Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Slainte! To Health In The New Year: "The Jug Of Punch"


Just about the only cultural element as widespread throughout the countries of the world as music has been the fermenting, brewing, or distillation of some local products - grains, berries, fruits, tubers, and in Mongolia, mare's milk - into some mood-altering and intoxicating beverages. So it's no wonder that most every country also has a positive raft of folk songs related to the pleasures and joys - and not infrequently the sorrows - of drinking, and we're not talking about water here. As my long gone cousin Jimmy Conway ("I made it out of Ireland one step ahead of the Black and Tans" - that'd be 1922) used to respond to my mother when she'd offer him a glass of H2O on his visits to our home - "Did ye ever see what that stuff does to the inside of a pipe?"

The fact that alcohol is a frequent guest at celebrations of all kinds - from weddings and funerals and parties to - of course - New Year's festivities - makes a drinking song the exactly right selection for this week's Weekend Videos. And there is no drinking song closer to my own heart or to those of my nine brothers and sisters as "The Jug of Punch."

Since most Xroaders know the Kingston Ttio version, before we get to some interestingly different performances of the song, it might be worthwhile to explain - what exactly is punch, as in the song? I had labored under the misapprehension for many years that it was a sort of Irish boilermaker, a combination of beer and whiskey, called in colonial New England by its British name, flip. [Parenthesis: a true and original boilermaker is a tad different from flip - you're supposed to drop the whole shot glass full of your favorite whiskey into the beer stein; in Ireland, one never does so but (if you've money enough for the pricey whiskey) orders instead a "a shot and a pint" - same effect.]

In fact, Irish whiskey punch is more closely related to the hot rum drinks also popular in New England in colony days. Recipes differ, but the common denominators seem to be, in addition to whiskey, lemons, cloves, hot water, and sugar (brown, preferably). Mix it all up and quaff - it can be consumed at room temperature but the preferred method of serving was following a stir with a hot poker, ashes and all. [Sounding good right at this moment - it's in the mid 30s here in SoCal, unusually cold for us, and it would go nicely with the Christmas tree and the fire.]

"The Jug Of Punch" song comes to us in two clearly related but distinctly different versions, which for want of more apt descriptive terms I'll call tippling and inebriated. The tippling version, which requires some dexterous tongue and vocal work, seems to be the older of the two - very Celtic sounding and all - and one might guess more commonly sung early of an evening. The raucously inebriated version would likely show up after a few bowls of punch - or even more than one "shot and a pint" - a combination sure to be lethal to one's sobriety.

This might well be an Irish song that, like the earlier "Mountains of Mourne," the Kingston Trio did not get directly from the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, who were just getting organized into an act in 1960 at the time of the Make Way album.
The Clancys had included a version on their very first album (Come Fill Your Glass With Us) on the Tradition label that they owned in 1959, but that version is clearly the grandparent of the one posted below and not the only influence on Nick, Bob, and Dave, who are clearly tippling here and not raucous:



Luke Kelly of the Dubliners (on the short list with Liam Clancy and Tommy Makem as the greatest of Irish folk soloists) was known to take a hit or five before going out and performing, and I believe it shows in this version of the song, whose lyrics and musical structure suggest that this is at least a progenitor of the NBD arrangement:



A word of explanation on Kelly's introduction. Everyone but everyone knew of the Clancy's "raucous" version, posted below; Luke is differentiating his older version from the one that the CB used in performance. I'd be more surprised that Paddy and his brothers did the older version at all - but Vanguard brought out a kind of bootleg album that included a rare tape of the Brothers doing Luke's version.

For a truly delightful and rather more musical studio take of this version, here is Altan from the album Celtic Wonder:



A really excellent and complex vocal arrangement of the tipling version was recorded in the 1970s by Scotland's wonderful folk group, The Corries - here the original trio as opposed to the later duo:



And now, the version I first heard in the late 50s - in a live performance from the early 1980s. This is Paddy Clancy's (1924-1998) signature song. I believe it was Mr. Banjo who observed earlier that he liked the way that Paddy just stood up to the mic, fists clenched, chest and jaw out, and belted away.



It was this version that my brothers and sisters and I would bellow at the top of our lungs, as children just for the sheer joy of it, and as adults (occasionally) under the very spell sung of here. One family sing - and these were always spontaneous, never planned nor too wholesome nor cheesy in the least - that stands out in my memory - in summer of 1982, my father in the last month of his life (though we didn't know that for sure at the time), the twelve of us sitting in the grand library that he'd added onto the house - my dad (who had spent his entire life trying NOT to be Irish) suggested that we sing this one before he retired for the night. Perhaps inspired by that, we all shouted it out (in tune of course!) like we were kids again, complete with every bark, whistle and growl on the original recording plus a few dozen more.

