Monday, May 18, 2015

Roots Radio 5: Bound For Californ-i-o: Golden Songs Of The Golden State

More information on Artists and songs in italics below.

Bound For Californ-i-o

Jim Moran's Folk Music Podcast May 18, 2015

Show Theme: From "Forever and a Day" - The Kingston Trio

Opening: California, Here I Come - East Bay Banjo Club
A delightful group per show commentary. Their last big gig was in April at Sheep Shearing Day at Forest Hill Farm. That about says it all.

The Gold Rush

Santy Anno - The Weavers
From the group's 1957 album 'The Weavers At Home." Perhaps the definitive 20th century rendition of the tune and ample evidence of why this was the greatest pop-folk group of them all.

Days of '49 - The Knob Lick Upper 10, 000
Knob Lick is in Kentucky; "upper 10,000" was the group's translation of a German word that most of us would render as "upper crust" or "elite." The trio consisted of  Erik Jacobsen, Dwain Story, and Peter Childs, who met as students at Oberlin College, which had one of the oldest and most active folk environments of any college in the country. The KLU10k released three excellent albums at precisely the wrong time, in 1963 and 1964, right when pop-folk-acoustic music was being washed away by the British Invasion. Too bad.

Bound For The Promised Land - Craig Duncan
Duncan specializes in hymns and church music, especially as those were sung during the country's formative years. This hymn can be rendered as an exceptionally stirring and messianic march; Duncan's choice to perform it more quietly with dulcimer layered on dulcimer is sublime. The chorus runs "I am Bound for the Promised Land/Bound for the Promised Land/O who will come and go with me?/I am bound for the Promised Land."

Oh, California! - Andrea Zonn
Zonn was the original fiddler with The Union Station before Alison Krause joined the band. Zonn has been most visible during the last fifteen years or so as the principal fiddler for James Taylor, and the two interact warmly and brilliantly in live performance - to which a host of JT PBS specials attests. The other Grammy-winning fiddle-playing Alison - Alison Brown - also performs on this track.

Banks of Sacramento - Tom Brown
Brown's 'Short, Sharp Shanteys" is one of the most delightful albums of sea songs in recent years - and Brown frails that ol' banjo with the best of them.

The King of California - Dave Alvin
From the king of California folk/roots songwriters. An exceptional re-imagining of the Gold Rush era.

The Land of Dreams

California Mudslide - Lightnin' Hopkins
There are millions of people in California today wishing that we had had enough rain at any point in the last four years to create a mudslide. Well, not really, except as a metaphor for the agony of our current devastating drought. Hopkins presents the opposite end of the spectrum, with the mudslide viewed as a disaster in itself that seems often to be a precursor to even worse. That's a cheery thought.

California Dreaming - Lisa Ferraro & Erika Luckett
Ferraro styles herself as a jazz singer, but with her frequent partner Luckett she can do just about any kind of song - as she proves here.

Going To California - Johnny McEvoy
I ran across McEvoy while looking for songs for this blog, and he does a fine and polished job on such classic Irish folk standards as "The Leaving of Liverpool" and the Celtic "Portland Town" (not the Derroll Adams tune). But McEvoy is also a skilled and successful writer, and this tune has been covered dozens of times on both sides of the Atlantic.

California - Joni Mitchell
Written and sung with the fervor of one who has adopted California as a home. Mitchell manages to get just about every major theme of this show into her song - the freedom, the beauty and the weather - and the possibility of re-invention of self. A classic Mitchell composition and performance.

California Bloodlines - John Stewart
Stewart's love letter to the only state he ever really called home. Though he spent most of his life living in the Bay area, Stewart died in 2008 in the hospital in which he had been born in San Diego 68 years before . That seemed absolutely fitting somehow.

Outro: California/I'm Going Home - The Kingston Trio
An excellent example of why this second-generation band is every bit the equal of its predecessor group(s). There are those abroad in the land who whisper that George Grove, Bill Zorn, and Rick Dougherty actually perform this number better than the originals. Shh!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Roots Radio 3 - Echoes of April

The podcast for my KPFK-FM show "Echoes of April" is up and running and embedded here for the convenience of those inclined to listen in.The farther I go with this show - and it's been over four years now - the more I find myself inclined to spread out the music selections to include as many aspects as possible of my musical interests, well beyond the pop-folk material that characterized the earliest broadcasts. My abiding love for early British ballads is reflected in three selections early in the show (including the opening tune); for blues-inflected pop with Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday numbers; for authentic blues and gospel with the Titanic songs in the second half; for well-written singer-songwriter tunes in selections throughout; and for Irish music with Liam Clancy closing the program. The KT figures in as always, and John Stewart is represented in two songs as well.
In later podcasts I may well be able to divide the program into song-by-song chapters. For now, some creative work with the cursor and the playlist below can enable skipping around from selection to selection.

