Monday, December 1, 2014

Roots Radio: Hard Times - Songs For Our Next Great Depression

After an extended break, I expect to get back to posting regular articles again soon, in time for the holidays. I've been working on my other folk music venture, the monthly two hour radio show that I do here in Los Angeles. I had been wanting for more than 2 1/2 years to figure out a way to preserve my shows beyond the two weeks that they have been archived at the station. I thought that capturing the audio and getting it onto the web would be some sort of arcane and expensive process - until I found, like Dorothy and the ruby slippers, that I had all that I needed under my nose on my computer all the time (Audacity and Nero, for those of a technological bent of mind). So - hurling my work out into the cosmos for all time - here is the podcast for Nov. 15th's "Hard Times: Songs For The Next Great Depression" with playlist following.

Hard Times - Songs For The Next Economic Disaster
Saturday November 15, 2014

Opening: Hard Times, Come Again No More - Kate & Anna McGarrigle et al. -Transatlantic Sessions - Whirlie Records - 4:05

Times Are Getting Hard, Boys
Times Are Getting Hard, Boys - Tom Paxton - Seeds: Songs Of Pete Seeger, Vol. 3 - Appleseed - 2:53
Panic of 1837 - Jayber Crow - Two Short Stories - Dualtone Music - 3:19
I Ain't Got No Home In This World - Woody Guthrie - Dust Bowl Ballads - Sony - 2:44
Nobody Knows You - Scrapper Blackwell - Scrapper Blackwell, 1959-1960 - Document - 3:12

Brother, Can You Spare A Dime? - The Weavers - Folk Music - Welk Music Group - 2:40
The Panic Is On - Hezekiah Jenkins - The Panic Is On - Shanachie 3:25
Oldest Living Son - John Stewart - Phoenix Concerts - Sony - 3:00
Poverty Hill - Southwind - Every Now and Then - Home Cookin' Music - 3:05

Them Belly Full - Bob Marley - Natty Dread (Remastered) - Island Records - 3:09
How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live - Alfred "Blind" Reed - Poor Man's Heaven - RCA/Bluebird - 3:15
How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live - Ry Cooder - Ry Cooder - Warner - 2:42
Coat of Many Colors - Dolly Parton - Coat Of Many Colors - RCA - 3:04
The Banks Are Made of Marble - RUNA - Current Affairs - Runa Music - 3:07

Working And Poor
Pastures of Plenty - Dave Van Ronk - Just Dave Van Ronk - Mercury - 3:30
Hard Travelin' - The Kingston Trio - Make Way/Goin' Places - Collector's Choice - 2:31
Workin' Man Blues - Merle Hagard - Merle Haggard 16 Biggest Hits - Epic - 2:33
Born In The USA - Bruce Springsteen - Born In The USA - Columbia - 4:36
Survivors - John Stewart - Wingless Angels - RCA - 4:00

Working And Poor II - The Coal Mines
Sixteen Tons - Merle Travis - Legends of Country Music -Austin City Limits - 4:14
Coal Tattoo - Red Molly - Never Been To Vegas - RdMl - 3:08
Coal Miner Blues - Flatt&Scruggs - Hard Travelin' - Legacy -2:29
Coal Miner's Daughter - Loretta Lynn - Coal Miner's Daughter -American Legends - 3:13

Loudon Wainwright - Times Is Hard - 10 Songs For The New Depression - Cummerbund - 2:54
Other People's Money - Steve Gillette - Compass Rose Music - 2:49
Take Our Country Back Again - Jerre Haskew - Fiery Gizzard Music - 3:38

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Judy Collins: A Retrospective On Her 75th Birthday

Judy Collins, a genuine national treasure, turns 75 today. Probably no other single artist has been at the very center of my musical soul for the last 50 years and more, and not simply for the stunning clarity of her voice or the impeccable taste of her song selections and arrangements and her too-infrequent compositions. Collins' growth as a concert performer, her restless and daring search for different forms of expression, and her commitment to both her craft and her convictions make her for me the very personification of what an artist should be. She has enjoyed an enormous commercial success without ever seeming to have been corrupted or confined by it, and while my deepest affection for her music lies in her earliest efforts as a solitary folk musician performing traditional songs accompanied only by her very well-played guitar, I appreciate equally the fact that Collins has been able to transcend categorization to become simply one of America's greatest singers over the last half a century.

Collins has also written seven books, most of them autobiographical and three dealing with the personal tragedy of the loss of her son to suicide. However, unlike many of the performers of today - and I would add especially the legion of lesser female singers who make more money even than Collins ever did for work of stupendously inferior quality to hers - Collins never lived her life in the tabloids or other similarly salacious media. Her biography is interesting and at times moving, and for those so inclined there is a fairly good summary of it HERE. But I am old enough and old-school enough to have little interest in that beyond what she herself has chosen to share in her books. Judy Collins is first and foremost a great performing artist, and even presenting a modest sampling of that art is challenge enough for one article.

Judy Collins, Folksinger
A recent article noted that the brilliance of Collins' vocals often obscured what a fine guitarist she was. She showed what I would term a creative fidelity to the roots of the folk songs she performed, as here. Collins never tried to act the part of a rural inheritor of the folk tradition; she was an educated, modern woman who was comfortable presenting old songs in a contemporary idiom - a genuine urban traditionalist, but in the broader and not the more restrictive meaning of the term.


