Neil Woodward looks, sings, and plays like someone straight out of the 1870s. A natural-born storyteller, he’s culled a portion of his extensive repertoire from old books, sheet music, and the musical memories of people he’s encountered, but an equally important part of it comes from somewhere deep within. He expertly plays guitar, banjo, and fiddle, as well as autoharp, bass, bells, accordion, concertina, dulcimer, harmonica, mandocello, mandola, mandolin, pennywhistle, spoons, ukulele, and washboard. He sings with an appealing, wizened voice.
Woodward has performed everywhere from schoolhouses, pit orchestras, and concert stages to the courtroom where Abe Lincoln first practiced law. He’s likely the only person to have played a Jew’s harp solo at Lincoln Center, a feat he accomplished as part of the original cast of Woody Guthrie’s American Song. He’s released eight CDs. Neil is held in such high regard in his home state that the legislature passed a resolution officially declaring him “Michigan’s Troubadour.” On October 15, 2010, I met Neil at his spacious log home past the outskirts of Howell, Michigan, where we had the following conversation.
Were your ancestors musicians?
My father, Joe Woodward, was a mandolin player. He passed on in 2006 – he was 90 years old. He had scarlet fever when he was just a kid, and while he was recovering, his mom bought him this Gibson A-Model mandolin. I’ve inherited that, and it’s nice to remember him by. As near as I could tell, he never really took music seriously as far as how he was going to make his living goes, but he always loved to play and always regretted the fact that his folks couldn’t afford to get him lessons. He just learned how to play by himself and never learned any chords – a total melody guy. But he could play whatever tune you could think about singing.
Did he spark your interest in playing stringed instruments?
Yeah, I’m sure. But he was always a song leader and storyteller. At his 80th birthday party, which was a surprise, he came into the house with all this assembled masses of his friends and family. He comes into the room, and after getting over the initial shock, he goes, “Alright! Let’s everybody sing! [Sings] If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.” [Laughs.] He always was ready to break into song. He was a funny guy. Music has always been in my life. I’ve got two older sisters that were stars of the music program – vocal and instrumental music – at the schools when we were coming up. My older sister travelled around for a while, doing USO shows. My mom played piano, and she learned from her mom, my grandmother. In the early days, she was actually trying to make a living doing lessons. A couple of generations back, Charlotte, who was on my mom’s side, was the organist at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. But, yeah, everybody played, so it’s always been there. Mostly singing.
Did you transition from rock and roll into the old-time music you’re known for today, or did you come into the old-time music first?
I was exposed to the old-time music first, just the way most kids are. It wasn’t that I grew up someplace where there were a lot of old-time fiddlers or banjo pickers, but we used to sing songs like “Blue Tail Fly,” “Oh Susanna,” “Comin’ Around the Mountain” – all those old folk songs that it seemed everybody was exposed to when they were kids. Maybe not so much nowadays – a lot of kids nowadays don’t know “Home on the Range.” Part of my mission! But I took that folk music seriously as a kid. Everybody was always having so much fun. They were always enjoying each other’s company so much. It was just a fine way to pass the time, it seemed to me.
Was this in Michigan?
Yeah. I grew up in Dearborn [a suburb of Detroit]. I was doing folk music when I first started playing. I played coffeehouses as a solo, and we also had bands since when I was in junior high. The first band I was in was kind of like a Peter, Paul & Mary trio, when I’d learned my first three chords. I was playing a gut-string guitar, and it was just cool to have a band in those days. We got together with a few people and started expanding. The girl singer didn’t join our rock band, because they didn’t do that in those days. We put a band together that was drawn more toward harmony singing – folk-rock stuff, like Byrd covers and Beatles tunes. All the rest of the bands in those days were playing “Shake a Tail Feather” – it was all these white kids trying to play soul music. To me, it was pretty rough, especially when you could hear the real thing down the street. [Laughs.]
Those were interesting times, because it seemed like we were just hearing everything. There was a great record store, Dearborn Music, and we’d go there on the day when the new records came in. I was hearing all kinds of stuff – I wasn’t seeking out one particular thing. There were records by Mississippi John Hurt coming out, and English bands like the Yardbirds. Some of that inspired us to put the larger band together. I went to Edsel Ford High School, and we had a five-piece through those years. Seems like by the time I got through high school, I was lost in the blues. A lot of the English bands that were coming out were turning us on to the fact that we had some pretty amazing live players that we were not hearing on our own radio stations. There was a little bit of lull there before people like Muddy Waters started showing up at the Grande Ballroom. By the late ’60s I was seeing John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters.
When was the first time you made a record?