I'm proud of the show, but of more import is the fact that I loved putting it together and enjoy listening to it. Can't say how widely that sentiment will be shared, but it's the best lamp I have to guide my feet.

Give it a click if you are so inclined.

Echoes of April

KPFK Roots Music and Beyond April 18, 2015


Opening: On One April Morning - Jon Boden

Love And Roses

April, Come She Will - Simon and Garfunkel
A Rose In April - Kate Rusby
April Is The Cruelest Month - Airborne Toxic Event
In April - Johnny Flynn
Pieces of April - Three Dog Night
A Week Before Easter - Moira Cameron

April in Paris - Ella Fitzgerald/Louis Armstrong
 I'll Remember April - Boz Scaggs
April In My Heart - Billie Holiday
Sometimes It Snows In April - Rebecca Cavanaugh

April Showers - Sugarland
Hearts of the Highlands - Jeff McDonald/Autumn Reynolds
6'2 - Marie Miller
April After All - Ron Sexsmith
Green Grasses - The Kingston Trio

April Is The Cruelest Month

God Moves On The Water - Blind Willie Johnson
The Titanic - Leadbelly
When That Great Ship Went Down - The Dixiaries

The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere - Razzle Bam Boom (Mark Beckwith / Obediah Thomas)
The Battle of Shiloh's Hill - Magpie
When Lilacs Last In The Dooryard Bloom'd - John Slade
The Foggy Dew - The Wolfe Tones
And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda - Liam Clancy

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A Time For Giving

As many of my readers know, I am proud to be co-host of Roots Music & Beyond, the Saturday morning folk and roots music show on KPFK-FM, Pacifica Radio for southern California but of course streaming worldwide over the web at

KPFK is a listener-supported public radio station with a wide variety of programming - musical, informational, educational, and political. We are currently in the midst of our April fund drive and trying to reach out via social media to the broader audience that we know we have nationally and even internationally. Roots Music and Beyond presents a kind of folk programming that you won’t hear anywhere else on Southern California FM radio - and few other places on the web or over the air nationally, for that matter.

Some simple stats:

It costs us over $7 a minute just to be on the air.
Doesn’t sound like much?
Well that’s over $10, 000 a day ($10,086.47 to be exact)
Over $ 70, 600 a week
Over $ 307, 000 a month

Is this a pitch for money? You betcha!

 It’s your radio station if you want it. Support us, please, with a large or small donation. Simply click on the KPFK fund drive link here -

KPFK Fund Drive

Or Listen Live HERE to our fund drive programming for thank-you gifts and information about the benefits of ongoing contributions.

Up or down, agree or disagree, you won’t find better and more intelligent programming like this anywhere else.

Please consider making a donation to help keep us on the air with the kind of vigorous and refreshing set of perspectives that you just won't find on commercial radio.

And tune in for my next program on Saturday morning, April 18th - information and links to follow.



Saturday, January 31, 2015

In Memoriam Rod McKuen: "Love's Been Good To Me"

Rod McKuen's death on Thursday at the age of 81 was another one of those all-too-frequent-these-days John Donne moments, as in Donne's famous meditation on the connectedness of all people that climaxes with "Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee." That funeral bell tolls perhaps rather more loudly for McKuen than it may well do for many of the rest of us, because for several decades McKuen was a major force in U.S. popular culture, with his songs selling tens of millions of copies (generally recorded by higher-profile artists than McKuen was like Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams, Judy Collins, Glenn Yarbrough, Madonna, and many more) and his books of simple, emotional poetry appearing ubiquitously for some years on high school and college campuses throughout the land. By his own count, McKuen had recorded over two hundred albums and earned 63 gold and platinum records worldwide. In television and film, McKuen also racked up an impressive list of credits, as his IMDB page indicates HERE, and I recall seeing him quite accidentally and surprisingly one late night as an actor in a B western from the late 1950s. Yet though his death was treated as a major event in national newspapers and websites, it was often accompanied by the sort of "I always wondered what happened to him" reaction, or less kindly, "I didn't even know he was still alive."  This was due in part because McKuen's fifteen minutes of fame had expired decades before, but also because a major bout of clinical depression stemming from an abusive childhood engulfed him in the 1980s, in his early mid-life when he had been at his most productive, and he disappeared from the public eye for some time. He emerged from that shadow later in the decade, but times and styles had passed him by. McKuen continued to work - to write, to score, to perform - right up until shortly before his death, though on a smaller stage and with less public acclaim.