Judy Collins, Composer - Singer-Songwriter
Collins has only about twenty songs copyrighted under her own name. These are two of the best, and they have always left me wishing she had written at least twenty more. They demonstrate what happens when a lyricist with real poetic flair combines in a composer who actually studied music formally. I believe the word that I am searching for here, and one that I would append to nearly no other of the 60s era singer-songwriters, is "sublime."

Judy Collins, Interpretive Artist
It is worth noting, I think, that except for Seeger, not one of the composers whose work Collins is interpreting here was a tenth as well-known as she was at the point in time that she first waxed their songs. The fact that each is today regarded as a major artist is due in part to the high profile that Collins gave to their work early in their careers.

Of and with Pete Seeger

Of Joni Mitchell

Of Leonard Cohen

Of Bob Dylan

Of Ian Tyson

....and more recently, Collins performing a Sandy Denny song that she first recorded in 1970.

I saw Collins in concert about a year and a half ago at the Carpenter Theater at Long Beach State. She has lost only a little of the supple flexibility and beauty of her voice through all the decades of her career, and as might be expected, the range and emotional power of her interpretive abilities has only broadened and deepened with age. Fortunate indeed are those of us who know her work: she has the voice of an angel and has graced our national musical life for more than half a century now, and I hope for many more years to come.

Monday, March 17, 2014

"Bound For South Australia"

The general and often foolish gaiety that accompanies most St. Patrick's Day celebrations here in the U.S. serves two purposes. First and more obviously, the hats and parades and buttons and green-dyed rivers and all afford those of us of Irish descent a moment or two per year where we are able to assert a degree of kinship with a mythic and far-off land that many of us have never seen but from which our ancestors emigrated, usually many generations prior. In this respect, St. Patrick's Day in America differs little from the ways in which New York City's Italian-American population for decades observed October's Columbus Day, or the great Southwest's Mexican-Americans continue to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, a relatively minor holiday in Old Mexico that has been inflated into a major commercial event hiding behind a fiesta here in El Norte. But second and less obviously, the public demonstrations of pride and joy in one's Hibernian roots, especially in Boston, New York City, Chicago, and other eastern and midwestern metropolises, acts as a counter-balance to an inherent and often oppressive melancholy that seems to be part of the Irish character, however much it may be mitigated by residence in countries like the U.S. and Canada and Australia that are far more congenial to people's hopes and aspirations than the mother country ever was for most of its long and troubled history. As quintessentially-Irish poet and playwright William Butler Yeats remarked about one of his characters, "He had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy." Amen.

In Ireland, traditional St. Patrick's Day celebrations were much different than the "sure an' begorrah" fakery prevalent in  the U.S. Families would attend an early morning mass - it is, after all, a saint's day - and would assemble for a mid-afternoon dinner. Soda bread, yes - but corned beef and cabbage is an American invention, largely because beef brisket was the absolute cheapest cut available to the immigrants in 19th century, and beef of any kind was a luxury item unaffordable to the vast majority of the residents of the old country. Most of the Irish were lucky to get fish into their diets on occasion; for a real feast, mutton was the likelier main course for the relatively affluent and chicken or maybe mackerel for the majority. The St. Patrick's Day parades, which may have originated in the U.S., sprouted up in Ireland as dangerous and revolutionary acts of defiance against British rule. They were fraught with the risks of violence or arrest - in British-occupied Ulster well into the 1970s - and served as a rallying point for Irish nationalism, as surely as was "the wearin' of the green," equally suppressed by our English friends, who never quite seemed to understand why those troublesome Celts refused to embrace the high honor of being annexed into the British Empire along with Africans and Indians and other unlettered primitives around the world.

The political repression and the countless failed revolutions were at least as influential as the Great Hunger of the 1840s in impelling millions of the Irish to seek sunnier shores in the middle and late 19th century. To America and Canada they came in droves, of course, to labor in factories and build railroads and homestead land on the Great Plains ten times richer than they ever could have imagined existed. But they also went in significant numbers to Australia, both as convicts from the country's very beginnings at Botany Bay in the 1790s and as emigrants through the next hundred years. In fact, it could be argued that whatever the "national character" of Australia may be today, it is far more shaded by the influence of its Irish transplants than either of those of the U.S. or Canada. To Australia, the Irish brought their abiding love for horses and sheep and strong drink along with their undiminished abhorrence of British tyranny. They also brought their ballads  - and thus helped to shape the musical aspects of the emergent Australian folk culture.

"Bound For South Australia" is with "The Wild Colonial Boy" among the absolute best examples of the Irish-Australian ballads. Its rollicking tempo, its idealization of "Miss Nancy Blair" (who may well be a lady of the evening profession), and its chest-thumping pride in surviving the brutal gantlet of a sea passage around Cape Horn - these elements connect the tune most clearly and emphatically to similar Irish songs and sea shanties like "The Holy Ground" and "Haul Away, Joe." Scholar and folksinger A.L. Lloyd (an Englishman, for what that's worth) identifies "South Australia" as a capstan shanty, with its repeated "Heave away, haul away" fulfilling the same function of providing a rhythm for the backbreaking work of raising anchor or hoisting sails that "Way, haul away/We'll haul away, Joe" does in the aforementioned tune. "South Australia" first appears in print in the 1880s, and though it is likely somewhat older than that, it cannot be by much - anyone who was born in South Australia as in the lyric could hardly have been so prior to perhaps 1830 or thereabouts - there just weren't many women among the transported convicts who formed the bulk of the country's earliest population.

