Monday, July 11, 2016

Roots Radio 16: Nothin' But A Man - Songs About Work & Working People, Part 1

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Ben Franklin's famous axiom that nothing is certain in life except death and taxes overlooks one other essential element: the work that may well drive us to death so we can pay those taxes. "By the sweat of your brow shall you earn your bread" is one of our oldest of old saws on work - a punishment for sin and a curse upon humankind. And truly, through much of the history of human experience, work has been just that. And yet - even within the context of often desperate necessity, our work has often had rewards beyond insuring mere subsistence. And that is the theme of my show this week - folk songs and blues songs and country songs and roots songs about people at work, about how what we do to earn a living can frustrate us, satisfy us, ennoble us, or crush us - sometimes all of them simultaneously.
 
This is the first hour of the original 2 hour radio broadcast  from June 18, 2016.


Show Theme: From "Forever & A Day" By The Kingston Trio
 
Opening: "John Henry" - John Cephas & Phil Wiggins

The Rush Of The Mighty Engine (Trains)
Old John Henry Died On The Mountain - Henry Grady Terrell
Jerry, Go Oil That Car - Harry "Haywire Mac" McClintock
Linin' Track - Lead Belly
Casey Jones - Johnny Cash
Drill Ye Tarriers - The Chad Mitchell Trio
Pat Works On The Railway - The Cottars
The Erie-Lackawanna Line - Hank Cramer

Working The Mill (Factories)
Ten And Nine - Liam Clancy
The Work Of The Weavers - Alex Sutherland & His Cronies
The Four Loom Weaver - Karan Casey
Aragon Mill - Karen Matheson, Mary Chapin Carpenter
Babies In The Mill - Larry Penn

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Roots Radio 15: The Rising, Part 2 - More Songs From The Easter Rebellion And The Troubles

A bit later than I intended, but here is the second half of my April radio show entitled "The Rising." This second half includes songs from Ireland's Easter rebellion, the subsequent War For Independence, and the long period of the Irish civil war and the Troubles. The last song in the program would be of especial interest to folk fans. It is Dominic Behan himself singing the original and bitterly complete version of his composition "The Patriot Game," with all six verses intact. It is a rare recording, only recently digitized from vinyl, and has seldom been heard in the U.S. That's mostly because the late Liam Clancy, whose signature solo this became, elided two verses because he disapproved of Behan's condemnation of Irish rebel leader and later president Eamon de Valera in one verse and an endorsement of shooting police in another. This naturally enraged Behan (even more than Bob Dylan's purloining of the melody for his greatly inferior "With God On Our Side") because it reduced Behan's radical Irish Republican protest song to a generalized lament about the waste of war.




Friday, April 22, 2016

Roots Radio 14: The Rising, Part 1 - "To Tread The Upward Way"


Putting this show together was a labor of love, growing out of an interest in Irish history and folk music that extends back to my childhood days more than 55 years ago. Like love, the songs in the program are often tinged with the sadness of loss - but also like love itself, the music endures and points to a final if compromised triumph. And 'twouldn't be a sin to toss back a glass or two in memory of the heroes of '16 immortalized in these tunes. Hope you'll give us a listen! 
  
The Rising: Songs For The Centennial Of The Easter Rebellion 

Opening: O'Donnel Abu - The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem/Yeats - Easter 1916 - Ernest Lyons 3:34  

Part 1: To Tread The Upward Way 
Follow Me Up To Carlow - Planxty 2:21 
Young Ned of the Hill - The Pogues 2:42 
The Rising of the Moon - Patsy Watchorn 2:48 
The Wind That Shakes The Barley - Dolores Keane 4:18 
Kelly, The Boy From Killane - The Fighting Men Of Crossmaglen 2.34 
The West's Awake - United Irishmen 3:26 
Roddy McCorley - The Clancy Brothers/Tommy Makem 2:35  

Part 2a: A Terrible Beauty 
The Foggy Dew - Sinéad O'Connor & The Chieftains 5:20 
Legion of the Rear Guard - The Flying Column/Margo Largery 2:50 
James Connolly - Dublin City Ramblers 3:22

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Roots Radio 13: Sunset & Evening Star, Part 2 - "Love Among The Ruins" & "Time & The River"

This is the second hour of the show "Sunset And Evening Star: Songs For The Last Of Life, For Which The First Was Made," originally broadcast on the Roots Music & Beyond program on KPFK-FM in Los Angeles on January 16, 2016. This half of the show presents folk and country songs that look at love lost and love preserved in the later years of life, as well as tunes that reflect on the changes wrought by time on us all as the decades pass. The program concludes with a two part tribute to the late folk and roots guitarist Pete Huttlinger, who died on January 15th of this year.  First, we hear Pete's instrumental version of the old American folk spiritual "Poor Wayfaring Stranger," whose lyric speaks of crossing over Jordan River and into eternity, and New England bluegrass band Salamander Crossing with their lovely musical setting for "Crossing The Bar," the widely-known poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in which the poet contemplates the approaching end of his life and from which this show derives its title - 

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea...




