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?"