Thursday, April 22, 2010

Bob Gibson And "To Morrow"

Over the years of these posts, I've tried at times to present song profiles by artists who have been even more neglected than has the Kingston Trio - artists like Ed McCurdy and Ewan MacColl and John Stewart. Tonight is especially melancholy for me in that regard, because I have a few words to say about the granddaddy of all the forgotten heroes of my childhood and youth - a figure little known among even the younger generation of Trio fans who read here (meaning those under 70) - the late and great and genuinely gifted Bob Gibson.

[Parenthesis: Imagine being a celebrated folk singer who hit the skids in the 60s carrying that name while a Hall of Fame pitcher with the same name is making his mark in America - not unlike the recognition problem that John Stewart had when comedian Jon came along, or CMT baritone Joe Frazier did after the boxer of the same name gained fame.

Gibson was the bridge between the solo pop folk artists of the 1940s and early 1950s (really, just Burl Ives and Terry Gilkyson, though Glenn Yarborough had the beginnings of a nice career going as well) and the Dylans and Paxtons and Ochs and Patrick Skyes and others who followed in the 60s. He may well have been the most influential soloist of his generation, after only Pete Seeger. A passel of 12-string guitar players, including Leo Kottke and Gordon Lightfoot, acknowledged an admiration for and influence from the way Bob handled that instrument.

It was Gibson who gave the 18-year-old Joan Baez national exposure, and he was instrumental in helping the young Judy Collins along as well - for both of which lovers of folk music owe him an enormous debt. Though he flamed brightly across the pop folk sky for only about seven years, between about 1957 and 1964 before being undone by his own mad addictive personality, Gibson left behind some of the best polished and commercial folk music of the era in four albums especially - his 1957 Carnegie Concert, the 1961 Yes I See, the 1964 Where I'm Bound - and most especially, the album on which what little remains of his memory rests, Gibson and Camp at the Gate of Horn (1961). (pictured above) Gibson was also the first to record "Day-O/Banana Boat Song," which Alan Arkin and Erik Darling heard him play with his banjo in Washington Square one summer - they formed the Tarriers with Bob Carey, recorded Gibson's arrangement, and had a minor hit with it - a hit heard and recorded by Harry Belafonte, who had a blockbuster hit with it.

The Camp is Bob, who later resumed his birth name of Hamilton and made a career as a comedian and actor. Gibson had introduced Camp at the 1960 Newport Folk Festival, and they co-wrote a number of what became standard folk group numbers (including "You Can Tell The World" and "Well, Well, Well") before the legendary gig at Chicago's first and arguably greatest folk club, owned by Albert Grossman, who later assembled and managed PP&M as well as co-founding the Newport Folk Festival and guiding the careers of Odetta and Ian and Sylvia and Gordon Lightfoot. The Gate of Horn album is regarded by many as the musical high point of the pop folk era.

Though Gibson had been born in Brooklyn, he will forever be associated with the Chicago folk scene that also produced Steve Goodman and John Prine and Frank Hamilton and Bernie Krause (Seeger's last replacements in The Weavers) and all Gibson admirers - and of course Jim McGuinn, who came to folk music because Gibson played a solo banjo gig at McG's high school. The eventual founder of the Byrds and folk rock came to this kind of music because of Bob Gibson - who I hope I've shown was about the most important figure in folk music that nearly no one remembers. He was big and doing Carnegie Hall while Dave Guard was still in grad school.

Oddly, for a performer who wrote and arranged some splendid folk music ("Foghorn," "Yes I See," the spirituals mentioned above,"Blues Around My Head"), the one song that the Kingstons chose to do by Gibson was one that he copyrighted but freely admitted he didn't write (shades of "Scotch and Soda"). Gibson learned "To Morrow" from a Bob Black of Indiana University, but the basic tune and words were copyrighted in 1898 by humorist Lew Sully with music by Geoffery O'Hara. According to a Dayton, Ohio newspaper, not far from the very real Morrow, OH:

The railroad also provided humorist Lew Sully with the material he needed to compose the famous poem "I Want To Go To Morrow." According to legend, Mr. Sully overheard a conversation between a Kentucky farmer and a Cincinnati railroad ticket agent. The agent decided to have some fun at the farmer's expense, and thus the basis for the poem was born.

The earliest known recording of the song - and one of the oldest surviving recordings in the world - is by Dan W. Quinn, recorded July 11, 1902:

This recording is from the Library of Congress National Jukebox.

Gibson re-worked the words and came up with this: (unfortunately removed for copyright and will be added again if it becomes available)

Clearly, from the TV Hootenanny in 1964.

The Kingston Trio put Capitol Studio B and Dave Guard's still-new Vega Pete Seeger long neck banjo (the legend is that Gibson had bought the first production model of that instrument) to excellent use in their delightful version, with Bob Shane doing his jaunty bit and Guard almost visible in the imagination as a bespectacled railroad agent:

The number is clearly better suited to two voices in counter point, but the influence of Gibson on this, especially Dave's instrumental, is clear.

And now, some more fun versions of a fun song. First, one good re-write deserves another, and Scots folksinger Iain Mackintosh rewrote both the words and the melody in this early 1950s radio broadcast:

Just a few weeks back in February, the Slomski Brothers of Virginia go for the full-on comedy version. Their self-evident youth is somehow encouraging:

Let's close, however, with some real folk music pros - the Muppets, with these puppets created as images of the real (l-r) Jim Henson, Frank Oz, and Jerry Nelson, who reportedly are actually playing the instruments:

Bob Gibson died in 1996 at the age of 64 of supranuclear palsy, a week after a farewell concert performed for him in Chicago by many of those artists listed above and many more as well, including Tom Paxton. I hope he's out there some place smiling at even this little memorial to one of my all-time favorite performers.


Pete Curry said...

Jim: “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” was on Harry Belafonte’s famous “Calypso” LP which was recorded in 1955, released in early 1956 and debuted in the Billboard Top 40 album chart in June of that year. The Tarriers’ single version of that song (which they combined with the song “Hill and Gully Rider”) was released in December of 1956. Bob Gibson’s recording of the song was on his Carnegie Concert LP which, the liner notes to that LP tell us, was recorded February 11, 1957. So of the three recordings, Belafonte was first, the Tarriers were second, and Gibson was third. And while Bob Gibson may have heard the song on the docks in Jamaica, both “Day-O” and “Hill and Gully Rider” were well-known in New York cabaret and folk music circles thanks to early 1950's recordings and performances by Edric Connor and Louise Bennett. Meanwhile, anyone with a TV set could have heard Belafonte sing “Day-O” on the Colgate Comedy Hour in 1955. Regards, Pete Curry

Jim Moran said...

Shows you what you get when you trust internet discographies - I had Belafonte's album placed a year later than it was actually recorded, The sequence that I related here, though, was the one that Gibson himself presented when I saw him a few times in person in the 1970s at a distance of 20 years after the fact. I remember all of the albums you cite and my family had them all at home - but I was much too young to remember the sequence in which we got them. It's nice to know that Harry B actually was the first of the three. BTW - I wrote a bit about Edric Connor early in 2011 on "The Virgin Mary Had A Baby Boy." Thanks!