Thursday, December 16, 2010

Remembering Dave Guard

For the last two and a half years as I've been writing these posts, I've noted that there has been a ghost hovering in my office over my right shoulder, gazing at me intently as I write, with an ironic half-smile on his face. I've done my best to ignore him, even when I've mentioned him in these 100+ articles, because he has been haunting me in one incarnation or another for more than fifty years now, just as his long but nearly invisible shadow colors nearly all of the extant threads of American popular music. He is not a threatening spirit at all, though I often think I can hear him insisting in that inimitable voice - "Get it right!" It is the ghost of Donald David Guard, who left this earth 20 years ago next March, a few weeks short of 30 years after he left the group that had started its existence as "Dave Guard and the Calypsonians" and had evolved into the Kingston Trio.

In the small and obscure corners of the internet where you find Guard mentioned at all, it is almost invariably as the founder of the KT, and this is a kind of minor injustice on several counts - to Guard because he quit the group with three decades left in a life that was one of productive if lower profile (and less remunerative) achievements, and to his bandmates Bob Shane and Nick Reynolds because it was a three part synergy that made the group work and not the contributions, however significant, of any single one of them.

I would guess that the Kingston connection is the cornerstone of discussions about Guard not only because of its self-evident historical importance, but also because of the elusive, even ephemeral, nature of what Guard did with his life post-Trio. There was the Australian adventure with the Dave's Place TV show; the Color Guitar music instructional method that he invented; involvement with The Whole Earth Catalog; solo musical performances and shows in combinations with his KT replacement John Stewart and at times with original Trio member Reynolds; several books that he wrote and published and an album that he produced of the music of Hawai'ian slack key guitar legend Gabby Pahinui; an arrestingly original CD/album of his own in 1988 decades after he left the Kingstons and just three years before he died; and a lifelong spiritual odyssey that took him as far away as India and as close to home as San Francisco and New Hampshire. You just can't fit a life like that into a 30 second soundbite or the two sentence lead for a wire service obituary. It has always been easier just to say "founder of the Kingston Trio."

I often wonder how Guard would have felt about that. I met him but once, for about five minutes in 1976 after he had shared the bill with the Modern Folk Quartet at the Ice House in Pasadena, California, and it was just a brief "hello" at a fan meet-and-greet following the performance. I know only the Dave Guard that he intended me and all the other fans to know - the musician, the writer, the ironic onstage intellectual, the iconoclastic restless spirit - the public person whose work is all that he really wanted to share or needed to share in an era before the public's interest in its heroes turned voyeuristic and tawdry.

So it is the public work of Dave Guard with the KT that I want to talk about here, but how to do so is a bit of a challenge. Six months ago when I did a retrospective on Bob Shane, the post was easy to write because Shane's whole professional life has been the Kingston Trio, and his chiefest contributions to it as both a singer and guitarist have been to act as the bedrock voice and rhythm of the group. But Guard's roles were more diverse and harder to express - so it takes more than my share of moxie to divide what Guard did into three aspects - arranger, banjoist, and singer.

Arranger

Though the Trio's repertoire evolved from songs brought to the group by each of the three original members (a process described by Bob Shane in the liner notes for the recently-released Above The Purple Onion CD that chronicles the band's earliest rehearsals and performances), the task of arranging singable (and not incidentally copyrightable) versions of those songs fell to Guard. When he was asked in an interview from the mid-1980s that appeared in The Kingston Trio On Record (much of which is published HERE on Kingston Crossroads courtesy of sitemaster Ken Laing) why this was so, Guard quipped, "Let's see -- the original set-up was that Nick handled transportation, Bobby handled costumes and laundry, and I handled the music." I don't believe that Guard meant that literally, not least because I cannot for the life of me imagine Bob Shane hiking the hills of San Francisco with a pocketful of change and a laundry bag full of soiled striped shirts. It may be accurate in some symbolic way, like the myth about the group signing a contract with manager Frank Werber on a paper napkin at the Cracked Pot beer garden, a tale debunked by Werber as "nonsense" except as a metaphor. I think that this was a bit of Guard's dry humor, mostly because he says more earnestly in the same interview that "I was the guy who was willing to sit down and write the music down and talk to people who did know music about doing it the right way." That sounds right to me.

