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".


Friday, November 22, 2013

JFK 50 Years Later: Songs Of November 22, 1963

"This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly, than ever before. And with each note we will honor the spirit of John Kennedy, commemorate his courage, and reaffirm his faith in the Triumph of the Mind."
- Leonard Bernstein, November 25, 1963 
Friday, November 22, 1963 was the only day I missed during my freshman year of high school because I was in bed with a left ear severely infected from early-season practice for the school swimming team. I had been hospitalized briefly two years before for mastoiditis in the same ear, a potentially very serious ailment, so my parents insisted I stay home that day (really against my wishes since I was terrified of falling behind in algebra) and allow the antibiotics prescribed by Dr. McMahon after his house call the day before to take their effect.

Not long after 12:30pm in Chicago, my mother came into the room I shared with my older brother, her face ashen and serious. "Mrs. Schroeder just called," she said. "She heard on television that several shots had been fired at President Kennedy's car in Texas. They don't know if he was hurt or not. I know how important history is to you, and today may be a day that people will remember for a long time." With that, she helped me bundle up and go downstairs to the family room and turn on the television, the television that was absolutely never on during the day except on weekends for sports - which is why Mrs. Schroeder, a devotee of  the classic soap opera As The World Turns (which began in the Midwest at 12:30) and a good friend and neighbor who knew of the blanket of electronic silence that enveloped the Moran home during the daylight hours, thought it important to call my mother with the news.

My two youngest brothers, the only ones of the nine of us at the time (the tenth was gestating at that point) who were not in school yet, were already down for their afternoon naps, so my mother and I watched the events of the afternoon unfold as they happened, largely in undisturbed silence, broken only by my mother several times after the 1pm death announcement with "Those poor little children! Those poor, poor children!" in reference to Kennedy's daughter and son, both younger than seven and now fatherless. In the midst of the earliest hours of a developing national cataclysm, this was exactly the aspect of the event that for me was quite understandably what affected my mother most deeply.

But she knew also her many children well, and she was exactly right about my preoccupation with all things historical - at that point, primarily the day-to-day remembrances of the events of the American Civil War a hundred years earlier. The centennial of the delivery of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address had just passed on November 19th, and the memorials of that event were fittingly quiet and sober, in memory now almost a prelude to the darkness to come upon the nation so swiftly and so soon after.

For me, history was never a dry compendium of names and dates. It was rather a set of vivid stories of people and events and conflicts, much more like a great and engrossing novel or an epic film than a subject fit only for school time boredom and resentment. I can trace much of my love of folk music to my love of history, or perhaps I could better explain them as twin children born of the same colorful childhood imagination. Robert Rogers of Rogers' Rangers, for example, was not for me merely a minor footnote in colonial history but was rather a giant figure of daring romance whom I had met in the 700 pages of Kenneth Roberts' wonderful Northwest Passage, still among my all-time favorite novels. Similarly, "The Escape Of Old John Webb" was more than just a song that I enjoyed hearing and singing; it was an adventure of which I was a part, a tale in which it was I who was breaking locks and bolts to free old John, if only in fantasy.

Hence my mother's concern that since I was home, by chance or by an act of providence, I should be able to see what was happening on a day that indeed people have remembered for a long time.

I cannot say that I was thinking of songs or music during the dark weekend that followed the assassination - but others were. The producers and crew of the UK's satirical Saturday evening revue That Was The Week That Was hosted by David Frost, a show already familiar to many Americans from excerpts broadcast on U.S. network variety shows, quickly re-tooled the program to become a memorial to JFK. At the center of the shortened and somber broadcast was a song written that day by Herb Kretzmer and David Lee that they titled "The Summer Of His Years." It was sung on the show by regular cast member Millicent Martin. While no video of the actual show is currently available (even though it was broadcast on Sunday the 24th on American networks), Martin reprised her performance a month later on TW3's year-end review. The song begins at about 2:05.



I remember being stunned by this performance. I could not conceive that a song so articulate, so appropriate, and so complete could be composed, arranged, rehearsed, and performed so quickly after the event.

Across the continent from me in California, Beach Boys Brian Wilson and Mike Love were working on songs for a new album on November 22nd. Years later, Love remembered that

"The Warmth of the Sun" was started in the early morning hours of the same morning that President Kennedy was killed in Dallas. The melody was so haunting, sad, melancholy, that the only thing that I could think of lyrically was the loss of love, when interest slips and feelings aren't reciprocated... though I wanted to have a silver lining on that cumulus nimbus cloud so I wrote the lyrics from the perspective of, 'Yes, things have changed and love is no longer there, but the memory of it lingers like the warmth of the sun.'