That actually came out? It didn’t have a huge distribution [laughs], but it did come out. This was while we were in high school, about ’68 or ’69, and the band was called the Dominant Fifth. It was getting pretty psychedelic back then. We were on one side of a 45, and the other side of the 45 was actually some other cats in the neighborhood who put out a great song called “Madness Reigns.” It’s kind of hard to describe, but it was a cool piece with special effects. The one that we played on was an old vaudeville song that our keyboard player had dug up some sheet music for somewhere, called “When Erastus Plays His Old Kazoo.” [Laughs and sings the song.] In those days, there was all kinds of stuff coming out all at once – it wasn’t like one style of music at all. In Detroit, you could hear all kinds of stuff, and top-notch quality.
What we were doing in high school evolved into playing blues, because we were digging up the original records that these English guys were covering. Those were guitar-band days, and long extended jams were starting up. That was probably my start back to roots music. When I got out of high school, there were actually bands getting signed from Detroit, and there were A&R guys from big record companies at concerts. We were just thinking that if we could keep a band together for a few months, we could go out and play someplace and somebody’s gonna hear us and give us a recording contract. Of course, that didn’t happen. [Laughs.] I started doing other kinds of jobs, and I thought, “Boy, if there’s any way I can be doing music instead of this janitor gig!” So we tried to have a band that could play regularly, book some bars. We needed to do that kind of stuff five, six days a week, so we started doing more cover songs and throwing in some originals. The purpose was keep the dance floor filled up, but the high point of the evening was the extended jams. In those days, people would stay on the dance floor when bands did that kind of stuff. It was a real good memory, one of those moments when everything just came together.
I remember playing with a band called Swiftkick at the Studio Lounge in Livonia. We were doing “The Wind” by Circus Maximus. It was a big hit on underground radio, and this beautiful guitar solo came out of this moment. It must have lasted about ten minutes and certainly transcended the moment for me. There was a lot of feedback. When I got through with this thing, I opened my eyes again and everybody on the dance floor was standing there with their mouths open. That was fun. Those were guitar-hero days, so I got a little bit of that. We actually held that band together for a few years and played pubs around the Detroit area in the early ’70s. It eventually started falling apart, and in the interest of staying working, we scaled it down to a two-piece. It turned into just me and the bass player, and we continued to book folk places and restaurants. We were playing six or seven nights a week. We went acoustic and were playing Dave Mason and Simon & Garfunkel kind of things, relying heavily on the vocal harmonies. Eventually, I went back to playing solo. I’d never really stopped playing solo, but the band was my focus.
Roots material always interested me, but I got sidetracked by having to earn a living. Playing things like blues, I was trying to find an identity in all this. It had definitely been occurring to me, from the days when we were listening to local greasers trying to do soul music, which just didn’t seem real; it didn’t seem like there was authority in the performance. And that was one thing I could always sense I was lacking in my own playing. I was having fun playing the blues, but for the audience, I think the person has to have a slightly different experience in their life than the way I came up to really understand what that was all about and be able to put it across. There’s a whole vocabulary that comes out that’s really at the base of a whole lot of what I do.
It’s the same thing with a lot of the Appalachian stuff: I’m not an Appalachian fiddler, but that sound, those techniques, those tunes – they’re stuff I’ve been listening to all my life. So going back and trying to present all of that, I’ve always been looking for more local stuff and just roots. How far down can you get with this? Where does this all come from? There was obviously Michigan music happening all round us, and people were doing original songs and new things. But as far as older stuff goes, I hadn’t figured out that any of that music was out there, because I’d never heard any of it. There were a few folk singers around, and one of those songs would sneak into their repertoire every now and then, so I started to hear a little bit of something like “Red Iron Ore,” a Great Lakes seafaring song.
Gordon Lightfoot put out one of those songs too.
Oh, yeah. His “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” is a good example. We were always listening to Gordon Lightfoot and covering some of his stuff. What an anomaly that song was. It’s like a six-minute tune that’s a traditional ballad in every sense of the word. Everybody knows that song now – it’s kind of amazing – and knows that story. That right there tells you it’s possible to do that kind of music for audiences. I’m not sure that that gave me any impetus or strength to do it, but sometimes I wonder about some of the material I’m presenting and how people can sit through it, given the length of some of these tunes and how thick the language is in some of the stories. Anyways, I started to get some work where people wanted to feature Michigan stories. One thing leads to another, and I started finding a piece here and a piece there. In the mid 1980s, somebody gave me a book of Michigan lumberjack songs and tales. It’s called They Knew Paul Bunyan.
You knew how to read music?
I’d learned how to read music when I was just a little kid, in the school band program when I was in third grade. They wanted to start me early because of my star sisters. They figured I’d be an asset to the orchestra, so they got me started. I never really used it much, though, because what they had us playing in elementary school was simple enough that you didn’t have to read it if you heard it. If you had a musical sense and knew how to play your instrument, you could play it. So in the early days when I was playing in the orchestra, I never really read the music. So I had the basic skills, but I had to go back and really figure out how to do it, especially with the stringed instruments. I think I got my reading chops up when I found my first book of fiddle tunes. It was called 1000 Fiddle Tunes, but the book is known as Cole’s – M.M. Cole is the publisher.
