If you remember that worn little hardbound book of folk songs from grade school music classes, you are in good company. Singer/songwriter Suzy Bogguss got to thinking about that imagination-driving book from childhood, and decided to revive it.
She revisited those songs -- and not just in album form. She thought a companion book of sheet music and back stories was the way to familiarize young people with their own American folk music.
"The concept for this started when I was on tour with Garrison Keillor," Bogguss said, calling from her Nashville, Tenn., home. She toured a couple of summers ago with Keillor's public radio show, "Prairie Home Companion."
"We were doing some pretty big fairs, and at intermission came the singalong. He (Keillor) never left the stage for three hours. Fascinating to watch. He got everyone up stretching, and then he would lead these singalongs with Beatles' songs and all kinds of stuff. But every time he brought up one of these old folk songs, everyone who was 30 or younger had the deer-in-the-headlights look -- they didn't know the songs."
It made her remember how she learned the songs herself, from that grade school songbook.
"That book was my ticket to really think about faraway places -- 'The Erie Canal,' all these songs that made me think of places nothing like my hometown. That sort of got my mind wandering."
The end result was the album and companion book "American Folk Songbook," released in 2011. On June 29, she brings those tunes, and other Bogguss favorites, to the Ogden Amphitheater for a show to raise funds for Ogden-based Enable Industries, an organization that helps prepare those with disabilities, through work training, to achieve their maximum independence.
An illustrated album
Bogguss ended up striking a deal with Cracker Barrel to do a CD for the restaurant chain's gift shops.
"We got to talking with the marketing people at Cracker Barrel and they'd say things like, 'Gosh, my kid's got a guitar but can't play anything. They hammer on it but don't know any songs.' And that's when I went, 'We need a book, too.' "
Once Bogguss committed to doing the project, she had to figure out how to go about it. Her husband, musician and songwriter Doug Crider, helped with some of the nuts and bolts writing and transcribing aspects of the project.
"I am no great historian," said Bogguss. "I never wrote a book before this. And I've never done something before where I could be held accountable for the truth. It was daunting."
As many of the songs, such as "Shady Grove" and "Red River Valley," have no confirmed authors, Bogguss often had to follow the recordings and sheet music back through history to get as close to the source as she could.
"I sometimes found completely contradictory stories as to where these songs came from," she said. "When that happened, I would kind of go with my favorite one and say, 'This is how I tend to look at it, or this is what I found, and you guys be the judge what it is really about.' "
She found some surprising things about a couple of the old songs while digging. One was "Wildwood Flower," a staple of country pickers who need to learn the fingerstyle of legendary Maybelle Carter, guitarist for the archival family folk band The Carter Family.
"If you are going to learn how to do Carter-style guitar, heck, if you do country music, you have to know that song. Even though I knew how to play it, I had never done it. I like there to be some hope in a song. I want a bright spot, not she is down, she let this man get the best of her, she will always regret it."
Upon doing the research, Bogguss found the song was based on an 1860-era poem by Maud Irving, "I'll Twine 'Mid the Ringlets."
The song had changed with time into the sad piece it is now. The original poem ended with a woman moving on with her life.
"Her words are the same idea -- she has been jilted -- but she is weaving flowers into her hair, going out with the idea she'll charm the whole place and make him rue the day he let her go. That is a whole different story, and I loved finding that out -- 'I am over you, now just watch what I can do.' That's a positive message."
You might think that Bogguss started out with a huge list of songs for this project. Not so. Even though she was not able to track down the book she sang from as a child, she remembered many of the songs within, and went with 17 of those.
She also tracked down Melvin Larson, her old grade school teacher, and Maurice Stephens, her music teacher of the same era. Neither still had the book, but Stephens came to see her "American Folk Songbook" tour earlier this year in Phoenix.
"There were tears of joy all over the place," Bogguss said of the reunion. "He was excited it meant that much to me. What he didn't understand was he had totally done that with so many people."
As with her teachers before her, Bogguss now does community outreach concerts with the kids in her own Nashville community. She sees a need for this kind of program, one that brings the simple joy of singing into the lives of young people.
"Many of the kids are so self-conscious about singing. When we were kids, we just blasted it out. It wasn't about being good, it was about getting it out. But a lot of kids now, I really have to pull it out of them."
She thinks the singing contest shows, like "American Idol," have something to do with this shyness of school-age singers.
"They seem to feel like they have to woodshed on it before they can sing, even if it is just along with their peers. We don't want that. Singing is not about being professional. It is about joy and expressing yourself."
She points out artists like Bob Dylan or Tom Waits may not have Mariah Carey's vocal chops, but millions of people find their voices compelling.
"There is a spirit you hear in those kinds of voices. You would not hear this art if it had to be polished to perfection."
And in case you're wondering, Bogguss will include a singalong portion in her own show.
"Some nights come off really good, and some, pretty hysterical," she said of the singalongs. "But it doesn't matter, because they are always fun. I need to introduce this earlier in the show, because the truth is, so many are just waiting for an opportunity to sing with others."
‘American Folk Songbook’ track list
- “Shady Grove”
- “Red River Valley”
- “Froggy Went A’Courtin’ ”
- “Wayfaring Stranger”
- “Banks of the Ohio”
- “Johnny Has Gone For a Soldier”
- “Ol’ Dan Tucker”
- “Rock Island Line”
- “Sweet Betsy From Pike”
- “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”
- “Careless Love”
- “All the Pretty Little Horses”
- “Git Along Little Dogies”
- “Erie Canal”
- “Wildwood Flower”
- “Beautiful Dreamer”