Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Evolution Of A Classic: "Sloop John B"

When I began to think of these Weekend Videos as a kind of series that I'd do regularly, I resolved that I likely wouldn't be writing up any really commonly-known KT songs, or at least not some of the highest profile ones that exist in different versions. The problem was, I thought, that we'd have the KT rendition and then a host of other pale imitations of it (as with "A Worried Man," which as I noted in my article on that generally has everyone from Pete Seeger to Johnny Cash doing different words to the KT's distinctive arrangement of the melody) or an absolutely unique Trio version with everyone else doing imitations of an alternative take (as with last week's "Someday Soon," in which all non-Kingston versions are variations on Tyson's original and Judy Collins' wonderful performance). Consider, for example, what would happen with "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face": the New Frontier arrangement is singular, and everyone else is doing a less-successful Roberta Flack.

Of course, I've also proven myself wrong again and again, what with some really interesting versions out there of well-worn tunes like "Tom Dooley," "Greenback Dollar," and "Long Black Veil."

Few other "hits for other artists" have as direct a bloodline from the Kingston Trio to massive popularity as does "Sloop John B." As most Trio fans know, Al Jardine of The Beach Boys was and is a huge KT fan (note his comments on the Wherever We May Go video) and brought the song with the striped shirt look to Brian Wilson, who despite an initial lack of enthusiasm eventually came up with the classic rock arrangement that is the most widely-known version of the song today.

The John B apparently was a "sponger" in the Caribbean that went down to the bottom of Governor's Harbor in Eleuthra in the Bahamas around 1900 after a fire of uncertain origin, possibly insurance-induced arson but just as possibly the result of some careless partying by the crew (which of course would be more in keeping with the song). Classic American poet Carl Sandburg included a version of the song in a 1927 collection of folk numbers that he edited, and Alan Lomax had it in his seminal 1947 Folk Songs Of North America.*(For corrections to this and several other errors in this post, please see expert Peter Curry's comments below.) Lomax acknowledges Sandburg as the "collector," and Sandburg insisted on sharing the copyright with Weaver Lee Hays, who seems to have given the song its current structure.

The Weavers recorded it in their Decca sessions supervised and orchestrated by Gordon Jenkins around 1950 (and as with the other Jenkins' collaborations with the group, it was a case of two brilliant styles just not meshing), but it was likely the 1956 recording of the group's Carnegie Hall concert that was the immediate predecessor of the KT's version, though as we will see, the Lyn Murray Singers may have been an influence as well.

So here is the very original Kingston Trio - fifty years ago - from Capitol T996 in all its glorious monophonic mix. Bob Shane is doing a great understated rhythm strum (with Travis Edmondson, Theo Bikel, and Alex Hassilev, Shane is one of the all-time great bare-handed strummers - but unlike the others, on a steel string guitar[!]). Nick Reynolds is doing some great understated bongo work; Dave Guard is like Shane using bare fingers to pluck what sounds like a calfskin-headed S.S. Stewart banjo:

I have always believed that this number is actually the signature song of the Trio's first album and the key to its genius. The arrangement is so well-thought-out and so different from what came before - and so in keeping with the desperate, hung-over nature of the lyric - that the singular and unique touch that the Kingstons brought to so many later numbers first displays itself here (and on several other songs from the first album, including "Tom Dooley").

Fifty years later, our current Trio has updated their performance and given it a kind of "Blow The Man Down" swagger that even the Beach Boys can't match. Courtesy of Debobwan himself - thanks Mr. Shane! - George, Bill and Rick rock it out:

Of course, you can't go very far into a discussion of the song without reference to The Beach Boys. Their version is so widely known that posting it here would be redundant - except that the structuring of an intricate harmony is really on display here in this remastered rendition:

Here are the aforementioned Lyn Murray Singers from 1952 - sounds like a Gordon Jenkins arrangement with a touch of pop-calypso and a wrinkle or two that just might have been included by the KT.