Would you learn songs on the fiddle and transfer them to other instruments?
At that time, I hadn’t started playing fiddle yet. I was flirting with it, procrastinating, because I sounded so terrible. [Laughs.] But that’s where I started getting my reading chops up – that, and I was trying to teach some lessons, so I had to get it together for that. I was playing those tunes on guitar, on mandolin. I was just trying to get to the point where I could fluently reproduce something that was on the page and have it sound like music when it comes out. But you’re not really good at that unless you do it all the time. So I’ve always been able to hack something out if I’ve got a chart on it.
That definitely occurs to me on a regular basis, actually. [Laughs.] I’m pretty woefully out of touch with stuff that’s pop music nowadays. One thing that’s fun about having students is occasionally somebody will try to keep me up to date. But mostly I have students coming to me because they want to learn the real old stuff.
What instruments do you teach?
Pretty much whatever I can find students for. I teach out at Elderly Instruments in Lansing. When I first started teaching out there, my first five students were on five different instruments. I’m so thankful I have so much flexibility to do stuff like go play in that pit orchestra or get that teaching gig at Elderly, because they already had guitar teachers. They already had a banjo teacher. Most of my students right now are on 5-string banjo and fiddle.
Among the various instruments you play, are any closest to your heart?
Yeah and no. It’s become sort of like one big picture to me. I really like playing certain pieces and certain styles of pieces on certain instruments. It kind of comes and goes with what I enjoy doing at that particular time, because I enjoy all of it. How much time I spend on an instrument depends on things like whether I have a gig to do at that time.
Any idea how large your repertoire is?
That’s a good question. It’s all over the place. I’ve forgotten a lot of the popular stuff I used to do – the whole repertoire you still hear soloists playing in a restaurant, like Jim Croce tunes and Crosby, Stills & Nash. There are probably radio stations that are covering all these same songs that we were doing when they were brand new. But I’ve forgotten most of those. I can still play them, but I don’t have the lyric sense I used to, because I’ve tried to remember these old ballads that have a billion verses [laughs].
What are your favorite tunes to play?
Boy, that’s a good question. [Long pause.] That would probably change from day to day and week to week. There are really a whole bunch of them. Vive la difference! You ask about preferences on instruments – geez, I’d hate to leave any of them, and I’d like to add some more, but I don’t know how much more I’m gonna get around to. At this point, I’m just trying to figure out how to keep it together and play the ones I play now. All of them are really dear. For me, it comes down a lot of times to the stories, and that’s the same thing that got me more into Michigan music. They’re just great stories to be told, and the piece that I would want to play at any particular time would have more to do with the audience and less with what I felt like doing.
What would you play for a group of grade-schoolers?
I always try to give them something that they can sing a little bit on, something that tells a good story. I like demonstrating different instruments to grade-schoolers. I like to try to tie in the historical pieces to their studies. So if they’re studying the lumbering era or something like that, it’s nice to have some lumberjack songs because that brings the whole thing alive.
I’ve got some pieces that are real, real old. Probably the majority of my stuff is from the middle 1800s to the early 20th century.
So it’s really pre-blues and pre-jazz music.
Yeah. You know, I love where all that’s gone, but the stuff that I really got interested in was where it came from. There was a point where all of this was less divided into this style of music or that style of music. And if you take it back far enough, those genre distinctions aren’t there so much. So many distinctions have been made over the years that were just not an issue, like, what kind of music is this? The question of black people and white people playing together, for instance – there was a time when that never mattered to musicians. It just mattered when they started to have to go out and start playing for people at gigs.
Were you influenced by Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary?
I was really appreciative of it. They really did a nice job with that soundtrack.
Why haven’t you gone Hollywood? It’s pretty clear you could be a studio musician or even be cast in the movies.
I’m just not that ambitious. I’ve been very blessed – I like being at home. Being born under the sign of the crab might have something to do with that – who knows? I’ve always been fortunate enough to make a living. I’ve played New York City and that kind of thing, but it’s always just made me want to go home. It made me really appreciate the fact that I’m here. We were talking about the Detroit area – it’s gotten a little grim, but there have always been places to play. I’ve lived around here all my life, for the most part. We did a stint in Arizona for a while. My wife spent her high school years and a few years after that in Phoenix. She moved up here to be with me in the mid ’70s, and we moved out there for a little while. That was interesting staying out in Arizona, because I’d never been exposed much to country pop music. When I tried to get a band out there, that’s what everybody was doing.
If I were your producer, I’d try to talk you into doing a recording of the songs from those 1924 country sessions in Bristol, Tennessee.
