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
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.