Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Water Is Wide

In The Kingston Trio On Record, Ben Blake and Jack Rubeck's comment on the original Kingston Trio's ninth album Make Way was that it lacked "the spark of vibrant enthusiasm" of earlier LPs, that its jacket suggested a "brooding aura" of "dark tones" - and their estimate that many fans regarded it as the "least effective" of the NBD efforts. While the album lacks the all-out banjo blaster that became the Trio's hallmark, it does in fact have some outstanding cuts: the song that in a faster version became the show opener for the NBJ trio's last two years (Guthrie's "Hard Travelin"), one of Bob Shane's best solos - one that really showcases the range and color of his voice ("Blow The Candle Out"), two fine and original versions of English folk songs ("Hangman" and "Fair And Tender Ladies"), and three nicely-turned Celtic songs in "Bonnie Heilan' Laddie," "The Jug of Punch," - and "The River Is Wide."

"River" is copyrighted by the Trio as a Nick Reynolds arrangement, and in the best KT tradition, Nick simply changed the rhythm and a few words of a very old Irish (or Scots - no one is sure) song entitled "The Water Is Wide," also known as "O Waly Waly." Authoritative websites like The Contemplator [a treasure chest for traditional music lovers - here's his "Waly" page: The Contemplator] suggest the song dates to 1734 - but they're not entirely correct - I found a version of it in the crumbling leaves of a Renaissance song book from about 1590 in the Rare Book Room of the University of Illinois many years ago.

The song has a multitude of variants - the Irish "Carrickfergus," which to me sounds little enough like the original until the very end, and with distant echoes in Ray Hannisian's choral number "I'm Moving On" and even Rod McKuen's "Isle In The Water" (this last not surprising since most of McKuen's lyrics are derived directly from a poem by William Butler Yeats, who was steeped in his own Irish folk traditions).

The sheer plaintive beauty of the song, with its older-but-wiser and lost love themes, is given a simple, direct, and effective reading by the Trio in their album cut - which is here from Make Way:



The song has been re-interpreted scores of times in scores of ways by a plethora of really famous and talented musicians.

Speaking of whom - I believe my earlier posting of golden-voiced New Zealand soprano Hayley Westenra's "Shenandoah" scored some points with a few Xroaders who hadn't heard her before, and she has several performance videos of her interpretation:



The most traditional-sounding version I could find - and interestingly, the one closest in some ways to the KT's - is not surprisingly Liam Clancy's solo effort:



Back to the ladies - I alluded above to an Irish song called "Carrickfergus" - which I knew as a child through the rough voice of Tommy Clancy. Well, before Hayley W. there was Charlotte Church, to whom Hayley is often compared. Here Church sings "Carrickfergus," and you can hear the extent to which it echoes "The River is Wide":



A search on YouTube will yield many more female singers giving it a go, from the sublime version of the late Eva Cassady to the disappointingly awful bluesed-up version attempted by Sheryl Crow. Bob Dylan gives it a shot - a rather poor one, I think, even with Joan Baez trying to help. But Joan B's solo rendition is, as you would expect, sublime:




Of the many instrumental versions out there (often over-done - something about the simplicity of the melody seems to encourage guitarists and pianists to start riffing all over the place), the most unique I found was this slightly syncopated yet still traditional sounding one - by a chorus of harp-guitars:



The last word for this post will be a blast from the past, black and white, sung in mid-Sixties syncopated pop fashion by a great pop singer of the era, gone now for nearly a decade from cancer - Dusty Springfield:



It's a great song that keeps getting reinvented - many more versions out there on YT.

Addendum 6/11/10

The late actor Pernell Roberts (1928 - 2010), most famous for TV roles on Bonanza in the '60s and Trapper John, M.D. in the 80s, was also a trained and professional singer whose ten years on the boards in NYC included a number of musical comedy roles. He released one album of folk songs, and his rich baritone on "Water" is a revelation to those who knew him only as an actor:



Addendum II - July 2012

The explosion of popularity of YouTube over the last four years has led to the posting of dozens of more quality versions of this and most any other good song. Here are a few of the ones that I regard as the best.

2009 - Emmylou Harris & Ensemble At Pete Seeger's 90th Birthday Celebration



Australia's Seekers, About 1966



Judy Collins, 2005



Fred Neil From His 1965 Debut Album - The Only Song On The Record That He Did Not Compose