Lloyd recorded the song in 1958, and there do not seem to be many waxings earlier than that, though the song enjoyed a robust popularity Down Under through the normal folkways of oral transmission and school sing-alongs and the like. "South Australia" became a high-profile part of the English-language ballad repertoire, however, through this 1962 recording by The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, who were riding the crest of a phenomenal popularity first in America and then in their native Ireland:

The group took especial care with this track and most of the others on The Boys Won't Leave The Girls Alone on Columbia Records, the band's first real, professionally-produced studio album. In concert, the Clancys' only instrumental accompaniment at the time was brother Liam's effective but very simple guitar work, with occasional additional backing by Tommy Makem on pennywhistle or banjo, which Makem was still learning to play. For "South Australia," however, producer and band bass player Robert Morgan recruited an all-star line-up, with top-flight jazz musician Bill Lee (father of filmmaker Spike) on bass, studio pro and classically-trained John Stauber on guitar with the irrepressible Bruce Langhorne (both names should be familiar to all fans of early '60s folk recordings), and banjo by Eric Weissberg, member of The Tarriers and a decade later the player on "Dueling Banjos" in the film Deliverance. Weissberg also just happens to be one of the two or three best, most versatile, and most influemtial of all the musicians to come out of the folk revival in America. Harmonica support comes from eldest Clancy brother Paddy.

Most subsequent versions of "South Australia" can be traced in melody and lyric to the Clancys - but predictably, not that of Ireland's other great ballad group, The Dubliners, who have their own arrangement:

This is one of the last performances of the almost-original group, including founding member Ronnie Drew, now departed, and lead sung by the late, great Barney McKenna, who died just two years ago. Though McKenna is singing here to a simple fiddle accompaniment, he was probably the greatest tenor banjo player of the whole revival period, in Ireland or anywhere else.

While I have never been a big fan of The Pogues' approach to Irish folk music, they have always brought an undeniable energy to their style, and I rather like what they do with the tune here:

Lead singer Shane McGowan's throaty bellowing seems more appropriate here than it does on many of the band's other cuts. IMO, of course.

Oddly enough, it was difficult to find a video of an actual Australian singing the song. The Bushwackers Band is a fine Aussie band, but their version is a bit limp, so we turn instead to Salty Pete:

Pete's pronunciation of all the "aways" in the tune are a dead giveaway as to his country of origin.

Now, no Aussie musician today is more revered - and justifiably so - than master guitarist Tommy Emmanuel. Here, complete with flubs and outtakes, is Emmanuel's instrumental of "South Australia" with "The Sailor's Hornpipe" cut in for good measure:

You almost want to believe that you are seeing CGI here. Human hands just cannot be capable of such speed and dexterity - can they?

"Bound For South Australia" has been one of my favorite Irish-based ballads since I was a boy decades ago. It is simple, direct, energetic, and maybe just a tad naughty to boot - an unbeatable combination, as far as I am concerned. In fact, this being St. Paddy's Day and all - I think I'll post this, pour a glass of Jameson's, take out the trusty old Martin D18 on which I learned the song, and sing me some choruses of "South Australia." I have, as Errol Flynn's character remarks in Captain Blood, "the honor to be Irish," by extension at least, and I can think of no more satisfying ways of celebrating my ethnic heritage today.

Friday, January 31, 2014

In Honor Of Pete Seeger: "Guantanamera"

The best picture of Pete Seeger is any one like this one: a tall, spare figure - so tall and so spare that his famous 25-fret long-necked banjo looks perfectly proportional in his hands - standing alone center stage in a large concert hall, left arm raised and hand outstretched to the audience to encourage the people to sing along, to join him, and with him to become part of the song. It hardly mattered what the song was - an old English or Appalachian ballad, an African lullaby, a hard-driving rambling tune, a fiery pro-union or anti-war anthem - all Pete Seeger wanted was for people to sing it with him, and more to the overarching point of his life and career, with each other. "I think God is everything," Seeger remarked in an interview a few years back. "Whenever I open my eyes I’m looking at God. Whenever I’m listening to someone or something I’m listening to God." For Pete, the voice of the people, or perhaps the voices of people - that was where dwelt the divine, and it made itself manifest in the sounds of people singing.

Seeger's death at age 94 earlier this week has generated a truly impressive tidal wave of accolades, remembrances, appreciations, and commentaries, and this is not in the least surprising because he was a gigantic presence in American cultural life for seventy years. While he was always quick to credit the resurgence of interest in folk music in this country to his friend Woody Guthrie ("We are all Woody's children," he often remarked) and to collectors like the Lomaxes, father and son, Seeger's own achievement is in fact far more significant in many ways. The Lomaxes were academic collectors working for the Library of Congress,  almost a guarantee of anonymity except in dusty university libraries.  Guthrie enjoyed a degree of popularity as a radio host and concert performer, and his record sales were more than respectable for a rural guy without formal training -  who also happened to be a political radical. And of course, Guthrie was struck down by Huntington's disease in his prime, diagnosed and hospitalized at the age of 40 in 1952, unable to perform or write very much for the last fifteen years of his life. That sad fact throws into even sharper relief Alan Lomax's comment that the folk song revival actually began when Guthrie met Seeger at a concert in 1940 - because Guthrie's incapacity left Seeger to carry the movement forward at the precise moment of the coming of age of American mass media with television, long-playing records, and a national audience for music.

