Thursday, July 8, 2010

"Everybody Loves Saturday Night"

The Red Scare demolished the Weavers as a commercial entity in 1952 following a two year period in which the group sold over four million records - records of folk songs like "Irene, Goodnight" and "Tzena, Tzena" and "On Top Of Old Smokey" and "Wimoweh," albeit in heavily over-orchestrated versions by producer/arranger/A&R man Gordon Jenkins. And when for political reasons the Weavers became persona non grata to the record companies, the concert promoters, and the radio station programmers, they seemed to take "folk" as a branch of popular music with them into almost complete oblivion until six years later with the sudden and explosive re-emergence of the form with the Kingston Trio's multi-million selling single "Tom Dooley."

Almost complete oblivion, but not quite. Harry Belafonte, who became the dominant male vocalist in the country in terms of record sales for a couple of years mid-decade, had his roots in American folk music - to which he returned after the calypso craze he started died out. The period between the Weavers and the Kingston Trio also saw the beginning of the career of Bob Gibson, the Gateway Singers (including Travis Edmonson), and two groups who had calypso-flavored "folk" hits - Terry Gilkyson (who wrote "Fast Freight") and the Easy Riders with "Marianne" and the Tarriers with "Day-O" and "Everybody Loves Saturday Night."

The Tarriers may be the hardest luck group in U.S. entertainment history. In addition to this song, they were the first group to record what were arguably the two biggest hit songs that whetted the American public's appetite for folk music - "Day-O," which they had learned from Bob Gibson, and "Tom Dooley," which they had picked up in Greenwich Village from Roger Sprung, the banjo star who added the little hitch in the chorus ("Hang down your head Tom...Dooley") that is not in the original song and that the KT employed. The Tarriers had a respectable career, but nothing on the order of Belafonte's or the Kingston Trio's success.

The original group included Alan Arkin (who went on to great fame as a character actor in NY and Hollywood), Erik Darling (master banjoist and folksinger who later joined the Weavers and started the Rooftop Singers), and Bob Carey (who became a successful record producer). Carey was African-American, and the Tarriers became the first racially integrated vocal group in America.

The "Saturday Night" song originated in Nigeria, and a number of stories have grown up around it - that it was a Weavers song (it wasn't, though Pete Seeger included it in one of his solo songbooks) and that it was composed as a protest against military government-imposed curfews (lifted on Saturday night only) in Lagos in either the 1950s or 1970s, depending on the source of your rumor. While I'm sure that folks everywhere have sung the song with gusto on all sorts of occasions, it existed well before the 1950s and 70s curfews that urban/internet legends suggest created the song. The original Nigerian song apparently was only a fragment of a forgotten older piece. It was Trinidadian calypso singer Aldwyn Roberts "Lord Kitchener" who popularized it in Britain in the late 1940s by repeating the song's one line over and over in different languages - hence the association of this African song with Caribbean rhythms and styles.

So first, we have the Tarriers with the original U.S. recording from 1957 on their self-titled album:

It's interesting to me how muted Darling's parts are here - he emerged from the group as the most accomplished musician, with a distinctive high tenor voice (barely discernible here) and as one of the best and most versatile folk banjoists of the whole revival - here he's just strumming.

Another version of the song appeared in a fascinating and odd 1958 film called Windjammer: The Voyage of the Christian Radich, a documentary made in Norway about a group of teenaged recruits to the Norwegian navy and their training cruise aboard the vessel. When they stop in the Caribbean, they have to of course sing a calypso or two, so...

I'm not sure who is performing it, though IMDB gives credit for this and most of the (familiar) songs in the movie to the aforementioned Terry Gilkyson - doesn't sound like him, though - he had a rich, round, musical-comedy style baritone.

Bud and Travis also did an outstanding version of "Saturday Night," with that frenetic high-speed Spanish guitar strumming for which they were famous, but there is no video available of it at the moment. Travis (who died in May a year ago) was described by both Bob Shane and John Stewart of the Kingston Trio as a hero to them - he was an established local star in San Francisco when Shane and the original group started, and Stewart was effusive to the end of his life in the gratitude he expressed for Travis's many kindnesses shown him when Stewart was starting out in his pre-Trio days. Travis was a regular guest performer at Stewart's Trio Fantasy Camp in Arizona every year, and in 2004 he was joined for a rendition of the song by his old friend Bob Shane (recently retired due to a heart condition) and the KT of George Grove, Bill Zorn, and Bob Haworth:

The numerically impressive New Christy Minstrels and Serendipity Singers both took a stab at the song, with the Christys having some radio airplay success with it. I always enjoyed their version, but this studio recording is a bit more cluttered than their live performances of it:

I originally misidentified this cut as the Serendipities, which is why their album cover appears in the video. Both groups in any event branched out from the simple acoustic folk sound that they had started with, and this cut demonstrates the distinctively "pop" direction record companies wanted folk to take - one of the reasons why the whole popular folk era is so disregarded critically and lampooned a la A Mighty Wind.

So it's not a great leap from the Serendipitys to a full-on, mainstream pop version by Percy Faith and his orchestra:

The song has also been a staple of jazz groups as well, especially as popularized by Denmark's Papa Bue and his Viking Jazz band in Dixieland style. No Papa on YouTube*, but the Carlings are doing something close to his arrangement:

And that, my friends, is as far off the reservation as I'm going in this series. I love pop, I love love Dixieland - but I love folk music most of all. I feel the need next week for a real Anglo or Irish ballad to write about (hint)....

