Friday, March 12, 2010

"Bay Of Mexico"

I can pinpoint the exact moment in my past when I decided I wanted to learn to play the guitar. I was nine years old in the summer of 1959. I was going into fourth grade and had already been a classical piano student for two and a half years and was playing all those simplified Bach and Beethoven pieces that beginning students used to learn - and I really enjoyed making music. I'd had plenty of exposure to folk guitar (as I've detailed in earlier posts) because of records in the house by Burl Ives and because of the television shows of Chicago folksinger Win Stracke and of Mousketeer-in-chief Jimmie Dodd.

Many of our family's children's records included folk songs, and our dad had brought home The Kingston Trio At Large album because he was a commuter and loved "MTA." I thoroughly enjoyed that song, but I liked "Blow Ye Winds" and "Remember The Alamo" even more. None of these, however, inspired me to do anything more than spin the LPs on the old stereo.

Then, sometime that summer, my father came home with two more albums. Always a watchful and thoughtful parent, he paid great attention to what kinds of books and music his many children were drawn to - and he fed those interests with a steady stream of randomly purchased gifts. He had noticed my growing obsession with the Trio album and had purchased the first two LPs by that group, the red one and the white one. He put the red one - Capitol T996 - on the turntable first. I thought that "Three Jolly Coachmen" was amusing with the fake accents and all - but when the next cut on the album began, I sat absolutely transfixed by the sound coming out of the speakers, the syncopated strum of what I would later learn was an E chord played on a Martin D28. The cut only got better from there - but it was that opening four beat measure that transformed my life in an instant. I wanted to make that sound. I wanted to make music that sounded like that.

The song, of course, was "Bay of Mexico," and fifty plus years later, it remains one of my two favorite folk-type songs with "The Sinking of the Reuben James" and without a doubt the cut by the Kingston Trio that I admire most of the more than 300 that they put on albums. It's worth playing immediately to remember how effective a song it is:

There is just so much to like about this cut - the arrangement, the production, the recording, and the performance itself.

Most of the modern versions of "Bay of Mexico" are derived from an Alan Lomax field recording from 1935 of Bahamian singers singing the root song - which interestingly was a sea chantey as they sang it and not a calypso. Chantey expert and veteran sailor Roy Hugill (more on him in another chantey post) puts this song in a group that he identifies as "Santy Anno" chanteys, suggesting that the line "Way-o Susianna" is a substitute for "Heave Away, Santiano." The immediate antecedent of the KT recording is, once again, the Weavers from their Carnegie Hall concert from 1955 that had been released as an LP on Vanguard in early 1957. The origin of the song in the Bahamas apparently prompted the Weavers to interpret the song with an ever-so-slightly syncopated, quasi-calypso styled rendition, very different from the 4/4 chantey that the song had been:

Note the similarity in lyrics of the Weavers to the KT - but also note that the basic timing here is closer to the straight 4/4 of a regular chantey than it is to a calypso. The introduction, by the way, is by Fred Hellerman.

The Kingston arrangement may also be borrowing from Harry Belafonte, who waxed the song in 1959 but had been including it in concert for years, courtesy of his in-house songwriter, the great Irving Burgie. On his website HERE, Burgie claims credit for the KT "Bay of Mexico," though the Capitol album lists Dave Guard as arranger. Listen to what Burgie gave Belafonte to work with and I think the discrepancy becomes understandable:

Harry B is giving the song the full-on brass and steel drum calypso treatment, and I believe that Burgie is asserting a direct link between what he did - converting the song from chantey to calypso - and what Guard did. Note also that in what is a fairly standard maneuver, Burgie/Belafonte is/are taking the song up half a step toward the end. Guard's arrangement builds from there with the incredibly inventive half step up at each chorus - and the the final dramatic step down as a kind of coda to close the song as quietly as it began.