That moment also coincided almost exactly with Seeger's fall from public grace due to his Communist Party associations, leading to his subsequent blacklisting during the worst years of McCarthyism and the Red Scare.  Seeger's Weavers - largely his own creation - had made itself the country's first legitimate pop folk group, performing a national and international repertoire of songs with consummate professionalism, where previously popular aggregations like The Carter Family had been generally  more regional in the music that they knew and played. But after Red Channels outed Seeger and fellow Weaver Lee Hays as CPUSA members (probably past tense by then, but at that point in history it didn't matter), the Weavers were dumped by Decca Records and had virtually all of their bookings and radio airplay cancelled.

It was this phase of Seeger's career especially that prompted the few but predictable discordant notes sounded in the press following his death. Some of that commentary was pointed and, to a degree at least, accurate: it took Seeger more than 30 years openly to repudiate the horrors of Stalinism that he had once endorsed, for example. But some of it was also of the "I-hope-the-old-Commie-is-burning-in-hell" stripe - mean-spirited, focused on particular aspects of Seeger's work and not the whole of it, and even in some cases trashing not only the man but the entire folk song revival - because the writers hated Seeger, they had to go after his life's edifice as well. A particularly egregious example is from David P. Goldman, who had grown up in a politically leftist family but had gravitated through his life to the other side of the political spectrum: "I was not just a Pete Seeger fan, but a to-the-hammer-born, born-and-bred cradle fan of Pete Seeger. With those credentials, permit me to take note of his passing with the observation that he was a fraud, a phony, a poseur, an imposter. The notion of folk music he espoused was a put-on from beginning to end."  Interestingly, Goldman's complaint is not simply the radical bent of much of Seeger's political music: it is the music itself he abhors as "pap," in addition to asserting that there is no "real American folk music" except the blues. The rest of what we think of as our folk heritage he dismisses as half an artificial construct of Pete's commie pals and the rest as the result of the unreconstructed ignorance of backwater rural rubes.

Well, each to his own - though you cannot help being reminded of the old parable of the three blind men trying to describe an elephant. My own observations on Seeger's politics can be found in the fourth paragraph of a piece I wrote eight years ago HERE, thank you. You don't start a worker's revolution with a banjo, and Seeger never intended to do so. In fact, he observed later in life that "if by some freak of history communism had caught up with this country, I would have been one of the first people thrown in jail." His collectivism, as I noted, was grounded in a very different set of values. And more to the point of this site - Seeger's repertoire was not some faked-up amalgam of silly old songs; it was one of the first very real iterations of world music, of the sense that one of the most important things shared by all people everywhere was music. As an expression of that belief, Seeger spent his entire career finding, learning, and performing songs from scores of countries around the world, with the traditional songs  of England and Ireland and Scotland and American cowboys and  riverboatmen and slaves occupying a central but not exclusive position in his concerts. Songs of India and Israel, South Africa and Norway, Australia and South America became familiar to Anglophone Americans through Seeger's recordings and performances.

Undoubtedly, the best-known of these Seeger discoveries is "Mbube"/"Wimoweh", but a close second is probably "Guantanamera" from Cuba, which as with many folk songs has a delightfully tangled history. The melody probably originated as a peon's song in the Cuban province of Oriente in the late 19th century, but possibly much earlier. Most Cuban scholars identify the two-word refrain as a salute to both the well-born women of the province ("las Guantanameras") and the simple peasant girls ("las guajiras"), making the tune a sort of all-purpose courting number.  However, the simple and repetitive chorus and the strict and regular meter of the lines of the verses made the original song a kind of Cuban "Hey LiLee LiLee," with street musicians and bar patrons and partygoers extemporizing verses as they went along, turning the news of the day and the sorrows of life and some randy jokes into a song that changed every time it was sung. One of the exponents of this format for "Guantanamera" - and quite controversially, one of the copyright holders - was the great Cuban bandleader Joseíto Fernández (1908-1979), who began performing the number on Havana radio around 1930. Here is Fernández from a television show some twenty years later:

My Spanish is limited but enough to recognize some of what Fernández is saying, and it is definitely not the lyric with which we are familiar today. That lyric is derived from the great Cuban poet and revolutionary and national hero  José Martí, who was killed in battle at the age of 42 in 1895 while trying to free his native land from Spanish colonial domination. Martí was an essayist, philosopher, and firebrand in addition to being a poet, sort of what you would get in American history and culture if you spliced the DNA of Thoreau, Whitman - and John Brown. The idea of taking the words of one of Cuba's most admired and lyrical writers and adding them to a popular and lovely melody is probably attributable to teacher Julian Orbón, who claimed to have done so around 1946. This new "Guantanamera" became an instant sensation in Cuba and was carried throughout Latin America by the fabulous Celia Cruz, the Queen of Latin Music, with a distinctively salsa flavored arrangement. Cruz is interspersing her own lyrics with Martí's in the best tradition of the song, but the blueprint of the modern version is audible here.

