Thursday, May 20, 2010

Uncle Dave Macon & "Keep My Skillet Good 'N' Greasy"


To start with, I had always thought that this song was just plain weird, and at two minutes, really just album filler on New Frontier. Allan Shaw and others had suggested that Dogies' Lament on the same Kingston Trio album was just a space-filler, though as you can see from the link, I disagree - the KT performance may be a bit perfunctory but the song is a good one and the arrangement was interesting.

But "Honey"? It seemed to me for decades just a bit of misfired strangeness, not unlike "Coo Coo U." I figured that despite the copyright to Trio members Shane, Stewart, and Reynolds it was probably based on some older, public domain song - but I could never find a source for it.

Then about four years ago I was reading a review of The Essential Kingston Trio CD by Billy Faier, a seminal force in the folk revival, acknowledged master banjo player, and an active performer still at age 80. Faier was trying to be even-handed in explaining his dislike for most of what the Kingston Trio did, and I've quoted parts of his review extensively both in these posts and in my Wikipedia article about the Trio. Faier suggested that the KT had at many points subverted the original meanings of traditional songs, and "Honey" was his most specific and developed example. He wrote:

“Keep My Skillet Good And Greasy” is a fine old folk song that paints a marvelous portrait of a lovable country ne’er-do-well. Here it is renamed “Honey Are You Mad At Your Man”, with an interesting but totally inappropriate instrumental arrangement, and the addition of a chorus from which the new title derives.

What Faier did not mention was that the "old folk song" was quite possibly composed solely by the legendary Uncle Dave Macon (1870-1952), the banjo-playing granddad of country and roots music in the U.S. - and a character whose approach to music had a lot more in common with that of the KT and other pop folk groups than it did with that of the dour-faced denizens of basement clubs in Greenwich Village. And what Faier also couldn't have known was how much this song provides us with an example of the connective tissue that links 19th century mountain music with 21st century pop.

You can read a solid if simple bio of Macon on Wikipedia HERE; note the emphasis on his connection to vaudeville and his emphasis on humor and banter as part of his shows. Macon understood that his later-in-life (age 51) career switch made him an entertainer, not the high priest of (at that time) a non-existent but soon to become sacrosanct tradition. The music was part of the show, as was the humor. (Macon may be the great unknown source of Trio song selection: in addition to "Skillet" becoming "Honey," he also popularized or wrote "Saro Jane" as noted in my Lou Gottlieb piece and "Buddy Won't You Roll Down The Line" - and possibly more.) Here is Uncle Dave's premier recording of "Keep My Skillet Good And Greasy" - Uncle Dave follows Stringbean and precedes Woody Guthrie in this extended video:



Most subsequent versions of the song include Macon's seventh-chord based accompaniment and that little hammer-on and wrinkle he is doing on "time, time, time" and elsewhere. Here for example is a clearer recording of the song by Woody Guthrie:



It appears that the legendary Sonny Terry and Cisco Houston are with Woody here, Terry on harmonica and Houston on (for him, a baritone) an unusual tenor harmony and fine guitar work. Guthrie is on mandolin.

Faier must have known of the Osborne Borthers' 1956 version, called "Ruby, Are You Mad?" that was the immediate antecedent of the KT "Honey Are You Mad At Your Man?":



Why this bluegrass adaptation did not strike Faier as "inappropriate" is a bit of a mystery, since the elements that he objects to in the KT version are present in prototype here.

The Kingston Trio, as Faier notes, added a chorus but preserve much of the original feeling of the song - with a unique banjo part by Stewart and that punchy, syncopated guitar strum by Shane:



What makes this recording significant and part of what I term above the connective tissue of popular music is this. While I may not have liked the song all that much - Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac sure did. Buckingham was listed as producer for John Stewart's most financially successful solo album, 1979's Bombs Away Dream Babies with its Top Ten hit "Gold." But as Stewart relates in The Kingston Trio On Record, Buckingham was actually preoccupied with a FM project at the time, Tusk, I believe. So he told Stewart simply to crank the knobs on the mixing board until he liked what he heard - which Buckingham averred should be like "Seasons In The Sun" and "Honey" - simple, repetitive, and hypnotic, as Stewart said. Anyone who has listened to any significant amount of Fleetwood Mac recordings from the 70s and early 80s will recognize that formula for instrumentation immediately - take songs like "Rhiannon" or "Tusk". And like them or not, Fleetwood Mac gave much of 80s, 90s, and even 2000s rock a kind of template for instrumental accompaniment - derived from something Lindsey Buckingham heard in the Kingston Trio recordings, including "Honey."

The original "Skillet" version of the song has some fine performances available on YouTube. Three of the best, I think, are -

1) Lew Dite, a solo roots singer who has over 2 million views of his many roots recordings, most done like this one with great fidelity to the original:



2) The Mars Hillbillies, from Flagstaff AZ, just up the pike from Scottsdale - a really fun version of the song:



3) The Roe Family Singers from Minnesota, who have a clean traditional sound that sounds amazingly like Macon and Guthrie:



And a wonderful late addition in March 2012 - the fabulous Carolina Chocolate Drops:



I have the feeling that Uncle Dave would have liked all of these versions - they all make the song just weirdly fun - and repetitive and hypnotic to boot.

