Thursday, June 24, 2010

Tom Paxton's "I Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound"

When I was younger, there were certain poems and novels and songs and plays and films that I just knew I would love forever and would return to frequently. I've still never seen a better film than Lawrence of Arabia or found a poet more in tune with the subtle vibrations of experience than Robert Frost or W.H. Auden. Hemingway's For Whom The Bell Tolls still affects me deeply, and I still think that O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night is the pre-eminent masterpiece of the American theater.

What I could not quite foresee, though, in my youth and callowness was that the ways these and countless other creative pieces would resonate for me through the decades would change, as change they have dramatically. To me as a sixty year old, David Lean's Lawrence is less heroic and more pitiable, and my sympathies in the O'Neill play now extend far beyond the helplessly drug-addicted Mary Tyrone to embrace as well her disillusioned, alcoholic husband and sons. Years and experience change us all and the ways in which we understand ourselves and our lives.

So has it been for me with this week's song, Tom Paxton's "I Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound" - and so as I think we'll see has it also been for many of the myriad of other artists who have covered the tune. I have written before about the sheer and absolute "folkiness" of Paxton's best work in articles about his "The Last Thing On My Mind" and "My Ramblin' Boy", and "Bound" is the equal of these as a song that will long outlive any of us. All three songs seem simple and direct in both music and lyrics - deceptively so, I would suggest. For though they mean what they say, each song has the same quality that an abstract expressionist painting or an imagist poem does - we bring ourselves and our own life experiences into understanding the work, and thus each means more than the simple literal reading of the lyric.

One of the first things that any lit student learns to appreciate is the power of metaphor, and at least since the time of Homer three thousand years ago just about everyone recognizes the symbolic value of the journey as a metaphor for life itself. Paxton's lyric in this song may have been intended only as a reflection of his sense of his own and his generation's rootlessness and yearning for meaning in life, but in the hands of the musical artists who have interpreted this song below, we'll see that each infuses the verses with his or her own personal sense of quest.

First, Paxton himself lays down the template for the song. When this performance was taped in Israel in 1994 (with Shay Tochner, one of that country's leading folk artists), "Where I'm Bound" was already thirty years old and Tom himself was well into his fifties:



I like the confidence that emanates from TP here - he knows that the audience knows his song, and it's clear that he knows he's written a damn fine one at that.

The first version that I actually heard was from the Chad Mitchell Trio (known when they recorded this as The Mitchell Trio) from their wonderful Reflecting album. The CMT was probably more responsible than any other single artist for taking Paxton's work and giving it a national audience, much as Peter, Paul and Mary did for Bob Dylan and the Kingston Trio did for Rod McKuen:



I always liked the two-guitar accompaniment of this (Paul Prestopino and Jacob Ander), and in the context of the CMT's often overtly political stance in many of their albums, I have always believed that this version was a 1964 query about the direction of the country as a whole. Vocal lead is by Joe Frazier, now an Episcopal priest in Big Bear, CA.

The Kingston Trio also did a fine job with Paxton's compositions, and their studio recording of "Bound" on their Stay Awhile album is one of the highlights of their years on Decca Records. I've chosen for this piece, though, their live performance from July of 1966 at Lake Tahoe as they kicked off their farewell tour before disbanding (temporarily, as it turned out) in June of the following year:



However much the upcoming dissolution of the group may have seemed the right thing to do at the time, there had to be an attendant uncertainty about the future that I think this rendition expresses. As a side note - this Trio changes the lyric in the third verse from "I hear he's out by 'Frisco Bay" to "Monterey" - because as a Bay Area group they knew what Paxton did not - that longtime residents up there despised the abbreviation and just never but never said "Frisco" for anything related to their beloved city.

Johnny Cash's American Recordings were spare, stripped down arrangements recorded in the last years of this great artist's life. "Bound" appeared on an album released earlier this year, American VI: Ain't No Grave:



I love the craginess of the voice and the tentativeness of a man who knew he was facing his last long and mysterious journey.

Nanci Griffith collected an all-star line-up of musicians and songwriters for her Other Voices, Other Rooms album in the early 90s - an entire recording of other people's songs, often as here with the composer performing with her:



The song clearly lends itself to Griffith's uptempo, good time country reading - not so different from what Doc Watson does here:



Anything Watson plays is worth listening to just to hear what he does on guitar. Absolutely amazing.

We forget, perhaps, that Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel actually started out as a folk duo. They remind us here:



We conclude with three fairly recent, non-pro performances that I like. First, Riverbend - well, they're pros but have only recently come together as a group. Ron Wilburne, formerly of the New Christy Minstrels, is the lead in the center with David Meitz on mandolin and Art Morgan on guitar:



I haven't been able to find out much about Oliver Mulholland, who performs here. I believe he's up in the Puget Sound area: this video was originally posted by a high school classmate of his with whom I briefly corresponded, and I think this performance is from a reunion in the 90s:



Finally - almost the first version of the song on YouTube was by the Chilly Winds four years ago, and it still gets played somewhere in the world every day:



I liked the fact that banjoist John Birchler wanted to add the verse about the girl with "lips like cherry wine" because it enabled us to move the instrumental to the middle of the song. It's one that nearly everyone in the audience still sings along with whenever we perform it.

I can think of no greater testament to the power and excellence of a composition than that.

2 comments:

Harlan said...

Hi Jim. This is the best blog ever. This wonderful song (I'm a huge fan of CMT), makes me hope that some day you'll get to "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right."

Jim Moran said...

Hi Harlan! Sorry for the delayed response...it takes a fair amount of time for me to keep going through the 95 posts on this blog to remove and/or replace video that have been deleted from YouTube.

I, too, am a huge CMT fan and have included them in many of the posts here over the years. (I need to work up an index by song title soon). A few I remember off the top of my head and the KT album in the index already there (bottom left - click on album title to get a link to posts about songs from that album):
1. "Tell Old Bill" (String Along)

2. "The Sinking of the Reuben James" (Close Up)

3. "Last Thing On My Mind" (Something Else)

4. "Four Strong Winds" (Unreleased)

5. "Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound" (Stay Awhile)

There are certainly more articles with CMT music in them - I'll try to post more later.

I am in frequent contact with Joe Frazier of the CMT, who also lives in Southern California. - I was lucky enough t0 perform with him in a benefit show two weeks ago and with him as a guest commentator on an NPR radio station last Saturday (he reads CompVid 101!). I saw him with the CMT last December - they are still a great act with original members and musicians.

And at some point in the not-too-distant future, we'll tackle "Don't Think Twice," one of my favorite Dylan songs.

regards,

Jim Moran