Orbón's intent was to take stanzas from five of Martí's short poems and conflate them into a single lyric. This arrangement was picked up by composer Hector Angulo, who studied in New York in the late 1950s and ran across Pete Seeger, who recognized immediately both the beauty of the melody and the poems. Seeger learned it and it became a popular part of Pete's concert repertoire. The gentle and reflective approach to the song, respecting as it does the sense of Martí's stanzas, received its widest exposure at first through Seeger's popular and widely-selling 1963 Carnegie Hall Concert LP:

It was this version that inspired The Sandpipers, a west coast vocal group being groomed by no one less than Herb Alpert, to record and release the number in 1966:

The Sandpipers' version won a gold record, was nominated for a Grammy, and went as high as #7 on the U.S. singles charts.

"Guantanamera" has continued since then to be a very popular staple of the world music song bag, with literally hundreds of cover versions currently available. Two of the best, I think, reflect the built-in flexibility of the number to differing interpretations - first, a distinctively Puerto Rican take by José Feliciano:

and a delightful mariachi version by Mariachi Imperiale de México:

I love the full-on treatment here - guitars, violins, coronets, guitarrón, percussion, the works.

But as T.S. Eliot wrote - in my end is my beginning, and I want to conclude with another version from Pete Seeger, with whom this post started long ago. This is a performance of "Guantanamera" by Seeger with his grandson Tao Rodriquez from 1993 at Wolf Trap in Virginia. The keyboardist is Arlo Guthrie, Woody's son and Seeger's frequent performing partner, and the back-up singers include Woody's daughters Cathy, Annie, and Sara Lee:

Pete Seeger was 74 when this was recorded, at an age when lots of folks pack it in and move to the Sun Belt. Not Seeger. Can we watch him in this video and listen to him and not hear and sense the love of life and music and people that animated his public work for more than 70 years? Can we not see him for what he was, a national American treasure and a gifted artist well worthy of the hundreds of awards he earned? And were we not singularly blessed as a nation to have had him with us for another twenty years following?

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

John Denver: "Leaving, On A Jet Plane"

December 31st would have been John Denver's 70th birthday had he lived, and that fact leads me rather more toward contemplation than to speculation. I have almost no inkling of what Denver might have done with these last sixteen years, and the October 1997 accident that took his life also ended his longed-for return to the center stage of American popular culture. Moreover, the period of his stratospheric popularity in the 1970s has retreated much, much farther into the past, irrelevant to the collective memory of the half of the population in the U.S. who were not even born when JD ruled the charts and airwaves or who were at best infants and toddlers - and for many of whom Denver's whooping enthusiasm in the concert videos posted to YouTube and his earnest if apparently at times naive promotion of the New Age and environmental causes of his day seem as alien to their lives and times as do the singer's granny glasses and bell bottoms.

Which is too bad, really, because Denver wrote some excellent songs in the folk idiom and performed them with consummate skill. I addressed these points recently and in more detail than I will here when I profiled "Take Me Home, Country Roads" last October. What was implicit at the end of that piece - when I quoted legendary producer Milt Okun's fervent wish that Denver would be taken seriously as an American musical artist on the same plane with Stephen Foster, Charles Ives, and Aaron Copland - was that JD was never embraced by any commuinity of critics, neither the pop and rock newspaper wags nor the academics of the professoriat, some of whom have been tripping over each other to get Bob Dylan either a real Pulitzer Prize or a Nobel Prize For Literature, or both. I know of more than a few Denver fanatics who just do not understand this at all, either the lack of attention to their hero or to the adulation accorded to Dylan and other singer-songwriters of the era, both famous and obscure, whose creative output seems generally to be more highly regarded than Denver's is, even with the re-evaluation of JD that is going on now and that I also discussed in the linked article.

The reasons for this oversight are varied, but they probably come down to what is perceived as a lack of depth and sophistication in Denver's music, something no one ever alleged about Dylan's lyrics or those of a few dozen other musical artists who like Bobby D at least skirted around the edges of the folk revival and accompanied their creations for the most part with acoustic guitars. Yet once again in this regard, Denver is being unfairly slighted. Though his highest-profile hit songs may well have been cheerful hymns to the beauties of nature and the wonders of romantic love, there was a decidedly darker undercurrent in much of Denver's writing - a melancholia approaching depression in a fine song like "Eclipse," for instance, or the urban alienation of "Fly Away." And always  - always - Denver wrote about loneliness and about isolation and about the consequences of the failure of the romantic dreams that he so famously extolled in the hits.

These two distinctly different sides of Denver's writing are evident in the first two of his compositions to be recorded professionally. The very first, copyrighted under his real name as "H.J. Deutschendorf, Jr.", was called "For Bobbie" and appeared on the second album that JD waxed as a replacement member of The Mitchell Trio in 1965. Though that original recording has yet to be posted on YouTube, Denver reunited with the original Chad Mitchell Trio for a number of concerts in 1987, and the his performance here from those shows (with his former partners in the group, Mike Kobluk and Joe Frazier) is virtually identical to the '65 studio recording:

The song was covered most famously by pop-folk superstars Peter, Paul and Mary, who renamed it "For Baby" and converted it into a tune for a newborn child. But Denver continued to perform it and record it with the original title and lyric - and the original intent as a competent if simple love ballad. It is pleasant enough, but had JD been planning a career based on songs like this, he would have been better off returning to Texas Tech.