Well, CopyVio got this one - too bad, because it is more of a direct antecedent of the KT and the BB than this interesting early 1950's recording by Blind Blake Higgs - thanks to PC Fields for this one:

And what happens when rockabilly meets calypso? Shall we ask Johnny Cash?

I've recently discovered this outstanding guitar duet by two of pop/country/rockabilly's best, the legendary Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed:

And Waylon Jennings has a sensitive treatment of the song, apparently with some influence from the quieter way in which the KT sang it:

I have always loved this song and been fascinated by it, most especially the original Nick,Bob, and Dave Kingston trio cut with its subdued desperation. That's probably why I want to close with this, my favorite all-time performance of the song, posted for nearly a year now my channel and embedded here to Xroads by me before - our two friends departed from us this year having fun with the song at Fantasy Camp4 in 2003. It's classic Kingston - Nick and John are joshing each other, they want everyone to sing along, Travis Edmondson takes the second verse - and on the last chorus, John's high harmony is full of the plaintive longing of the original album cut, and Nick is glowing and confident and happy as he leads the audience in this wonderfully quiet and nostalgic moment:

A great song to sing indeed - and with three distinctly different Trio versions.

Later Additions - 9/1/11

A few more versions uploaded to YouTube since this article was published:

Surf guitar legend Dick Dale from the late 1950s:

RelientK covering the Beach Boys version from the early 2000s:

February, 2012

From 2000, the legendary Van Morrison of Ireland and Lonnie Donegan, the great UK skiffle star of the 1950s - more reminiscent of the early Kingston Trio than the Beach Boys:


Pete Curry said...

Jim: Alan Lomax's "Folk Songs of North America" was published in 1960, not 1947.
You may have been thinking of “Folk Song: USA” by John A. and Allan Lomax which was published in 1947 (but did not contain that song).

Also, "Sloop John B" was not on the 1957 "Weavers at Carnegie Hall" LP. It was on the "Weavers On Tour" LP which was released later the same year.

While the Blind Blake Higgs recording was well-known in NYC during the early and mid-1950s (per email from Erik Darling to me, when I was asking about his source for "Run, Come, See"), the first Weavers’ recording on Decca appeared before the Blake recording. So my guess is the Weavers got the song from the Sandburg collection (thus the Sandburg-Hays credit) and the Kingston Trio got the song from the Weavers "On Tour" LP, which was probably more likely to have crossed their bow than the Lyn Murray Singers recording, Lyn Murray being more associated with Your Hit Parade than 1957’s burgeoning folk music scene.

Parenthetically (or not), this song, like many songs the KT recorded including “Tom Dooley,” appeared with music and chords in Dick and Beth Best’s “New Song Fest” from 1955. The words in that book are pretty much identical to what the KT sang.

And one closing item: This great song was first published in the ultra-obscure book, "Pieces of Eight" by Richard Le Gallienne, copyright 1918 and now available in paperback from Dodo Press. Regards, Pete Curry

Jim Moran said...

Thanks Pete - I have both books and mixed up the dates. I'm going to asterisk my error above and refer readers to your comment here for the correct info.

Jim Moran said...

Plus one note - To the best of my memory, The Weavers On Tour was recorded at the same Carnegie Hall concert - the entire show just couldn't fit on one LP. I'll check my album cover.

Jim Moran said...

I knew about the Le Galienne book but never thought I'd find it - will look for it. I'm also sorry to have lost the Lyn Murray video - it was an interesting version, especially compared to Higgs'.

Hayford Peirce said...

Just discovered this fantastic site -- I'm sure I'll be spending countless hours here in the future!

As for the Sloop John B, what about the truly off-the-wall version that the great Bud and Travis did of it? With the incredible patter that they mixed in and out of it as they keep perfect rhythm and timing with singing the song itself, it, along with Delia's Gone, is the highlight of their Concert album as far as I'm concerned.