Thursday, March 4, 2010

"Si Me Quieres Escribir/Coast Of California"

Imagine, if you will, that you are touring around western Canada by car - highly recommended, by the way - and you stop for the night in some small town in western Alberta or BC or along the AlCan Highway in the southern Yukon, all places where acoustic folk music is alive and well and performed frequently in cafes and bars (which above the 60th parallel and Arctic Circle are invariably one and the same place). You wander into one such cafe and an earnest-looking young performer is doing his best to catch the attention of the sometimes noisy crowd. He has yours because he's talented and clean-cut and just plain good.

After a couple of familiar-sounding songs, say by Tyson and Lightfoot, the young artist announces a composition of his own. He begins with a stirring and complicated guitar intro and starts to sing -

"I'll sing a song of Albert John -- son
He was bold and brave and free -
He fought the law and Moun --ties
Just to keep his liberty..."

and on from there.

You look to your left and right, a bit disconcerted, to see that he's finally won over the crowd. They're tapping their feet and pounding on the tables as he runs through verse after verse. They like the song a lot. But you're knocked a bit off center because the tune he's using for this piece about the sociopathic Mad Trapper of Rat River who was hunted down and killed in 1932 - is the "Marine Hymn."

If the thought of that is just a bit upsetting, then you'll understand my reaction to the Jane Bowers/Dave Guard composition "Coast of California," which takes its melody from a patriotic Republican anthem of the Spanish Civil War, "Si Me Quieres Escribir." As we'll see in the videos below, the song is alive and well in Spain to this day, and putting the bogus, faux-folk lyrics to it that Guard and Bowers did borders, perhaps, on the sacrilegious. Unless, that is, you wouldn't mind our Canadian neighbors doing exactly the same thing to a song of ours which will bring any Marine and half our population to respectful attention. Just such a song is "Si Me Quieres Escribir."

A brief historical refresher is perhaps necessary. This Spanish Civil War, the last of several, lasted from 1936-1939 and pitted two coalitions against each other, the Republicans (including socialists and communists, who favored a generally democratic government along parliamentary lines) versus the Nationalists or Falangists (many of whom favored a monarchy and a church-state coalition but whose most militant supporters were Fascists supporting Gen. Francisco Franco). The war was bloody to the point of barbarism, not least because the Republicans were armed by Stalin's USSR and the Falangists by Hitler and Mussolini. Massacres were commonplace, the most famous illustrated by Picasso's painting "Guernica." Franco's Falangists won and thus began the generalissimo's dictatorship of nearly 40 years.

"Si Me Quieres Escribir" was one of several Republican songs that was based on older flamenco tunes and that found its way to the U.S. via the left-leaning People's Songs groups that included Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, the Almanac Singers, and many of the other folk artists that we remember from the 1940s. "Venga Jaleo" was another such song. (An early Kingston Trio audition for Capitol Records of that song can be heard on Rick Daly's FolkUSA HERE. I believe that Warren Barreiss quotes Guard in his article that the Trio was attracted to the song because it was "wild" in the same way Tahitian songs were and not because of its political content.)

Seeger's Weavers of course featured "Si Me Quieres Escribir" prominently in their concerts, and it appears on their landmark 1957 album The Weavers At Carneige Hall:

More on Seeger's banjo work below - note also Fred Hellerman's excellent guitar work. This is undoubtedly the immediate antecedent of the Bowers/Guard tune. About fifteen years prior, in the early '40s, Seeger had recorded the number with the Almanac Singers:

In both of these, Seeger makes the radical musical decision to accompany a Spanish flamenco-styled song with the very American banjo. Both arrangements clearly demonstrate from where Seeger's banjo acolyte Dave Guard derived his ideas for the banjo work on the Trio's "Coast of California" from the group's 1961 album Goin' Places:

More on this song below.

A modern Spanish group called B.S.O. borrows the Seeger banjo idea (may be two banjos, one possibly a tenor banjo) and Hellerman's guitar part for this stirring version:

Finally, a syncopated version from Quetzal, a contemporary Chicano group who cut an album of Spanish Civil War songs:

We could, I suppose, cut Guard, Bowers, and the Kingston Trio some slack for transforming an anthem to which men marched to battle and death into a dramatic show piece. The folk process often involves such transformations. The British national anthem becomes an American patriotic song; the Irish lament "Bard of Armagh" becomes the cowboy lament "Streets of Laredo"; the feisty Irish "Rosin the Bow" becomes the feisty American "Acres of Clams," "Lincoln and Liberty," and fifty other songs.