Fortunately and famously, Denver was capable of much better writing, and his talent for matching words with melodies emerged in an emphatically more accomplished second recording, a 1966 composition that JD wanted to call "Babe, I Hate To Go." The title was nixed as drab and unimaginative by Milt Okun, who suggested that Denver use the first line of the chorus as the title instead of the last, and thus was "Leaving, On A Jet Plane" born. The last incarnation of the Mitchell Trio (with Kobluk and David Boise) recorded "Jet Plane" - complete with the comma that has since disappeared from the title but with which the tune is still under copyright - for the band's final album in 1967 called Alive:

Both the tune and lyrics here are greatly superior to the "Bobbie" number, but the performance seems rushed, as if Denver has not yet realized that he has written a somewhat sad song about lovers parting, with the "wedding ring" bit in the third verse coming across as a hopeful and possibly desperate antidote to the singer's sorrow as he contemplates the upcoming loneliness of the road. Denver's original solo rendition on his first commercially-produced album, 1969's Rhymes and Reasons, has similar pacing, if a somewhat more reflective interpretation of the lyric:

Several years later, however, when JD re-recorded some of his earlier tunes for the monster nine-times platinum-selling John Denver's Greatest Hits, Denver had altered both the speed of the melody and the more sober and quiet voice of the story:

With slight variations, this is the interpretation that Denver used in concert for the rest of his career.

Still, "Leaving, On A Jet Plane" and Denver's career would likely have been lost in obscurity (the sales of the first two recordings above were negligible) had Milt Okun not also acted as musical director for the aforementioned high profile PP&M, which may well have been the only pop-folk group whose popularity survived the onslaught of the British Invasion of rock music following the 1964 arrival of The Beatles in the U.S. Okun brought "Jet Plane" to PP&M, who included it in their 1967 offering Album 1700, surely one of the group's best and most accomplished efforts. For reasons now unknown, the band's label, Warner Brothers, waited until 1969 to release the tune as a 45rpm single, which became PP&M's last charting single (of several) and the only one to hit the #1 spot on Billboard's main pop charts.

"Jet Plane" became the signature number for the late Mary Travers, who recorded and performed it solo as well as with the trio. Further, the song's appearance on the popular 1700 album was what enabled Okun and Denver's other representatives to market the young unknown singer-songwriter to major label RCA. JD's Rhymes and Reasons debut, in fact, was released at precisely the time in autumn of 1969 that PP&M's "Jet Plane" was ascending the pop music singles charts. Additionally, one of Denver's first network TV appearances during his solo career was sitting in with PP&M for "Jet Plane" on one of the trio's specials, this one in 1969 at the height of the song's popularity - and the beginning of Denver's.

The tune has been covered by professionals hundreds and hundreds of times, in virtually every musical mode imaginable. A sampling of some of the more interesting takes - first, a version in memory of my father, a man of generally impeccable musical tastes ranging from Glenn Miller and George Gershwin to his annual seasonal subscription to the prestigious Chicago Symphony but who for some mysterious reason also loved the musical stylings of The Ray Conniff Singers:

Should that not be sufficiently abusive of the lyric and grating to the senses, I submit that this punk version by Me First and the Gimme Gimmes will do the trick:

Rather more interesting to me, not to say palatable, is what rapper and actor Mose Def does with the song:

It is a sampling of the number and not the song that John Denver wrote, but it somehow works for me in the way that Lindsay Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac remarked to John Stewart that a good pop recording should be repetitive and hypnotic.

Perhaps because of Mary Travers' top flight vocals on the hit version, "Jet Plane" has become a perennial favorite for female soloists. One of the most popular and widely-heard versions of fairly recent vintage was by Canadian Chantal Kreviazuk as part of the hit 1998 movie Armageddon:

Kreviazuk is a more than competent pro, and the jazz-tinged chord structure of her accompaniment creates a very different effect from Denver's original earnest folkie-ness.

For a contemporary female vocalist's interpretation, though, my favorite hands down is by Vienna Teng, a young Stanford engineering graduate whom I first heard ten years ago late at night while randomly flipping through television programs and seeing her do one song as the closing act on The David Letterman Show. Teng is a proficient and introspective songwriter with four albums to her credit (though she is apparently on a bit of a performing hiatus while she is working simultaneously on an MBA and M.S. at the University of Michigan), and her vocal delivery is nothing if not sensitive:

Teng gets a little too hushed at points here, perhaps, but in her favor it can be said that she at least avoids the breathiness of most of the American Idol generation of singers and demonstrates a genuine awareness of the meaning of Denver's lyric.

"There are no second acts in American lives," F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously observed, but he was not saying that revivals and comebacks are impossible. Rather, he meant that artists' careers in this country tended to be all build-up followed by decline, without the requisite second act as in the plays of his day in which the protagonist could learn and grow and develop depth and complexity in conflict in the middle of the story. I have often thought that such was the case with John Denver, who shot to international stardom and maintained a breakneck pace of developing his entertainment projects and promoting his environmental causes without being able to step aside for a time and rethink and broaden his songwriting interests. Throughout his career, he essentially got better and better at doing the same thing, though as his personal life darkened in his later years, so too did the tone of many of his musical creations. To say so is not to fault Denver; having once written a song as good as "Leaving, On A Jet Plane" is, as profoundly moving as it has been to so many people over the passing decades and generations and expressing both the light and dark of his creative vision, it would have been virtually impossible and likely foolish as well for JD not to try to forge such an expression once more. That he may never again have created so enduring a song as this speaks to his fallible humanity; that he never stopped trying, to his quality and commitment as an artist.

