Friday, May 14, 2010

1964, Billy Edd Wheeler, And "Coal Tattoo"


1964 seldom gets credit for being as pivotal a year in American folk and pop music history as it was - seems as though '65 gets all the props. The latter year, of course was the flowering of Beatlemania with the second album and A Hard Day's Night and the explosion of folk-rock with the Byrds, the Mamas and Papas, and finally Dylan plugging in at Newport. American rock was also enjoying a renascence with the continued singles success of the Everly Brothers, the rise of the Beach Boys as likely the U.S. all-time greatest rock band, the growth of Motown, Phil Spector's "wall of sound," solo artists like Roy Orbison and Elvis, and more.

But the roots of much of this are in 1964 - the Beatles coming to the U.S., the break-up of the original Journeymen that sent John Phillips and Scott McKenzie to LA to work their folk-rock vocal magic while the Big Three with Doherty and Elliott was floundering - and the re-direction of popular folk music represented by the emergence of Bob Dylan and the continued and thoroughgoing dominance of the more politically-oriented Peter, Paul and Mary, whose self-titled debut album was still in the process of spending a astounding 84 weeks in Billboard's Top Ten, with their next two albums joining that elite level during the year.

What this meant, of course, was that the more good-timey pop folk groups like the Kingston Trio and their immediate competitors from the late 1950s, the Limeliters and the Brothers Four, went into a decline that proved irreversible, as none of those three or their lesser imitators every approached the levels of their early album sales again.

A sure sign of the decline was the KT album Time To Think. In terms simply of sales, the album made a bit of money for all concerned, as it sold 100,000 copies, which would have been respectable for anyone other than the former leader of the pack. The peak Billboard ranking of 18 was the lowest of any album released to date by the group, including the poorly selling Stereo Concert and holiday album. More seriously, though, it was the first time that the Kingston Trio was following a trend rather than initiating one, and trying to cash in on a style that was alien to their own "mission statement" and that was being pursued with huge success by their competitors. That is a simple but melancholy fact.

What that obscures, though, is just how good many of the performances on the album are - a decent if derivative "Patriot Game", perhaps the best recorded versions of "Seasons in the Sun" and "Deportee", and more.

One of the best cuts on the album is the rendition of another outstanding songwriting effort by Billy Edd Wheeler, Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee, successful playwright and artist, and composer of two previous KT hits, "The Rev. Mr. Black" and "Desert Pete." That song, of course, is "Coal Tattoo," said to be Wheeler's favorite among his compositions because of his own deep connections to West Virginia and its coal mines.

"Coal Tattoo" is a pointed observation on the hardships of the lives of American miners, but "The Times They Are A-Changin'" it's not. It has a lot more in common with Fred Hellerman's "Poverty Hill" and similar songs in its implied compassion. It reflects rather than prescribes, as do many of the other songs on this themed album - but that fact explains largely why the record never caught on. PP&M were doing Dylan and Ochs songs with a far more overtly political message and call to action - and that was what was selling. It is noteworthy that the Trio never tried another theme album again, or one with even distant and remote political messages. The Kingstons do, however, present "Coal Tattoo" with their trademark energy:



Lead singer John Stewart delivers a powerful and impassioned vocal here, but Voyle Gilmore's legendary production skills seem to fail him a bit in the mix , which has too much reverb and in which the instrumental blend is muddy rather than crystal clear, as 90% of the group's earlier cuts were.

Sadly perhaps, few of the song's many fans know it as a KT song. The best-known version is by West Virginia's alt-country star Kathy Mattea:



Mattea's version has the ring of authenticity to it, though with a fairly conventional country instrumental accompaniment.

Shawn Phillips has had a John Stewart-type of career, with a singular success with the title role on Broadway in Jesus Christ, Superstar and more than twenty folk albums that have a devoted but small following. He's a powerful performer, still with us at age 67:



The most recent version I found is by a mid-twenties ensemble that I featured in the "Darlin' Corey" post, Red Molly:



This is from a few days ago at Merlefest, one of the biggest remaining folk festivals in the US. I love the ladies' vocal and instrumental blends here.

The song is thought to be referring to a kind of atherosclerosis resulting in miners from black lung disease. But the "tattoo" was often just that - marks of coal dust embedded under exposed or cut skin, sometimes large, sometimes small. Look at the hands, arms, and necks of any log-time coal miners and you'll see the tattoos to which Wheeler makes reference.

Finally, our Xroads and FC friend Steve Cottrell has an excellent version on YouTube as well:



Steve's slower tempo brings out the melancholy of the lyric, and his distinctive three finger picking on the 12 string is an innovative and unique sound for the song.

"Coal Tattoo" is one of several genuinely enduring songs that Wheeler penned, and American pop music would be in better shape today if there were more younger generation writers of his ability.


Plus - Billy Edd Himself and Denver, Boise and Johnson - 11/18/12
A note from my fellow folkie Ron Wilburne prompted me to look on YouTube again, and I was delighted to find Billy Edd Wheeler singing his own song - a fine version in a sweet country tenor:

 
 Also popping up was a recording by Denver, Boise, and Johnson - the last troupe of what had started out as the Chad Mitchell Trio. The Denver, of course, was John; the Johnson was Michael, later of "Bluer Than Blue" fame and a number of other hits in the '70s and '80s. This version, though, is a solo by David Boise, whom I got to know some months after this 1968 recording. The killer banjo part is by stringed instrument legend Paul Prestopino:



And a rousing version from bluegrass legend and "Union Maid" Hazel Dickens:

3 comments:

Mike said...

None of these covers are as solid as the one this kid used to do at the SMC Coffeehouse. He had been a very shy presence at the place, and when he'd play, he'd kind of mumble his songs and get off stage. But then one summer he did some transformative gigging and came back in the fall singing out and playing with confidence. This is the song I associate with that latter guitarslinger.

Mike Moore said...

Thanks for this interesting post. With Warren Haynes' version of Coal Tattoo, I discovered this post. Love all the versions.

I did want to quibble with calling the Beach Boys America's greatest rock band. This is a great topic for discussion. I would suggest Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band or possibly the Eagles.

Anyway, thanks!

Mike

Jim Moran said...

And thanks to both my old coffee house buddy Mike P for the compliment that I am just now seeing and to Mike M. for his thoughts. I'll have to look up Haynes' version. As far as "greatest rock band," absolutely yes it would be a great topic. I usually say BBs and Eagles in the same sentence, but here for rhetorical purposes of emphasizing the importance of 1964 I simply chose the former, since Henley, Frey et al. were still in school that year (or just out of it). I always thought of Springsteen as a soloist backed by and collaborating with a great band, but there's no question that he/they would be in the discussion as well.

jkm