Love's commentary notwithstanding, I never saw much of a connection between the teen angst of "The Warmth of the Sun" and Kennedy's death - but others have, and the date and circumstances of its composition make it a necessary inclusion here.

Also in California on the same Friday, the Kingston Trio was in San Francisco working on its own new album, an uncharacteristically sober group of songs for an LP to be titled Time To Think. The news of Kennedy's assassination struck Trio member and songwriter John Stewart especially hard, and on Friday evening he tried to come to terms with his emotions by writing "Song For A Friend." When the album was released a few months later, the liner notes reported that the song was recorded on November 25, 1963, the day of JFK's funeral.



Stewart would go on to a long and distinguished if under-appreciated career as a singer-songwriter, but here at the age of 24 he is clearly still a journeyman learning his craft."Song For A Friend" has utter sincerity and some fine if sentimental imagery going for it, but it is a far cry from the sophisticated imagistic lyrics that would characterize much of Stewart's later work, including more than a dozen songs that referenced the assassination in one way or another. Compare "Friend," for example, to the recently-profiled "Dreamers On The Rise" from the 1980s, which though growing more directly out of Robert Kennedy's death also makes at least oblique reference to JFK's - and is a far better song.

In fact, all of these first three selections are probably of more interest as historical artifacts than they are as representations of great songwriting. I would not put either the Wilson/Love tune or Stewart's composition in the top 25 of the best songs of either of them.

"The Summer Of His Years" may be a bit of a different story, though as a topical song addressing a specific event it has probably outlived its ability to have the same kind of impact that it did at the point of its initial performance. Pop singer Connie Francis had a somewhat successful single with it in early 1964, but I thought that a far better recording was released by the Chad Mitchell Trio later that same year on its album Reflecting:



The CMT fused "Summer" with George F. Root's Civil War classic "The Battle Cry of Freedom," and if the former song does not rise to the same level of excellence that the latter does, the trio's medley works well as an expression of hope and the need to go on - and "Summer" bears up well while occupying the same track as "Battle Cry."

Roger McGuinn, who had cut his teeth professionally backing up the Chad Mitchel Trio under his real name of Jim, also reacted quickly to Kennedy's murder. He took an old public domain song that had been popularized around Greenwich Village in the 1950s by Dave van Ronk and Erc Von Schmidt called "He Was A Friend Of Mine" and according to McGuinn "[re]wrote the song the night John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I suppose you could say it's one of the earliest Byrds songs. The arrangement used was as I'd always sung it." McGuinn's lyrics point directly to the assassination:



The formation of The Byrds was a year in McGuinn's future when he completed his adaptation; the band waxed it in November of 1965.

That same month, singer-songwriter Phil Ochs, whose work is currently enjoying a long-overdue renascence, was touring England and wrote the first draft of what might be regarded as his magnum opus, "The Crucifixion." Where Ochs' previous best-known and best songs had been pointed, pithy, and often by turns uproariously satirical or prophetically angry, "The Crucifixion" is a long and sometimes rambling meditation that uses the Passion of the Christ as a metaphor for the contemporary propensity to sacrifice society's heroes.



While Ochs' larger point might have been philosophical, he also made clear that the parallels to Kennedy's death were intentional. "The Kennedy assassination," said Ochs, "in a way was destroying our best in some kind of ritual. People say they really love the reformer, they love the radical, but they want to see him killed. It's a certain part of the human psyche..." Robert F. Kennedy reportedly teared up when Ochs sang the song for him, sensing immediately the connection to his brother, whose death even a mere two years later had begun to assume the mantle of a martyrdom.

Probably the highest profile song to grow out of the assassination trauma appeared three years later in 1968. Again and like Stewart's "Dreamers" primarily a reaction to the murders that year of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, Dick Holler's "Abraham, Martin, and John" continued the mythologization of the three title figures, and as recorded by former teen heartthrob Dion DiMucci reached #4 of American singles charts late in the year:


The commercial success of the recording resuscitated Dion's flagging career, and the overt and unapologetic sentimentality of the number seemed perfectly attuned to the needs of an American public that had grown understandably weary of the senseless and seemingly unending sequence of horrendous, violent shocks - the murders and riots and bitter, divisive civil strife - that assaulted the nation's consciousness through the decade and shook its self-perception to its very heart. It was far more comforting to picture four men who had died pointless, brutal, and bloody deaths "walking up over the hill" than it was to confront the awful truth that a republic of ideas had become, as it sometimes had at prior points in its history, a shooting gallery for the psychotic, the alienated, and the disaffected. Leonard Bernstein's "triumph of the mind" quoted above seemed a distant dream at best and mendacious and fraudulent lie at worst. Transgressions born in blood just could not be redeemed in song.