Monday, December 23, 2013

For The Season #6* :"The Bitter Withy/Mary Mild"

The picture to the left is a detail from a 14th century mural found in an abandoned Orthodox Christian  monastery in Ethopia. The scene depicted is perhaps just a bit startling to those of us raised in conventional Western  religious traditions because it clearly shows the Virgin Mary (identifiable, of course, from her blue garb and the orange halo) armed with a doubled-up rope with which she is walloping little Jesus, distinguishable as well by that oddly-colored holy diadem. The good monks  wanted viewers to understand that this is a real and painful whipping: note the consternation on the face of the non-holy child to the left as he witnesses the severe chastisement of his chum for transgressions unknown. Little Jesus seems to be taking it all pretty well - there is an almost nirvanic calm in his facial expression that stands in stark contrast to Mary's cross look, which seems to be a combination of sorrow and anger. The point of this mural - its theme, if you will - is that little Jesus was a boy like any other boy, one who needed severe discipline at times as all normal boys do. The net effect of the work is to emphasize the humanity of Jesus, which was a hotly-contested point of faith in the early Christian centuries, as some of the so-called heresies of the times asserted that God the Creator could not truly become one of his own creations and that therefore the "true God, true man" passage in the Nicene creed was false and the humanity of Jesus an illusion.

There is clearly no passage in the canonical books of The Bible describing anything remotely like this charming little domestic scene - but there are many such in several of the Gnostic and Apocryphal writings going back as far as the second century. And more to our concern here - one of the oldest Christmas carols extant in the English language climaxes with an incident very much like this. That carol is "The Bitter Withy," the significance of whose title will be clarified a bit later below. In the original carol, Jesus does receive a whipping from his mother for what I think most of us will agree was a pretty ugly little trick. But "The Bitter Withy" is as little-known in the U.S. as it is widely-known in the British Isles, and consequently I had never heard any version of it until an expurgated editing of the lyric ("bowdlerized" would probably be more accurate) was sung by the Kingston Trio on its wonderful and unique 1960 Christmas album, The Last Month Of The Year. Trio member Bob Shane and his friend Tom Drake - the pair who crafted the beautiful "White Snows Of Winter" profiled last December - re-wrote the "Withy" song into a softer and less assaultive ballad that they titled "Mary Mild" from references in the lyrics:

This is a lovely arrangement with excellent harmonies and an appealing slight swing to the rhythm. It also highlights what the Trio members did best - the strong lead vocal by Shane, the beautiful and impassioned high harmony by Nick Reynolds, and the baritone vocal underpinning and tasteful banjo work by Dave Guard.

But it also highlighted what according to the group's critics they did worst - which was to take a real folk song that had been sung for literally hundreds of years and utterly ruin it by perverting the song away from its original intent. To understand the extent to which that accusation might be true, you would need to hear the original carol - and see the connection to the picture at the head of this post. Here with "The Bitter Withy" is a beloved Scots folk group that took its name from this very song - their 1981 version of the original melody and lyric:

Just to make sure that we all heard that correctly - we have the same skipping little Jesus wanting to play at ball as in "Mary Mild." We also have the same disdainful rich boys ("born in a baron's hall," in some versions) and the bridge of sunbeams. But then the tragedy as divine little JC merrily prances over the bridge, enticing the other lads to follow. Without miraculous powers such as could create that bridge, though, our nasty little preppie One Percenters plunge to their deaths in the river or lake below. Their mothers complain, and in response Mary becomes anything but mild as she makes a switch from a willow branch (an alternate name for the tree being the "withy") and cracks the little Savior three times across the butt, presumably once for each of the little scamps whose lives he has just ended. In mortified response, Jesus curses the withy tree from which the branch "that causes me to smart" has come, commanding that henceforth it "shall be very first tree/To perish at the heart," or rot from within, as the common belief is that willows do.

Another more contemporary rendition might be in order before we get to the fascinating origins of this highly unusual song. Here is UK folk music royalty Maddy Prior with her arrangement from 2008**:

Prior's performance here accentuates the medieval origins of the tune, and her upbeat tempo and little circular dance moves during the instrumentals remind us of a point I have made in my earlier Christmas pieces linked below - that the word "carol" derives from the Celtic term coroli, which meant a celebratory circle chain dance around a central object, like a Maypole, for instance. Prior is a knowledgeable folklorist as well, and her gleeful vocals evoke what we must assume was the delight that the peasantry of the middle ages would have taken in a story in which the contemptuous and self-assured upper class boys get their comeuppance at the hands of the humble, unrecognized divinity among them. Those brats chose the wrong kid to mess with.

An equally authentic-sounding middle ages rendition comes from Kerfuffle, an English roots band that flourished in the first decade of this century and still gets together to play old music during the holidays:

Many of the late medieval and early modern English folk songs were written in the dark and melancholy sound of a minor key, and Kerfuffle's arrangement here in just such a mode emphasizes the dark themes of the song.

