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

Thursday, December 25, 2014

For The Season #7: "The Coventry Carol/Lully, Lullay Thou Little Tiny Child"

(L -  François-Joseph Navez, 'The Massacre of the Innocents,' 1824)
The seasonal celebrations that occur around the winter solstice, psychologists tell us, are for many people fraught with an anxiety and sadness that is usually incomprehensible to those who have never endured it. It seems contradictory at first: this season that across religions and cultures and millennia is the joy-filled welcoming of the return of the sun and the lengthening of daylight hours through the newly-minted winter and into the spring just does not seem to correlate with a darkness and despair that would appear to be more appropriate to autumn. But that "black dog" of depression, as Winston Churchill termed it, bides its time in the deepest recesses of the mind and heart, awaiting its chance and any excuse to pounce and to tear at the peace and well-being of the lonely and the fragile.

It may be Seasonal Affective Disorder; it may be a bit of good old Kierkegaardian existential angst; it may be simply a consequence of the dissonance between the perceived happiness of others and the quiet desperation of one's own soul as the year draws to an end. But whatever its source, this profound sadness affects millions during the solstice celebrations, a melancholy counterpoint to the joys and reunions and feasts inherent in the holidays. And perhaps surprisingly, this dark thread through the red and gold fabrics of Christmas extends itself even into the music of the day, nowhere more so than in "The Coventry Carol," whose  tragedy is derived from scripture and theology but that I do believe bears some relation, however apparently obliquely, to that Yule-related black dog. More on that connection later.

"The Coventry Carol" is very, very old, dating back in all likelihood to the middle of the fourteenth century, a point immediately evident to anyone with even a smattering of familiarity with late medieval music, since "Coventry's" musical setting in a minor key resolving into a final major chord is typical of much of the other music that survives from that long-vanished era. Some sources erroneously report the song as a product of the 16th century, but that results only from the fact that the lyrics were first published in 1534. There is reliable evidence, however, that The Shearmen and Tailors' Pageant, the play for which the piece was composed, was performed as early as the 1370s and perhaps even earlier.

The so-called "Massacre of the Innocents," the Biblical tale that provides the inspiration for the lyrics of the song as the mothers of Bethlehem mourn the approaching murders of the babes to whom they sing, is itself an oddity. The story appears only in The Gospel of St. Matthew, strange because Matthew is one of the three "synoptic gospels" whose plots and incidents are nearly identical and which may well be derived from an older proto-gospel - and neither Mark nor Luke, the other two Synoptics, make mention of the event. The "raging Herod" motif is common enough, befitting a character who in history was ruthless and desperate enough to have his own sons executed for fear they would usurp his throne, and that bit of unpleasantness may well have given rise to this otherwise unsubstantiated account of the slaughter of male babies who Herod feared might replace him.

As with most of the physical events described in the New Testament, the jury is still and probably permanently out as to the historicity of this event. Guided by faith, literalists will accept it as fact; guided by doubt, skeptics will scoff. Most middle-of-the-road scholarship leaves the factuality question alone in favor of trying to understand the metaphorical significance of the story in the larger context of the gospel message - which also creates some problems, as below.

But the peasantry and yeomanry of 14th century England (and not coincidentally the scores of medieval and Renaissance painters who used the motif)  had no such confusion; for them, the Massacre was a real event, a fitting reminder of the degenerate nature of sinful humankind, and one deserving of memorialization in this lovely but heart-rendingly tragic carol. I think we can catch a sense of the original sound of the song in this acoustic instrumental solo by Trond Bengtson, performed most appropriately on a medieval-styled lute:



Bengtson has chosen a slow and measured rhythm for his performance, fully in keeping with the pace of most medieval pieces and accentuating the deep, despairing sadness of the event. Likewise, The Robert Shaw Chamber Singers, an offshoot of Shaw's famous Chorale, here in 1993 deliver the lyric with similar pacing:



Shaw breaks one of his own precedents here. His arrangements were often built around the male baritone section singing the lead on the melody; here, in keeping with the plaint of the grieving mothers, the lead belongs to the sopranos. My friend, the late Joe Frazier of Chad Mitchell Trio fame, had been one of those aforementioned baritones in this group in the years before he joined the CMT.

