Saturday, July 12, 2008

"Across The Wide Missouri/Shenandoah"

I've always had the strongest affinity for the NBD (Nick Reynolds, Bob Shane, Dave Guard) portion of the 51 years of the Kingston Trio, sadly a mere 3 1/2 of that total. I liked the first few NBJ (Nick, Bob, John Stewart) albums (and became a huge fan of JS' solo career) - but I just never wore out the grooves on any of those records the way I did on especially the first half dozen or so of the original Trio releases (excepting Stereo Concert, which I never saw any point in getting until it came out on CD with a few extra songs - mono is mono and unlike many of my fellow Xroaders, I thought the studio albums were far superior to the live recordings and represent some of the best professional recordings of that or any other era). Just IMHO of course.

What I came to miss about the original Trio sound and formula is represented brilliantly by their "Across The Wide Missouri" from Here We Go Again. First, the NBD albums relied much more heavily than the NBJ albums on real folk songs, adapted sometimes tastefully and with startling originality (I always nominate "Bay of Mexico" and "Sloop John B" here ) sometimes with fidelity to their sources ("Goober Peas" is pretty much a straightforward rendition of the Civil War song, and "Tom Dooley" is right out of the Lomaxes' Folk Songs of North America - and after the comedic intro, "Wimoweh" is a more than decent attempt), and less often with forgettable and for me failed transformations into 50s pop numbers (list available upon request )

Second, again as "Missouri" attests, the NBD trio knew how to sing quietly - and slowly - and for pacing and atmosphere. Consider "Gue, Gue" (another melodic classic), "Senora," "San Miguel," "Fast Freight" [not slow, but almost hushed], "Mountains of Mourne," and many others - many more and much better, I think, than all but a handful of NBJ songs of the same stripe ("The First Time" is great, maybe "Rusting In The Rain," though that's not slow, and a few others).

So, to start - to remind us all of just how stunning that original troupe could handle legitimate three part harmony, my friend Tom Salter of Stonewall Studios in Niagara, Ontario created this video poem for the Trio's classic:

The song itself, of course, is a derivation of the sea shanty "Shenandoah," which has more variants in its lyrics/story than many other folk songs. The Shenandoah Valley (from a Rapahannock word meaning "daughter of the stars") is one of the scenic highlights of the Appalachian mountains, and the eponymous river is sparkling and clear for most of its length - seeing it join the muddy Potomac at Harper's Ferry is a real sight). The song likely originated among the voyageurs of the fur trade era ( missing the beauties of the landscape of the East and possibly an "Indian maiden" of the same name) but was adapted and promulgated worldwide by American deep water sailors, who used its stately rhythm as a "capstan shanty" - a song to accompany the back-breaking labor of weighing anchor.

The immediate ancestor of the Kingston's version is this rather odd recording below - two KT influences, Terry Gilkyson (of "Fast Freight" and the Easy Riders) and the Weavers joining together under the direction of arranger Gordon Jenkins (a brilliant arranger, for Sinatra, Nat Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, and many more) with his over-done for folk orchestrations (conducted here by Vern Schoen) - this isn't much of a video, but if you have never heard it - listen to a few bars and whisper a quiet payer of thanksgiving for the brilliance of Voyle Gilmore, who put his foot down and defied Capitol's wish to add orchestration to that first album:

Another early version here, from the legendary operatic bass-baritone Paul Robeson:

That the song has had legs for its two hundred year history is evidenced by the incredible number of variations on it, and the great number of brilliant interpretations of it - to wit, first, Tony Rice's instrumental version of sublime technique and taste:

The song is a treasure for the vocally gifted and seems especially well-suited to the ladies - for example, the just-turned 21 Kiwi soprano Hayley Westenra (seen widely on the second Celtic Women show):

and here, equal time for the guys - Tennessee Ernie Ford - one of the comments on YT says, "Oh Man, I'd forgotten how good he was."

A full choral version brings out some of the subtleties of the tune - here the St. Petersburg College choral group:

and to close - a Civil War era brass band arrangement (I've always loved these bands):

In nearly any version, I have always thought this the #1 loveliest of American folk songs and am thoroughly delighted that the Kingston Trio does one of the best versions of it ever.


In 2010, the Kingston Trio released some of the earliest tapes from 1957-58 of their rehearsals and performances on a CD called Above the Purple Onion, named for the loft above the site of their first serious professional engagement, where they honed their skills and developed their repertoire. One of the songs included is "Shenandoah," a recording notably different from the "Missouri" above that came along two years later - among other differences, the lead here is sung by Dave Guard, not Bob Shane as on the latter:

Addendum 2 - May, 2013

The comment below is from my brother Larry - a couple of years after this piece was published and Larry recommended Van Morrison's version, some goodly soul uploaded Morrison and The Chieftains to YouTube:

1 comment:

Larry said...


I've have just come across these new pages and enjoy reading them. It's fun to see the different versions of familiar songs.

Another version of Shenandoah I enjoy is Van Morrison's, sung on the PBS special on the Irish cominig to America (I can't remember the name right now). It may be a bit over-orchestrated, but I've always enjoyed his voice and the emotion that comes through when he's singing.

Let us know when your CDs are available--it sounds like you may be starting a new career as a producer! Have fun in CO this summer. With any luck, and with Peggy's prodding, maybe we'll all join you next year!