I love that kind of stuff. There’s so much to learn there, so much to reflect upon. People who came up there to do those sessions were obviously hoping that something would come of it – that they’d get a radio program or something. I’ve been listening to a lot of Mainer’s Mountaineers lately. Wade Mainer is 103 years old and lives up in Flint. He’s one of the boys from North Carolina, from one of these cotton-mill towns. Wade had radio shows with his brother in the early ’30s. Their first recording sessions were 1935, Mainer’s Mountaineers. J.E. Mainer is his older brother. A lot of his stuff came out on Blue Bird. And he still picks pretty good banjo. He’s a really sweet guy. Dick Spottswood just put out a book on him, and they did a book signing at Elderly Instruments. I was amazed that Wade and Julie came out. The last time I talked to Julie, she was saying, “We don’t get out too much.” I played at Wade’s 102nd birthday party. This guy has been an amazing person to know. He picks a two-finger style of banjo that nobody else plays. JSP put out a box set of music called J.E. Mainer – The Early Years. That’s got a bunch of Wade playing with Zeke Morris, and also playing in his brother’s band. But he split off from his brother’s band and had his own Sons of the Mountaineers for a while.
If you could go back in time to see any musical events, what would you like to see?
That’s a really good question. There are so many things. It’d be very interesting to see some of the early minstrel shows, the very early days of the banjo. People doing blackface would not necessarily be the draw, but it’s just so bizarre that people would start doing what they were doing in those days. That was the main form of entertainment in America for eighty years. So that would be interesting, but I don’t know if it’d be the ultimate destination. It’d be very interesting to hear the court orchestras from the Renaissance period – to hear what people were playing in the countryside and what was going on in castles. And the very early days of classical music. I have this theory – and I think it’s pretty well historically correct – that most of the repertoire of the early classical pieces was reworked folk music. The classical settings in the very early days were things that were fancy workups of music the peasants were playing on much-less fancy instruments. So I’d really like to be able to hear all of that, but none of that’s on recordings. In the United States, there was so much going on with these cotton-mill guys. I mean, what the heck was going on in North Carolina? Why did all these great musicians and all this great music come out of there? Again, there was all kinds of music. And sheesh, New Orleans! I’d like to see the early days of jazz.
When you perform, do you typically tell the story of the song?
Typically, yeah. Without getting too long-winded. I’ve gotten a lot of nice response from people who actually enjoy my long-winded introductions. [Laughs.] But there are a lot of people who don’t go for that kind of stuff. So much of it is antiquated material that it’s almost like you have to set it up because people’s experiences are so different from what’s going on in the song.
That’s basically about telling the story, and it seems like with most of the songs I perform, that’s what I do.
How did you happen to be named Michigan’s Troubadour?
That happened in 2003 through a resolution in the state House of Representatives. It was introduced in the state Senate as well, but it was so fractious that they couldn’t get it together with the Democrats and Republicans because it was something that a Democrat had introduced in the Senate. It got tabled there. But anyways, in the House of Representatives it was introduced by Joe Hune, our local state representative. Another guy, a Deadhead who used to take guitar lessons from me and became head of the Livingston County Republican Party, said, “Of course, he should be Michigan’s Troubadour!” I wasn’t there, but as I understand it, he had a little bit to do with pushing it on through. It was in the middle of negotiations on the state budget, so these people were all wrung out. On one of the breaks, apparently this bill came up, somebody took my Old Timers CD, and they played something from it while they were voting on it. It’s an interesting image for me to consider: This legislative body that’s in the middle of these important negotiations where they’ve all been whacking at each other sit down and vote on this thing while “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” is playing. It must have been an interesting moment. So it’s an official recognition of an unofficial title.
For more Neil
Neil Woodward’s most popular CDs are Michigan-i-a, a collection of Great Lakes folk songs, and Old Timers, which blends 19th-century songs of loggers, sailors, soldiers, and immigrants with the more-familiar “Bonapart’s Retreat” and “The Big Rock Candy Mountain.” Both are on Black Dog Records and feature Neil’s scholarly liner notes. Another highlight of his catalog, Warm Winter Night, was recorded live at The Ark in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with backing from Cats and the Fiddler. It features many of his original songs, as do his earlier albums Dog Songs and Other Distractions, Life Love & Food Songs, In the Year of the Dog, and Peace Troubles. His collection of railroad songs, Way of the Rail, features a bonus track, “The Fishin’ Blues (The Big Rock Candy Mountain),” recorded on a wax cylinder machine. Neil’s CDs can be purchased online through Elderly Instruments (http://elderly.com/recordings/artist_list_full_description?aname=Woodward%2C%20Neil), as well as via mail order through his website www.neilwoodward.com. A few of his songs are available on iTunes and CDBaby.
Neil Woodward photos by Jas Obrecht.
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© 2010 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This interview may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.