I'll never forget it. Auld lang syne, indeed.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

For The Season: "We Wish You A Merry Christmas"

In keeping with the holiday spirit...and there's a bit more to this song than meets the eye at first....

"We Wish You A Merry Christmas" is one of those songs that we all know, that we've always known, that was likely familiar to us before The Kingston Trio's The Last Month Of The Year - and that most of us could not say at all where we first heard.

The song's inclusion in that landmark album - still a nominee almost fifty years after its release as the most pleasingly and satisfyingly unique of all holiday releases during the era of recorded music - was ever so slightly mystifying because nearly every other cut was either a traditional song not widely heard ("Mary Mild" from "The Bitter Withy"), or an original composition ("The White Snows Of Winter" by Shane and Drake from Brahms, among others), or an unusual take on a familiar enough carol ("Sing We Here Noel"). The Trio's interpretation of "Somerset-Gloucestershire Wassail" is more interesting musically, the aforementioned "Sing We Noel" is a better arrangement, and "Go Where I Send Thee" and the title song are more typical uptempo signature KT numbers.

The song itself is shrouded in a bit of mystery - no one knows its exact time or place of origin. A version of it appears in a "miscellany" - a somewhat random collection of poems and song lyrics from the early days of printing in England - in the mid-sixteenth century, when Shakespeare was a boy. Like many English carols, it seems to have originated in Wessex (named for the West Saxons and in, well, the west of the country) and like "Wassail" above was a carolers plea for some goodies as a reward for the holiday cheer that they hoped to bring. "Figgy pudding" is a concoction as simple as and apparently related to its New World cousin pumpkin pie (similar ingredients [except the figs instead of pumpkin, of course]) and never to be confused with the more elaborate, delicate, and difficult to do right plum pudding celebrated by Dickens.

I find two points of interest about the song as we have it today - the Kingston Trio's acquisition and handling of it in 1960, and the different flavors brought to it by the differing arrangements below.

There is just no question where the KT got the song, even as likely as it is that each of them, like us, knew it for a long time. The LMOTY arrangement, as you'll hear, is a nearly exact copy of the Weavers, who had their structure for the song under copyright. Some day I'll do an exact count of the number of Weavers songs that the Trio re-imagined on their first eight or so albums. Until then - you don't have to take my word for it. Here are the Weavers from their 1950 Decca sessions supervised by Gordon Jenkins:



As I noted when I posted a weekend video about "Across The Wide Missouri" (CompVid101 On "Missouri") Jenkins' considerable talents and the Weavers' style just didn't mesh well, any more than did Jimmie Haskell's with the KT on Something Special. You can barely hear Seeger's banjo on this, and the tinkling and brassy orchestration annoys more than it enhances.

I'm guessing that NBD made two choices in their adaptation. First, the non-orchestral live Weavers' version from At Carnegie Hall (1956) proved to be a better model - on it you can hear how closely Dave Guard was following Seeger's banjo lines, and the whole effect is more rousing than the Decca studio recording above. Second - as I'm sure everyone noted - the Trio chose not to do that sort of "one world" verse that was the Weavers' kind of subtle political interpolation in many of their songs, the primary "one-worlders" of the era being of course the Communist and socialist movements in Europe and America. Here's the Trio - wrong album cover, but I didn't create this one (!):



Again as I noted in the "Missouri" piece - listening to the two versions makes me happy and thankful that Voyle Gilmore did not try to go the Gordon Jenkins route. The Trio's occasionally exotic instrumentation on LMOTY (bouzouki, for example) never gets in the way of the song and actually does enhance the sound and the uniqueness.

And now for some fun - John Denver and The Muppets:



After that, I needed an antidote - and what could be better than The Chipmunks (Featuring Alvin, of course) from the mid-Sixties :



Or a terminally cute version from my favorite all-girl Japanese band (there's a category for you), Vanilla Mood:



Japanese violinist Sori - not quite as fun as the Mood girls, but of the same stripe:



Irish New Age/neo-Celtic superstar Enya gives the tune her trademark treatment:




Ultimately, of course, whatever their "subversive" political motives may have been, Seeger and the Weavers are right - the words mean the same, whatever your home. So a merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night. And God bless us, all, everyone.

Friday, December 12, 2008

For Novelty's Sake: "With Her Head Tucked Underneath Her Arm"

One of the oldest and most delightful of folk subgenres is the nonsense song - tunes like "Polly Wally Doodle All The Day" and "Jimmy Crack Corn" and "There Was An Old Woman Who Swallowed A Fly" - plus a host of Irish and English songs whose choruses and sometimes verses include no recognizable words in our mother language (see "Polly" above).

