Monday, July 7, 2008

Long Black Veil

As all true Trio fans know and are quick to point out, the members of the first two troupes were what critic Richard Corliss of Time Magazine called them, "gifted song sleuths" - the evidence for which is the number of fine songs first recorded by the group (or first among high profile mainstream acts) that were later covered and made major hits by other interpretive artists.

THAT list, of course, is amazingly long, and it would be difficult to winnow out which are the most prominent - The Beach Boys' "Sloop John B"? Roberta Flack's "The First Time Ever"? Sinatra's "It Was A Very Good Year"? (no inference or apocrypha here - Frank is on film in the Capitol Records studio acknowledging that he heard the Kingston Trio singing it on the radio and immediately loved it - in PBS' Sinatra: A Man And His Music) The Tokens "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"? even Terry Jacks' "Seasons In The Sun"?

It would be hard to find a song that the Trio "discovered" that has had more different subsequent lives than "Long Black Veil" from late 62/early 63 New Frontier.[Parenthesis: an extraordinary discography compiled by a Springsteen fan of the recorded versions of the song is HERE].

And why not? Though it is what Corliss calls "faux folk" - a song written to sound traditional (in this case of course like one of those many murder ballads) but which was crafted deliberately by (in this case again) two skilled songwriters, it has a cleanness of line and lyric and a musical vocabulary and lyrical resonance that both effectively echo real folk songs.

Plus, of course, it has a great Trio arrangement. Does music get better than a fine Shane lead vocal, a soaring Nick tenor harmony, and an amazingly tasteful Stewart banjo arrangement that is, well, neither bluegrass nor folk but just pure John Stewart?

June, 2013 - An Interpolation

As detailed in the margin note to the left, Capitol is now permitting playback of Kingston Trio videos on YouTube that had been blocked on copyright grounds for several years, including the Trio's very early and very fine rendition of this song. It is with great pleasure and thanks to Capitol/EMI that I now can add it here:

What is hard here is to select the best or most interesting of the scores of other versions up on YouTube - and where to start? Well, the most recent high-profile version has been presented by Bruce Springsteen on the Seeger Sessions tour of 2006:

For a really interesting musical version - how about Mick Jagger joining with The Chieftans? (and people thought Robert Plant/Alison Krause was strange!)Yes that Jagger - surprisingly good here. And the Chieftans were widely regarded as "pure" Irish folk music (as opposed to the KT/popularizing canard lodged against the Clancys and the Dubliners) and create a singularly eerie background:

Until Springsteen put the song into his Seeger Sessions package in 2006, the most prominent contemporary artist covering the number has been Dave Matthews, who since 1999 has done it with about ten different collaborators (all on YT). I'm not a huge fan of Matthews on this number - but in my next life I will keep company with the angelic Emmylou Harris, who duets with him here:

I think four videos should do it for a single post - so I'll put links to Springsteen and others below. For a conclusion, though - I just don't think you can improve on Johnny Cash in his prime singing it as a duet with Joni Mitchell in her prime:

And a selection of other famous folks:

The Band
The Seldom Scene

Addendum, 10/12/11
Clearly more to add to this post but for now, I just saw on Facebook this fine version done by country superstar Marty Stuart:


Mike The Country Musicologist said...

I still have to vote for the Lefty Frizzell version as my fave; very haunting and almost creepy. Lefty's version was a top 10 country hit in 1959; his first in 5 years.

Jim Moran said...

I love Lefty's version too but haven't been able to find it to add to the article.

Hayford Peirce said...

I have a dozen or so versions of it and have heard many others.

Lefty's was the first I heard, when it first came out, and is still one of my very favorites. Joannie recorded at least *three* versions -- one of them, I forget which one it is sequentially, is about my favorite.

The TWO K-trio versions are wonderful. The second one, which I first heard live at Davies Symphony Hall in S.F. on their 25th Anniversary Tour, is terrific in a completely different way from the first one. I particularly liked the ominous beat at the very start, to me the sound of hammers building the gallows....

SK Waller said...

Wow. I just found your amazing blog while hunting down different versions of Darcy Farrow. What a treasure! As a singer-songwriter from way back (my first pro gig was at UCSB in 1968) your articles really help me to better understand many of the songs I've performed my entire life. Where Long Black Veil is concerned (one of the few songs that's still in my repertoire), I learned it from Joan Baez. Here's her rendition.

If you see my IP number show up a lot in the days to come, it's because I'll be combing each and every page!

SK Waller

Jim Moran said...

Thanks so very much for the kind comments, Ms. Waller. This piece on LBV was one of the earliest that I wrote, well before I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do with this site. I see that you also looked in on my piece on the Gloucestershire wassail song, and that article is more representative of what this blog has morphed into. Speaking of which, I hope that you did have a chance to look in on "The Darcy Farrow" piece since I think it's one of the very best of the more than 200 postings here. DF composer Steve Gillette commented on it very favorably on FaceBook.
I was also a semi-pro folk performer (mostly traditional songs with some contemporary numbers) in the middle 60s when I was in h.s. and the late '60s when I was at Notre Dame - also had a good number of gigs in my hometown of Chicago and other Midwest cities and colleges. I've already checked out a couple of your blogs and will likewise take great pleasure in exploring them.