Saturday, February 28, 2009
Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart remarked in a 1964 decision that although he was unable to offer a clear and concise definition of what constitutes pornography - "I know it when I see it." I am not about to divert this PG-13 blog into NC-17 territory - it's just that Stewart's phrase is so very applicable to the less volatile topic of bluegrass music. No one has ever been able to define precisely what it is - but I know it when I hear it.
It's not a traditional folk form at all and really isn't very old, going back as it does no earlier than the 1930s or 40s. Not quite country and not quite folk, bluegrass derives some of its character from both - twangy vocals and the prominence of the fiddle in most bluegrass bands from country, the five string banjo and general Scotch-Irish Appalachian tone from folk. The music is usually played at supersonic speed with breaks for each of the principal instruments.
The name bluegrass itself is derived from the band name of the genre's first superstar, Bill Monroe, whose most successful band was called The Blue Grass Boys (above) and in its most famous incarnation in the late 40s included the instrumental line-up most common in bluegrass bands since - guitar and vocals by Lester Flatt, banjo by Earl Scruggs, Chubby Wise on fiddle, and Monroe himself on mandolin and often doing very high harmonies a fifth (rather than the more usual third) above the melody line. This band's success on national radio's Grand Ole Opry (propelled in part by the electrifyingly original sound of the three-fingered rolls that Scruggs was doing that have since become known as Scruggs picking) led to a string of hits, many off from the 1947 recording sessions that yielded a number of huge 45 rpm hits - including "Molly and Tenbrooks." The Monroe video has been pulled from YouTube, but Allison Krause and Union Station do a fine replication:
Fourteen years later, the Kingston Trio with characteristic brashness decided to do their own version of the song, simplifying the lyrics, folkifying the tone - and not surprisingly changing the banjo part to something that Dave Guard could handle. Guard's growth as a banjoist from the first album to this cut from his last with the Trio is stunning, and DG acquits himself well here - but it's not quite bluegrass even though Guard seems to be doing some three-fingered picking here as opposed to his earlier thumb/forefinger instrumentals (maybe not - comments/speculations welcome). The KT called it, of course,"Run, Molly, Run" from Goin' Places:
This is a classic KT banjo blaster, performed with their trademark verve and just that little bit of vocal "acting" that made their concerts a delight. I always thought that this would have been a great concert opener for the Trio - and one that John Stewart would just absolutely have nailed had they kept it in the repertoire.
Most of the other bluegrass versions of the song are pretty direct derivatives from Monroe's recording, but the next two videos are worth a look for different reasons. Peter Rowan and Tony Rice's version showcases Rice's unbelievable bluegrass flatpicking:
Lester Flatt was a great, great flatpicking artist - but has anyone ever been better than Rice?
Tony appears again with another great instrumental here with the Manzanita Band. This superstar group has Sam Bush on the Monroe-styled lead and mandolin, but what makes this performance different is - no banjo. You won't exactly miss it, though, because its position is filled by dobro guitar played by Jerry Douglass, the greatest who ever touched the instrument and one of the great musicians America has produced:
KT fans may recall the liner notes from the Live At Newport CD from a few years back. Flatt and Scruggs had left Monroe to form their own band and like the Trio had been invited (in both cases against the wishes of folk purists) to play at the 1960 Newport Folk festival, which was in desperate need that year of an infusion of cash, as its very existence was threatened. Bringing non-traditional artists like Flatt and Scruggs and the KT caused some bitterness in the Greenwich Village crowd but saved the festival. (BTW - Flatt and Scruggs performance of four or five songs including "Salty Dog" is on the Vanguard two album set from the festival that year - one of the first records I ever bought. They were great!) The fans were so raucous demanding a KT encore that they drowned out Flatt and Scruggs until guard came back on stage and assured the crowd that the KT would return after the bluegrass set, and urged the crowd to listen to his own personal favorite banjo player of all time. The crowd complied.
I've often wondered how many of them recognized Scruggs distinctive style seven years later in the monster hit "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" that had been in the film Bonnie and Clyde....
How about some pure bluegrass? What better song than "Cripple Creek," and what better band than Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys?
