The genesis of this blog was in several posts I made well over two years ago to Kingston Crossroads, a message board which, like CompVid101, focuses initially on the vast and diverse repertoire of the Kingston Trio but goes into a whole lot of different directions from there. Though my lifelong love of folk music started in my childhood even before the KT hit the scene, for me as for millions of other Americans there was something special about the group and its music. The one hundredth post in this series gives me a special opportunity to look back fifty years at why that was so for me. Here's hoping for a hundred more posts on folk music of all kinds!
When I was in Scottsdale, AZ a few weeks back for the Kingston Trio Fantasy Camp, I mentioned to a friend that we were coming up on post #100 for CompVid101. She asked if I had a special song that I was planning to profile for what surely is a landmark of some sort or other. I had to reply that I actually hadn't - that the only future post the content of which I know for sure will be the last one, if there ever is one such.
But over the course of two years and two months on an almost weekly basis, I've already written about and presented nearly all of my favorite folk songs that I had first heard from the KT (nearly, but as we shall see shortly, not all). Some time over the last two weeks, it came to me that this might be an opportunity for me to join in briefly to one of America's favorite armchair pastimes - creating a ranked list of some sort. While I would never presume to try to say what the Kingston Trio's best songs have been - that would be a fool's errand and completely subjective in any case - over the course of writing these posts I've often reflected on which songs of theirs I have enjoyed most and that have meant the most to me over the last fifty plus years. I was surprised by how easy it was for me to come up with the list below. These are the songs that have just stood out for me over the decades, the ones that I continue to return to again and again.
I'm proud of what this series represents, not the least of which is a lot of very enjoyable hard work. I have been delighted by the re-discovery of older songs that I had all but forgotten about, and I have been thrilled to find some genuinely outstanding versions of the songs by other artists. Most of all, I have been profoundly impressed by the fact that I could come up with this many songs that were recorded by a single artist that do in fact have a multitude of other interpretations. Look at Folk Alley's list of the "100 Most Essential Folk Songs" and you'll find that the Kingston Trio at one time or another recorded 21 of them. The next nearest artist has five.
While it's true that I can and will continue to profile KT songs here, the finite number of usable songs from the Trio and my own much wider folk interests are impelling me to expand the blog (Comparative Video 101) to include a wider range of songs to discuss (I could do 50 posts blindfolded on the Clancys and probably as many on the Chad Mitchell Trio), and that suggests a change in direction soon. So I've included a poll at the end of this post to ask whether or not folks here at Xroads would like to see future articles on non-KT songs.
And that leads me to my last note before the music. When these posts go out onto the larger web on the blog, the readership can number from a few score to a few thousand people. But on Kingston Crossroads, as Ken Laing's view counters indicate, I can depend on the fact that every week, 200 or more Xroaders will look in on my efforts. I cannot express to you all how profoundly moved I am by that, and how profoundly grateful I am that good people who share my love for this music think it worth their while to stop by.
So thanks to Ken for sponsoring the board and giving me and all of us this forum - and thanks to all my fellow Xroaders for the weekly visits that have encouraged me to keep going.
And now - on to the show!
Jim Moran's Favorite Kingston Trio Songs
10. "The Colorado Trail"
For my money, one of the three or four prettiest songs that the KT ever did, and one with the added attraction for me of being a pretty straightforward take on the traditional number. In the blog piece linked above, I point out how the arrangement reflects the lyrics - the "wail, winds, wail" line being sung an octave high by Nick Reynolds and the tune resolving itself lower as the words return from the sky to the earth - "along, along, along...the Colorado trail." I'm proud of the fact that this is one of four or five posts that has been picked up by and permanently posted to other websites, in this case a Colorado Trail preservation organization.
9. "Zombie Jamboree"
Still after five decades my favorite KT novelty/humorous tune, and maybe my favorite overall live cut from the group. Dave Guard's mock-erudite patter (and look at the article to see why Dave misidentifies the composer as "Lord Invader") wears well through the years and still makes me smile.
8. "One More Town"
When I profiled Bob Shane as soloist last June, I remarked that I thought that "When My Love Was Here" was the young John Stewart's most fully-realized early composition. I still think so - but I love this one more. The lyrics have a timeless quality - when I was a boy, they expressed my longing to go out and see the great world; as a man in late middle age, they remind me of where I have gone and how I have lived.
7. "I'm Goin' Home"
You cannot go to far into the KT catalog without coming up with a banjo blaster, and this cut from seven years into the group's career showed that they still had the chops to blow the roof off like no other folk group ever could.
6. "Across The Wide Missouri"
The last verse ("I'm pushing off..") is as breathtaking a moment of harmony as the folk era produced, and the rendition gives us the best of what the Trio could do with a brilliantly re-interpreted traditional song and outstanding recording by Voyle Gilmore. This video was produced by my friend Tom Salter of Niagara, ONT, one of his first in a brilliant career of making folk videos.
5. "The Gypsy Rover"
While I am a steadfast Clancy Brothers fan and think that Tommy Makem's solo rendition of this at the 1960 Newport Folk Festival may be the best version out there, this would be version 1A - and there are plenty of comments on my YouTube upload from Ireland that really love what Nick Reynolds does with this song.
One more really fine songwriting effort from a very young John Stewart. I love what Tom Salter did with this - he ran the KT's 1962 version right into John Stewart's 1973 solo version (which I had emailed him), both of which I love equally. Tom did this as a kind of private gift for me, which is why the second half features pictures of my group. I'm sure he won't mind me sharing. And what's not to love about having your own picture come up right at the point of your favorite line?
3."The Escape of Old John Webb"
I have found to my delight this morning that in fact there are enough alternate versions of this for me to a full article on it, so I'm going to limit myself here. A goodly number of professional banjo players have said that the banjo break on "MTA" first got them interested in playing the instrument. For me, it was what Dave Guard did with exquisitely quiet good taste here that really made me wake up and take note of the instrument.
2. "The Sinking Of The Reuben James"
Banjo master Billy Faier cited this cut as an example that the Trio was "all climax and no build-up" - but Billy must have been listening to some other KT rendition, because this one has plenty of build and drama. For my money, the Kingstons' best banjo number and one of the most stirring pieces of Americana ever recorded.
1. "Bay of Mexico"
I can remember being a boy of nine, sitting between the speakers of our living room console stereo and being utterly transfixed by this song - the guitar, the banjo, the key shifts, the harmonies. My friend Tom Lamb pointed out a few weeks back on another post how perfect the final mixdown of the first two Trio monaural albums was, and no song's sound proves his point better than this one. The calypso rhythm, the jaunty and slightly blue sailor's lyric, the overwhelming in-your-face-confidence of three very young guys plus their bass player challenging the world to match what they could do musically - all that I love about folk music was born when I first heard this cut.
So there we have it - my favorite ten, and I invite everyone else to post their own. Here's to one hundred posts in the book, and to the hope of one hundred more!