Ross Altman Awarded the Bluerailroad Pete & Woody Lifetime Achievement Award in Songwriting

Ross Altman, PhD
Photo by Paul Zollo

Ross Altman is also the winner this year for Best Folk Album, 2021 for
If Not Now, When?

“All songwriters are links in a chain.”
– Pete Seeger

Everybody might be just one big soul
Well, it looks that a way to me…
Wherever little children are hungry and cry,
Wherever people ain’t free
That’s where I’m gonna be…”

-Woody Guthrie

Bluerailroad is happy to announce that Ross Altman has won not one but two awards this year (our first double winner ever): 

He is the first recipient of the 2021 Bluerailroad Pete & Woody Lifetime Achievement Award in Songwriting for his entire lifetime of writing and performing his own songs, informed and empowered by his work as a scholar, historian, journalist and activist.

Ross is also the recipient of the Best Folk Album of the Year 2021 award for his latest  album If Not Now, When? We will bring you more about this album in coming days. 

We named the Lifetime Achievement award in honor of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie because individually, and together as friends, they both exemplified the better and even best angels of songwriting. Woody knew, as Bob Dylan told us,  that “the airwaves are sacred. Though these airwaves are now considered ‘terrestrial,’ they’re hardly earthbound; he  recognized that this was more than a vehicle for musical confection, contrived and sugared for mass appeal. To him this was a miraculously powerful tool by which one could reach the masses directly and constantly,  inspiring and uniting people.

He also recognized that It also could be used to lull, distract, misinform, fool, frighten and divide. To Woody it was self-evident that given its unbound power and scope it should be used in positive ways, to bring hope, love, unity and trust to the people. To bring songs about social injustice – about the deportees and dispossessed, those made to feel that this land is not their land.  He knew the power of song – combined with that of radio – could change the world for the good. Here was a way to  deliver musical messages of hope and solace to all people, even those cut off from life. He wrote songs to bring people together, to lift their hearts, and to connect souls.

Always the message came across:

Yes, this is a crazy world. Brutal, in fact. But you are not alone. We’re doing this together. 

“The worst thing you can do,” wrote Woody, “is to cut yourself loose from the people. And the best thing is to vaccinate yourself right into the big streams and blood of the people.”

Ross Altman’s allegiance to this principle has been positively heroic over the years. As an activist and performer. he’s closer to Pete than Woody. Whereas Woody might turn to a jug of wine, as he did to fuel the epic “Tom Joad,” falling asleep over Pete’s old acoustic typewriter, Pete nourished his spirit with activism and scholarship both. He also became a serious folk music archivist, by discovering and performing folk songs from the very roots, as well as all the branches. Ross is a serious scholar who knows this history, and also that of Pete & Woody. As he said in a performance of Pete’s controversial “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” when he was a kid, people didn’t talk about Pete Seeger much because he was blacklisted. His music was considered dangerous – and kept off the sacred airwaves. But Ross kept talking about him, and singing his praises, and his songs. 

As a performing artist, he’s also closer to Pete than Woody. As Steinbeck wrote, Woody was just “a voice and a guitar.” He wasn’t a polished performer at all, nor an entertainer. Pete Seeger – on his own and with his group The Weavers – was a powerful, charismatic performer with a beautiful and powerful singing voice. Ross, in addition to his other multitiudes, has one of the most commanding, resonant singing voices of any folksinger. He can project a melody with vigor and easy grace, and can deliver a lyric so that it is received fully. Had he never written any of his own songs, he would still be one of the great folksingers of our time.

Ross Altman, “This Land Was Made For You and Me” by Woody Guthrie

Like Woody, Ross has a rarefied songwriting gift which is almost extinct in these post-modern modern times: the ability to translate the timely cultural events and characters of today into timeless and sturdy songs. Woody was a genius at this, as we have come to learn. Daily he’d land on items in the newspaper which would trigger songs, which he would usually write and complete immediately. As songwriters know, it’s not an easy thing to do. To create a lasting song, something that matters long after the subject has come and gone, and in this age of digital news flashing as fast as lightning and then disappearing, is harder than ever. He does it, as did Woody, with a great mixture of wisdom, compassion and humor. 

Ross Altman is probably the most prolific, literate, experienced, politically active, and excellent topical singer/songwriter in Los Angeles today.

-Sarah Cooper

Woody did it countless times, as has Ross. His newest album, If Not Now, When? our favorite Folk album of 2021, does this over and over, and with as much joy and flair as ever. Because in addition to that knack with the timely, newsy details of daily life, it also requires a savvy craftsman. Because a song is more than words. It is more than poetry. It is born as a creature of both words and music, which inherently unites the timely and the timeless, and the specific with the universal. To accomplish this requires a real mastery of all aspects of song craft – those ancient elements which even poetry has mostly abandoned but which we find in songs always – rhyme, meter, symbology, myth. Those are all contained within the lyrics. Add to that the abstract unseen but undeniable force of music itself – of melody, harmony, rhythm – all wed precisely to the contours of the human voice, so that the song sings naturally. 

The opening song of the new album is a remarkable crystallization of his brilliance with the topical song. “Terry Schiavo RIP ” not only rips right to the center of this horror, which many have probably long forgotten, of a husband keeping his wife alive in the hospital against the wishes of her family. How one would translate that into a song is hard to fathom. He took a Phil Ochs/Tom Lehrer  way in – the use of  dark whimsy mixed in with great song craft and virtuoso rhyming, This is a man who knows what he is doing.

Part of that stems from the fact that, like Pete Seeger – and also his father Charles Seeger -= Ross is a scholar. Not only one of our greatest historians of folk music in America, he’s got a PhD in Modern Literature. It’s why he can write an elegiac song for the poet W.H. Auden as beautifully as he writes about the tragic death of Robin Williams. In a world where so many songwriters presume wrongly that there’s no song  content left for them, as “everything’s been done,” he has shown in every album the real-time truth: that the potential content of a song is limitless. 

Ross Altman PhD, “If Not Now, When?”

This is not the first time Ross has been awarded for his songwriting and activism. In 2016 Folkworks magazine, where Ross was a columnist since 2003, writing his  How Can I Keep From Talking column, awarded him with the first-ever Folkworks Standing Ovation award “to honor individuals who have contributed to our folk community.” Their words fit our sentiment exactly; this wasn’t a hard choice:

“For our first award, the selection was so easy and obvious. The person who came to mind immediately was our own esteemed FolkWorks writer, and Los Angeles institution, Ross Altman.

Ross cares about people and about ethics… not just in his singing and writing…but in his everyday caregiving. He is motivated by the likes of Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, Buffy Ste. Marie, Joan Baez and of course Bob Dylan. In fact, through his writings in FolkWorks, Ross has garnered attention as an authority on Bob Dylan.

We will bring you more about Ross and the new album, but first some great holiday gifts. Here are some performances by the man of some great originals, and also songs by Pete & Woody.

And on behalf of all those whose journeys have been enriched by the songs, spirit and soul of this artist, we say: For all the things you are, thank you Ross Altman forever. We love you.

Ross Altman, “When Pete Refused To Sing.” A song by Ross about our hero.
Ross Altman, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” by Pete Seeger
Ross Altman tells the essential folksinger story, about Utah Phillips
Ross Altman, “Union Maid” by Woody Guthrie

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