And ole Earl is still picking away - I hope everyone saw this wonderful performance of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" from the David Letterman show a couple years back:
And why not? The scene from 1972's Deliverance with possibly the most famous bluegrass-styled number ever, "Dueling Banjos" played by the great Eric Weissberg of The Tarriers:
Beyond the music - Burt Reynolds...Ronny Cox...Jon Voight...Ned Beatty...script by James Dickey (who wrote the novel) and directed by John Boorman - will I be forgiven for saying they just don't make any movies this great any more?
Saturday, February 21, 2009
Now America's rich heritage of religious music includes a good many of the European compositions, from the stately Anglican-Episcopal hymns like "Now Thank We All Our God" and "Praise To The Lord" and "Nearer My God To Thee" to Martin Luther's "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" and many more.
But America engendered what we might term the "folk hymn" as well - compositions less complex and easier to sing, often springing from sects and congregations of American origin like the Shakers, whose "Simple Gifts" keeps reappearing decade after decade in some modified form or other. And the first musical form entirely native to the U.S. - before ragtime or blues or jazz or rock - is what used to be termed the "Negro spiritual" and which is now generally referred to simply by the latter term.
Though many spirituals were simple expressions of religious faith, some scholars believe that quite a few of them were also coded to make powerful political statements of both anger and hope as well. They suggest that "All My Trials" is a thinly-veiled reference to the tribulations of slavery, and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" is both a reference to and instruction manual for the use of the Underground Railroad (as is "Follow The Drinking Gourd"). "Oh Mary Don't You Weep" is almost certainly one of those - concealed beneath a veneer of salvation lyrics is a timeless cry for freedom.
The ostensible sense of the lyrics for "Oh, Mary Don't You Weep" is the anticipation of the Last Judgment/Apocalypse/Second Coming/Parousia - but the "coded meaning" could be an expression of an intense desire for freedom from slavery. "The rock where Moses stood" references the biblical figure whose primary symbolic value is as a liberator; "one of these nights around twelve o'clock/this old world is gonna reel and rock" looks toward the day of liberation, as do the "good times by and by" that are to deter Mary from weeping.
It's no surprise that this song has multiple variants in both lyrics and performance. It also is a wonderful index to the transition between the Guard and Stewart troupes of the Kingston Trio, since both trios recorded the song within months of each other, to very different effect. The Guard version wasn't released for nearly thirty years after its recording - I suspect because the Stewart version was already in the works when the Goin' Places album for which it was recorded came out.
Here are the two Trio versions, which differ clearly in rhythm, speed, chords, and lyrics. I am delighted to say that through no doing of mine - these tracks will play in full stereo.
The Guard Trio
The Stewart Trio
NBD throw in a seventh chord that the NBJ version omits. I'm also reminded here of a comment that John Stewart made often that his background in rock music gave his banjo work more of a driving rhythm than Dave Guard had used, and I think these two recordings bear that out.
But this next remarkable recording from 1929 seems to show that the Guard trio is more faithful to the source. Here is a group of anonymous field hands doing the song:
A comment on YouTube asserts that the sound must be studio recorded because of its quality. I think rather that this is an intensely cleaned-up digitized sound track - or these guys are the best lip-syncers in history.
Next - Pete Seeger delivers a fine and folky performance:
And this one won't be removed for CopyVio - because copyright holder Smithsonian/Folkways uploaded it themselves.
I tend to prefer performances of spirituals that have some real soul to them - did anyone ever sing them better than Mahalia Jackson? - and this classic gospel group the Caravans (from 1958) takes the song hard and completely into gospel blues:
Our final performance here is from Bruce Springsteen's The Seeger Sessions, which IMHO was, as Herbert Hoover said of Prohibition, a noble experiment (but by implication of course one that didn't work). Some of the Boss's selections therein I found grating and some ridiculous. A few of them worked really well for me, and this was one of them - you have to appreciate the drive that Springsteen brings to the piece,leaving everything on the stage, as he always does:
In any version and whatever its intended meaning, the song is about as joyous expression of hope for some kind of better day ahead as you're likely to find in American folk music.
Saturday, February 14, 2009
I was thinking of a how useful a term Sebastian Unger and the US Weather Service have given us in "the perfect storm" (speaking of breezes) to refer to an unlikely conjunction of events that creates a powerful (and in the case of the nor'easter of Unger's book, destructive) new and unique phenomenon.
My own journey into a now lifelong love of folk music is derived from just such a conjunction - and interestingly for a post on this board, not at all primarily from the Kingston Trio. My infatuation for them led to many more diverse folk interests, but it was a result of earlier influences, some of which may be shared by other Boomers.