McKuen's name has appeared in the posts on this site with some frequency, primarily because the pop-folk groups of the late 1950s and early 1960s like the Kingston Trio, The Limeliters, The Brothers Four, and others were the first to record and attract wide attention to his songs, including tunes profiled on this site "Seasons In The Sun," "Doesn't Anybody Know My Name?", and "The World I Used To Know".  I'd like to crib from myself a bit here from those earlier articles because they express better than any rewrite could what I have thought of McKuen through the decades. First -

While I am not a fan at all of McKuen's attempts at poetry, I hold him in high regard as a composer and lyricist, one whose musical vision in both songs and orchestral compositions was so idiosyncratic and so out-of-step with the pop culture of his times that an artist whose songs sold tens of millions of recordings (and "Seasons In The Sun" as done by Terry Jacks is one of only a handful of single records with certified worldwide sales of ten million or more units), who had arguably the greatest pop vocalist of the last century record an entire album of his compositions (Frank Sinatra's 1969 A Man Alone), and who sold millions of books when a genuine bestseller scores in the tens of thousands in hardcover - this artist is nearly anonymous today, despite being a healthy and active senior citizen. So much for the glory of the world....Part of the problem with McKuen's legacy, and here I mean the fact that this artist whose works in different genres were wildly popular in their day (even though he never evolved into a leading performer himself) is so largely unknown to younger generations today and forgotten by his own, is that McKuen's music was never quite either fish or fowl - never traditional-sounding or protest-oriented enough to be remembered as folk but never quite complex enough to bear comparison with the work of great pop songsmiths like Cole Porter or Johnny Mercer.

And more to the point of today's song - 

I always thought that McKuen the composer was at his best when, as with French writers like Brel, his lyrics and melodies were tinged with a kind of fin de siècle melancholy, a sadness as gentle as an autumn mist. Think, for instance, of the lyric derived from William Butler Yeats in McKuen's "Isle in the Water" - the subtle changes he makes to Yeats' poem and his original lines make even this love song quietly wistful. "Love's Been Good To Me" is one of the 60s best reflective ballads...

"Love's Been Good To Me" is as fine a song as McKuen ever wrote at expressing quietly a sense of  passing time and its attendant loss, and as such makes a fine eulogy for its composer. It is in its chord structure and lyric sensibility most definitely a mainstream pop number, and of course the best-known version was as a middling hit for Frank Sinatra, recorded for the aforementioned A Man Alone album.  Yet interestingly, the song comes across most effectively in the roots-y performances below by Johnny Cash and the Kingston Trio, both of whom respect the song's pop origins but present it with minimal instrumentation and without the lush orchestrations common to most other versions - and as we will see at the end, it is this simpler and less ornate approach that McKuen himself took with the song in his later years.

McKuen first recorded his song in early 1964:

McKuen was self-taught as a musician, and in his early years as a performer in the late 1950s in San Francisco's North Beach clubs like The Purple Onion, he accompanied both his singing and his poetry reading with a simply-played guitar. However, his time in Paris with Jacques Brel from about 1960 through 1963 became for McKuen a kind of education in music theory and arrangement, and when he returned to the U.S., he did so with sufficient knowledge to score the orchstrations on many of his albums, as he did here.

The first cover version of the tune was by the Kingston Trio, at the end of 1964 about six months after McKuen's original:

The lead here is by Bob Shane, quite naturally since he had the best voice in the group and because he was the member most comfortable with pop numbers and Broadway tunes and the like. The Kingstons had never liked being characterized as "folk," and from their first album six years prior to this recording and on from there, the Trio had always included pop-styled selections, sometimes to the chagrin of their record labels Capitol and (here) Decca, which were trying to market the band as "folk." As wrong-headed as that was, it did have its advantages for the companies: neither label had to hire anyone to score and play orchestral arrangements to back the group, and the guitar-only accompaniment for this track enhances the effect of McKuen's quiet if sentimental lyricism.

Johnny Cash had long been an admirer of McKuen, which might strike one as strange at first given Cash's identity as a country/rockabilly/roots artist - but The Man In Black responded most strongly to and recorded many of McKuen's earlier and folkier creations, and Cash featured McKuen several times as a guest on the former's long-running and highly-rated television show. It is no surprise then that Cash included a couple of McKuen tunes in his last studio sessions, the widely-lauded "American Recordings" for the label of the same name. In fact, the fifth album in the series is A Hundred Highways, the title clearly derived from the lyric of this song:

Cash's aged, craggy voice at this late point in his life and career is perfect for the lyric, and I find it singularly affecting, as are many of Cash's other tracks from those last years of his life.

Clearly, you can't talk about "Love's Been Good To Me" without including Frank Sinatra's rendition. Sinatra was so taken with McKuen's compositions that the A Man Alone LP includes only RM numbers, and "Love" was chosen as the flagship single from the album:

The 45rpm reached only #75 on the Billboard Hot 100 but scored a number eight position on the adult/contemporary charts. The orchestration here is somewhat muted by Sinatra standards; Ol' Blue Eyes generally went for accompaniments that in many cases might today be described as over-done or schmaltzy...