Show Opening: From "Forever And A Day" by The Kingston Trio

Love Among The Ruins
Kisses Sweeter Than Wine - The Weavers 3:44
When I Was Young - The Kingston Trio  2:23
La Chanson Des Vieux Amants - Judy Collins  4:38
The Dutchman - Steve Goodman  4:19
A Woman Half My Age - Kitty Wells 2:41
Angel From Montgomery - Bonnie Raitt  3:56
When You Are Old - Martina McBride  2:54

Time And The River
We'll Meet Again - Johnny Cash 2:58
Last Leaf On The Tree - Tom Waits  2:54
Age - Jim Croce  3:44
It Was A Very Good Year - Bob Shane  3:21
Poor Wayfaring Stranger - Pete Huttlinger 2:30
Crossing The Bar - Salamander Crossing 3:35



Monday, January 18, 2016

Roots Radio 12: Sunset & Evening Star - Songs For The Last Of Life For Which The First Was Made

I have a number of new song articles in the works, but until then - here is the first hour of my 1/16/16 KPFK radio show presenting songs about getting older. Lots of fun tunes here.



Show Theme: Old Friends/Bookends - Simon & Garfunkel 3:55

Looking Askance
The Remember Song - Tom Rush 3:14
Oh No - Christine Lavin 2:36
When You Are Old and Gray - Tom Lehrer 1:50
The Two Hundred Year Old Alcoholic - Liam Clancy 5:45
Maids, When You're Young Never Wed An Old Man - The Dubliners 3:28

Old Folks At Home
Silver Threads Among the Gold - Jerry Douglas and Mike Auldrid - 4:19
That Silver Haired Daddy Of Mine - Gene Autry 2:46
That Ain't The Grandpa That I Know - Joe Diffie 5:26
Grandma's Hands - Bill Withers 2:00
My Grandpa's Hands - Chuck Pyle 6:06
Old Grandad - Fats Waller 2:46

Friday, December 25, 2015

For The Season #8: "The Cherry Tree Carol"

One of the most charmingly poignant of all English Christmas carols is also one of the oldest, a fitting companion in both its age and its source to "The Bitter Withy", which was the subject of my Christmas post two years ago. Both carols date at least to the middle of the fifteenth century and almost surely even earlier since each song appears in both handwritten and printed copies in Middle English, that odd hybrid of Anglo-Saxon and Old French that was the percursor of the Modern English that emerged around the time of Shakespeare. Yes, as an English teacher for 40 years I am well aware that lots of people think of Willie Shakes as "old English," but his work really isn't that at all. Most of us can make easy sense of at least half of what Shakespeare wrote simply by listening closely to good actors perform his plays or recite his poems. How hard is "To be or not to be..." or "But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun" to understand, grammatically at least? Want a bit of genuine Old English to chew on a bit this fine Christmas morn? OK, try this on for size:

  Fæder ūre, ðū ðē eart on heofonum,
  Sī ðīn nama gehālgod.
  Tō becume ðīn rice.
  Gewurde ðīn willa
  On eorþan swā swā on heofonum
.

Got it, right? Plain as day, no? OK - even in Shakespeare's time, those five lines were incomprehensible to the average person and were translated from that 9th century Old English to this, although with slightly different spelling:

Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed by Thy name.
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.

As grad students like myself decades ago could attest, Middle English is tough but much less of a challenge. For example, here is the opening of "The Cherry Tree Carol" in one of its earliest printed versions, from about 1478, shortly after William Caxton brought the first Gutenberg printing press to England. Jesus' mother-to-be Mary speaks first:

A my swete husbond, wold ye telle to me
What tre is yon standynge upon yon hylle?


You scarcely need me to tell you that Mary is saying "Ah, my sweet husband, would you tell me/What tree is yonder standing upon yon hill?" Even at that, Middle English was a thing of the past a generation or two before Shakespeare's 1564 birth - but its grammar, syntax, much of its vocabulary, and certainly its aural rhythms were so close to our own language that a) most of us could go back to 1478 and after a few days of adjusting our pronunciation and adding some now-archaic words to our repertoire, we could make ourselves understood, and b) many poems and songs like "The Bitter Withy" and "The Cherry Tree Carol" transitioned fairly easily from Middle to Modern English.

The source for "The Cherry Tree Carol" is likely the same Apocryphal  Gospel of  Pseudo-Matthew that also provided the major plot points for "The Bitter Withy," though as with that song as discussed in the article linked above, the English composers adjusted the stories and their details to the landscape of Britain. But just as "Withy" conflated some details of the apocryphal story and changed others outright, "Cherry Tree" alters the time, place, and circumstance of the earlier tale. Cherry trees were as uncommon in the ancient Middle East as they are common in England and across most all of northern Europe, and the analogous story in Pseudo-Matthew has baby Jesus commanding a much more geographically-correct palm tree - a date palm, presumably - to bestow its fruit in his mother's lap. Virtually no one in late medieval England would have ever seen a date or a palm,  so cherries made an admirable and familiar substitution, with the added advantage of a kind of archetypal fertility symbolism as well.

