The following post was written by Dylan Kolb, one of 26 college students serving at the Library of Congress as interns in the Knowledge Navigators program. These interns, serving for 10 weeks, come from three institutions: University of Virginia (where Dylan is a rising Junior), Catholic University of America, College of William & Mary.
Iconic, progressive, revolutionary. These are only some of many of the ways to describe the winner of this year’s Gershwin Prize. Country music legend Willie Nelson was born in Texas in 1933. He received his first guitar at age six, and music has been his passion ever since.
Of the many musical scores I cataloged during my summer internship in the Music Division, some of my favorites have been lead sheets for songs written by Nelson. These one-page scores contain the melody and words for some of the greatest country hits of all time, as well as plenty of songs I never heard of. My Knowledge Navigator colleague and I cataloged over 140 of these lead sheets which were registered for U.S. copyright between 1961 and 1977. Although titles such as “Happiness lives next door” or “Lonely little mansion” may not ring a bell, that first batch of songs submitted in 1961 included “Funny how time slips away” and “Crazy” – made popular by the great country singers of the 1960s and still being sung 55 years later.
By the 1970s, Nelson had established himself as a country singer as well as song writer. It’s during this time he wrote “I’d rather you didn’t love me,” just after his divorce from his second wife. He sought to bring together different cultures with the Independence Day performances which soon became an annual occurrence in Austin, Texas and eventually moved to other states. Nelson was also fascinated with other musicians of the time and performed and recorded with countless idols including some of his most inspirational, Johnny Cash and Ray Charles.
Nelson is a major advocate for small farmers. Having come from a small farm himself, he sympathizes with the hardships they face and even served as a witness for hearings in Congress to pass the Farm Aid Bill in 1985. His concern led him to arrange a charity concert for small farmers with Billy Joel (last year’s Gershwin Prize Honoree) and other famous musicians like B.B King and Bob Dylan. What makes Nelson inspirational to many is that despite the hardships he faced over his long career, he has stayed true to his love of music.
- Nelson, Willie, and David Ritz. It’s a Long Story: My Life. New York: Little Brown and Company, 2015.