None of the known apocryphal gospels - of which The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of James, and The Gospel of Mary Magdalene are the most prominent - contain this exact incident, though they are replete with some very un-Savior-like deeds and pronouncements by Jesus, accounting in part for their exclusion from the biblical canon. However, the very early Infancy Gospel of Thomas (from about 185 CE) and its 7th century descendant known as the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew do contain incidents reminiscent of both "The Bitter Withy" and that other lovely and equally ancient tune, "The Cherry Tree Carol." Pseudo-Matthew presents Jesus as using divine power to strike down a rich boy who had pranked him:

"He was playing with some children at the bed of the Jordan. And as He sat there, Jesus made to Himself seven pools of clay, and to each of them He made passages, through which at His command He brought water from the torrent into the pool, and took it back again. Then one of those children, a son of the devil, moved with envy, shut the passages which supplied the pools with water, and overthrew what Jesus had built up. Then said Jesus to him: Woe unto thee, thou son of death, thou son of Satan! Dost thou destroy the works which I have wrought? And immediately he who had done this died. Then with great uproar the parents of the dead boy cried out against Mary and Joseph, saying to them: Your son has cursed our son, and he is dead..."

Two other boys meet similar fates for even lesser infractions. Many of the basic elements of "The Bitter Withy" appear here: Jesus at play near the water, the miraculous creation of the "pools," the antagonism of an unpleasant boy, the striking down of said boy, and the complaints of the bereaved parents to Mary.

Many scholars today believe that copies of the Apocrypha made their way to England in the high Middle Ages despite the fact that they were suppressed in continental Europe. In addition to the aforementioned two carols whose stories have antecedents in these books, other tantalizing clues pervade English Christianity. For instance, the non-biblical tradition that Joseph of Arimathea, he who in the gospel stories provided a tomb for the crucified Jesus, made his way to Britain in possession of the spear that pierced Christ's side and the communion wine cup from the Last Supper - the Christian version of the mythic Holy Grail - appears in both Saxon and Anglo-Norman tales and occupies a central position in the King Arthur stories. Vague references to such a journey appear in later versions of the Apocrypha, as does the legend that Jesus himself visited ancient Britannia during the "lost years" of his young adulthood, expressed most famously by the great 19th century engraver, artist and poet William Blake in his lyric "The New Jerusalem," which since 1916 has also been a well-known and beloved hymn in High Church Anglicanism:

And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon England's mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England's pleasant pastures seen!

So how, one wonders, did such a strange tale become associated with Christmas celebrations? Though the Jesus of the lyric is a child, the only Christmas-y reference is to the assertion that he "was but a poor maid's child/Born in an oxen stall" - and that is clearly intended as a derisive taunt by the soon-to-be-departed rich kids and not at all the powerfully sacred scene in Bethlehem envisioned in contemporary Christianity. The answer, I think, appears in Maddy Prior's choreography above. "The Bitter Withy" is a true carol, one that in its origins was intended for dance as well as for group singing. The real appeal of the words for the medieval English peasantry and yeomanry is the identification of the child Jesus as "one of us" - and not in the sophisticated theological sense noted above in the first paragraph of "true God, true man" but rather more in the "poor maid's child" sense, someone who like them was of the downtrodden and wretched of the earth, but who was endowed with powers that enabled him to deal out the kind of appropriate justice to the impious and arrogant masters of the land, something that the serfs themselves could never do except in their wildest dreams. Or, perhaps, in a Christmas dance and song.


**Maddy Prior's Full Lyric
As I fell out on a bright holiday
Small hail from the sky did fall
Our Saviour asked his mother dear
If he might go and play at ball

"At ball? At ball? My own dear son?
It's time that you were gone,
And don't let me hear any mischief
At night when you come home."

So it's up the hill, and down the hill
Our sweet young Saviour run,
Until he met three rich young lords
"Good morning" to each one.

"Good morn", "good morn", "good morn"
said they, "Good morning" then said He
"And which one of you three rich young lords
will play at the ball with me?"

"Ah, we're all lords' and ladies' sons
born in a bower and hall
And you are nought but a poor maid's child
Born in an ox's stall"

"If I am nought but a poor maid's child
born in a ox's stall
I'll make you believe at your latter end
I'm an angel above you all"

So he made a bridge of beams of the sun
And over the river ran he
And after him ran these rich young lords
And drowned they all three.

Then it's up the hill, and it's down the hill
Three rich young mothers run
Crying "Mary Mild, fetch home her child
For ours he's drowned each one."

So Mary Mild fetched home her child
And laid him across her knee
And with a handful of withy twigs
She gave him lashes three.

"Ah bitter withy. Ah bitter withy
that causes me to smart,
And the withy shall be very first tree
To perish at the heart."

*The first five songs in this series of holiday-related folk tunes included #1 - "We Wish You A Merry Christmas"; #2 - "All Through The Night/Ar Hyd Y Nos"; #3 - "When Was Jesus Born/The Last Month Of The Year"; #4 - "Gloucestershire Wassail Song", and #5 - "Sing We Here Noel". Other Christmas-themed articles on CompVid101 include "The White Snows Of Winter", "Children, Go Where I Send Thee", "The Virgin Mary Had A Baby Boy", "Riu Riu Chiu/Guardo Del Lobo", and "Go Tell It On The Mountain".