Friday, August 20, 2010

Orthodox And Heterodox: "Jamaica Farewell"

Kingston Harbor, Jamaica
Over the decades, the shallow pop culture has evolved a kind of orthodoxy (which as we all know originally meant simply "right" or "correct" thinking) about folk music that goes something like this:

In the beginning were the workers, of The People, and they were noble - on the farm and on the ocean and in the army and in love and in work and in war. And yea, the workers begat spontaneously the Folk Song, a pure virgin unsullied by filthy lucre.

And it came to pass that the Folk Song begat in conception without sin its priests Child and Sharp and Lomax, and it begat its holy twins Guthrie and Seeger.

And Guthrie and Seeger begat the Almanac Singers, and the Almanac Singers begat the Weavers, who died for your sins. And Guthrie and Seeger begat also Greenwich Village, which begat a bastard offspring PeterPaulandMary. And PeterPaulandMary midwifed the Holy Incarnation Of All That Is Good, the Son of Folk Song, Bob Dylan.

Utter nonsense, of course - but like the Flat Earth Theory and the Moon Landing denial, it is nonsense that has gained traction with a truly unconscionable number of people. The why of this is hard to say. A good stab at explaining it comes from Bruce Eder, who with Richie Unterberger and a few others on the web has made a genuine effort on the AllMusic Guide to give a fair shake to the missing elements in our little fable above. In his article on The Brothers Four on AllMusic, Eder writes:

The Brothers Four were also part of a largely forgotten chapter in the history of folk music in America...Most accounts of the post-WWII folk music boom focus on the political and issue-oriented branch of the music, embodied by Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, at the expense of the softer, more entertainment-oriented branch, embodied by the likes of the Kingston Trio, the Chad Mitchell Trio, and the Brothers Four. Those acts and the music they made -- though it sold well and, indeed, for many years defined what most Americans visualized when the phrase "folk music" was mentioned -- are scarcely mentioned in most histories...It can be argued that Dylan's approach to folk music, and particularly his rough-hewn, Woody Guthrie-influenced persona, were every bit as artificial and romanticized as that of the Brothers Four...if [post 1964 young people] did listen to folk music, they wanted what was perceived as a more authentic brand of singing, preferably with some serious political involvement somewhere in the mix.

The real story, the heterodox story - the one you won't read in most histories because it includes the ever-present quest for the aforementioned filthy lucre - goes like this.

The very genuine obscure origins of folk songs and ballads and protest songs became a source of big-time profits for mass media companies early in the 20th century. Radio begat Jimmie Rodgers and AP Carter; they begat the Grand Ole Opry and the WLS Barn Dance; the success of this so-called "hillbilly music" created the market that the Weavers exploited (correct word, by the way); the Weavers made straight the way for Harry Belafonte, who prepped the record world for the Kingston Trio, who if they didn't beget everyone else (and the Limeliters and Brothers Four were performing together before the Kingstons) at least opened up the commercial record market for all who followed, including Dylan and his very brief flirtation with folk music before he abandoned it for the filthy lucre of the rock world. Yes I said that. And I meant it.

The essential links between the earliest folk records and the popular folk revival are the Weavers (always acknowledged) and Harry Belafonte (usually ignored). Belafonte's Calypso! album is certifiably the first in any genre to have sold one million units, and that record featured songs of an umimpeachable ethnic integrity, even if they were popped-up versions of older songs. The evil genius who corrupted those earlier rough songs into genuinely listenable pop balladry was Irving Burgie, composer of eight of the eleven songs on that Harry B. record, including "Jamaica Farewell."

"Jamaica Farewell" includes most of what I have termed in other posts here to be the essential elements of the modern folk-type song - a simple chord accompaniment, usually with an acoustic guitar, basic and repetitive lyrics and chorus, and a ballad-like story. That doesn't make it a "folk song" in any academic sense - but it makes for a delightful pop song written with a conscious nod toward the folk traditions. Burgie does this often on the 1956 Calypso! album and on even more so on what is arguably an even better album (though without those monstrous sales figures) Belafonte Sings of the Caribbean, ten of whose eleven cuts are attributed to Burgie under his real name or under his nom de plume, Lord Burgess. While "Day-O" may be Burgie's best-known cut from these records, "Jamaica Farewell" is in many ways more typical of his many, many mildly melancholic parting songs.

Since Burgie assembled the song from earlier traditional fragments for Harry Belafonte, it is his version that leads us off:

This is from his landmark 1959 live album, Belafonte At Carnegie Hall, and it reminds us of what an absolutely sublime singer he was. One good Harry deserves another - so here he is from a live TV show the same year -

- because it reminds us that Belafonte was a real groundbreaker - the first genuine African-American male sex symbol. The first of these videos has 228,00 views; the one above has 436,000. Nice to know that someone out there still appreciates tastefully executed pop music.

From the same era - after Harry's hit album and hit single with the song but before Carnegie Hall - the Lennon Sisters from Lawrence Welk - you just don't get more mainstream than that:

Now, you'd think that a group that got its start doing calypso numbers at frat parties and whose very name was derived in part (but not exclusively - remember the "ivy league" connection) from the city named in the song would have done an early cover of the hit, but no. There is to my knowledge no recorded Kingston Trio performance of it at all until the 70s or 80s, and our video here is of the current incarnation of the group from 2006:

While the Weavers have to be credited with originating the radical idea of using a banjo for calypso numbers (Pete Seeger, of course, who played banjo on everything) with the recording from their Carnegie Hall concert of "Sloop John B," it was the Kingston group that pushed this to the limit with songs like "Bimini" and "Bay of Mexico." The Dave Guard idea of using the banjo as a syncopating rhythm instrument is taken to the next degree higher here by George Grove, whose playing makes you forget that you are not hearing any pure percussion except what he is providing. The vocal lead is by Bill Zorn.

And now, in rough chronological order - The Brothers Four, who always excelled at mild and romantic songs, from 1963:

Marty Robbins, from about 1965:

Ryman Auditorium legend Hank Snow countrifies it brilliantly:

And finally, if there were ever a song tailor-made for Jimmy Buffett's sandy, boozy, party style of updated beach music, "Jamaica Farewell" is it:

This version is from 1990, with calypso's Caribbean successor in pop music reggae becoming the essential rhythm Buffet is employing here.

I probably wouldn't suggest that "Jamaica Farewell" is a "real" folk song - it's just damned good pop music with distinctively folk roots. And as such, ironically, it's a helluva lot more folk than about 90% of what is categorized as such by the record companies and the pop media today. So much for orthodoxy. Long live the heterodox.

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