Bob Sherman Played Folk Music on the Radio for 54 Years. It Will Be Okay to Miss Him.
When long-time hosts say goodbye, understandably enough, they want listeners to appreciate the good times that were, not lament the silence to come.
They accentuate the positive.
Bob Sherman, who for the last 54 years on New York radio has hosted the weekly folk music program “Woody’s Children,” evoked decades of good times Sunday when he turned off the lights with a final spin of show namesake Woody Guthrie’s “So Long, It’s Been Good To Know Yuh.”
Perhaps the most moving parts of the show, however, came when he acknowledged — more through music than words, as he was wont to do — that farewells are also sad.
“Woody’s Children” has never been a show where farewell tended to mean the melodramatic breakup of teenage love. Farewells here have echoed more deeply, and the farewells Sherman conjured Sunday on WFUV were the kind that stretch forever.
He touched on this with “Some Other Time,” a Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Leonard Bernstein song whose breezy tone (“Oh, well, we’ll catch up some other time”) intensifies the chilling reminder that there is not an infinite supply of tomorrows.
Sherman followed that with Randy Newman’s “When I’m Gone,” which he noted also closed one of his favorite TV shows, Monk.
“I know you’re gonna miss me when I’m gone,” Newman sings, and lest anyone feel reassured by the fact Newman puts a wry edge on everything, Sherman went from there into “Katie’s Garden” by the fine Colorado singer-songwriter C. Daniel Boling.
“Katie’s Garden” is the wistful reflection of a man who explains how much he misses his wife by looking at the flowers in the back yard and talking about how she once loved to grow them.
“I wish Katie’s garden was still hers,” he sings, “instead of mine.”
Sherman dedicated the song to his late wife Veronica Bravo, who died in 2012 and whose flowers he recalled had brightened the Sherman home for many years.
Lest anyone miss that thought, he also played Tom Paxton’s live recording of “Getting Up Early,” whose full title line goes “Getting up early, remembering you.”
The Paxton song, on which he was accompanied by Eric Weisberg, came from the 25th anniversary “Woody’s Children” concert Sherman hosted in 1994, and as this suggests, Sherman did not neglect the remarkable history of his program.
It began in 1969 on WQXR, the classical music station where Sherman worked off-air. As he recounted it on Saturday, WQXR was looking for ways to get a younger audience — like every radio station everywhere forever — and sent him out to talk to “young folks.” He came back and suggested that while rock music obviously wouldn’t be a fit with Tchaikovsky, a weekly show on folk music might lure some younger ears.
Sherman said he remains amazed that WQXR management not only bought that notion, but handed a folk music show to someone with no announcing experience. “They probably hoped it would die after a few months and they could go back to Beethoven,” he said. But it didn’t. “Woody’s Children” launched on Jan. 18, 1969, and racked up 30 years before WQXR pulled the plug.
That looked like the end, said Sherman, until folksinger Christine Lavin — who got her first New York airplay from Sherman — pitched the show hard to Fordham University’s WFUV. Station manager Ralph Jennings and then-program director Chuck Singleton bought it, and from September 1999 until Saturday, “Woody’s Children” lived in the Bronx.
Amusingly, that didn’t make “Woody’s Children” the longest running folk music program in America, or even New York. The late Oscar Brand had a show on WNYC from 1945 pretty much until he died in 2015.
Happily, it’s not a competition. Sherman thanked Brand alongside Pete Seeger on Saturday, saying they were the ones who introduced a teenager to the excitement of folk music.
Sherman also noted, appropriately, that one reason his show remained fresh and vital for so many years was his big-tent view of what constitutes folk music. Fond as he has been of Guthrie, “Woody’s Children” went way beyond “This Land Is Your Land.”
Sherman played a Pete Seeger interview from that first January 1969 show, in which Seeger said, “Play all the songs, even the ones that shock you. I hope you’ll play some pretty strong stuff.”
He tried to do that, Sherman said, underscoring the point with Seeger’s anti-war anthem “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” He also explained that he worked on ways to mix topical and message music with both traditional folk songs and folk-infused songs from sources as diverse as seders and Broadway
He also kept his ears open for new artists, so when the 1980s wave came along, he was there to support and promote it.
He’s leaving the show at the tender age of 90, he said on the WFUV website, because recent health challenges have made a weekly show too difficult to maintain.
Anyone who has ever assumed that a weekly radio show is the kind of thing you can program and execute in a couple of short hours has never done a weekly radio show.
Sherman mused briefly on Saturday that there were projects he was never able to complete and ideas that never quite came together — inevitable loose ends from 54 years on the radio.
But he did not leave his listeners with sighs and regrets. He pronounced folk music healthy — as long as there are folk, there will be folk music — and 54 years on the radio carves out a legacy few hosts are likely to match.
After he wrapped up with his familiar “So Long, It’s Been Good To Know Yuh,” he added a brief coda: “The WFUV family has sustained me all these years. Thanks for joining me celebrating the music of Woody’s Children.”