Thursday, January 28, 2010

Tom Paxton Redux: "My Ramblin' Boy"

Part I, of course, being last March's piece on "The Last Thing On My Mind" ...I can't believe that was 10 months ago...

Last July, National Public Radio (NPR) heralded and discussed a survey list developed by radio station WKSU's Folk Alley website and program. WKSU broadcasts out of Kent State University in Ohio, and with Jim McGuinn's Folk Den, the extensive site, Leslie Nelson-Burns' The, and a handful of others, is one of the best-organized and most militant promoters of folk music on the web. The list was a listener's poll of the "100 Most Essential Folk Songs," so-called. The Folk Alley people didn't offer any strictures or requirements on selection, so the final list is an eyebrow-raiser for those of us of a certain age for whom the term "folk music" meant something quite different from what it seems to for Folk Alley's often younger-skewing audience. Here's the list:

Folk Alley's List

This list popped up for brief discussion last July on this and other websites. My own reactions included (but are not limited to) -

a. almost anybody who ever played an acoustic guitar seemed to have qualified;

b. the list is notable for its near-complete omission of real traditional songs (fewer than 15% of the total)

c. the Kingston Trio blows every other performing artist out of the water for output on this list. Though the Trio appears but three times - "Where Have All The Flowers Gone" at #5 as performers, "Tom Dooley" at #12, and "Chilly Winds" at #96 - they are the only artists to have recorded at one point or other in their long career 22 of the 100 songs, truly amazing and another little-known and unappreciated fact about the group, the extent of whose influence on pop and folk music has yet to be recounted (I'm a-workin' on that one).

d. Equally ironically, the absolute "folkiest" of all the writers in the genre from the 50s and 60s, Tom Paxton, only makes the list for two songs, "Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound" at #62 - and at #32, "My Ramblin' Boy."

I call Paxton "folkiest" because only Woody Guthrie combines the simple directness of melody and disarming and apparent simplicity of the lyrics that Paxton does. I like Bob Dylan just fine, but half of his early stuff was simply taking real folk melodies ("Lord Randall" for "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," for example, or "The Parting Glass" for "Restless Farewell") and re-writing the words. The very qualities that are admirable about his later work - the imagistic and poetic lyrics and the rock musical settings - remove him completely IMHO from folkiedom.

But whether Paxton is writing political satire or angry lefty songs or cowboy ballads or quiet love songs - his compositions always sound like they are traditional. Or that they could be. Or that they will be.

And one of his absolute bests, straight out of the Woody Guthrie tradition, is "My Ramblin' Boy." The lyric combines Guthrie's affirmations of friendship and cooperative effort with a quiet lyricism that only the best of Woody's songs ever attained. Here is Paxton performing his composition with Pete Seeger on Seeger's "Rainbow Quest" program:

Note that even a mere three or four years after the composition of"Ramblin' Boy" the entire audience seems to know it well enough to sing along.

Even earlier, all of the musicians who had played as members of the first and best pop folk groups, The Weavers, united for a reunion concert and performed and quiet and moving rendition of the song:

Whoever else ever played in the group, The Weavers always bore the indelible mark of the influence of Pete Seeger, whose lead vocal here is sublime - as usual.

Adroit song-finders that they were, the Kingston Trio recorded the song a year before this show, for their first album on Decca Records after seven years with Capitol. The group was easing toward an almost country-ish sound on some numbers by this time, and that drift is apparent here in the heavy bass rhythm:

Paxton above might have added Ireland to the list of countries where the song attained popularity, the most famous version over there being this bright, uptempo version by Irish country music legend TR Dallas (TR Dallas and His Band):

Leave it to the Scots to put a little more hair on the song's chest and an almost bluesy edge of melancholy to its sound - here John Barr, whose stage name was "Little" John Cameron from High Blantyre, Scotland and Torbay, Newfoundland, Canada (1943-2002):

Finally - I like to offer when possible some video versions of these songs that have some special meaning for me, and this one is of that number. It's Tom Ivey, folk musician, composer, union organizer, luthier par excellence, festival creator, and a good friend - as you can see, this is a video from Trio Fantasy Camp, 2004, with Tom joined actively by John Stewart and Nick Reynolds of the KT.

2004 was the watershed year for the Fantasy Camp, as most of the longterm attendees acknowledge. Earlier camps were informal and somewhat lightly attended. But the FC5 in '04 featured the first stage performance at the camp by Bob Shane; the arrival to great fanfare of Nikki Sherwin; a front page article in the Arizona Republic newspaper highlighting both Miss Sherwin and the camp; more than 400 people trying to get into the evening shows; and the last camp at which campers like Tom and me got to perform with just Nick and John - their age and accompanying troubles necessitated the addition the next year of wonderful stage musicians Tom Lamb and Jeff McDonald to fortify the accompaniment. That was a great addition - but I lived my fantasy, as Tom Ivey does here, twice - just Nick, John, Steven Donaghy on bass, and the camper. Tom's robust tenor is complimented by John Stewart's guitar lead lines and Nick Reynolds' harmonies:

Talk about melancholy. Tom's friend David Plummer died within six months of this taping, and Nick and John are also now gone. That last verse acquires a genuine depth of sadness at the passage of time and the changes that come to all things. So here's to you, all you ramblin' boys now gone....

Addendum - August 2010

Recently uploaded to YouTube is the Cumberland Trio's rendition of this Paxton classic. The group got together at the University of Tennessee in the early '60s and attained a good deal of regional success. They broke through to the national scene with a 1964 appearance on the ABC network's famed folk show Hootenanny and were poised for a leap to the next level of show business when the bottom dropped out of the popular folk market that same year with the advent of the Beatles. The Cumberland Trio soldiered on for a while and had a second, smaller successful run in Greenwich Village until they disbanded. In the early 2000s, the original group re-assembled for a memorable pair of reunion concerts, from one of which this video was taken - and there's plenty more to see of this excellent group on YouTube, including some stunningly clear hi-def videos. My thanks to Trio member Jerre Haskew for pointing me in the right direction to find this outstanding performance. You have to love the country tint that the dobro guitar brings to the C-Trio's version.

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