Friday, February 12, 2010

"South Coast"

One of the more interesting developments of the folk revival - in its broadest sense, encompassing the early days of recording and the union/political songs of the 1940s and the Library of Congress collectors and more, all pre-dating the 1958 beginning of the commercial folk boom - was the rise of what Time critic Richard Corliss called "the faux folk song" and what less kindly translators referred to as "fake folk." The terms referred to songs that were not traditional or that didn't have the fine folk pedigree of a composed song that had weathered a few generations, like the Civil War songs of George F. Root or nearly anything by Stephen Foster (it would take a hard heart indeed to suggest that "Oh Susanna!" was anything other than a folk song).

Some of those "faux folk" numbers pretended to be nothing more than they were - modern songs composed in a "folk style," with a simple chord accompaniment, usually with an acoustic guitar, basic and repetitive lyrics and chorus, and a ballad-like story. I always thought that Tom Paxton was the master of these - songs like "Dubarry Done Gone Again" and "Willie Seton" (both Chad Mitchell Trio numbers) or "Come Along Home Now" or many more. Paxton's compositions just sounded authentic, though he never tried to pass them off as such. At other times, the writers or performers tried to create a folk pedigree for these modern numbers where none existed, usually by implying that they were really old when they were really not (the New Christy Minstrels occasionally did this in concert - I recall them trying to pass off some riverboat song or other as 19th century when the only 19 in its history was 1960).

None of this matters at all today, of course, since nothing called "folk" by the record companies makes any pretense to being anything like "traditional" or any similar description that the Library of Congress used to use. Even the nominees in this year's Grammies for "Best Traditional Folk Album" feature recordings that include by my count less than 20% of material that would have been called "folk" fifty years ago.

Which brings us to this week's selection, "South Coast," a poem written by Lilian Bos Ross with music by Sam Eskin (1898-1974). Bos Ross wrote the poem while on a camping trip to Big Sur in 1926, but the original melody was derived from "Irene, Goodnight" until Eskin (with Richard Dehr of Terry Gilkyson and The Easy Riders, who recorded the song first) dusted off his friend's composition and gave it its current dramatic minor key melody. Eskin seems to have been a great unsung collector of folk songs, a modest man who spent much of his life around Woodstock, New York, and who at his death was praised fulsomely by the luminaries of the folk world, many of whom were named Seeger and Lomax. Katie Lee, folksinger, rabble rouser, boon companion of Cisco Houston and collaborator with Travis Edmundson (and someone with whom I had some delightful conversations at Trio Fantasy Camp 4 in 2003), had high praise for Eskin, and especially for his melody for "South Coast":

It is far and away one of the greatest 'folk' melodies ever to come along. If Sam never did another thing in his life (which he did, and plenty!) he gave us a true marriage of lyric and melody in that poem. He should have had much more reward for it than I'm sure he got, except the satisfaction of knowing. He truly felt the essence of Big Sur.

The longer version of the composition of the song appears in Jerry Kergan's Kingston Trio Liner Notes - the archives are still up here:

Jerry Kergan's Liner Notes

Go to "Songs," click on S, and click on "South Coast" for a more detailed discussion and for great links to Eskin.

"South Coast" never claimed to be, as Bob Shane asserts on the Hungry i recording below, a 200 year old song. But Bob isn't exactly trying to pass a counterfeit bill here - because even a casual fan of Spanish gypsy music, the flamenco that so influenced the folk music of Mexico, will recognize immediately the familiar chord structures, key changes, and syncopated rhythms of real Spanish music. The melody does indeed sound very much like a number of 17th century Spanish folk songs, so Shane was exaggerating only slightly in his intro. The vocal lead here is by Trio tenor guitarist/percussionist Nick Reynolds, and it is one of his absolute best performances with the group:

Good recovery here from an ill-timed drunk's laugh. The complete poem, which I'll post in a follow up, fills in parts of the story elided by the Trio's edited version.

Nancy Ames had a dramatically different take on the song in 1963

A fragment of Doc Watson doing the song here:

Doc Watson

Jeremy Raven posted a few weeks back a fine version of Ramblin' Jack Elliott singing the song - a few days after I thought I'd discovered a hidden gem. Not hardly. It was Ramblin' Jack's first studio album in 20 years and won the Grammy for best Traditional Recording in 1996 - and actually does come closer to the older meaning of traditional. Here is Elliott a couple of years ago -

Sadly, there is no video of Travis Edmundson singing the number, because by all reports he did a bang-up job. But Joe Bethancourt chose the song to honor Travis in a memorial concert last May, and does the song in Travis' style:

Finally - Horse Sense, which was Justin Bishop singing and John Nielson on fiddle and harmony, from 1983. This is the complete lyric:

I have to agree with Katie Lee here - the song surely sounds authentic, however recent it in fact is.

The complete original poem by Lillian Bos Ross:

Ballad of the South Coast

My name is Lonjano de Castro
My father was a Spanish grandee;
But I won my wife in a card game
To hell with the lords o'er the sea.

In my youth I had a Monterey homestead,
Creeks, valley, and mountains all mine;
I built me a snug little shanty
And roofed it and floored it with pine.

I had a bronco, a buckskin­
Like a bird he flew over the trail,
When I rode him out forty miles every Friday
To get me some grub and the mail. 

But the south Coast is a wild coast and lonely­
You might win in a game at Jolon,
But the lion still rules the barranca
And a man there is always alone. 

I sat in a card game at Jolon;
I played with a man there named Juan.
And after I'd won all his money
He said, "Your homestead 'gainst my daughter, Dawn." 

I turned up the ace, I had won her!
My heart which was down at my feet
Jumped up to my throat in a hurry;
Like a young summer field she was sweet.

He opened the door to the kitchen;
He called the girl with a curse;
"Take her, God damn her, you won her!
She's yours now for better or worse." 

Her arms had to tighten around me
As we rode up the hills from the south.
But no word did I get from her that day
Nor a kiss from her pretty red mouth. 

We got to my cabin at twilight
The stars twinkled over the coast.
She soon loved the orchard, the valley
But I knew she loved me the most. 

That was a glad happy winter;
I carved on a cradle of pine.
By a fire in that snug little shanty
I sang with that gay wife of mine.

But then I got hurt in a landslide
Crushed hip and twice-broken bone;
She saddled up Buck just like lightning
And rode out through the night to Jolon. 

A lion screamed in the barranca;
Buck bolted and fell on a slide.
My young wife lay dead in the moonlight;
My heart died that night with my bride. 

They buried her out in the orchard.
They carried me out to Jolon.
I lost my Chiquita, my nino;
I'm an old broken man, all alone. 

The cabin still stands on the hillside,
Its doors open wide to the rain;
But the cradle and my heart are empty,
And I never can go there again. 

Oh, the south Coast is a wild coast and lonely.
You might win in a game at Jolon.
But the lion still rules the barranca
And a man there is always alone.


Kent Cardwell said...

Thanks for the history. I always thought that song perfectly captured how wild the NW coast of America must have seemed to the original Spanish settlers. To think that while the declaration of independence was being signed there were already Europeans on the California coast is just mind blowing to someone who was educated in public schools and taught that the pilgrims settled America.

Jim Moran said...

My sentiments exactly, Kent. I have always loved the song for its melody and the drama of the lyrics. I also love the way each of the artists here put his.their own distinctive interpretive stamp on the number. Sadly, Joe Bethancourt, the prickly but supremely talented Arizona instrumentalist and balladeer, passed away recently.