Friday, November 6, 2009

Fred Geis' "I'm Goin' Home"

Something a little different this week. Over the last 61 song profiles, I've generally posted professional or near-professional musicians doing interesting and different variations on songs that many of us first heard from the Kingston Trio. Some performers seem to keep cropping up - Johnny Cash, the Carter Family, the Chad Mitchell Trio, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem here and there, and so on. Only rarely have I posted the uploads of enthusiastic amateurs unless they were really really good, most often because I had just too many good professional performances from which to choose.

However - the later chronologically you go into the KT's recorded work, the less likely you are to find songs that have alternate versions, especially during their years with Decca Records. One big reason for this is that the Trio had been moving steadily away from the songs that had originally been called folk, those traditional tunes arranged or adapted by members of the group and thus not surprisingly recorded in different versions by other artists. And while some of those Decca era songs became popular in other recordings, by the time you get to Something Else and Children of the Morning, the only songs on those albums with alternative versions had already been done - more famously - by other performers. Yet there are a number of really quality tunes on those Decca albums, some of which truly deserved a better fate than the near-anonymity of those light-selling LPs (well, light-selling by Trio standards).

One of the best examples of such a song is the Fred Geis composition (or semi-composition) "I'm Goin' Home," which many fans still call "California" and which makes the short list of nearly every Trio fan's favorite all-time KT songs. It certainly has always been one of mine, and if it never quite equaled my enthusiasm for "Bay of Mexico" or "The Sinking of the Reuben James," it's still IMHO one of their best ever uptempo numbers.

The song and writer have a typically (for KT material) complicated history. Geis was (unbeknownst to me) a fixture on the Chicago folk circuit in the very early 1960s, (when I was too little to go to folk clubs) a friend and comrade of Fred Holstein, who with Steve Goodman and the great Bob Gibson constituted our local folk royalty. Geis was a California Central Valley kid who, as Nick Reynolds and John Stewart often recounted, had been a real hobo. Reynolds said he met Geis when the latter was living in a purple Cadillac, and Stewart recalled that whenever you got together with Geis, in best hobo tradition, he'd cadge something from you - a drink, a cigarette, a ride, a dollar, anything just so he wouldn't leave you with his hands empty.

But it was apparently in Chicago that Geis wrote "I'm Goin' Home" around 1960, and the aforementioned Fred Holstein was the first to record it - and what I wouldn't give to hear that version. When the big break came for Geis when the KT recorded the song in 1964, he wasn't quite ready for it. Even a light-selling Trio album, as the Decca release Nick, Bob, and John was, sold well over 100,000 copies, and the compensation structure was such that the copyright holder for a recorded song made more of a royalty on the sales and radio airplay than the performer did. At 9 cents a sale per song on an album (can't swear to that but it's a figure I recall), Geis would have made between $9,000 and $15,000 for that one song - upconverted from 1964 dollars, that would be between about $60,000 to $90,000 in 2009.

Enough, in other words, to attract the attention of the real composer of the melody, Broadway's Jerry Herman, later famous for Hello, Dolly! and Mame among many others. Herman's first successful Broadway show was called Milk and Honey - and the title song was melodically virtually identical to IGH. Herman sued Geis and won a suit for "unconscious plagiarism" (like George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" derived from "He's So Fine"), and Geis had to split the profits with Herman. It didn't seem to faze Geis, though, who lived until January of this year - obit is linked below.

What makes the Kingston Trio recording of "I'm Goin' Home" so special is that it is one of their last recorded songs that adheres to their original high-energy, banjo-based formula. No matter that it isn't a purist's idea of a folk song - it's just a rippin' good number performed with a gusto that reminded me of earlier albums - here from the group's first album on Decca Records in 1964:

You'd think someone could do something digital to enhance the video here...we can always hope.

A later KT version, from 1981 features percussion - this is the Shane-Gambill-Grove Trio, second half of the video:

Here is the 2009 KT doing an outstandingly authentic rendition:

Now for our non-professional but generally quality cover versions, domestic and foreign. First - two by my YouTube friend JordanTheCat from Canada, the first described as in John Prine style - most appropriate since Prine was also a fixture on the Chicago folk scene at the same time as Geis:

Next, Jordan with two friends at a benefit show - full band:

Now - four really interesting versions from Japan, two very recent, where matching striped shirts, Martin guitars, folk clubs, the KT and the Brothers Four have never gone completely out of style - they are really worth a listen:

First, the Antilles Trio (Kio's group?) joined by John Stewart in 2001:

Next, and this is a treat, Sunday's Folk performing the number - in Japanese:

Finally, two really superior renditions and recordings, the first from the Bayside Club Band from March of this year:

And what may be the best for last, Mash Liquor from October 10, 2009 - these guys really know what they're doing:

The fact that it is all of us non-pros who are keeping the song alive and out there (with the current KT, of course) 45 years after the KT recording and nearly 50 after Holstein's suggests to me that "I'm Goin' Home" is well on its way to becoming - a real folk song.

February, 2012

Recently discovered, a pre-KT version by the New Wine Singers, from Chicago in 1963. The intro misidentifies the composer as "Geist" instead of the correct "Geis" - but the female voice here is Elaine "Spanky" McFarlane in her pre-Spanky and Our Gang days, the group that had a number of folk-rock hits in the late '60s:


A thread about Geis from 10 years ago from the best overall folk site on the web, - fraught with recognizable errors about the KT version but still interesting:

Mudcat On Geis

And the Mudcat thread related to Geis' death:

Geis Obit

And - March 2016
It turns out that since 2013, Fred Holstein's grand version of "I'm Goin'" Home" has been up on YouTube. As Joe Offer points out below, it's a great rendition, and for my money the best of all of these on this page:


Joe Offer said...

Hi - the "UK's" that you mention is located in Pennsylvania, although we have a lot of members from the UK. Don't know where you can get the earliest Fred Holstein recording, but there's a Holstein recording of the song on the 1971 album titled "Gathering at the Earl of Old Town." This wonderful album has been reissued on CD. Contact me if you wish more information about it.
Joe Offer,

Jim Moran said...

Thanks to Joe Offer for the correction regarding - and right after I had described one of their Geis threads as "fraught with errors"! I should have clarified that the mistakes were related to info about the Kingston group and not regarding the excellent information on Geis and Holstein. I certainly will contact Joe about that Earl of Old Town CD and hope that other readers will as well - Geis wrote a great song, and Holstein was a marvelous performer whom I saw in the 70s on several occasions at the Earl.

Greg said...

There's something very inspiring about this song so I greatly appreciate all the research and background provided. I'm not too sure about the Jerry Herman version being identical. Like a lot of songs that are played in simple open chords there is always that potential to sound similar but give me the Fred Geis song any day rather than that bombastic broadway melody, which to me is divergent after the first two chords, anyway. This song works well on Ukulele. Hope to post it on Youtube someday. Better late than never but thanks for the post.