Friday, May 14, 2010

1964, Billy Edd Wheeler, And "Coal Tattoo"


1964 seldom gets credit for being as pivotal a year in American folk and pop music history as it was - seems as though '65 gets all the props. The latter year, of course was the flowering of Beatlemania with the second album and A Hard Day's Night and the explosion of folk-rock with the Byrds, the Mamas and Papas, and finally Dylan plugging in at Newport. American rock was also enjoying a renascence with the continued singles success of the Everly Brothers, the rise of the Beach Boys as likely the U.S. all-time greatest rock band, the growth of Motown, Phil Spector's "wall of sound," solo artists like Roy Orbison and Elvis, and more.

But the roots of much of this are in 1964 - the Beatles coming to the U.S., the break-up of the original Journeymen that sent John Phillips and Scott McKenzie to LA to work their folk-rock vocal magic while the Big Three with Doherty and Elliott was floundering - and the re-direction of popular folk music represented by the emergence of Bob Dylan and the continued and thoroughgoing dominance of the more politically-oriented Peter, Paul and Mary, whose self-titled debut album was still in the process of spending a astounding 84 weeks in Billboard's Top Ten, with their next two albums joining that elite level during the year.

What this meant, of course, was that the more good-timey pop folk groups like the Kingston Trio and their immediate competitors from the late 1950s, the Limeliters and the Brothers Four, went into a decline that proved irreversible, as none of those three or their lesser imitators every approached the levels of their early album sales again.

A sure sign of the decline was the KT album Time To Think. In terms simply of sales, the album made a bit of money for all concerned, as it sold 100,000 copies, which would have been respectable for anyone other than the former leader of the pack. The peak Billboard ranking of 18 was the lowest of any album released to date by the group, including the poorly selling Stereo Concert and holiday album. More seriously, though, it was the first time that the Kingston Trio was following a trend rather than initiating one, and trying to cash in on a style that was alien to their own "mission statement" and that was being pursued with huge success by their competitors. That is a simple but melancholy fact.

What that obscures, though, is just how good many of the performances on the album are - a decent if derivative "Patriot Game", perhaps the best recorded versions of "Seasons in the Sun" and "Deportee", and more.

One of the best cuts on the album is the rendition of another outstanding songwriting effort by Billy Edd Wheeler, Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee, successful playwright and artist, and composer of two previous KT hits, "The Rev. Mr. Black" and "Desert Pete." That song, of course, is "Coal Tattoo," said to be Wheeler's favorite among his compositions because of his own deep connections to West Virginia and its coal mines.

"Coal Tattoo" is a pointed observation on the hardships of the lives of American miners, but "The Times They Are A-Changin'" it's not. It has a lot more in common with Fred Hellerman's "Poverty Hill" and similar songs in its implied compassion. It reflects rather than prescribes, as do many of the other songs on this themed album - but that fact explains largely why the record never caught on. PP&M were doing Dylan and Ochs songs with a far more overtly political message and call to action - and that was what was selling. It is noteworthy that the Trio never tried another theme album again, or one with even distant and remote political messages. The Kingstons do, however, present "Coal Tattoo" with their trademark energy:



Lead singer John Stewart delivers a powerful and impassioned vocal here, but Voyle Gilmore's legendary production skills seem to fail him a bit in the mix , which has too much reverb and in which the instrumental blend is muddy rather than crystal clear, as 90% of the group's earlier cuts were.

Sadly perhaps, few of the song's many fans know it as a KT song. The best-known version is by West Virginia's alt-country star Kathy Mattea:



Mattea's version has the ring of authenticity to it, though with a fairly conventional country instrumental accompaniment.

Shawn Phillips has had a John Stewart-type of career, with a singular success with the title role on Broadway in Jesus Christ, Superstar and more than twenty folk albums that have a devoted but small following. He's a powerful performer, still with us at age 67:



The most recent version I found is by a mid-twenties ensemble that I featured in the "Darlin' Corey" post, Red Molly:



This is from a few days ago at Merlefest, one of the biggest remaining folk festivals in the US. I love the ladies' vocal and instrumental blends here.

The song is thought to be referring to a kind of atherosclerosis resulting in miners from black lung disease. But the "tattoo" was often just that - marks of coal dust embedded under exposed or cut skin, sometimes large, sometimes small. Look at the hands, arms, and necks of any log-time coal miners and you'll see the tattoos to which Wheeler makes reference.

Finally, our Xroads and FC friend Steve Cottrell has an excellent version on YouTube as well:



Steve's slower tempo brings out the melancholy of the lyric, and his distinctive three finger picking on the 12 string is an innovative and unique sound for the song.

"Coal Tattoo" is one of several genuinely enduring songs that Wheeler penned, and American pop music would be in better shape today if there were more younger generation writers of his ability.