....which is why I especially like what McKuen is doing with his song here, in the television show from 2009 at Royal Theatre Carré in Amsterdam:

There is a clear connection here to what Johnny Cash did with the tune. McKuen's vocals had always been throaty, but the addition of a few decades of wear and tear to his voice helps here to transform a ballad that might have seemed to be the superficial sentiments of a callow playboy when sung by a youth into a far more moving and reflective retrospection by an older man on a life now all-but-over. That is why for my money this last version and Cash's are the best ones ever waxed and help to transform a middle-of-the-road pop composition into something deeper and more satisfying.

McKuen enjoyed a career that could be fairly described, like the artist himself, as bi-polar. He sold over a million books of poetry in 1968 alone - in an industry in which even then selling fifty thousand units would make a book a number one bestseller - but he was excoriated by serious critics with a savage vituperation that I have seldom seen launched at any other artist in my lifetime. As a lifelong devotee of poetry, I have never had much use for McKuen's verse - but did he deserve this, a day after his death?

"Rod McKuen, The Cheeseburger To Poetry's Haute Cuisine"

I think not. Neither his music nor his writing might be to everyone's taste, but his compositions of both spoke deeply to millions of people throughout the world, and that counts for something in my book - quite a lot, really. And so it was that I was pleased to see that McKuen may well have written his own epitaph in an interview in 2001 when he observed that, "I battled my way back to some kind of sanity by finally realizing I had absolutely nothing to be depressed about...I’ve had and am having a great life and I’ve never been happier. Besides, who knows how much time I have left on this earth? I have too much to do and too many things started and unfinished to afford the luxury of being unhappy."

For that - good on ya, mate.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Roots Radio 2: Where The Time Goes - Songs For Seasons Of Change

The second installment of podcasts from my radio show "Roots Music & Beyond" on KPFK-FM in Los Angeles has now been published and is available here. As the playlist below it indicates, the song selections in this show are wide-ranging and eclectic, though unified by the overarching theme of changes in winter. I have gone a bit off the roots reservation, at least in the narrowest sense of the term, by including a pair of New Age-ish Windham Hill Records artists and some contemporary country as well. But overall there is a kind of quietude here, a kind of refraction of winter dreams and the snowy landscapes of the imagination. My promotional pieces pointed out that though we are in the middle of January, the daylight hours are already perceptibly lengthening into spring. The year has turned, with its inevitable wheeling of the seasons - or as Shelley wrote, "If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?"

Where The Time Goes: Songs For Seasons Of Change

Intro Song:
Who Knows Where The Time Goes? - Judy Collins - Colors Of The Day - 4:53

Change of Season
Sometimes In Winter - Blood, Sweat & Tears - BS&T Greatest Hits - Columbia/Legacy 3:06
Song For A Winter's Night - Gordon Lightfoot - All Live - Warner Music Canada - 3:02
Welcoming - Michael Manning - Conversations With God - Windham Hill - 4:52
A Hazy Shade of Winter - Simon and Garfunkel - Bookends - Columbia - 2:02
Cold Weather Blues - Muddy Waters - Delta Mudslide Blues - Orange Leisure - 4:44

Season Suite: Winter - John Denver - Rocky Mountain High - RCA - 1:35
Footprints In The Snow- Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys - The Essential Bill Monroe - RLG - 2:35
Walking Through Your Town in the Snow - Jody Stecher & Kate Brislin - Heart Songs - Rounder - 4:00
The White Snows Of Winter - The Kingston Trio - On A Cold Winter's Night - Silverwolf - 2:47
If We Make It Through December - Merle Haggard - If We Make It ... - Capitol/Nashville - 2:42
Winter - Tori Amos - Little Earthquakes - Atlantic - 5:42

Change of Life, Change of Heart
Aerial Boundaries - Michael Hedges - Aerial Boundaries - Windam Hill - 4:40
Changes - Phil Ochs - Classic Folk Music - Smithsonian Folkways - 4:19
Old Friends/Bookends - Simon and Garfunkel Live 1969 - Columbia Legacy - 3:18

Urge For Going - Tom Rush - The Circle Game [Expanded/Remastered] - Rhino/Elektra - 5:48
Church Street Blues - Tony Rice - Church Street Blues - Sugar Hill Records - 3:07
Kansas - John Stewart - Phoenix Concerts - RCA - 3:36

Winter - Joshua Radin - We Were Here - Columbia - 3:23
Second Avenue - Tim Moore - Tim Moore - Rhino/Elektra 3:56
Colder Weather - Zac Brown Band - You Get What You Give - Atlantic/Southern Ground - 4:33
Northern Sky - Nick Drake - Bryter Layter - Island Records - 3:43
The Circle Game - Joni Mitchell - Dreamland - Rhino/Elektra - 4:51