Friday, December 4, 2009

"Dancing Cliffed Shattered Sills" - Eric Andersen's "Thirsty Boots"

John Stewart almost certainly snags the award for Most Under-Appreciated Songwriter/Artist of the last half century - but he's not alone in that regard. There is a cluster of other singer-songwriters whose bodies of work go neglected in the odoriferous cesspool that American mass popular culture has become. Steve Goodman always comes to my mind first - had he written only "The City of New Orleans" he would still be a minor deity of the art, but the whole of his work is so much more than that one song. Jim Croce is largely forgotten, and Phil Ochs wrote some of the loveliest tunes of the 60s with lyrics that could be trenchant, satirical, or powerfully emotional. Even Leonard Cohen is a name unknown to most folks under thirty, whose only contact with the musical artists of our youth seems to be with the prodigiously talented Bob Dylan - a rare artist indeed, but not the only one, and I'm not even sure the best one.

Had Eric Andersen written only "Violets of Dawn" and "Thirsty Boots," he would be accounted a fine songsmith. But Andersen has released dozens of albums since his Greenwich Village debut in the early 1960s, and like Stewart, Andersen has produced dozens of really outstanding songs on those albums that have been heard sadly only by the few thousand fans who have stayed faithful to him and continued to buy his recordings. The list of artists who have played with him on those albums is as much of a Who's Who of folk royalty as is the list of artists who have recorded his songs. The latest crapola contestant on American Idol becomes universally if temporarily recognizable by millions while a genuine artist like Andersen labors in the shadows of small venues. At age 66, he's still on the job.

"Thirsty Boots" is a song that I believe will long outlive Andersen just because it is so damned beautiful. Its roots, of course, are in the civil rights protests and demonstrations of the 60s, and Andersen himself has said that he wrote the song for a friend of his who had actually gone down to Mississippi while Andersen had stayed in the relative safety of New York City. But whatever flood of guilt or bright moment of epiphany prompted Andersen to write the song - what he came up with is a song for the ages, one that celebrates all youthful sacrifice and idealism - and he did so with a lyrical beauty that for my money even Dylan never bested.

This first version from the Kingston Trio is not the more polished version released in 2008 on Twice Upon A Time. Rather, this is the bootleg tape from a 1966 concert that I've downloaded from Rick Daly's FolkUSA that for many years was the only recording available of one of the Trio's best performances from late in their initial run:

Here is a clearer and more recent upload of the KT doing the tune, from their final concert at San Francisco's Hungry i in 1967:

Hearing the original artist do his own work is always revealing, and here we have a wonderfully clear video of Andersen performing his masterpiece in New York in 2012.

The closest anyone ever got to a hit with the song was probably Judy Collins, with whom the number is most identified. In 2002, Collins sponsored the Wildflowers Festival (named after what's likely her best-known album) and is joined on the song by (left to right) Tom Rush, Arlo Guthrie, and Andersen, who takes the second verse. This version is masterful:

Unless you happen to be a major John Denver fan - and there are many of us on this board who are- you may not have known that on his first three or four RCA albums, Denver did largely covers of other writers' work, almost always to wonderful effect. Listening to this recording is yet another pull of nostalgia for me - I miss Denver's voice, his writing, his concerts.

Finally - the recording that with Nick Reynolds 70th birthday prompted me finally to go to Fantasy Camp 4 in 2003. I had talked to Paul Rybolt on the phone about signing up, and Paul was good enough to send me the DVD from the 2002 camp - loads of fun with a great amount of talent among the campers. But it was this number by my now friends Pete Bentley, Michelle Stevens, and Bob Kozma (who sings the lead) that really really made me want to go. It was a life-altering decision in every possible good way:

A sublime treatment of one of the great songs of the era.

Addendum, September 2015

Recently posted to Vimeo - Bob Dylan doing an excellent translation of the song into his own distinctive style. A great compliment to Andersen, this - BD seldom covered other singer-songwriters.

Bob Dylan - Thirsty Boots

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