Yet through the decades since 11/22/63, songwriters have kept on trying to do so - or at least to come to terms with what did or did not happen that day. A number of websites have attempted to develop comprehensive lists of tunes that have touched on that event, the most nearly complete of which seems to me at be at TurnMeOnDeadMan.com (the site's name being an allusion to the "death of Paul McCartney" flap around 1970). Scores of songs and versions of songs are listed here, including quite a few from punk and indie and alternative rock bands ranging from major artists to the deservedly anonymous. Some of the selections there and on other lists border on the silly. Paul Simon's "Sounds of Silence" may have been written in 1964, for example, but Simon is concerned with urban alienation, with how Walt Whitman's beautiful and vibrant 19th century "Mannahatta" - "The beautiful city, the city of hurried and sparkling waters! the city of spires and masts!" - could have degenerated into the lonely dark alleys and mean streets of his later "The Boxer" - and neither Kennedy nor his assassination had anything to do with that.

That list also omits some of the songs and some of the renditions included here - not surprisingly, I would say. Most of the selections in this post emerged from the pop folk era, and the impact and importance of that style of music has been largely forgotten, however extensively its DNA remains in the American pop bloodstream. Could I add but one song to the list, I think it well might be this one - an obscure John Stewart number written around 1990 that expresses a sense of all that has been lost since that day in Dallas:



I am not sure that I have ever fully endorsed the sentiment of Stewart's last line, much as I have a visceral recognition of what he is trying to say. The world changed on that day, and something was lost that has never been fully recovered. To suggest as many have that our "innocence" perished in Dealey Plaza that day would be to ignore the reality of an American history filled with awful experiences as recent as the Second World War or as remote as slavery and the Civil War it spawned. We could hardly have been termed "innocent" in 1963, whatever else we were. And two generations of Americans - my students, many of them - have been born and come of age in the five decades since the assassination. Each has grown to maturity with its own sense of itself, of its country, of what the promise of America has meant to it.

I have thought long and hard as this anniversary approached about what it meant to me and to my country, and I have no simple or easy answers. I was not, as my friend Mike Peterson observed in his excellent posts on 11/20 and 11/22 in his popular Comic Strip of the Day website, personally traumatized by the assassination, though I remember being fearful and disoriented for some time afterward, and I wept unabashedly during the broadcast of the funeral on Monday the 25th - not at the rehearsed salute of JFK's son but rather at the site of his two grief-stricken brothers standing in despairing silence at the eternal flame. Something was lost indeed - but what? Simplicity? Security? my own childhood? I cannot say in clear and uncertain terms.

But for me the answer may well exist somewhere in the pairing of these last two videos. In 1993 at a John Stewart show I picked up a CD called The Trio Years in which Stewart in the late 1980s had re-recorded some of the songs he had written when he was a member of the Kingston Trio 25 years earlier. One track hit me with overwhelming force, a song called "New Frontier" that had been the title song of a KT album released in early 1963 and that in its first incarnation had been the youthful Stewart's ebulliently optimistic response to the ebullient optimism of the early Kennedy years:



Twenty-five years later, Stewart heard his own song this way:



The forward-looking voice of the young man has evolved into the retrospective voice of the old, a progress from unquestioning idealism to, perhaps, a wisdom tempered by experience. The man who died in Dallas exactly fifty years ago as I write this - 12:30pm CST - left behind a promise unfulfilled, a promise touched upon to one degree or another in many of the songs here. The imperative to fulfill as much of one's own promise in that time allotted to us may be the one lonely, solitary meaning to take away from the otherwise pointless tragedy of a half century ago.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Gordon Lightfoot: In Celebration Of His 75th Birthday

Gordon Lightfoot is 75 today, and that is a happy fact for any number of reasons - the first of which, of course, is that he is still with us to celebrate the day after his well-documented close brush with the Great Beyond in 2002. Lightfoot's survival of a stomach aneurysm, his five weeks in a coma, and his subsequent direction from his hospital bed of the production and remixing of his last studio album (Harmony, released in 2004)  are a testament to his toughness and grit, to say the very least. It is also a pleasure to see Lightfoot alive and kicking and in plenty good enough shape to accept all the awards and accolades and honors that have been heaped on him in recent years. This adulation has come now, perhaps, because as with several of his artist contemporaries (John Denver springs immediately to mind, as I note in the linked article), the pop music world in the U.S. had largely forgotten about Gord after his five minutes of fame (about five years, actually) in the 1970s, and Lightfoot's near-fatal illness may well have prompted people to dust off all those old tapes and LPs and realize what a treasure his career has been. 