As a Californian with a love of history, I dislike "Coast of California" because it has less authenticity even than the Zorro tales (20th century inventions) in depicting Spanish California, Alta or Baja. The golden treasures of Aztec Mexico passed largely through Vera Cruz on the Gulf and thence to Spain. That's why treasure hunters still scour the Gulf and the Carribean for sunken Spanish galleons and largely ignore the Gulf of California and the Pacific Coast of Baja. There just isn't much treasure to be found there and never was.

But for me the real problem is the analogy that I made at the head of this article. "Si Me Quieres Escribir" is a song that the people who wrote it and have sung it revere, much as Americans do "The Marine Hymn." You just don't trivialize a song like that, not tastefully at least. The dramatic performance by the Kingston Trio and outstanding banjo work by Guard strike me, as does the version by the KT of "A Worried Man," as a great arrangement in service of an inferior lyric. Unlike "Worried Man" (which I maintain the Trio could have done with an adaptation of the original prison lyric as a great "Hard Travelin'" type of number), the apolitical Kingston Trio could never have transmuted a leftist anthem into the kind of song that they could have been comfortable with. For my money, it would have been better left undone.

Appendix - The Spanish Lyric And English Translation

Si Me Quieres Escribir
(lf You Want To Write Me)

Si me quieres escribir, ya sabes mi paradero,
Si me quieres escribir, ya sabes mi paradero,
En el frente de Gandesa primera linea de fuego.
En el frente de Gandesa primera linea de fuego.

Si tu quieres comer bien, barato y de buena forma. (2x)
En el frente de Gandesa, alli tienen una fonda. (2x)

En la entrada de la fonda, Hay un moro Mojama (2x)
Que te dice, "Pasa, pasa que quieres pata comer." (2x)

El primer plato que dan, son grenadas rompedoras (2x)
El segundo de matralla para recordar memorias (2x)

If you want to write me a letter, you already know my whereabouts.
I'm on the Gandesa Front, in the first line of the fighting.

If you want to eat your fill, good food and not too many pesos,
On that bloody battlefield stands an inn where you are welcome.

At the entrance of this inn there waits a moor by name Mohammed,
Who warmly greets you, "Hurry, hurry, rare and spicy food awaits you."

The first dish which they serve is hot grenades in quick succession,
Followed by a burst of shrapnel, makes a meal you'll all remember.


Daniel said...

this is awesome, i was trying to find the chords for this song from one of the pete seger versions, can you post them?

Jim Moran said...

Hi Daniel - Glad you liked it. While I don't have the chords easily available for Seeger - the Kingstons copied his arrangement almost exactly, as you can hear in the posted videos - and I DO have the KT chords from their data base. With a little tweaking, they should fit the Seeger rendition. Arrangement courtesy of KT expert Pete Curry and the database assembled by the late Dieter Folger of Germany

Intro: Guitar (8 beats on Am)
Banjo joins, plays melody as per 1st (2x), 3rd
and 4th line (repeat 3rd and 4th line)

There is (Am)treasure hidden there,
on the (Fmaj7)coast of Cali- (Am)fornia
El Diego hid it (C)there.....(Am)
when the (Fmaj7)Clara ran a- (Am)ground
On the coast of (E7)Cali- (Am)fornia,
deep with- (G)in a (F)cave that's never (E7)seen
(Am)Treasure stolen from the (G)Incas....
(F)we could capture for the (E7)Queen

There's a (Am)mountain in the ocean
on the (Fmaj7)coast of Cali- (Am)fornia
and deep within its (G)side the (Am)tides
of (Fmaj7)night alone re- (Am)veal
El Diego's (E7)hidden (Am)cave where we'll
(G)plunder the (F)riches of Gren- (E7)ada
(Am)While the Spaniard, blind with (G)pleasure...
(F)lays ashore at Encin-(E7)ada


We will (Am)sail before the dawn
along the (Fmaj7)coast of Cali- (Am)fornia
El Diego is de- (G)layed....the (Am)wine
and (Fmaj7)woman hold their (Am)sway
And our map is (E7)clearly (Am)drawn
to the (G)dark and (F)stormy (E7)shore
(Am)On the coast of Cali- (G)fornia....
(F)lies a mighty prize of (E7)war.

Pete Curry said...