"The Coventry Carol" quite naturally lends itself to female voices and interpretations, and scores of the popular music world's best sopranos like Joan Baez and Hayley Westenra and more have recorded excellent versions, for the most part with full orchestrations. Given my preference for the simplicity of acoustic folk music, however, the soloist I want to present here is a 20-year-old amateur who looks 12 and lives in Indonesia. Her real name is Saskia Kusrahadianti and her YouTube username is ScheherazadEify. Either way - you really need to hear this:



That's a lot of voice coming from so diminutive a person. Her lyric interpretation is outstanding, and she makes the interesting artistic choice to end each verse on a minor chord without the resolution to the major heard in most every other arrangement.

Most, but not all. This next is the track that leads off the Kingston Trio's highly original and now-classic 1960 Last Month of the Year holiday album. Beyond creating an instrumental setting that employs a celeste and bouzouki, the Trio makes an interesting thematic choice for the verse-ending major or minor decision:



The Kingstons are splitting the difference, so to speak. The last chord of each of the first two verses is a minor, with the attendant sadness implied by that. The third and final verse, however, ends on the major - a resolution, as it were, from dark to light. Given the lyric, this cannot quite be termed a happy or uplifting conclusion; rather, it sounds as if it is intended as the one ray of possibility in the stormy nightmare that the song describes.

And that would be entirely fitting, given the Massacre's strange place in the canon of Christian lore. Some scholars suggest that it is simply a literary device employed by the author of Matthew to effect a kind of fulfillment of prophecy from earlier scriptures. Others, as I note above, regard it as an example of an inherent evil, the "total depravity" of the individual soul that necessitated the birth of a savior who was destined to endure a savage and sacrificial execution in order to redeem unrepentant humanity. That dark thread of death pervades other Christmas carols, ancient and modern. The myrrh of the funeral appears in nearly every Three Kings carol, and the savior's death itself is referenced in others, like the more modern "I Wonder As I Wander." "The Coventry Carol" implies this as well: a world so brutal that innocent children can be murdered at the whim of a sociopathic monster is one in desperate need of salvation, a salvation hinted at in the final major chord of the original song and the Kingston Trio's arrangement.

In a larger sense, too, "The Coventry Carol" glosses in a way on the seasonal despair with which I opened this essay. The mothers in the song articulate their grief over the coming loss of their sons and in so doing express what is always most tragic about death, for the survivors of the departed, at least. It is not simply the end of another's life; it is the ultimate and permanent separation from that beloved other that induces the wild grief we all know too well. Those among us who suffer loneliness and alienation and disaffection at this time of year do so largely because of isolation and separation, and we could wish that, just as the birth of the baby in Bethlehem promises the possibility of eventual reunion with those now gone, those who so suffer can find their own major chord resolution into light at some time during this, the season of light.

_________________________________________________________

*The first six 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"; and #6 - "The Bitter Withy/Mary Mild." 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".

Monday, December 1, 2014

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2008
Loudon Wainwright - Times Is Hard - 10 Songs For The New Depression - Cummerbund - 2:54
Other People's Money - Steve Gillette - Compass Rose Music - 2:49
Take Our Country Back Again - Jerre Haskew - Fiery Gizzard Music - 3:38

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Judy Collins: A Retrospective On Her 75th Birthday

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

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

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

 



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






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


Of and with Pete Seeger



Of Joni Mitchell



Of Leonard Cohen



Of Bob Dylan



Of Ian Tyson



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



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

Monday, March 17, 2014

"Bound For South Australia"

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

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

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

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

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



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

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



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

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



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

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



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

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



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

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