Aside from the comprehensive love of all things musical of my parents, who surrounded all of my nine brothers and sisters and me with vast numbers of records and books even before we could walk, my first big influences came from Disney via the theme song for Davy Crockett (see below), which you recall featured a simple, guitar and bass only accompaniment and truly sounded more folkie than many real folk songs, and of course Jimmie Dodd from The Mickey Mouse Club, whose Mickey-shaped tenor guitar (and his mastery of it - see below again) engendered in me a fascination with the guitar that quickly replaced my love for the piano (on which I had seven years of lessons).
At the same time, you'll recall the great Burl Ives was churning out hit after hit from the simplest and most accessible folk songs (though in his TV appearances he played a ridiculously little nylon stringed guitar that contrasted with his impressive physical bulk).
But as I've noted before, our local Chicago version of Will Geer/Woody Guthrie/Oscar Brand was Win Stracke, a lefty activist and actor and singer and writer - and host of a children's show called "Uncle Win," on which he daily played a goodly number of folk songs, singing them in an impressive baritone and accompanying himself on what I now recognize as a great big Martin D-28.
Sometime in the very late 50's, Uncle Win recorded an LP called Songs of the Civil War (one side colored blue, the other gray) a great record with the best versions I've heard of about 30 of those songs. I was and remain a Civil War nut (during the Centennial, I frequently knew what happened on each date before our newspaper published it), and one of my two favorite songs on the LP was "Goober Peas."
So when the song popped up on the Kingston Trio's fourth album, Here We Go Again, I already knew it and loved their version because of the banjo part and because they did it straight up. That's why I can still listen to it, unlike "Worried Man," whose lyrics make me cringe for their silliness compared to the original song and "Wide Missouri," whose aching loveliness makes me wish all the more that they had really done "Shenandoah."
"Goober Peas" really was sung by Confederate soldiers through the whole Civil War, possibly coming from a pre-war song. No one knows who wrote it - when it was published on sheet music first a year after the war in 1866, it was attributed to "P. Nutt." Ha ha - or as we say today, LOL. There's one more verse, seldom sung today, written by one of the more than 100,000 Confederate POWs - worth a chuckle, I'd say:
But now we are in prison and likely long to stay,
The Yankees they are guarding us, no hope to get away;
Our rations they are scanty, 'tis cold enough to freeze,—
I wish I was in Georgia, eating goober peas.
Peas, peas, peas, peas, Eating goober peas;
I wish I was in Georgia, eating goober peas.
And here with an unusual video, anime again - the Kingston Trio:
The artist here next is listed as "The Merry Singers," a group that put out dozens of 78s and LPs for children between 1948 and perhaps as late as the 1970s. The early date is of interest - because though there is little detailed information about the group on the internet, I would swear that the lead vocal here is the aforementioned Win Stracke, musical hero of my earliest years:
Other Merry Players recordings feature a voice that sounds very much like Oscar Brand, Canadian/American friend and contemporary of Stracke.
Here's a fine rendition by The 97th Regimental String Band, a group dedicated to authentic performances of the era's songs - I'd guess that the real soldiers sounded something like this:
Civil War re-enacters are a special breed, and this video of another traditional sounding version with frailed banjo ("Cripple Creek" in the middle, yet!) is a montage from a re-enactment camp; the audio track is from yet another early 60s pop-folk group, the Cumberland Three, which included a 20 year old California named John Stewart, who was within a year of replacing Dave Guard in the Kingston Trio. Stewart's traditional frailed banjo accompaniment is featured here and makes an interesting contrast with Guard's banjo work on the KT cut above:
Finally - I usually don't post completely amateur versions - but the cast of characters here allows an exception. Our good friend Bo Wennstam from Sweden living now in Mallorca has uploaded over 200 videos of fantasy camp. Here is a group of us from 2007 in Mikey's Hospitality Suite Annex doing a very Kingston version of the song:
The cast here includes - Michigan's Jerry Peterson doing fine lead guitar throughout, partially obscured by the incredibly talented Fred Grittner on mandolin ( Fred did a wonderful "California" re-write and his JS tribute song "Where The River meets The Sea," memorialized Stewart), fine banjo work by Jim Snow to the left and PK Frawley to the right (with Triofan John Lee joining later in the song), yours truly following along to the right of Fred, with Rick Jarusciewicz on Swiss Army bass. P.C. Fields is standing by the curtain in the back; as Bo pans the shot to the left at 1:13 - that's Mikey Burns sitting with Susan Keays, and you can see the banjo head and half of young Elliott Gleeson. Bob Kozma walks past the camera before the last chorus.
Fun fun fun if not great - and this is why everyone should come to Scottsdale at least once because this kind of jam goes on day and night all week.
Just for fun - the original soundtrack recording of "Davy Crockett" -
And Jimmie Dodd doing some fine tenor work:
Saturday, February 7, 2009
It wasn't that I wasn't into melancholy, loneliness, or lost love, either. I am, after all, of primarily Irish descent, and all of the above plus a marked tendency to the love of a good drop of the craythur, as they say ("creature," meaning grain alcohol and by extension any distilled beverage for all the non-Hibernians out there) plus a hot temper, love of poetry and song, and a mouth that for some reason just won't stop chattering are all part of the genetic inheritance of our breed.
No, it was because this simple, four chord song had really, really been done to death by about 1964 or 1965, and what is at the heart of the ultimate charm of the song - its very simplicity and at its core its honest recitation of some very nearly universal emotions - just didn't allow for a whole lot of variation in presentation or arrangement.
Now that I am (considerably) older and perhaps a tad wiser - and at a distance of forty-five or more years - I can see the splendidly if subtly individual ways that the genuinely stunning array of artists below interpreted this truly beautiful composition.
"500 Miles" was written or co-written and copyrighted by the late folksinger Hedy West, whom I would describe as to some degree the female equivalent of Bob Gibson - a truly remarkable and profoundly influential folk artist now all but forgotten. West was an Appalachian girl (born in the mountains of Georgia in 1938, died of cancer in 2003), a frailing five string banjo player good enough to appear frequently with Pete Seeger, and with Carolyn Hester and before Joan Baez, the darling among the young women who performed in the Greenwich Village coffee houses in the late 50s and early 60s. Some have suggested that her composition of "500 Miles" was influenced by the traditional folk song "900 Miles," and perhaps so in a very limited way. (Trio fans would know "900 Miles" as the original uptempo tune that Lord Burgess turned into my favorite Nick Reynolds' solo, "The Wanderer" from Here We Go Again.) There is a slight similarity in the melody and both involve missing a loved one - and trains. Beyond that, "500 Miles" is all Hedy West (and possibly her grandmother, who is alleged to have taught her a now-lost root version of it).
West's own version* of the song stands in distinct contrast to the smooth, mellow, harmonized versions of the pop-folk groups below. Accompanying herself with a five-string banjo only (whose ringing tone is screaming "Vega Pete Seeger longneck banjo with Whyte Laydie tone ring" at us), West's voice, accent, and almost laconic delivery keep the song squarely in the Appalachian tradition from which it sprang:
The first recording of the song that gained attention - meaning that virtually every other version below was derived from it - was by the fabulous Journeymen - Dick Weissman, Scott MacKenzie (of "San Francisco" fame) and soon-to-be Papa John Phillips, who in the best Dave Guard-Jane Bowers tradition claimed a co-copyright for a song that he amended slightly but did not actually write. Here are the Journeymen from 1961:
Apparently the friendship between John Stewart and John Phillips enabled the KT to get the second version of the song out on vinyl - as we know, from College Concert in a fine, understated performance with a great, lonely train-whistle vocal by Stewart:
I think that many people associate the song most with Peter, Paul and Mary, and if you haven't heard them do this one in a while - great vocals:
This is the original studio track from their first eponymous album.
Country legend Bobby Bare had the charting single version of the song (#10 in 1963) with a lyric that he completely re-wrote and copyrighted:
For a really lonesome wailing version, no one beats Hoyt Axton (of "Greenback Dollar" fame):
Roseanne Cash creates a stunning amalgam of Hedy West's original and Bobby Bare's rewrite - haunting and beautifully accompanied:
Every damned female "contestant" on that non-musical cesspool called American Idol should be tied to a chair to listen to the great ladies of 60s folk, Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell - and Joan Baez:
That, children, is what singing is supposed to sound like.
Finally, two slightly rock-ish versions - Peter and Gordon and 80s folk-rock group The Hooters (named after a slang term for a concertina):
* West's version added courtesy of Gary M., who comments below.