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Brother, Can You Spare a Song?


Even if you don't have much money, you can sing about it.

A new collection from Smithsonian Folkways, called If You Ain't Got the Do-Re-Mi, brings together performances by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Leadbelly and other artists. The simple theme: money — fortunes made, fortunes lost and fortunes desired.

Produced with the Museum of American Finance History, the collection, subtitled Songs of Rags and Riches, includes many tunes lamenting empty pockets, and being down and out.

But the wealthy aren't totally neglected — they get an instrumental nod in "Wall Street Rag," written in 1909.

A highlight includes Woody Guthrie's song "Union Maid," performed by his old friend Pete Seeger as part of the Almanac Singers.

Jeff Place, an archivist at the Smithsonian Institution who helped compile the CD, says Guthrie wrote the song after a special request.

"Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie were traveling around the United States together back in the '40s and they made it out as far as Oklahoma," Place says. "They went to a union rally and one of the women there came up to them and said, 'Why are you guys always singing about men? Are there any good songs about us union women?'

"And so Woody kind of took an old fiddle tune called 'Red Wing' and put some new words to it and crafted out 'Union Maid,'" Place says.

Place says he tried not to put too many union songs in the collection.

"I also was trying to keep more towards ... some pro-capitalist and some middle-of-the-road things and some of the ones where the people are the have-nots," he says. "But we really relied on what was in the Smithsonian Folklife collections, and being the Folklife Collections you tend to have more roots kind of groups — people who don't have money or struggling artists more than people who have money."

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