Thursday, April 15, 2010

"What Do We Do With A Drunken Sailor?"/"Early In The Morning"

"The folk process" is a term that has been bandied about a lot over the years and was the root of a great deal of now-forgotten controversy back a few decades ago. I say "forgotten" because nowadays nearly anyone who strums a guitar (it need no longer even be acoustic) and writes a few soul-searching/suffering/political lyrics gets plopped into the category of "folk" by the recording companies without any regard whatsoever for whether or not the performer/writer has any roots in or even knowledge of what had been called "folk" for centuries before the 1970s - traditional music peculiar to a particular regional or ethnic group, often but not always of uncertain authorship, and passed down through generations orally. The "process" of that original definition of folk was the diversifying of a single root song into a family of related ones, with melodies and lyrics morphing into often very different variants. "Greensleeves" may have started as a Renaissance lament for lost love, but it was easily adapted into the Christmas carol "What Child Is This?" and the American frontier song "I'll Build You A Home In The Meadow." Thus it was with hundreds if not thousands of English-language folk songs, the families of which were traced and categorized by folklore giants like Francis James Child, Cecil Sharp, and John A. Lomax.

Those original musical archeologists seldom questioned the legitimacy or "authenticity" of those transformations, largely because they seemed to have evolved in a mythical ether of "purity" - meaning an apparently natural process of adaptation that was unsullied by the "commercialism" of the desire for filthy lucre. Yet someone made those changes and adaptations, sometimes for money and at other times for equally ulterior motives. Someone transformed the Irish drinking song "Rosin The Bow" into "Lincoln and Liberty" for the 1860 campaign; a religious revival song from 1800 became "John Brown's Body" until Julia Ward Howe re-wrote it as "The Battle Hymn Of The Republic." No one was on record as protesting these uses of melody as inauthentic; the music was just there and handy to use to one's own purposes.

Then came the so-called folk revival of the 1930s through the 1960s, and the process became a bone of contention (brilliantly and comprehensively discussed in Richard Weissman's [of The Journeymen fame] 2005 book Which Side Are You On?). Who had the "right" to adapt a traditional melody? When, and to what purpose? Dominic Behan took an old and little-known Appalachian air and used it for "The Patriot Game" - and then reportedly was put out when Bob Dylan took the same public domain tune for his "With God On Our Side" (and even some of the lyric as well) - which Dylan also did with "The Parting Glass" (becoming his "Restless Farewell"), "The Leaving of Liverpool" (becoming "Fare Thee Well"), and even one of the most venerable of all British ballads "Lord Randall" (becoming "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall"). While there were many of the folk purists who disapproved of what they regarded as Dylan's kind of high-handedness with sacred "folk music," most of the Greenwich Village stripe of folkies seemed to accept it and celebrate it because Dylan's politics were of the right shading. The same was true of the Weavers, who played very fast and very loose (and often very lucratively) with the folk material that they freely adapted.

But let those commercial exploiters like the Kingston Trio do the same, and what you get is, in the words of a 2006 review of a Trio reissue by traditional banjo master and major force in the revival Billy Faier, ""a mishmash of twisted arrangements that not only obscure the true beauty of the folk songs from which they derive, but give them a meaning they never had." Forget the fact that as fine a song as it may be, "A Hard Rain" has absolutely nothing to do with the tale of love and murder that "Lord Randall" is; it's Dylan and he's authentic, even when he plugs in and rocks. The Kingston Trio? Profit-driven "tinselly showmen" (thank you, Mark Morris in 1959 for that description).

Which brings us to this week's song, the chantey "What Do We Do With A Drunken Sailor?" that Randy Starr and Dick Wolf - Tin Pan Alley types whose commercial songs were recorded by Elvis Presley and Chet Atkins among many others - turned into a kind of faux-folk traveling/pop love song with a syncopated jazzy beat called "Early In The Morning":

This is a piece of pleasant fluff with just enough folk overtones to fit thematically on a Trio album, especially one like At Large whose song selection with "The Seine" and "All My Sorrows" has more of a pop bent to it than the first two albums anyway. David Wheat's bass provides a nice beat, and the final chorus features two tenor harmonies by Dave Guard and Nick Reynolds above the melody by Bob Shane.

Now for a good version of an Irish sailor tune, who better to listen to than the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem:

Makem, of course, is the lead voice here. Tommy M. was the pennywhistle player in the group, so someone else is playing the banjo here, possibly Pete Seeger.

The first version I ever heard, and probably still my favorite, is from that great album of sea chanteys by the Robert Shaw Chorale from about 1959:

This is no more "authentic" than "Early In The Morning" - the song is after all a capstan chantey sung rhythmically and fairly slowly to mark time while raising anchor or hoisting sail. But damned if it isn't a great version of the song - a fine use to put a folk tune to.

I always thought of the Irish Rovers (of "Unicorn" fame) as a kind of poor man's Clancy Brothers. The Rovers do justice to this song, though, and the concertina gives it a genuine Irish sailor's feeling:

You get a clear sense here of the unpleasant things that the crew wants to do to a sailor derelict in his duty - and I'm sure that most know by now that "the captain's daughter" was a mordantly humorous seafaring reference to the cat-o'-nine-tails, a few lashes from which would certainly put a sailor in his hammock for a few days.

And finally - optional - what passes as Celtic and folk today - if you know the Dropkick Murphys ("Skinhead on the MBTA") and their ilk, you'll recognize the approach of the popular Blaggards:

I don't know exactly what this is - but I'll tell you what it's not. Folk. Or authentic anything other than loud and raunchy. Thanks anyway, guys - I'll take Robert Shaw and the Kingston Trio any day. Are the latter two traditional? - no, certainly. But musical and talented? Most definitely.


greenhawk46 said...


a great example of your blog at its best-the history and evolution of a folk song-nice job

I like the Rovers, then the Clancys on this one for "Sailor", but the KT "Early" , I remember liking instantly when I first heard them sing it-on that album.
Jim H.

Daniel Droixhe said...

I discover that so interesting site. Jim, if you are interested, I wrote an article about a version of "Drunken Sailor" by the Antwerp folk artist and provo Ferre Grignard. I could submit it to you.
Daniel Droixhe aka Elmore D
40 years teacher at the Brussels and Li├Ęge Universities
Belgian Academy of French Language and Literature