Denver never lived to see the popular and critical reconsideration of his work (again, discussed at more length in the article above), but Lightfoot has accepted it all with characteristic grace, with obvious enjoyment, and with a quiet understanding of what his music has meant to two generations of Canadians and Americans. Lightfoot touches on all of this during this brief interview segment from the CBC in 2008 as he turned 70. It is a pretty good short intro to the man and his music as well:



I had my own say on Lightfoot a year and a half ago in a post that celebrated both the 50 year mark of Gord's career and one of my own favorite Lightfoot numbers, "Bitter Green." I do not want to repeat myself, so all I will say from that post at the moment is that of all the great folk-styled singer-songwriters of the Sixties and later - Paul Simon, John Denver, Joni Mitchell, John Stewart, Kate Wolf, Tom Paxton, Bob Dylan, James Taylor, and so many more - Gordon Lightfoot remains my single favorite through the five decades since I first heard his music. Why that is so is easy to express. Even given the wide range of experiences, events, and ideas that his songs have dealt with, through all these years Lightfoot has remained faithful to his original vision, and that vision is closer to real folk music than that of probably any of his contemporaries except Paxton. The acoustic purity and deceptive simplicity of Lightfoot's recorded songs mark him to my way of thinking as a great artist, one who expresses the profound complexity of human experience within a genre whose dictates demand an accessibility and singability that would seem to obstruct such expression. Lightfoot accomplishes much while using rather little: a few acoustic instruments, usually, and his own voice, often unsupported by back-up singers or even double-tracked harmony. His entire body of work is concrete exemplification of the principle that less is often more.

It would be a fool's errand to try to assert what Gordon Lightfoot's best songs are, and God knows I would be hard pressed even to narrow my own favorites to twenty or twenty-five compositions. Yet of those, six or seven immediately suggested themselves to me to be appropriate for this article, mostly because these are some of the ones that I find myself returning to year after year and decade after decade to listen to, to reflect upon, and to play and sing for myself and my friends.

"Early Morning Rain"
This, of course, was the composition that put Lightfoot on the map, largely as a result of its appearing on two high-profile LPs. Canadian stars and Lightfoot mentors Ian and Sylvia recorded the tune even before GL did and named their fourth album on Vanguard after it, and the song's appearance on Peter, Paul and Mary's See What Tomorrow Brings record gave it its widest audience, since that LP reached #11 on the Billboard album charts and earned a gold record for the trio. Yet both groups softened the number, giving it a tinge of melancholy but downplaying the anguished near-despair of the song as Lightfoot wrote it - and as he performs it here, from 1979:



"Song For A Winter's Night"
As I mentioned in the "Bitter Green" post above, many of Lightfoot's most beloved songs are of love neglected or lost. This is one of the best of those.


"Affair On Eighth Avenue"
...speaking of which...

The entire BBC concert from which this performance is taken is available on YouTube and will be linked at the end of this article.

"The Minstrel Of The Dawn"
In which the troubadour sings of the life of the troubadour:

"10 Degrees And Getting Colder"
Combining the troubadour and lost-traveler-on-the-open-road-motifs:


"Did She Mention My Name?"
A rather more upbeat reflection on love and separation:


"Farewell To Nova Scotia"
Finally, a reminder that Lightfoot started out as a folksinger with a masterful way with a traditional tune like this:


Lightfoot continues to tour, averaging about one show per week, mostly in Canada but with frequent forays south of the border. It is a schedule busy enough to keep him sharp and engaged as a performer, and if time has diminshed the voice somewhat, the spirit is as willing as ever. Lightfoot usually demurs in interviews when people ask him what he thinks his legacy will be, and I understand that. As in the first video above, he thinks of himself as a working and touring songwriter and musician - a troubadour, in other words - and that is where his focus lies. But I closed the "Bitter Green" post with my assessment of his legacy, and at the risk of becoming self-referential, I would like reiterate it here:
...in the last half century Gordon Lightfoot's music has embedded itself in Canada's cultural consciousness fully as much as has that of Ian Tyson or Joni Mitchell or Neil Young....Americans seem seldom to place GL on as lofty a pedestal as those others, possibly because of the very transparent emotion of his songs that make compositions like "Bitter Green" so beloved. But that transparent emotion is part of what has enabled Stephen Foster's songs to remain popular 150 years after their composition, and I'd bet that if you asked Lightfoot if he would rather be equated with Neil Young now or with Stephen Foster in a century or so, I think I know what he would say.
___________________________________________________________
Four of the videos above are taken from an hour-long BBC concert special from 1972. It is a shortened version of the full show I saw that year during his "Summer Side of Life" tour. The DVD of that show is no longer available, but the entire television performance has been uploaded in HD to YouTube:

Lightfoot On The BBC: Full Show

It is well worth the time and concludes with a masterful rendition of "Canadian Railroad Trilogy," another gem.