Friday, June 26, 2009

Urban Legends And "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?"

You would think perhaps that after very close to fifty years there would be relatively little left to say about a song that is as familiar and as much of a standard as "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?" is. The simple timelessness and beauty of the song are self-evident, and most folk fans know at least the general outline of the history of its composition. It has been put to excellent use in countless ways and has been sung in churches and at rallies and around campfires for two generations.

In the last three years, however, a minor controversy regarding the song, based on an old canard and an even older prejudice, has re-surfaced and threatens to enshrine itself as historical despite its utter lack of veracity.

First and briefly, a recap - WHATFG was written by Pete Seeger. According to Seeger, he had been reading the epic novel And Quiet Flows The Don by classic Russian author Mikhail Sholokov, whose 1965 Nobel prize for Literature can be attributed in significant part to the critical respect accorded to this work, when he came across a passage that included a fragment of a Ukrainian folk song that, like the passage from the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes that became Seeger's "Turn! Turn! Turn!," Seeger appropriated nearly verbatim and set to music. Seeger wrote the first three verses only; Joe Hickerson added the last two, with Seeger's approval.

There's another urban myth trying to gain traction about the song - that Pete adapted the melody from the old Irish American railroad song "Drill Ye Tarriers," familiar to many of us from the Weavers or the Chad Mitchell Trio or - The Tarriers, who - yes - did take their name from the song. But you judge. Here's a MIDI of the "Tarriers" song:

Drill Ye Tarriers

And just so the formats are the same, a MIDI for "Flowers":

Where Have All The Flowers Gone?

There is no structural or melodic similarities between the songs whatsoever.

I'm hoping that the source for this is not Seeger himself, especially if it's from an interview in the last several years. Pete has already made a statement in good faith about the song that is, however, patently untrue - the canard I referred to above. In the 2008 book How Can I Keep From Singing? The Ballad of Pete Seeger, author David King Dunaway reiterates the assertion made by Seeger on camera in the 2006 documentary about the KT 50 Years Of Having Fun that the Kingston Trio, thinking the song to be traditional, originally tried to claim copyright credit for the song until Seeger called Dave Guard and got the group amicably to correct its error.

Nice story, but impossible. The KT that heard "Flowers" in 1961 from the then-unknown Peter, Paul and Mary at Boston's Storyville did not include Guard, who had left the group in June of that year, was about to move with his family to Australia (Seeger later stayed at Guard's Australian home while on tour there), and had been replaced by John Stewart, who was on the recording. All of Capitol's pressings of both the single hit record and the album on which it appeared attribute the copyright to Seeger. Seeger at a distance of 45 years may well have been confusing the "Flowers" song with any of a number of other Kingston Trio songs on which Guard and his bandmates claimed composition credits but which were actually under copyright to someone else, including a few that had been recorded by Seeger's The Weavers - but "Flowers" was not one of these.

Aside from this unfortunate mis-recollection by Pete himself, the credence that the story has gained to reputable historian Dunaway and through him to Wikipedia, which - like it or not, folks - has become the de facto source of choice for a huge percentage of the population under forty, is disturbing. Hence my reference to an "older prejudice" - the one against the Kingston Trio as being popularizing lightweights and not musical innovators and trendsetters.

I've contacted the redoubtable Allan Shaw about this, because we need a sourced reference to edit the falsehood out of Wikipedia, and it's important that we do so. I watched 50 Years Of Having Fun at FC7 with Allan, PC Fields, Zach Kaplan, and a couple of other folks, and we all caught the error. Allan said that he'd contact his friends at Capitol and Joe Hickerson to see if he can help establish the truth.

But this is, of course, a comparative videos post - and leaving the controversy aside, there are of course many, many splendid versions of the song. We start with the Billboard #21 hit:

One of the remarkable facets of this group was how faithfully they were able to reproduce studio sound in their live performances when they chose to - and this song is an excellent example.

The first actual recording of the composition, though, made even before the Trio rushed into a studio (fearing heavyweight Harry Belafonte's rumored recording, not that of fledgling unknowns PP&M) was by none other than the inimitable Marlene Dietrich - in French and then German and English. Here's a 1965 TV performance from late in the life of this great chanteuse:

Of all the fine versions available from Peter, Paul and Mary - this one is one of the best from their later years:

And talk about a great chanteuse - Joan Baez singing the song for Pete Seeger at the Kennedy Center Honors for him in 1994:

A characteristically gentle interpretation from the Brothers Four:

And finally from Pete himself - in 1994 at Wolf Trap with grandson Tao Rodriguez, at a mere 76 years of age:

I was tempted to add a comment to to Ken's post below about the death of Michael Jackson, the old Latin phrase Sic transit gloria mundi - "Thus (or so) passes the world's glory" - that is unless, perhaps, you've done what Pete Seeger has done, and that is write a song that you know in the twilight of your years will outlive you by generations.

Addendum - 11/19/13
Here is an undated video of Marlene Dietrich introducing the song in French and singing it in her native German, which was how she sang it in her international hit rendition - as "Wo die Blumen sind?"


Pete Curry said...

Jim: Regarding your hope that Pete Seeger is not the source of the myth that the melody for “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” was derived from the song “Drill Ye Tarriers, Drill”: You can rest easy because what Seeger actually says in the Dunaway book (and elsewhere) is that the melody for “Flowers” was taken subconsciously not from “Drill Ye Tarriers, Drill” but from a “lumberjack version” of same, meaning, I believe, that the song that provided the melody for “Flowers” is similar in text, structure or theme to “Drill Ye Tarriers, Drill,” but not in terms of melody (as clearly it is not). In addition, in his “musical autobiography” titled “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” Seeger quotes some lines from the source song as follows: “Johnson says he'll load more hay/says he'll load ten times a day…”. And as you know, “Drill Ye Tarriers, Drill” does not contain those lyrics or anything like them.