Of all of the group's early arrangements, there are two that I find especially revealing of Guard's talents as an arranger. First, take a listen again to "Bay of Mexico":



I wrote extensively about this arrangement in my article about the song, last March; suffice it to say here that this version, copyrighted by Dave and Gretchen Guard, combines elements of what the Weavers had done with the song and what Irving Burgie was doing with it for Harry Belafonte with a Guard-esque syncopation, three-part harmony, trademark energy, and key changes. It is simply brilliant.

Bob Shane's Purple Onion CD also gives us the chance to take an even closer look at what Guard was doing with "Across The Wide Missouri/Shenandoah". Trio members always acknowledged the influence of the Weavers on their repertoire, and this heavily orchestrated Gordon Jenkins arrangement from the Weavers' Decca sessions in 1950 (lead sung by non-Weaver Terry Gilkyson) seems to have have been the one that sixteen year old Guard and Shane heard first while they were high school students at Punahou in Hawai'i.:



Guard turned that into this far more respectful and traditional-sounding rendition in the group's earliest days before fame and fortune:



Nice, and better than what the Weavers did, but ultimately fairly pedestrian. However, a mere two years later and with then about twenty five recorded arrangements to his credit, Dave Guard came up with this stunner:



As it seems was the case with everything Guard put his hand to, the quality of what he did grew exponentially as he learned as he went along. The KT "Across The Wide Missouri" is not merely one of the best of the more than 250 songs that the KT waxed - it is one of the absolute best recordings of the entire pop folk boom. And note one detail critical to the success of this version - where Dave took the vocal lead on the Purple Onion recording, this arrangement puts Bob Shane front and center, with the best voice in the group on lead in one of its best songs. Wherever else Guard's ego may have intruded into the group's history, it surely does not do so here.

Banjoist

A generation of banjo players have acknowledged that their romance with the instrument began when they first heard Dave Guard playing it on Kingston Trio recordings (especially Guard's banjo break on "MTA"), among them Tony Trischka, Steve Martin, and Bela Fleck. Given the fact that Guard never even tried the instrument until mid-1956, his progress on it transcends the remarkable and makes a close brush with the miraculous. Here he is in 1959 doing an inspired adaptation of Pete Seeger's banjo arrangement for "Darlin' Corey":



As fine as that is, nearly everyone familiar with KT music acknowledges that Guard's masterpiece of both skill and innovation appears on Goin' Places, the last album he made with the group, on a cut called "Coast of California":



Guard is again clearly influenced by Seeger's banjo work on the root song "Si Mi Quieres Escribir" (you can hear Seeger HERE) - but self-taught banjoist Guard is combining three distinctively different styles of playing folk banjo in a way that literally no one ever thought to do before and that to my knowledge no one has attempted since.

Singer

Guard's voice was a kind of utility infielder in the Kingston Trio - he would go high, middle, or low range depending on what the song called for. That and the fact that Bob Shane had one of the best voices in pop music at the time has often obscured just what a fine singer Dave Guard was, if not necessarily in timbre or tone. Guard's gift was interpretive, especially (though as below not exclusively) on quieter numbers, like the "San Miguel" song he is credited with co-composing with Jane Bowers:



It's hard to describe that voice and why it is so affecting. Time Magazine's Richard Corliss called it "careful"; I prefer "tentative," not because I believe that Guard was especially reticent but because he walked the walk - he always said that it was the music that mattered, and in light of that I think he considered his voice to be one of the instruments in the ensemble rather than necessarily the main focus. You can hear that as well in this cut from Guard's 1988 solo album Up And In, 29 years after "San Miguel":



I don't need to point out that this is also an outstanding arrangement of Stan Rogers' powerful modern folk classic. It has all the elements of what Guard had been doing for thirty years by then - gradual build, the sequential introduction of instruments into the mix, a good sense of syncopation, and the unmatchable energy of the early KT recordings. No matter that Guard's voice gets rough at points: the passion of the lyric emerges from the vocal, you believe the singer means what he is singing - and all the elements serve the composition and allows its essential nature to shine forth. It demonstrates what Pete Curry implied in the inspired title for his book on Guard's banjo style, derived from Guard's own book on guitarist Pahinui - it's "Pure Dave."

