Neil Woodward: Michigan’s Troubadour
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.
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.
How did you transition into the kind of music you’re known for today?
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
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
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.
Onstage, you seem like someone who actually stepped right out of the 1870s. Have
you ever felt like you’re living in the wrong century?
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
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.
How far back does your repertoire go?
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
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
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.
Do you consider yourself a troubadour?
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 and CDBaby.