Thursday, September 3, 2009

Another Appalachian Classic: "Shady Grove"

Today's intended weekend video was a bit of a downer of a song ( or rather the story behind it), so I decided spontaneously to go two for the price of one - the first and cheerier half of this Kingston Trio medley tonight and the sadder, darker half for a later date.

One of the things that traditional folk aficionados hated about the early Kingston Trio was the KT's refusal to treat folk songs as sacrosanct. The Trio joked and quipped and entertained - often before doing a bang-up job on a traditional number. If some of the humor today seems sophomoric - well, as the videos show, we are talking here about three very young men, barely out of college themselves, the oldest (Nick Reynolds) not yet twenty-five as of this recording whose origin was in the pre-"Tom Dooley" Hungry i engagement era and album and the youngest (Dave Guard) astoundingly not yet 24 (DG turned 24 in October of 1958 when TD was climbing up the charts). A little sophomorism is forgivable, I think - and here I'm referring to Bob Shane's cornpone accent and jokes on the album rather than Dave's intro on the video below.

If you saw the KT Wiki, though, you must have seen Frank Proffitt's remark that watching the Trio doing their take on his own prized arrangement of "Tom Dooley" on TV made him "sorty sick." That was an honest remark, at least, and one Proffitt had a right to. He was the genuine article, a real back woods guy who knew the songs only as the music he grew up on and who couldn't understand what the three guys in the striped shirts were doing to his song. The excoriating reaction to the KT by urban folkies like John Cohen, however, is harder to stomach - city born and bred guys like Cohen (and the late great Mike Seeger) putting on string ties and imitating the nasally intonations of mountain singers in an effort to sound like - Frank Proffitt. That's just fakery with hypocrisy thrown in to boot.

"Shady Grove" is likely an old Irish tune, and the fact that Guard is absolutely correct in his attribution of the song to the Appalachians (North Carolina, to be specific) simply illustrates the intimate connection between the Celtic tunes of Ireland and Scotland and the real traditional folk tunes of the Eastern U.S., settled largely by the Scots-Irish. A number of folklorists I've read, in fact, explain how the African bania (banjo in English) of four strings as played by black musicians sprouted a fifth string halfway up the neck when played by those Scots-Irish Appalachian whites - it was, they suggest, an attempt to imitate the drone pipes of the Celtic bagpipe common to both Ireland and Scotland. The same explanation has been put forth for the drone strings on the mountain dulcimer you'll see Jean Ritchie playing below.

Some accounts suggest that there are fifty different versions of "Shady Grove," some with more than two hundred verses (shades of John Stewart/John Phillips' "Chilly Winds"). It also seems to be related to the Scots-Irish-Appalachian murder ballad "Matty Groves," though clearly Lady Shady is the much happier of the two, worshiped and desired as she is by the singer of the song.

So - if we can get past a bit of the stagey silly humor, we can enjoy first a fine version (that you'll see isn't far off the traditional) featuring developing master banjoist Dave Guard:

I still can't believe that DG at this point was still playing (effectively) with one finger and his thumb.

For comparison's sake, look at what Doc Watson does with the song. Doc is a North Carolinian, born in 1923, and as real a deal as Frank Proffitt - except that Doc may be the greatest musician that the Appalachians have ever produced. Fine singer that he is, it is his guitar work that amazes:

David Holt on banjo here is doing the real old time frail or clawhammer style.

For another fabulous performance focusing on guitar - here's Tony Rice and band after he lost his singing voice - Rice speaks through his guitar now:

Now for the roots from which the branches grew - Jean Ritchie, with John Jacob Niles, the greatest of traditional American mountain dulcimerists. Ritchie, still performing at age 86 is like Watson the real article, born and raised in the Kentucky mountains:

And two fun versions - a more recent (2002) Doc Watson version played with the outstanding Kruger Brothers from Sweden

And a delightful if camped up version by the Dillards from the Andy Griffith Show that makes the KT's version sound absolutely authentic:

There. I feel better already. Nothing like a good old folk song really well-played by five or six artists to lift one's sorry spirits.

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