By Scott Nygaard

Grab your guitar and start singing!

As award-winning folk guitarist, singer, songwriter, inventor, and educator Harvey Reid says in the liner notes to his 2008 song-dissemination project, The Song Train, “The best way to learn to play music is by playing songs, and there is no better place to start than some good songs that are easy to play.”

In this lesson, Acoustic Guitar magazine presents the music and words, as well as performance suggestions and notes to five of the songs included in Harvey Reid and Joyce Andersen’s ambitious 56-song, four-CD package.

Reid and Andersen’s intent with The Song Train was to get players and singers to learn songs “the old-fashioned way,” by simply listening and imitating the sounds they heard. “If you know what a song sounds like and you have it ‘in your head,’ you just learn the guitar chords and start singing,” Reid says. “So we want to put some good songs in your head that you’ll be able to play.” To that aim, they’ve provided minimal instruction, simple diagrams of the chords needed to play each song (all of which can be played with one or two chords), and a basic map of each song’s chord progression. Reid and Andersen do not include accompaniment patterns in The Song Train, encouraging people instead to “internalize the songs by listening and then channeling their own rhythms,” but we’ve included a short example of the accompaniment they used on their recorded versions of the songs.

While The Song Train focuses on folk and traditional songs such as “John Henry,” “Handsome Molly,” and “The Cuckoo,” all of which are notated here, Reid and Andersen have also included classic, easy-to-play songs by Chuck Berry, Dave Mason, Bob Dylan, Hank Williams, JJ Cale, and Gillian Welch. These are not musty museum pieces but living, vital songs that can be found in the repertoire of such contemporary musicians as Alison Krauss, the Beatles, Jerry Garcia, Bonnie Raitt, and Tom Petty, to name just a few, and Reid lists hundreds of other artists who have recorded the tunes in The Song Train. Also included in the attractive package—along with vintage photos that help convey the mood of each song, as well as notes on the song’s origins and playing tips—are Reid’s advice about taking care of your instrument, changing keys to fit your voice, and some basic information about guitars, tunings, guitar accessories, and music theory.

So grab your guitar and start singing. As Reid says, “It does not take talent, dedication, lessons, exercises, or practice regimens to add music to your life—real magic can happen all by itself with nothing more than one good chord and one good song.”

Audio tracks are available on iTunes and a few can be found here.

Harvey Reid

Harvey Reid

ACOUSTIC GUITAR You’re an accomplished guitarist and multi-instrumentalist. Why focus on simple, two-chord songs for such an extensive project as ‘The Song Train’?
REID We sensed a groundswell of interest from people wanting to play music, and we have children now, which really got us thinking about how musical knowledge gets transmitted. We wanted to help pass the torch, and realized that The Song Train was a valuable missing piece in the puzzle of learning that suited our talents as performers.

Songs are the sparks that get you going, and there is no better way to get started than to know some simple but good songs that you want to play. Music instruction is not just the delivering of information—there is emotional, cultural, and spiritual context that is absolutely vital. Chefs on TV use a stove, an egg, and some flour just like we have in our kitchens, and basketball players use the same
basketball and baskets we do. Yet popular musicians rarely play or record a song with just a single guitar, which is the way most songs are written. The Song Train lets us show people some good songs they can play, and we also give them a model of how real musicians play them without a band.

What made you choose the songs that you did for ‘The Song Train’?
REID We wanted songs that we liked, that were alive and in circulation, and that covered a lot of styles and tastes. We probably could have made a whole bluegrass or gospel Song Train, but we wanted a cross-section and tried to balance country, blues, rock, gospel, folk, etc. Our model was a single person with an acoustic guitar driving the song, so we did that with each song ourselves. We left out a lot of one- and two-chord songs that are not one-guitar songs. “Sex Machine” by James Brown and “Heroin” by Lou Reed are two-chord songs that did not make the cut, for example.

It’s great to hear the guitar (and other acoustic instrument) parts so prominently in ‘The Song Train’ recordings.
REID The kind of recording this project needed was right up my alley. I have been recording since 1982 with almost no overdubbing or multitracking, trying to capture living performances, and that experience and those habits turned out to be vital. We just sit down and play the songs, either solo or together. It’s as organic and real as anything out there.

While ‘The Song Train’ is clearly a potent learning tool for beginners, I could see many experienced guitarists getting a lot out of it strictly for building repertoire. Who has been your main audience for the project so far?
REID There is nothing better at a jam session than a simple good song everybody can play. Knowing a bunch of songs like this is valuable for any musician. Our fans like The Song Train, and a lot of people are giving them as gifts. Young people give them to an older person who always wanted to play, and older people often give them to their younger friends and relatives. We did not intend it for really young kids, though our two-year-old absorbed most of the songs as we were working on it.