Commercial music's closest relative to folk's nonsense is the so-called novelty song, a composition whose primary point is humor, satire, or just plain weirdness. Though the era of recorded music has created an explosion of songs of this type - and we all remember gems like "The One-Eyed, One-Horned Flying Purple People Eater" and "The Monster Mash" and "Itsy-Bitsy Teenie-Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" - such known-author ditties go way back. We have examples from 17th century England and 18th century colonial America, and every country I know of has some entries in their musical omnibus. Often born in taverns and bordellos, frequently bawdy to outright obscene, many of these novelty tunes seem to outlive apparently worthier compositions that just don't catch the long term public fancy with the same staying power.

Probably the single richest mine of novelty songs before the advent of record companies was the 19th century English music hall, ancestor of subsequent forms from burlesque to revues to musical comedies. There was a usually uptempo, ribald, joshing nature to the songs and a distinctive musical framework which has left its traces in 20th century music from flat-out music hall performers like Sophie Tucker (and about half the import acts on the old Ed Sullivan Show) to the structure and sound of performers like the Beatles (Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band IS a music hall album far more than anything that could be called rock) to Herman's Hermits To Elton John.

The Kingston Trio from almost the first recognized the value for pacing in shows and on albums of including some of these numbers. Their "formula" for the early albums usually included a banjo blaster or three, a foreign language number, ballad/solos, a sea chantey and/or spiritual - and one song at least designed to evoke smiles and laughter - they were, after all, a nightclub act that got seriously out of hand. And the English music hall was one of the best sources for KT funny numbers - consider "Three Jolly Coachmen" (folk, but a music hall staple), "The Unfortunate Miss Bailey," (ditto), "The Ballad of the Shape of Things (a modern satire of madrigals but one that would have been at home in those old British theaters), "The Tattooed Lady" (authentic music hall) - and this weekend's videos of a late entry into the genre but one of its most popular, Weston and Lee's "With Her Head Tucked Underneath Her Arm" from 1960's Sold Out Album.

Most people know the rough outlines of the story of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII's second wife, mother of the great Queen Elizabeth, and victim of likely trumped-up charges of adultery, for which she was beheaded. I fear, however, that recent dramatic treatments of this lady have served to distort the reality of the complex, driven, headstrong person that she was in an effort to garner more sympathy for her than most in Britain seem to feel - or than she deserves. It'd be hard not to feel some pity for a woman in an era in which all females were chattels of men, who succeeded brilliantly in many of her ambitions, and who met an unjust death (historians are about 99% certain that she was just too clever to commit adultery with anyone, much less with her brother, one of the four named co-respondents) with courage, dignity, and a remarkably well-crafted speech - unless you also remember that she parlayed Henry's desire for her (which she thwarted until he had tried to annul his first marriage) into the dismissal of a woman ten times her superior in everything except sexual politics (Catherine of Aragon, the princess of the age), a crown, and the securing of it through the engineered executions of the saintly Bishop John Fisher and the most remarkable intellect of his and nearly any age, the man for all seasons himself, Sir Thomas More. Anne's date with the headsman was an example of "as ye soweth, so also shall ye reapeth." She played a high stakes game remarkably well until she lost the final big wager.

That may account for the English ambivalence about her reflected in this song. Macabre in its conception (and likely less amusing in the wake of the very real horrors of the last ten years), the song manages to steep itself in a kind of campy horror that clearly echoes "The Unfortunate Miss Bailey" and provides the same kind of amusement that prevents you from taking it seriously. Composers Weston and Lee, successful in pop music in the 20s and 30s, wrote the song in 1934, apparently for the prince of the British music hall, the then-44 year old Stanley Holloway, still two decades away from his signature role as Eliza Doolittle's father in the London, Broadway, and film productions of My Fair Lady ("I'm gettin' married in the mornin'/Ding dong the bells are going to chime.....get me to the church on time"). Here's Holloway in the original recording:



Holloway's American music hall counterpart Rudy Vallee - he of the megaphone and dancing chorines - attacks the number with more American gusto and Cyril Smith on lead:



The Kingston Trio used Vallee's American lyric rewrite ("Army" and "Red Grange") but give it their own distinctive flair - one of those too rare numbers that features Nick's tenor guitar at the front of the accompaniment:



For a creepier, slower and weirder version - Dean Gitter from 1957:



And finally, a novelty within the novelty - a lady singing the piece - Molly Twitch at a 2010 DickensFest. This is what a 19th century English music hall performance may well have looked like::



Weston scored again in the 40s with a song that many of us remember from the 60s - "I'm 'Enerey The Eighth, I Am" as done by the aforementioned Herman's Hermits. It takes a rare talent - and an unusual mind - to come up with two such memorably off-beat songs.