*Addendum, 9/1/11

Whilst trolling around YouTube, looking (successfully) for an alternate version of the Percy Faith version that had been removed, I found that Papa Bue's Viking Jazz Band performance has been uploaded in the 1967 studio version:

...and in an extended recent live performance:


Pete Curry said...

Hi Jim: The first group to record "Tom Dooley" was actually the Folksay Trio (Roger Sprung, Erik Darling and Bob Carey), who recorded it on an album titled "American Folksay, Volume 2" for the Stinson label in 1953 (which also featured "Round the Bay of Mexico," also covered by the Kingston Trio). Their version featured the syncopated "hitch" between the words "Tom" and "Dooley," which the Tarriers utilized as did the Kingston Trio. Thus, the KT could have learned the song from either recording. (However, neither group used the exact words the KT used. For those, they probably consulted John and Alan Lomax's 1947 collection, "Folk Song: USA," which includes the words exactly as sung by the Kingston Trio, minus a few minor modernizations.)

As to why one version of a song succeeds while another fails: I suggest it has more to do with talent than timing. And in my opinion, the Tarriers’ (and the Folksay Trio’s) bad luck, if they had any, was not having Dave Guard to arrange the song, Bob Shane to sing lead on it and Nick Reynolds to add his wonderful harmonies. Regards, Pete Curry

Jim Moran said...

Thanks for the correction, Pete! I did mention Roger Sprung in this article as the originator of the "hitch" - and that little detail is one that I am 100%sure I picked up from your outstanding summary of the history of the song that I came across on The Kingston Trio Liner Notes site. I should have gone back and looked at the article before I wrote here because I forgot about the Folksay Trio recording - though my impression was that the Tarriers were a higher profile commercial group and a likelier source for the KT. And from the moment I bought my own copy of the Lomax book about 50 years ago, it was pretty clear where DG got the general approach to his arrangement, with the "moderately fast" rhythm prescribed by arrangers Charles and Ruth Seeger a notable difference between the KT and the Grayson&Whitter or Doc Watson versions.

I couldn't agree with you more about why the KT's version was the successful one. I liked the Tarriers a lot, but they didn't possess the spark of genius of the original KT for the reasons you mentioned on most everything they did. I'll have to hear that Stinson recording; "Bay of Mexico" is my all-time favorite KT cut (there's an article from last March here on my blog about it).

BTW - I have seen a copy of and admire greatly your Pure Dave - still scouring eBay for an affordable copy. Your contributions on the KT message boards are fondly remembered and sorely missed!



Pete Curry said...

Okay, Jim. Send me your mailing address and I'll send you a copy of the Guard book. My email address is

Pete Curry said...

P.S. I think it's a stretch to suggest that Dave Guard got the idea for his arrangement for "Tom Dooley" from those two words in the Lomax book because without a metronome indication (beats per minute), which modern arrangers typically provide, we simply have no idea what tempo the Seegers had in mind (although in the same book they indicated that the well-known dance tune "Skip to My Lou," like "Tom Dooley," should be played moderately fast, if that tells us anything).

More important, we have no way of knowing what Dave Guard made of those two words, if anything--although, to my mind, there is nothing fast, moderately or otherwise, about his version.

Rather, I think Dave Guard arrived at the relaxed, easy-going tempo he chose for the Kingston Trio's version of "Tom Dooley," with its 2/4 rather than 4/4 feel, based on his own personal thoughts about the song and the tragic tale it tells. And I believe his tempo, compared to the earlier, speeded-up tempos used by Grayson & Whitter, Frank Warner, the Folksay Trio and the Tarriers, was and remains a major part of the appeal of the Kingston Trio version.

Jim Moran said...

Well, blogs are all about inference and speculation, and of course Dave Guard left us with a bit of a mystery as to the origins of his arrangement, as you point out in your extended discussion on the origins of the song.

I just re-read it (excellently presented and written), and you describe the KT tempo as "slow and relaxed" and "Calypsoesque." I wouldn't dispute that at all - in my article on "Bay of Mexico" I mention just how much Buzz Wheeler's syncopated bass lines add to both arrangements. I know all of the earlier recordings, including the '29 Grayson and Whitter; I'd call those "fast."

When I saw the Lomax book with the "moderately fast" time mark, I responded to the "moderate" - the same speed at which the KT does "Sloop John B" on the same first album. To me, the NBD trio did excellent work on genuinely slow songs like "The Seine" and "Colorado Trail," among many others (and gradually disappearing from the recordings after DG left - most NBJ songs to me are rather more "moderate"). But I think of TD and SJB as "moderate" in comparison - and what I especially love about them is what I call the "quiet urgency" of the vocals, again something unique to the first incarnation of the group. For myself - I always remember "John B" as slower than it actually is precisely because of that "quiet urgency."

So I think of the tempo as moderate rather than slow, as above - just a matter of terminology, really. It is definitely not fast. And there is no doubt in my mind either that the effect of the recorded version we hear is the product of Dave Guard's peculiar imagination - I'm guessing as well for the other unique element to the song, Nick Reynolds' wailing "Hang down....your head and cry" on the chorus after the second verse.