As to the “canard” by Seeger you refer to: Some of the details sound perfectly likely to me. For example, he was very friendly with Dave Guard and he very well might have called him regarding the authorship of “Flowers,” not knowing that Dave was no longer with the Kingston Trio. Other details, such as the KT actually having “put their name on” the recording, seem less likely. Personally, I suspect the true facts of the matter are somewhere in between.

And to my knowledge, the first recording of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” was by made by Pete Seeger himself and included on his 1960 Rainbow Quest” LP, not by Marlene Dietrich. Regards, Pete Curry

Jim Moran said...

Thanks again for the insights, Pete. For the life of me I could not figure out a melodic connection between DYT and "Flowers - I read the first version of the Dunaway book in the early 90s and never understood the connection, which you explain very well.
I should probably go back and clarify the Dietrich was possibly the first after Seeger.
Joe Hickerson is someone I'm in contact with on FaceBook and I keep meaning to ask him about the copyright. I wonder as I did in the article if Seeger was thinking about another song - maybe from the first album, which was full of Weavers songs with Guard/Shane/Reynolds copyrights, or Guard alone - and mixed it up with Flowers. I have no doubt at all that PS could have called DG on a copyright matter - it just doesn't ring true for me on Flowers. And I understood in any event that Shane and Guard did not speak to each other literally for 10 years after Dave left, which would have meant that the call would have been misdirected to clear up a problem with this song.
I think I WILL put it to Hickerson - will let you know what he replies.


Count Pal said...

Dear Jim,
Thanks for all you info on my first "favorite" song. I think you readers might appreciate the following about "Flowers," it's "hidden in plain view" meaning and the translation and background that I wrote to the Weekly Standard:

Yes, Where HAVE All the Flowers Gone?

Dear Editor,

In the print edition of the May 23, 2011 Weekly Standard, there is a great picture of the Kingston Trio heading the article, “Folk Wisdom,” by Ron Radosh, a review of Lawrence Epstein’s book, “Political Folk Music in America from It’s Origins to Bob Dylan.”

Apparently, Radosh or someone at the Weekly Standard, like millions of Kingston Trio fans at the time, still resents Dave Guard (the banjo player on the left in the photo) leaving the Trio in 1961, since the Weekly Standard gives the date of the photo as “ca. 1970.”

Actually, later in 1961, the Kingston Trio (Guard being replaced by the great singer-songwriter, John Stewart) would release a song that became a standard, and unwittingly epitomize Epstein’s thesis that politicized folk music, instead of changing the world, fell harmlessly to the ground.

“Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” was released in December 1961. As a clueless elementary school kid, I got hooked on music, the radio and the Kingston Trio for the first time, hearing the opening arpeggio of that song.

I wasn’t the only one who was clueless. The Kingston Trio, millions of listeners and even the song’s co-writers, Pete Seeger and Joe Hickerson, apparently still don’t get the plain meaning of the simple verses.

Seeger’s composition was “inspired by a passage from Mikhail Sholokhov’s Novel And Quiet Flows The Don.” That passage, which occurs early in the massive first book of a trilogy, (according to )

“...describes a song which is sung by Cossacks as they go off to war. It gives some of the words but doesn't name the song…

“A. L. Lloyd, a famous British musicologist, … revealed the original to be a Russian (sic) (actually a Ukrainian) folksong called Koloda Duda. Here are the words in English:

Koloda Duda [a woman's name]

Where have you been?

Minding the horses.

Which were you minding?

The horse with the saddle

with the golden fringe.

But where is your horse?

Standing by the gate.

And where is the gate?

Carried away by the water.

And where are the reeds?

The girls have gathered them.

And where are the girls?

The girls have married and gone away.

And where are the Cossacks?

They've gone to war."

The Kingston Trio disbanded in the Summer of the Year of the Flower Children – 1967.

They left us with an English version of an earthy, fatalistic Ukrainian folk song which they and millions took to be an inspiring hope of breaking the endless cycle of war and death. But it all, literally, went to ground (“…gone to graveyards, …gone to flowers”).

And all this BEFORE 1970!

Peace and Love,

Jim Moran said...

Hi Count Pal -

Thanks SO much for this! I've seen only partial translations of the original "Don" passage, and you're analysis of this "earthy" peasant song is spot on.

My brother Rick of "The Right Wing Nuthouse" makes an occasional appearance at "The Weekly Standard," as does Ron Radosh from time to time. I used a really biting comment from Mr. Radosh in the article I largely wrote on the KT for Wikipedia, a couple of lines of his from a 1959 review in which he excoriated the original Trio for its fake-ness. Through my brother, I was in touch with Radosh via email in a very cordial exchange in the last six months about the KT ( he has modified his initial dislike a bit - but only a bit), and I'd guess that he would agree with Epstein's thesis and with your analysis of it.

Thanks again for the thoughtful comment - which I think I'll asterisk at some relevant point in the text of the article. You've also reminded me to get in touch with Joe Hickerson (with whom I'm also linked via email) to see if he can clear up this copyright stuff.


Jim M.

Count Pal said...

Dear Jim,

Thanks for your kind words about my post. You referred to Ron Radosh's review in Sing Out! I recall his name being associated with this magazine years ago, in my youth as a "useful idiot." I do appreciate Radosh's courage and current writings -- as well as your brother Rick's writings.

However, I was a bit disappointed at your mention that Radosh has changed his views of the Kingston Trio only a little. I guess initial snobbishness is hard to overcome.

I just enjoy tremendously the Trio's versions of the songs -- hands down, their version of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" is the best.

And, as my friend who grew up in San Francisco and saw them in their prime, despite not being "pure" folksingers, "they were just so much FUN!"