Friday, June 19, 2009

The Carters Meet The Kingstons Again: "Bury Me Beneath The Willow"

While it would be no more correct to say that the Carter Family "invented" country music any more than it would be to suggest that the Kingston Trio did the same for folk , it is more than fair to say that both groups played a key role in popularizing their respective genres and perhaps even more importantly making them commercially viable. Both stood on the shoulders of giants (Belafonte and The Weavers for the KT and Jimmie Rodgers, Grayson&Whitter and more for the Carters) who were also their rough contemporaries - but both took the music through recordings and radio airplay farther than anyone else had imagined possible. The KT's unprecedented four albums in the Top Ten in a single week in 1960 bookends neatly with the Carters' sales of a staggering 300,000 recordings in 1930.

(l-r AP, Maybelle with guitar, Sara with autoharp)


And the similarities only begin there. Both trios were self-taught but innovative musicians, the KT with Shane's Hawaiian-influenced rhythm strums and Guard's amazing re-definition of the longneck 5 string folk banjo, and Maybelle Carter with the "Carter lick" on guitar that has become one of the standard methods for playing both country and folk guitar. Both trios had ambitious and talented producers, Voyle Gilmore for the KT and Ralph Peer for the Carters.

Most interestingly, both were collectors of songs of traditional or otherwise less than certain authorship - songs that ended up being copyrighted by the trios and have come to be regarded as "Carter family songs" or "Kingston Trio songs,," though in neither case did the group members actually write those songs. AP Carter spent weeks at a time combing the hills and hollows of Appalachia for songs, and as we know here the Trio combed through Weavers records (at first) and a truly amazingly wide range of sources for album material.

It should be no surprise, then, that the Kingstons used their fair share of Carter Family songs, especially early on. "John Hardy," "A Worried Man," "Reuben James," "The Reverend Mr. Black," and "Bury Me Beneath The Willow" all are derived from songs recorded and made popular by the Carters, and it is the last of these that is the subject of this Weekend Videos.

"Bury Me Beneath The Weeping Willow Tree" was the first song recorded in their first extended recording session on August 2 of 1927 in Bristol, Tennessee. It set the pattern for most Carter Family recordings - Maybelle's powerful alternating bass, Sara's rhythm autoharp playing and clearest lead vocal, AP chiming in with harmony:

The purity and "authenticity" of this recording throws into sharp relief exactly what was so controversial about the Kingston Trio's treatment of folk material when we contrast the Carters with the Trio. John Stewart adds a singularly tasteful and understated banjo accompaniment here (one of the few times you'll see the words "banjo" and "understated" in the same phrase), but Nick Reynolds' bongo rhythm wrenches the song out of its folk/country roots and thrusts it closer to the KT's calypso origins. And as much as I like this recording - and I always have - it's no more traditional than taking the Carter's rough chain-gang song "Worried Man Blues" and turning its lyric into a 50s sitcom plot:

This is one of those songs on Close Up that I can really hear being done by the Guard trio as well - the vocal lead, which Stewart handles well here with its soft tonalities, seems tailor-made for the vocal stylings that we hear from Guard on songs like "San Miguel," "Senora," and "Fast Freight."

You probably noticed that there aren't a lot of country groups today who sound like the Carter Family, so it should be no surprise that this song survives more commonly in the repertoire of bluegrass groups. Here is one of the best, a collection of bluegrass all-stars featuring Alison Krause, Tony Rice, JD Crowe, and David Grisman:

Demonstrating her versatility, Krause gives us another more authentically Carter-styled version here (not at all bluegrass) in a duet with the immensely talented Lyle Lovett - this is one fine recording:

Finally, from Ireland of all places, John Faulkner gives us a version sort of halfway between country and bluegrass:

I suppose that all these years later, the ironies of it all are lost on anyone under about 50. AP Carter did much the same kind of thing that Shane/Reynolds/Guard did - down to and including copyrighting other folks' stuff and making a lot of money doing it - but Carter is regarded as a hero of the folk and country and Americana genres, and there is still the scent of the unforgivably commercial (which means "successful-and-we-made-more-money-than you-did") about the Trio in some folkies' minds. And today, the term "folk" has become so all-encompassing that the Trio's use of actual folk songs and real acoustic instruments seems almost quaint - and compared to the plethora of singer/songwriters playing Guitars-That-Used-To-Be-Acoustic, curiously "authentic."

Talk about irony.

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