If you had to give readers just a thought or two to hang onto from the essence of ‘The Song Train,’ what would that be?
REID I believe that the pleasure in music is a constant, and if you can get to a place where you are having a great time banging on some simple chords and croaking out a simple song, you have found the secret to it all. If you think you have to develop and wait and become proficient before you can really enjoy yourself, you may never experience that pleasure.


Handsome Molly

Traditional, arranged by Harvey Reid and Joyce Andersen

“Handsome Molly” first showed up in the earliest days of recordings of folk music in the late 1920s, and over the years it has been done by quite a number of folk, country, and bluegrass artists, ranging from Ian and Sylvia to Mick Jagger. The versions all have pretty much the same chords and melody, with only minor variations in the words. We decided to give it a more modern rhythm and forgo the faster and bouncier way the old-time and bluegrass people often do it. On our recording, Joyce adds some rhythmic interest with full-chord hammer-ons, which means she strums the strings open and then quickly presses her fingers down to sound the chord. The verse and chorus have the same chords and melody, so it is a very simple, yet engaging song.

Handsome Molly

Handsome Molly


John Henry

Traditional, arranged by Harvey Reid and Joyce Andersen

“John Henry” is probably the most widespread ballad in American folk music, and among the most important. It seems to have first been sung on work gangs throughout the South. It tells an apparently true story of a contest between man and the steam drill, probably in the 1870s, where a man named John Henry died after outperforming a steam-driven rock drill in the building of a railroad tunnel. The details of the song vary quite a bit among the hundreds of versions, but in general the heroic theme is constant. Some of the blues versions imply that John Henry was more of a victim than a hero, but the epic nature of his struggle and death still resonates with working people everywhere.

“John Henry” is usually done either as a one-chord blues (often in open-D tuning) or as a two-chord song with a I–V change, though some add a IV chord. There are very few versions sung by women, so Joyce merged the Josh White and Bill Broonzy versions with some verses and notions from other places. On our recording, we gave it an unusual tempo that is pretty much a Memphis Minnie beat, and I play some fingerpicked open-G leads and rhythm slaps.

John Henry

John Henry


Little Maggie

Traditional, arranged by Harvey Reid and Joyce Andersen

One of the most common bluegrass and old-time songs, “Little Maggie” has been recorded by many artists and played at countless jam
sessions. It is especially favored by banjo players, who will encourage you to play it very fast. “Little Maggie” is most often played in G or A when sung by men and usually played fast and furiously. On our recording, Joyce plays a somewhat gentler version, with the capo on the fifth fret and using A-position chords, which puts her in the singing key of D. Like a lot of old-time songs, you can hold certain words longer than others, so the timing can be irregular.

This is a modal song (specifically the Mixolydian mode, using a D scale in the key of A, or if you count the capo, it uses a G scale but is sung in D) so there is a flatted-seventh scale note, which is two frets below the D or tonic note, instead of the usual seventh, which is one fret below. To achieve the modal sound, Joyce plays an Aadd9 chord, which just means leaving the second string open. The flatted seven or “drop” chord is a C, which she plays by fingering a G above the capo.

Little-Maggie


Sinner Man

Traditional, arranged by Harvey Reid and Joyce Andersen

Folklorist Cecil Sharp collected “Sinner Man” in the Appalachian Mountains in 1917. It has been sung widely, and the versions are not hugely different. Nina Simone’s version was used in three movie soundtracks, two TV shows, and a video game, and has even been remixed by hip-hop artists. With such a diverse group of artists, ranging from the Weavers to Bob Marley, doing it, I decided to lean hardest on the Marley version and used his structure and lyrics. I like the fact that the song can be somewhat funky and not very fast, since it is very often done at an energetic tempo.

Sinner Man

Sinner Man


The Cuckoo

Traditional, arranged by Harvey Reid and Joyce Andersen

A common Appalachian song, “The Cuckoo” is as widespread as any of the old songs, although cuckoos have never been common in that area. The 1929 Clarence Ashley version (“The Coo-Coo Bird”) was included in the 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music collection and caused some music fans to go in search of Ashley. When he was found in 1961, it led to the discovery of Doc Watson, who was playing in his band in North Carolina.

The song is most often done in a minor key, and the words are extremely different among the various versions. We collected and combined lyrics from quite a few places. On our recording, we do this with just the common Am and G chords, though it is often done in an odd banjo tuning and is often given a mountain modal tonality. We like it in a more plaintive mood with less drive than the usual banjo tempo. I play it with a bare-finger Travis-style fingerpicking and avoided the four-finger G chord, just using my thumb and the two fingers of my picking hand.

The Cuckoo

The Cuckoo

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