"Withy" and "Cherry Tree," however, part company to a degree in the nature of their emphases. "The Bitter Withy," you may recall, has a little boy Jesus building a bridge of sunbeams with which to entice some disdainful rich lads to play with him. Jesus' divinity enables him to do this and to prance across the bridge, while the other boys plunge to their deaths when they try to follow him. Now, the divinity element was a given in any Jesus story that appeared by the eighth century date of  Pseudo-Matthew, but even then the question of whether the infinite God could be truly a finite human was still a matter of (secret) debate. "Withy" comes down emphatically on the "yes" side, with little Jesus experiencing and reacting to some very recognizable human emotions: desire for companionship, sadness over rejection, anger, and resentment of his mother's punishment of his misdeeds. "Cherry Tree," however, invents a non-canonical miracle when infant Jesus, still in utero, commands the aforementioned cherry tree to yield its fruit to his mother, who is suffering the scorn and rejection of her husband, who has just learned that she is pregnant with a child he knows is not his. Little fetus Jesus is thus shown to have the full power of the God of Nature and a preternatural ability to talk, and the net effect is to stress that this is no ordinary mortal boy.

The first version of "The Cherry Tree Carol" that I recall hearing remains my favorite. It was Mike Kobluk's solo on The (Chad) Mitchell Trio's 1965 LP, Typical American Boys:



Kobluk is a marvelous interpretive singer, as this track demonstrates. His lead on the CMT's ensemble performance of Ian Tyson's "Four Strong Winds" is a large part of why I believe that cut to be the finest version of the song ever recorded.

"Cherry Tree" is arguably more deeply embedded in the English aural landscape than it is in the American, so it is to me no surprise that Gordon Sumner/Sting does as fine a job with it as he does here:



I had liked Sting's work fronting The Police in the early 1980s, but with the release of his Ten Summoner's Tales album a decade later, I became a major fan as I realized both how much a a genuinely literary background this former secondary-level English teacher had, and how skillfully he had integrated significant elements of British Isles balladry into his writing. "Fields Of Gold" from 1993's Summoner's Tales is a nearly perfect amalgam of a kind of Romantic-era poetic sensibility with the structure of a 14th century Middle English ballad. Quite an achievement, really - and a key to how he can translate this old song into his own vocal style and idiom.

Now I don't need much of an excuse ever to include a Judy Collins performance in these posts; she is one of the greatest singers of my lifetime, and like her contemporaries Linda Ronstadt and Joan Baez, she has worked her vocal magic across a variety of genres and styles. But Collins brings something special to ballad-based folk tunes, most especially I think when she deals with a protagonist in the lyrics who is a female, often one in some sort of travail. "Anathea" and "In The Hills Of Shiloh" from her early repertoire spring instantly to mind. That sensibility lends an immediate and striking pathos to the lyrics of "The Cherry Tree Carol," with Collins here in a 1996 performance at the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina:



The source story in Pseudo-Matthew creates a different context for the miracle than does "Cherry Tree." Instead of the latter's journey during Joseph and Mary's betrothal period, the Pseudo-Matthew context is the Flight Into Egypt, when the Holy Family as it came to be termed is fleeing from the murderous wrath of King Herod (see last year's "Coventry Carol" post for more on this delightful character). Both J and M are suffering from thirst and hunger, and that prompts infant Jesus to command the palm tree to bow down and give them its fruit and to "open a veyne" to supply them with water as well. There is no recrimmination here regarding the parentage of Jesus, and it is that aspect of the cherry tree tune - emanating as it does from Joseph's moral rectitude - that adds the element of pathos to Mary's silent suffering of an understandable but unjust accusation, as well as her wonder at the miracle and her resolute determination as she "went home with her heavy load" of cherries. Judy Collins' sensitive reading captures all of that quite effectively here.

For something entirely different, here is The Mark O'Connor Bluegrass Band with an instrumental rendition:



O'Connor's group is adept at creating the more usual blazing bluegrass sound in the rest of its repertoire, but I think that it takes a stroke of imaginative musical genius to recognize the idea that the standard bluegrass instrumental blend could be put to so quiet and moving a rendition. "The Cherry Tree Carol" not surprisingly does appear here and there in southern Appalachian folklore, though not at all as O'Connor and his band present it.

There are scores of variations on the lyrics of "The Cherry Tree Carol" across the English-speaking world, and a YouTube search will turn up more than a hundred recording and performance videos of the number, a significant percentage of which are by large chorales and classical orchestras. But "The Cherry Tree Carol" came into existence as an acoustic folk song, as we would term it today, and that is why I greatly prefer the simplicity inherent in these four renditions. The ancient roots of the song and its hauntingly beautiful melody make it a companion worthy  to stand with its better-known relatives in the body of music associated with Christmas.
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*The first seven songs in this series of holiday-related folk tunes include #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"; #5 - "Sing We Here Noel"; #6 - "The Bitter Withy/Mary Mild"; and #7 - "The Coventry Carol."   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".