Jim: As you know, the song “Coast of California” is not an historical treatise. It’s a work of art. As such, it does not have to be “authentic”--that is, historically accurate. However, in my view, there is nothing said in this song that could not have happened exactly as described. True, the Gulf of Mexico presented the quickest route from Spanish California to Spain. But Spanish ships routinely sailed the western coast of California, all the way up to San Francisco and beyond (as far as Vancouver!), starting from the earliest days of Spanish exploration. And I see no reason why one of them carrying a load of gold or anything else could not have run aground, say, around Big Sur where, indeed, there are “mountains in the ocean.”

As to Guard and Bowers “trivializing” a patriotic song that is well-known and much loved in Spain:
It may be well-known and much loved in Spain now (although two YouTube videos do not prove anything in that regard). But when they wrote their English words to the song, all that was known about it in this country was contained in two lines on the back of the Weavers’ 1959 LP, “Travelling on with the Weavers,” which say nothing about it being well-known and much loved. And in fact, according to Pete Seeger in his book “The Incompleat Folksinger,” it was no better known IN SPAIN at that time than it was here. And my guess is that Guard and Bowers simply liked the melody, disliked the story about a dinner of hand grenades and bullets, and decided to tell a different tale. So, you have every right not to like what they came up with--but not, I think, on historical or cultural insensitivity grounds. Regards, Pete Curry

P.S. If I was inclined to trash KT rewrites (I am not), I would start with what John Stewart did to Derroll Adams’s classic anti-war song, “Portland Town.” Talk about trivializing.

Jim Moran said...

I wouldn't think of disagreeing with you Pete, and I am undoubtedly being too harsh on Jane Bowers on all counts here. But you and I hear the song rather differently. Spanish ships did indeed sail the world around and all over the west coast - but treasure galleons heading north from Peru? That just cannot have been a frequent occurrence. My scoffing at the "mountain in the ocean" line plays off of the song's reference to Ensenada in Baja - were the crew drinking ashore in Monterey I wouldn't have a problem with the line precisely because of the rocky islets off of the central coast - though that pesky treasure ship heading the long way round still irks me.

As we both know, the folk process involves transformations much more extreme that "Si Mi Quieres Escribir" to this, and obviously no harm has been done - though I think the little analogy I opened the piece with works well - no real harm would have been done had that ever happened, either. And I hope my critique is thoughtful enough that it doesn't constitute trashing what is a musical tour-de-force for the group.

I never warmed to "Coast of California," despite Dave's phenomenal adaptation of Seeger's banjo arrangement, probably because I had heard The Weavers' "Si Mi Quieres Escribir" from one of their live Carnegie albums a few years earlier. I found it stirring and moving. I also enjoyed most the Trio's reworking of traditional songs into something a bit closer to the originals than they did here. But that's just my taste.

I always appreciate your thoughtful comments and am delighted to find them when they pop up on my "stats" page for the blog. And your point is well-taken about Stewart and "Portland Town," though I was probably not harsh enough on him when I wrote the piece on that song.

Pete Curry said...

Hi Jim: Some follow-up details: “Si mi Queries” was not on either of the two early Weavers live LPs (“At Carnegie Hall” and “On Tour“). It was on the 1959 LP “Traveling On With the Weavers.” Interestingly, per the liner notes on that LP, Pete Seeger only appeared on five of its cuts. Erik Darling appeared on the rest, including ”Si Me Queries,” but he copied Seeger’s banjo part on the “Almanac Singers” version fairly closely. (I put Almanac Singers in quotes because the cut actually comes from an old Asch LP called “Songs of the Lincoln Brigade with Pete Seeger and Group,” which was later included on a 1961 Folkways LP titled “Songs of the Spanish Civil War, Vol. 2.”)

Pete Curry said...

P.S. Sorry for the misspelling of "Quieres." I had French in college, not Spanish.

Jim Moran said...

Thanks again, Pete! I really need to keep my Weavers albums handy when we chat - this is at least the second time that you have kindly pointed out the correct album on which a song appeared. "Traveling On" was probably my single favorite Weavers album; the Darling tracks and Seeger tracks set each other off nicely, though it had the same unusual quality of "The Best of The KT" with both Guard and Stewart represented. The Weavers' version here of "Greenland Whale Fisheries is in a four- or five-way tie for my favorite song from the folk era.

Unknown said...

this is why i spend no time at all trying to mix art with history. who cares? i love dave guard's banjo part, which was obviously not invented by him, and i love the words, which were (along with jb). it paints a romantic picture for me and that's all that matters, and reminds me of my new fascination with the kt when i was a kid. dissecting music, to me, is like trying to find the watermellon seed while chewing. in the process, the flavor goes away. i was actually only looking up the history of the song so that i could maybe find out more about the interesting modes and scales that i am playing on my banjo. fascinating and beautiful.