" has the power to show people what old-fashioned human music sounds like, and to demystify it and show them how they can do it themselves. It's hugely satisfying to play home-made music. I am working on trying to explain to young people how the time they spend on video games and software will not have that much value to them in 5, 10 or 40 years-- think of the things we learned about our first cell phone that no longer apply to our 2nd cell phone. But when you learn to play an instrument, those skills and that knowledge will have value as long as you live. Learn a tune on the banjo, and 40 years later it is still a tune on the banjo. There are fewer and fewer things that work like that. And as I tried to explain in one of the essays in the book, the act of hitting strings of an instrument with your hands is so different and so much more satisfying than pushing buttons or clicking a mouse to produce electronic musical sounds.

Do you see this project as the '00 version of the great folk music book "Rise Up Singing," which so many of us grew up with?

It's a different animal, but the same basic idea-- to spread music around among the people. Rise Up Singing only helps you if you already are familiar with the song. "The Song Train" tries to back up one step and expose you to the song itself. As folk musicians who work in this tiny corner of the music business, where we are aware that most people don't even like our kind of music, we are somewhat daunted by realizing that The Song Train has an audience thousands of times larger than anything we have ever done. We are startled by the response we are getting from this. People are buying them by the handfuls at our shows and in the few stores that have them. We know how to tell our fans when we make a new record, but we have no idea how to get the word out about what we have done here.

How important was the historical aspect of this project? By that I mean, you read the book you learn a lot about American musical history. There's a whole provenance with each song. My God, how long did that take you to do?

It was 8 hrs and more every day for a year to put this all together. My goal was to "sell" each song to people and we thought that it would help people if they understood what the song was and where it came from. Don't just take it from me that it is a good song. Take a look at the list of artists who have recorded the song. It's easy to look at a song like "Baby Please Don't Go" that is in the Song Train, and maybe my version of it is not enough to make you flip out over it and want to learn it. But if you glance at the list of artists that have recorded it, it's staggering. AC/DC, Aerosmith, Bill Wyman, Dwight Yoakam, John Hammond, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Dion, Mose Allison, Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker, Ted Nugent, Sonny Terry, Eric Andersen, Al Kooper, John Lennon, John Mellencamp, Van Morrison, Ten Years After, Paul Revere & The Raiders, Paul Butterfield, Clifton Chenier, Big Mama Thornton, Amboy Dukes, Cowboy Junkies, etc.... And now with the internet, you can go listen to most of those at 3AM if you want to. I wanted to tell people whatever I could about the songs to make them interesting and engaging and alive, and make them aware that when they sing a song, they are also communing somehow with the other people who also like and sing that song. Nobody sings "Clementine" in concert except so-called "children's" performers. Nobody performs "The Beat Goes On" by Sonny & Cher (which is a 1-chord song we decided not to include) so we did not include those songs. We were after living songs that seemed to have established themselves in the culture.

I love the fact that you include tunes like "Changed the Locks" alongside Lefty's "I Love You 1,000 Ways." Why was it important that you look in all genres and not focus strictly on country or folk. Do you see these songs all fitting in the Americana category?

We were only wanting to be as inclusive as possible. And Joyce is a huge fan of Lucinda Williams, as well as Lefty Frizzell. I actually feel bad that we did not include any punk songs, since that music has a lot in common with folk music, and from what I can see the spirit of music-making is strong in that world, and it derives from real music played by humans, and minimal technique. Actually "Shake Your Hips", which is in The Song Train, was done by an important punk band. We hope that people don't just see The Song Train as a folk music thing. There are quite a number of rock songs in it, but we do them with just one guitar.

I love the fact that Ramblin Jack checks with nine tunes from The Song Train. That says something good, methinks.

You're among the first to notice page 79 on the bottom. I made that list of artists after the project was all done, and yes, the list of artists who have recorded more than 4 songs on this collection is amazing; Doc Watson, Willie Nelson, EmmyLou Harris, Ralph Stanley, etc. It was reassuring.

Tell me about the title for this package, The Song Train. What do you want it to convey to people? It works on multiple levels.

We wanted it to have a name that was not "instructional", that they could remember, and the kinetic image of a train going past that you jump on board was perfect. The train is so embedded in the imagery of American music that it is better than plane or automobile, and the word train of course has meaning in education. I truly believe that when you play a song,you don't create it, but you join in with the song that is playing somewhere out there. It's a good image for someone to have of how you make a song happen.


© 2007-2017 by Woodpecker Multimedia