Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ed McCurdy And "Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream"

Before the Weavers, before Belafonte, or the Kingston Trio, or Bob Gibson, or the Clancys, or any of the pre-1960 icons of pop folk music, there was Ed McCurdy. And before "Blowin' In The Wind" and "The Times They Are A-Changin'" and "Wasn't That A Time" - there was the gentler, more whimsical, and quite possibly longer-enduring "Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream," a song that has survived even when McCurdy's name and fame have not.

I knew of Ed McCurdy before I knew of the KT because we had some of his records in our house - 45 rpms - and they were stacked appropriately with those of his contemporary and friend whose career paralleled his, Burl Ives. Like Ives and the unfortunately less famous Cisco Houston, McCurdy had a voice that many of the same purists who later blasted the Kingston Trio and other pop folk groups regarded as "too good" for folk music. Houston, Ives, and McCurdy were all big, barrel-chested men with deep baritones and natural vibratos that just leapt out at you off of those monaural 45s they recorded.

I had read and always thought that McCurdy was a Canadian - he was identified as such on the liner notes of Vanguard's Newport Folk Festival 1960 releases. But he was a native Pennsylvanian with an Ives-like career that varied from folk music to acting to early TV to commercials to show music. He did in fact spend much of the latter part of his life in Toronto and Vancouver, where he had popular CBC radio shows, and his songs were covered by scores of folk artists who never quite knew who he was.

McCurdy's most famous album was titled When Dalliance Was In Flower (And Maidens Lost Their Heads), a collection of ribald and bawdy folk numbers. At Newport, he was recorded in two hilarious performances of "Blood On The Saddle", a mockery of Hollywood-style Western bad man songs, and "The Lavender Cowboy," a politically incorrect joke about an effeminate cowboy.

Clearly, McCurdy's most lasting contribution is "Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream," and it endures because it manages to be a forceful message song without being abrasive or confrontational and because it neither espouses nor condemns any political view, left or right. It is simply a slightly ironic ("strangest" dream) plea for peace. Written around 1950 in the shadow of the most cataclysmic conflict the world had ever known, the song was quickly adopted by "one-world" progressives and socialists (of which McCurdy was not really a card-carrying adherent), and the first version I heard was from the Weavers, followed by the Chad Mitchell Trio as the closing song on their At The Bitter End live album. But like Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," and the American flag, "Dream" exists on a plane above politics. You sing it if you think that a world without war would be a nice place to live. The Kingston Trio did, and no group was in its very conception more apolitical than they were.

So we start today's all-star line-up with the first version I heard, the Weavers from their Carnegie Hall concert in 1960:

The lead voice here is the vastly under-appreciated Fred Hellerman, the nice guy of the group whose even temper and tasteful guitar work tamed the more volatile Pete Seeger and Lee Hays.

The Chad Mitchell Trio recorded the song in 1961, performed it at their mid-1980s reunion concert with John Denver - and did it again to close their show when I saw them 2 months ago. They sound exactly as they always have - smoothly trained and professional singers with great arrangements:

Paul Prestopino plays banjo and our FC friend Bob Hefferan is on guitar.

One good Denver deserves another - so here is JD live from a 1971 peace rally:

The Kingston Trio gives the song a straight up, respectful reading - but one that rises to their trademark energetic crescendo:

You really appreciate both what a well-played banjo can do for a song - and just how valuable that tenor of Nick Reynolds was.

And now for the remaining star-studded cast.

Simon and Garfunkel

Pete Seeger

Johnny Cash

Our Good Friend Steve Cottrell, Whose Version Stands Up With These Others

What a statement it is that so simple a song of peace should attract so distinguished a group of artists to perform it.

Finally, July 2018 - Ed McCurdy Himself 
At about the same time I was explaining in 2015 to jackaro in the comments below why McCurdy himself was not included in this piece, Smithsonian Folkways posted its own copyrighted version to YouTube. As an officially snactioned posting, it can't be taken down for copyvio. While I was reviewing this essay and several ofhers of the 230 on this site to be sure that the videos were still available and playing, it occurred to me to look for Ed McCurdy's version, and here it is. I believe that this is a version rather later than the 1950 original.


vicar said...

This really a comprehensive description of this great song and I'm honored that the CMT's version is included We've never stopped singing it and won't until it comes true. As Bruce Murdoch sang : "Songs such as these should not have to be sung. Let's lay down our drums!"

Jim Moran said...

Thanks for the appreciation above from Fr. Joe Frazier of the Chad Mitchell Trio, whose rendition of the song to close their "At The Bitter End" album is, I believe, the best recorded version of them all. And the CMT still provokes a thoughtful and emotional response when they do it these days -as I noted in the article, hearing the group close their December 2009 concert in Big Bear, CA was a wonderful and timeless eperience. The group sings it with the same passion and skill that they brought to it almost fifty years ago.

Folksinger91 said...

The version of the weavers is with Erik Darling from 1960. concert at carnegie hall. Erik who was a friend of Ed's and was also on a lot of his recordings. Ed said after erik passed they would have mock sword fights on the subway with their guitar cases and everyone staring at them at awe

Jim Moran said...

Right - I had forgotten that though I've had the album for fifty plus years. The video pictures threw me off. Amending the article appropriately.

jackaro said...

So why isn't there a clip of Ed (a mentor of mine in the 60s) performing his own song?

Jim Moran said...

The simple explanation is that when I wrote this in 2010, there was no uploaded and embeddable video or sound file of Ed doing his own song - only covers by other singers. Your comment sent me rushing back to YouTube and Vimeo just now to look again, but with the same result - many versions out there, but no Ed McCurdy. It's a shame, because he of course performed his own song better than anyone else. Thanks for the comment
regards, Jim Moran

Nalini L said...

Greetings! I love this song. One day I was listening to a Lauren Hill track and there was this amazing break, with latin guitars, in a minor key, and I found myself singing Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream, vamping. I recorded my own version last year. Hope you like it!