Plus - Billy Edd Himself and Denver, Boise and Johnson - 11/18/12
A note from my fellow folkie Ron Wilburne prompted me to look on YouTube again, and I was delighted to find Billy Edd Wheeler singing his own song - a fine version in a sweet country tenor:

 
 Also popping up was a recording by Denver, Boise, and Johnson - the last troupe of what had started out as the Chad Mitchell Trio. The Denver, of course, was John; the Johnson was Michael, later of "Bluer Than Blue" fame and a number of other hits in the '70s and '80s. This version, though, is a solo by David Boise, whom I got to know some months after this 1968 recording. The killer banjo part is by stringed instrument legend Paul Prestopino:



And a rousing version from bluegrass legend and "Union Maid" Hazel Dickens:

Friday, May 7, 2010

Stan Hugill And "Away, Rio"

Stan Hugill (1906-1992) was a Briton who styled himself "The Last of the Shanteymen" (he preferred that spelling), and he likely was, working as he did on the last British commercial sailing ship, the Garthpool that finally went down in 1929. Hugill made an enormous contribution to folk music by collecting, categorizing, and publishing songs that he actually sang at work for the twelve years or so that he worked "before the mast." Hugill's blue collar background and almost continuous decade at sea gave his understanding of the work songs of the sailors an authenticity that other admirable collectors like Cecil Sharp and Carl Sandburg just couldn't quite match.

Hugill pointed out that a shanty-man was usually just another working stiff who had a good strong voice and an extensive knowledge of songs that he could lead the crew in. But music was such a critical part of life at sea in the Age of Sail - the only entertainment, really, along with drinking the daily allotment of grog and dancing - that before Hugill's time in the great eighteenth and nineteenth century days of the British navy and merchant fleets, shanty-men were sometimes hired for that skill primarily even if they were of little other use. There were cases in the Napoleonic era of partially blind or crippled men hired to do a bit of galley work to justify their real reason for being on board - they could sing and play a tin whistle or recorder or (most prized) a fiddle. There are interesting fictional portrayals of this in films in recent decades - the near blind fiddler and singer in the 1984 The Bounty and the lead singer in the crew in 2003's Master and Commander (and note there how often even the officers break out in song).

As I've noted here before (and as Hugill confirms), there were different kinds of chanteys for different functions, fo'c'sle chanteys for relaxation for example, or dancing chanteys for hornpipes and so on, a sort of seagoing square dance group of songs. By far the largest group was the collection of capstan or windlass chanteys, the slower and more rhythmic songs that accompanied hard group tasks like weighing anchor. It is into this group that Hugill categorized what he called the "Santy Anno" group, which included "Lowlands" and "Bay of Mexico" and "Away, Rio" - all of which have a punctuating refrain like "Way up, Susianna!" and "Heave away, Santy Anno" and "Away, Rio!"

A word of clarification first on "Rio" before we get to the performances. I was confused when I first heard the song in 1962 because I couldn't figure out what British or Yankee sailors were doing sailing in the mid 1800s to the mouth of the Rio Grande in the Gulf of Mexico. Turns out they weren't. I found some book or other that pointed out that the "Rio Grande" of the song is actually Rio Grande do Sul - the great River of the South - the southernmost state in Brazil.

Photobucket

Note the port city on the Atlantic Rio Grande, where the Lago dos Patos leads to the capital city of Porto Allegre. That's the Rio Grande they're bound for. Also note the location of the state - where the pampas of Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and southern Brazil come together. In the nineteenth century, this was an important trading port for all the exports of the region - grain, dried beef, leather goods, and so on. That's why in the lyric "We'll head for Cape Horn and then pull her about."

Our first version is from the Kingston Trio - the original recording before arranger Jimmie Haskell's orchestrations were added for the group's Something Special album:



I actually thought that this was the only number on the album that didn't suffer unduly from the secondary music - the french horns evoking the sea swells was a nice little trick that Haskell stole from Debussy and that John Denver used effectively on "Calypso." Also, John Stewart here is using those extra frets on the long neck banjo - the key is E so JS is playing without a capo, all the way down the neck of the instrument.

Next up is the Revel Players doing a Robert Shaw Chorale-type harmonized version - and pronouncing "Rio" as "Rye-O" as American sailors apparently always did:



Artist Lord Drako Araxis is really talented, though I don't much like anime, especially in this context. But he's assembled the best collection of choral arrangements of chanteys on the web - plus we get a bit of the Poxy Bogards doing "Up And Away" at the end.

Next - since about 1958 with the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, my hometown Chicago has in fact been a seaport - which is why they can have a Maritime Festival - here from 2009:



The Rambling Sailors with appropriate gusto from the Bristol Renaissance Faire last year:



The Metropolitan Opera's Leonard Warren did a full orchestra and chorus version:



David Peel, who performed for a time with Bob Shane of the KT after the 1967 break-up of the original group, here in a recent recording from Denver's Swallow Hill -



Finally, "Catmelodeon" gives us an authentic-sounding version on a melodeon, which is close enough to a concertina or an original keyless accordion to be maybe as sailors in the fo'c'sle might have heard it:



What a fine song it is, in nearly any version. The days of sail may be gone, but there are clearly a lot of musicians out there who are keeping its songs alive.