What producer Voyle Gilmore here did is also sheer genius. First, of course, Gilmore insisted on using Elmer "Buzz" Wheeler, house bass player at the Purple Onion where the Trio had had its first extended five month engagement, on all of the album's cuts. Now it's time to bring Wheeler out of the shadows and give him the credit he's long overdue. He is a tremendously important factor in making a folk music album a saleable commodity to a general audience in 1958. What he brings to "Tom Dooley" is beyond estimation - because with the wailing Nick Reynolds second chorus "Hang down your head and cry" line, it is what makes the recording unique. Wheeler was an accomplished enough musician to have been used on several recordings in the 40s by the great Charlie Mingus, and the jazz sensibility he brings to the group's repertoire literally makes these 4/4 folk cuts swing - an absolute requirement for 1958 pop songs and something no other folk group thought to do.

Wheeler's bass work on "Bay of Mexico" quickly becomes the real rhythm of the song, overshadowing the bongos in Gilmore's final mix. Listen to the increasing volume of the bass as the song approaches its crescendo on the third chorus and on Reynolds' verse - and listen to Gilmore fade it as the song winds down and Nick's bongos take over again. It's hard to find out much about Wheeler on the web - I'll bet that Dean Reilly knew him and someone should ask Dean. I did find a blog by Wheeler's niece HERE in which she adds a bit of color to what we already know of him. Bill Bush and others emphasize Wheeler's contribution as "bottom" and "professionalism" - but it's so much more than that. The commercial sound of the Kingston Trio is rooted as much in Wheeler's swing as it is in the harmonies and arrangements.

Gilmore is also furiously working those knobs - note how in addition to the Trio's own vocal modulations he brings up each voice for its solo and then quickly re-blends the voice into the harmony choruses. On stage with one mic, the singers did that. In Capitol Studio B with three mics - it's all Voyle. Gilmore also makes a virtue out of necessity. The monaural blend here, dictated by Capitol's refusal to spend stereo dollars on a fledgling group whose music no one really understood, is absolutely superb. The mono enables Gilmore to hit a perfect blend with the highly energetic, almost out of control vocal performance, emphasizing the group's trademark harmonies.

The outstanding three part harmony reaches a level of vocal perfection on the highest chorus, right before Reynolds' verse. The Trio creates what George Grove referred to in conversation last summer as a "phantom harmonic" - the aural illusion (a result of pitch and volume) of a fourth part that really isn't there, as on "Bimini" and "Wide Missouri."

To see just how far the KT took this arrangement and performance - listen to a rough version of the original, pre-calypso chantey by Hulton Clint:

And just to let us know the song is still alive and well - the group Banana Boat in Poland last year, a rousing go at the song with fine harmony:

I never, ever tire of listening to this song. My only regret about writing of it here is - it leaves me only one more chantey from the KT to write about...stay tuned.

Addendum - 8/27/11

Some recent recordings, posted today as Hurricane Irene bears down on the U.S. east coast - first, the Wilson Family in an excellent a capella version:

Next the Bootstrappers from a show in New Orleans in 2010 - the pirate costumes might not exactly fit with the tune, but they deliver a fine, high-energy performance:


Chery Kinnick said...

Hi Jim -

Thank you for your research on my uncle, Buzz Wheeler. Besides a dedicated musician, Buzz was a experienced photographer and specialized in black & white prints. I do not remember seeing Uncle Buzz at any family gathering without a camera in hand. He and his wife, Marge, loved the San Francisco scene. Buzz was born Elmer Lynn Wheeler, the youngest of two sons, to McKinley and Margaret (Thaxter) Wheeler on 10 Dec 1927. He died in Sonoma County, CA, on 2 June 1991. The family owned a small cabin in the woods in the hills above Occidental, Sonoma County, about a mile from the Pacific Ocean. Buzz and Marge Wheeler lived there during their retirement years.

When I was a child, Uncle Buzz and his musical career was a bit of a mystery to me. I'll see if I can dig up any more info from the relatives.

Chery Kinnick

Pete Curry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pete Curry said...

Jim: “Bay of Mexico” was not on the LP “The Weavers at Carnegie Hall.” It was released by them as a 45 (b/w “Quilting Bee”) in 1953, then again on a Decca LP titled “Folk Songs Around the World.” But that LP was not released until 1959, too late to have been a source for the KT. My guess is the KT learned the song from the Folksay Trio who recorded it (along with “Tom Dooley”) on the 1953 Stinson LP, “American Folksay, Volume 2.” The Folksay Trio probably learned the song from the 1941 Lomax book, “Our Singing Country.” Regards, Pete Curry