There is so much more to be said about Dave Guard. His departure from the group deserves deeper exploration (especially in light of some things I've run across in primary source documents over the last year), his innovations in music post-KT, his relationship with Bob Shane, more.... For now, though, I like to believe that this last song somehow characterizes a good portion of Dave Guard's public legacy. I find Guard's interpretation most convincing at the end of the lyric:

And you, to whom adversity has dealt the final blow.
With smiling bastards lying to you everywhere you go.
Turn to, and put out all your strength of arm and heart and brain
And like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again!

Rise again, rise again!
Though your heart it be broken and life about to end
No matter what you've lost, be it a home, a love, a friend,
Like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again!

I will hazard the guess that this lyric had some personal meaning for Guard as the end of his life loomed. No matter, though, if it did not - you can't tell because as always Dave Guard is putting all of himself in service to the song, as he always did.


8 comments:

greenhawk46 said...

nice tribute-slan, Jim

bobby g said...

Hey this is a great blog! Thanks! I grew up on these guys - I mean, starting when Guard was still in the band.

Jim Moran said...

Thanks, gentlemen - much more to come! Happiest of holidays to you both!

Joey Harris said...

As a very young member of John Stewart's group in the seventies I got to meet and work with Dave on many occasions. His intelligence sometimes walled up between us as we discussed arrangements or even topical subjects from the news. he could be a little intolerant of a precocious young musician such as myself. But then, Dave Guard was also the warmest, funniest of nurturing mentors. I think, as Jim said earlier, he wanted me to "get it right".

Jim Moran said...

Thanks so much for the personal insight, Joey. I envy you that you actually knew and got to work with Dave.

For those unversed in modern music, Joey is a prominent indie musician who has been a member of several high profile bands, most notably IMHO the Beat Farmers of happy memory. Joey also happens to be the nephew of the late Nick Reynolds, founding member of the Kingston Trio, and as he notes a good friend of former Trio member the late John Stewart.

It's a delight for me to hear from you here!

Malachy Grange said...

Hi Jim
Just came across you blog (hope it's still going) and this article on Dave Guard. Dave has entered by consciousness in a strong way in the past weeks. I grew up on KT both with and post DG. One of my childhood fantasies was that my brother and cousin would follow in their footsteps. Alas, not to happen.

I live in Hawaii and consider Makapu'u Beach to be my spiritual home and go there several times a week for many years now, body surfing (my passion) and swimming in the rough waves.

When I heard that Dave's ashes were place there, it sparked my interest. Did it actually happen, when, who was there? Are there any family members/friends left I can learn more about Dave?

What a man, musician and fellow traveler for the Truth! As I listen again and more closely to his songs and playing, I am kind of blown away! He is awesome. I think I hear his essence in 'Speckled Roan' and other songs on Goin' Places. Free Spirit, getting it right indeed. Siddha Yogi and Siddha Path magazine editor, guitar by color, Hawaiian folk tale (cannot find) and project with Gabby Pahanui. So much for me to learn about Dave as I commune with his spirit at Makapu'u.

I can't get any of the song links in your article (which is great BTW), old computer here and was wondering what song are you referring to about his performance at the Purple Onion and also the Up and In album. Unfortunately I cannot purchase that album though it is listed on iTunes, and you can hear short segments.

I have been researching and found big gaps.... someone should write a biography. Best wishes and keep writing, you are good.
Malachy Grange
the.malachy@gmail.com

Mauro20 said...

Dave has always been such an ispiration to me. His legacy will keep on living as long as there will be lovers of TRUE music

Mauro20 said...

Dave has always been such an ispiration to me. His legacy will keep on living as long as there will be lovers of TRUE music