Thursday, September 24, 2009

Malvina Reynolds' "Turn Around"

It would be hard to find a song writer of the 1960s with better folkie bona fides than Malvina Reynolds (1900 - 1978), who penned three classic folk-type songs of that decade: "Little Boxes" as sung by Pete Seeger, a minor singles hit about the "ticky-tacky" life of modern suburbia, "What Have They Done To The Rain?", a pretty big hit by the Seekers, and "Turn Around," which provided the audio for one of the most widely-seen, warmly-remembered, and financially successful commercials in U.S. television history.

"Turn Around" is just a flat out oddity. Reynolds created melodic but forceful protest songs like those above for most of her musical career - her husband had been a communist party organizer, and she herself was a socialist and a close ally of Pete Seeger, who brought her to national attention with his recording and promotion of the "Boxes" song. Reynolds performed both with Seeger and on the same stage as a soloist in a number of civil rights and antiwar protest rallies. She had a nice if ironic touch with lyrics, but you just didn't expect the outright sentiment of "Turn Around" from her.

Further, as with the off-Broadway "Try To Remember", "Turn Around" has been preserved largely by folk-type groups, including the Kingston Trio. There again, though, an oddity - it appears on the KT's Time To Think album, a record full of otherwise serious, often political songs. "Turn Around" just sticks out there as well.

First this week, a video of Reynolds herself from Seeger's Rainbow Quest, a fine singer who started as a violinist and didn't come to folk singing and writing til her late 40s.

(So the web sheriff and CopyrightCops bagged Malvina - until she returns, here is a fragment of her doing the song with a strange video:)

Snow Day #2
Interestingly, as with "Scarlet Ribbons", partial copyright is claimed for this song by Harry Belafonte, who also did a fine job with it.* The lasting impression of the song, though, comes from Paul Arnold (not as I had thought from the marvelous baritone of Ed Ames), who supplied the vocal for the Kodak commercial that took the country by storm around 1962:

The KT recorded it in November of 1963, apparently just prior to the JFK assassination. I would have thought that this number might have been more effective with a Bob Shane solo treatment:

Interestingly, it was a duo named Dick and DeeDee whose version of the song hit #1 on the Billboard singles chart the week of the JFK murder, which means that the KT was in process with this song while it was climbing the charts. The original Dick died in 2002, but DeeDee continues to soldier on with a replacement - here from 2009:

Where the KT went in mellow-land, the Brothers Four were sure to follow, as they do effectively here. Only Bob Flick on bass is an original, but they have that same mellow sound and spot-on harmonies as the original group had - here from Japan last year -

The current KT gives the Brothers more than a run for their money, here from this year's Kingston Trio Fantasy Camp - video courtesy of Bo Wennstam:

Finally, a lovely home-made instrumental on the harp by Harpist Dan:

So we are reminded by this unabashedly emotional and sentimental song of some of the goodness that is the real antidote to all that is sordid....

*Some time after this article was written, an upload of Belafonte's recording on vinyl popped up on YouTube:


Linkmeister said...

I remember that commercial. I remember the Instamatic camera, too; I took one to the 1964-1965 NYC World's Fair.

Jim Moran said...

It was a real pleasure actually to find the commercial on YouTube. That Instamatic was a fine tool, kind of a people's camera in that it was well-made, efficient, and inexpensive. The pictures I took with it still look good decades later.

lemmelone said...

Like most aging boomers, I have fond memories of the commercial - the vocalist is not Ed Ames, I know that - did some research and it is apparently a fellow named Paul Arnold. I also have fond memories of Perry Como's version - (not afraid to say it!).
Got to know Ms. Reynold's a tiny bit in the few years we overlapped in Berkeley - she was a real force of nature, and this song is every bit HER as is "Little Boxes" or "It Isn't Nice" - we sang all those songs in my elementary school choir...

Jim Moran said...

Thanks for the correction,lemmelone - I thought it was Ames and based the comment on (erroneous) published sources. Does sound a bit like Ames, though...