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Friday, December 5, 2008

For You And Me: Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land"

Our "one nation, under God" has from its first years been a hotbed of contentious, bitter partisan brawls. Most of us can't even conceive of an election as violent and nasty in its rhetoric as that of 1800 (or 1824 or 1828), and if George W. Bush finds himself aggrieved by the shots taken at him by both sides in our recent plebiscite, he can find some comfort in reading just how much more terribly, personally, and negatively was lampooned the winning candidate of 1864 both by his own party and by his opponents - that of course would be one Abraham Lincoln.

Yet from this contentiousness has emerged a country that somehow manages both to function and to reform itself on a regular basis better than just about any other - and I do not mean that in any shallow jingoistic way but rather as a close student of history. Our polarized factions - and take your pick from any era of U.S. history, be it federalists vs. states' rightsers, or slavers vs free staters, or Populists vs. mainstream parties, or are modern right wingers vs. left wingers - seem to function in an almost dialectical manner, keeping our politics in a perpetually uncomfortable state of imbalance that somehow works.

While it has always been a favorite pastime of every party and faction to accuse its rivals of a lack of patriotism (as defined of course within the narrow confines of one's own beliefs), the objective fact remains that the country has been well-served by a wide variety of its citizens of every political and religious stripe. As JFK observed in his speech to the Houston convention of ministers in 1960 asserting that his Catholicism did not cast a shadow over his patriotism and should not disqualify his presidential candidacy, "Nobody asked my brother Joe about his religion when he boarded the bomber that exploded and killed him; nobody asked for my religious affiliation when I took command of a PT boat."

That's why I often wonder what Irving Berlin and Woody Guthrie might have had to say to each other had they ever sat down and discussed their respective compositions, "God Bless America" and "This Land Is Your Land." As most people know, Berlin was a Russian Jewish immigrant (as a child) who achieved likely the longest-running successful career of any American songwriter, and his "God Bless America" was his fervent anthem both of love for his adopted country and a proud statement that patriotism was not limited to the native born.

Most also know that Guthrie, populist/socialist./radical rabble rouser, took exception to what he saw as the shallow and superficial banality and essential falseness of Berlin's song and penned "This Land" as an angry leftist retort. Where Berlin's song is, like "America The Beautiful," a prayer - as in may God bless America - for continuing guidance toward a millennial perfection, Guthrie's piece, especially with the now usually omitted verses, was a cry for reform, for a land that did not belong implicitly to the shadowy image of an elite but rather to The Common Man. The verses not often sung today are here:

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I'd seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?

Ironically, perhaps, neither composer seemed to see that there respective songs were two sides of the same coin, essentially making the same assertion, albeit with different emphases.

Both songs, of course, are crown jewels in our country's catalog of patriotic songs.

And that is why this week's videos of Woody's masterwork are all from absolute musical heavyweights. Here is Woody's own recording, an exquisite piece of simplicity and understatement::



Here is the KT version from Goin' Places, still my favorite for its stately, unrushed, majestic rhythm and pacing - and I love the way Dave's voice breaks at the end:



For many, the PP&M version was the first one that they heard, and that trio did a fine, sincere uptempo reading of the song on (I believe) their first album [4/12/09] - original recording of PP&M was removed for CopyVio - so many years later, here's the group in Japan in 1990]:



Johnny Cash could turn any song into classic rockabilly, as he does here with the Guthrie tune:



Finally - while I wasn't a huge fan of Bruce Springsteen's "Seeger Sessions" interpretations of folk songs - he has always had a way with "This Land," and the Boss's version from his 1985 "Born In The USA" tour is I think his best and one of the best I've ever heard:



And an update here on 1/19/09 - yesterday on the National Mall in the concert celebrating the imminent inauguration of Barack Obama - Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger, and Pete's grandson Tao Rodriguez perform a stirring version - using all of the verses:


In whatever version one prefers, I have always felt that this is the quintessential American modern folk song. It doesn't matter how much of cliche it may have seemed to become - it is American idealism at its purest and simplest, whatever patriot is singing it, of whatever political persuasion.
And further...May 1, 2013 I discovered this video recently; it was uploaded to YouTube six months after this article first appeared. From 1976, an assemblage of folk royalty - former Weavers Pete Seeger and Fred Hellerman, Woody Guthrie's son Arlo, now an elder statesman of folk music, Judy Collins (who turns 74 today) with an introduction by the irrepressible writer, scholar, and gadfly Studs Terkel, singing all the verses that WG retained in his final version of the song.

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 on our Chilly Winds 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: