Friday, May 15, 2009

"The Colorado Trail"

"The Colorado Trail" is one of those folk songs in the American tradition that appears as a genuine surprise, like maybe "Shenandoah" and "The Streets Of Laredo" and "Coffee Grows On White Oak Trees." American frontier culture has given rise to rough-hewn ballads like "Jesse James" and fiddle and dance tunes like "Old Joe Clark" and "Turkey In The Straw" and topical/historical pieces like the hundreds of Civil War songs and railroad songs and sea chanteys. We're not generally known, though, for the lyrical beauty of the Celtic songs of Ireland, Scotland, and Brittainy or the stately and often melancholy classics of England (think "Greensleeves" or "Barbara Allen").

Every so often, though, some anonymous American worker came up with a melody and some words of genuinely aching beauty, real polished diamonds set sparkling against the rough and grainy backdrop of American folk tunes. Such a song is the very real cowboy ballad, "The Colorado Trail."

We owe our knowledge of this obscure ballad to classic American poet Carl Sandburg and Weaver Lee Hays, the same pair who gave us "The Wreck of the John B" and dozens of other traditional songs that found their ways into public consciousness through the books of Alan Lomax and the records of Burl Ives and The Weavers. The story goes that Sandburg "collected" (as they say in the folk music biz) the song in 1927 (about the same time as "John B") from Dr. T.L. Chapman, an old surgeon in Duluth, Minnesota who maintained that some decades earlier he had treated an anonymous cowboy for "bones of both upper and lower legs broken, fractures of the collar bone on both sides, numerous fractures of both arms and wrists, and many scars from lacerations." According to Chapman (from Sandburg), the cowboy spent several weeks convalescing, singing "The Colorado Trail" several times daily to other patients who just couldn't get enough of it.

And no wonder. The song is pure (if a bit schmaltzy) genius and includes one especially fine technical point - the rise in the melody of the chorus where the meaning of the words rises - "wail, winds, wail" - with the subsequent gradual stepping down of the melody as the words return to earth - "all along, along, along - The Colorado trail." [Lomax's published musical setting gives you the option to sing the word "wail" at either the high end of an octave as the Kingstons do below or the lower as with the Bar D Wranglers - Ives did the high octave.] You generally don't hear that kind of sophisticated gambit in any kind of music outside of the really serious pop and classical stuff. That ol' cowpoke knew what he was doing.

I first heard it on what may have been the earliest commercial recording by Ives, who put out literally hundreds of 45rpms and 78rpms before the mid-Fifties debut of LPs. The Weavers may also have waxed it in the Gordon Jenkins sessions with Decca, though I can't say for sure or find direct evidence of it.*

It's safe to say, though, that the awesome commercial punch of the Kingston Trio in 1960 brought the song its widest attention to date, appearing as it did on their album String Along, the fifth consecutive (and final) album of the original trio's to go to #1 on the Billboard charts, where it stayed according to The Kingston Trio On Record for an impressive ten weeks. The Trio's reading stands after nearly fifty years as one of the loveliest cuts that they ever recorded:

Given the single source for the song from Sandburg, there are still major variations in the lyrics because a)Lee Hays added two verses of his own to Sandburg's find, including the last verse that the KT sings, and b) most of the other artists who have recorded it (Johnny Cash, Don Williams, Tex Ritter, and more) have felt free to write their own verses as well.

We have some fine performances of the song from amateurs and professionals alike. For a pure and simple folk arrangement featuring only vocal, guitar and recorder, I would like to start with one of my favorite singers of all time, Cisco Houston, who died at 42 years old in 1961 just as his career was taking off in the folk boom. Houston had the best baritone voice in roots music, one that some traditionalists felt was "too good" for the simple tunes he sang. I disagree most emphatically:

Rick Devin is a multi-faceted and thoroughgoing professional who has had different incarnations as a rock, folk, and blues performer. Since 1985, though, he has focused on cowboy songs, teaming up with Michael Martin Murphey, among others. This video is a bit of a commercial but still a fine performance:

Marshal Bailey and The Silver Bullets put a definite and very melodic country spin to the song - this was recorded last June at the Colorado Bluegrass Festival:

Mike Iverson gives a genuine and authentic-sounding reading at last year's Western music Alliance meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico - the mouth harp makes you nearly smell the campfire smoke:

A lovely, understated melody, melancholy tone, haunting lost love theme - "The Colorado Trail" includes for me just about everything there is to love about traditional music.


Well, here's some pretty direct evidence - The Weavers with Lee Hays on lead. Seeger is playing the recorder, but the brush drums and strings are the work of Gordon Jenkins, so this is indeed from the 1949-52 Decca era of the group.

Updates, April 2013

In the nearly four years since this post first appeared, the number of videos of all kinds posted to YouTube has more than tripled, and despite the occasionally problematic actions by record companies to enforce copyright restrictions (as has happened with the Kingston Trio video above), this has been good news for music lovers of all stripes. In May of 2009 when I wrote this, I had a hard time coming up with YT renditions of "The Colorado Trail" that I liked enough to include in an article such as this. The ones in the original posting above are of genuine excellence - but they were all that I could find. Recently, though, especially in the last year, a substantial number of outstanding versions of the song have been uploaded to YouTube. Here are several of the best of those, all by major artists whose work was not available in video form four years ago.

Don Edwards

Connie Dover

The Norman Luboff Choir - 1955

Noël Wan, Harp - 2007


Bill said...

Thanks so much, Jim Moran, for posting the history and recordings of this wonderful old cowboy song. Our nonprofit organization "keeps" The Colorado Trail, the state's premier long-distance trail, nearly 500 miles across the Rocky Mountains between Denver and Durango. The ballad predates our 1987 completion of the Trail, and we think some of the early enthusiasm for the Trail might have stemmed from the song, as you say, "a haunting lost love theme, The Colorado Trail."

Bill Manning, CTF Mg Dir
The Colorado Trail Foundation

Nathan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nate said...

Like Jesus and wine, these songs got better and better, but then maybe I just fell in love with it more and more. Mike Iverson's last rendition was absolutely wonderful!


Folksinger91 said...

Terry glickson from the easyriders is singing the bass here with the weavers.

Jim Moran said...

Thanks for this and your comments on my other posts, Folksinger91. I take it that you are a big Weavers fan, as I am as well. I personally don't like their Decca recordings (including several with Gilkyson singing the lead - "Across The Wide Missouri," for example) very much with all the orchestrations, but their pure acoustic catalog of albums on Vanguard is a treasure.

Samuel Brannan said...

Jim, what do you think of the Cisco Houston version?

Jim Moran said...

Samuel, I can think of scarcely any song that Cisco did that I don't love.I think that this one is especially suited to his voice. Recall that Houston was criticized as having a voice "too good" for folk music. Well, for me, that great smooth baritone of his works wonderfully well on this surpassingly beautiful melody, much more so than many scratchy-voiced "authentic" singers' voices.

Omar Ortiz said...

Mr. Moran, Thank you for this site and information on this song. I had never heard of it, until this music course I'm taking, and I have to write about it, which your information helped. Beautiful song!

Omar Ortiz said...

Mr. Moran, Thank you for this site and information on this song. I had never heard of it, until this music course I'm taking, and I have to write about it, which your information helped. Beautiful song!

Jim Moran said...

Thanks to Omar Ortiz for the appreciation! I am glad that you found this lovely song and that my essay proved to be of some value. Hope you noticed in the left -hand coilumn notes that I'm a teacher by profession, and if this helped you with a school project, I'm eveb happier.

I will also say that I am glad you commented because I have 220 articles on the site, and videos frequently go missing. I was able to replace Don Edwards and Connie Dove, and putting in Cisco Houston after the Bar D Wranglers were removed is something that pleases me - and I hope Samuel Brannan from the comment above if he ever looks in.