Friday, October 29, 2010

Looking Backward

This week, real-world constraints haven prevented me from getting a new post together - so with 107 previous articles to chose from, I thought I'd link a couple of older posts here that I thought were worth a second look (or perhaps first one for some readers just stopping by). Both posts profile fine traditional folk songs, and the articles include some outstanding and original performances.

CompVid101 On "Santy Anno"
Hugues Aufray's French version is especially interesting.

CompVid101 On "The Water Is Wide"
The ensemble of thirty harp guitars at the end of the post is especially lovely.

Back next week with a new song.

Friday, October 22, 2010

"Ain't No More Cane On This Brazos"

In the folk world, we tend to think of "protest songs" as somehow belonging in the 1950s and 1960s and being associated largely with the Weavers first and then with Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, Buffy Ste. Marie, Malvina Reynolds, and like-minded singer-songwriters.
It's a nice thought, but inaccurate and incomplete in two important ways. First, the properly-termed topical song has a long and honored history in world folk music, in this country from colonial times with numbers like our recently-presented "The Escape of Old John Webb" through early labor movement tunes like "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night" to songs that crossed over from workers' rallies to the Civil Rights era such as "Which Side Are You On?" and "We Shall Overcome."

Even at that, though, the perception of what constitutes a protest song is far too limited. I once heard Nick Reynolds of the Kingston Trio (a group roundly belittled in the early 1960s for its intentional refusal to sing topical/political songs) remark that if you really wanted to hear a protest song, all you had to do was listen to the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem sing the Irish revolutionary ballad "Roddy McCorley". What Reynolds was clearly getting at was that songs that we might be inclined to pigeonhole as "historical numbers" or "sea chanteys" or "work songs" were actually, to borrow a phrase from classic American author Sherwood Anderson in his masterpiece Winesburg, Ohio, "a protest against his life, against all life, against everything that makes life ugly." Can you listen to a "whaling ballad" like "Greenland Whale Fisheries" or a "railroad song" like "Drill, Ye Tarriers" and not hear just such a protest as Anderson describes?

"Ain't No More Cane On This Brazos" is that kind of composition. Ostensibly a "work song" from the prison farms along the Brazos River in the state of Texas in the early 20th century - and as such a companion piece to other numbers as "Old Riley" and "The Midnight Special" - the lyric is a clear indictment of a brutality in the treatment of the convicts that exceeded even the intended harsh punishment of malefactors condemned to hard labor on a chain gang. We tend to have a somewhat milder-than-accurate mental picture of that life from well-intended but sanitized Hollywood images like Paul Muni in I Was A Fugitive From A Chain Gang or Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke or George Clooney in O Brother Where Art Thou? I don't recall any images in those fine films of "driving the women just like they was men" or leaving prisoners dead from heatstroke to lie where they fell - and there is photographic evidence a-plenty from the last century proving that just such incidents occurred.

But we tend not to hear the protest in a song like "Cane" because first, it is historical and not contemporary; second, because it truly is a work song, whose rhythm like a capstan chantey helped set the timing for repetitive labor like cutting sugar cane; and third - because we are not supposed to. While the lyric in "Cane" is pretty direct, note that it reports rather than indicts - it simply states what happened in 1904 or 1910 and leaves the reaction to the listener. To do more than that would be to invite retribution from "the Captain."

Though this and the other songs cited above come into the American folk mainstream through Leadbelly, who served two hitches in the Texas correctional system (once for manslaughter), both Pete Seeger in the 1960s and the Lomax father and son team in the 1930s made actual field recordings of chain gangs singing their songs. Our first video may be the oldest recording of "Cane," from 1933 sung by prisoners Ernest Williams and James "Iron Head" Baker and their fellows:

Well, CopyVio strikes again and this field recording is gone. But since this post appeared - and contrary to the sentence below - Odetta's classic version is now available:



Unfortunately, there aren't currently any videos up that I can find of either Leadbelly or the nearly equally famous version by Odetta of "Cane On The Brazos." In any case, the first version that I ever heard was from the Chad Mitchell Trio in their landmark 1963 album on Mercury Records, Singin' Our Mind:



This cut provides ample evidence of why many fans and critics believed that the CMT was the most musically solid and accomplished of all the pop folk groups of the era. All three members - Chad Mitchell, Mike Kobluk, and Joe Frazier - were professionally trained singers with distinctive and perfectly complementary voices. Their arrangements (created by the singers themselves with their instrumentalists, occasionally with input from Milt Okun [who also helped shape the music of Peter, Paul and Mary and John Denver]) had a sophistication and complexity unmatched by the other vocal groups, and the division of labor necessitated by the fact that the trio members didn't play instruments led to the hiring of master accompaniment musicians like Jim McGuinn and Paul Prestopino (heard here with Jacob Ander and Bill Frigo on bass). Chad Mitchell himself is credited with this arrangement, and it represents what I think is the best of what the pop folk groups attempted to do. Note that the CMT is not trying to imitate the sound created by Williams and Baker above. They have translated a black chain gang song into their own idiom and been able to preserve the powerful imagery of the lyrics in doing so. Whatever the folk purists might have thought, I have always regarded this approach as far superior to that of trying to replicate a musical tradition into which one isn't born. The results often seem contrived and imitative rather than "authentic." The authenticity of the anger and suffering in "Cane" blazes through in the CMT rendition far more than it would have had the group tried to sound like penitentiary prisoners. (Parenthetically, some good news for CMT fans. The group still performs several times a year, and Fr. Joe Frazier, now an Episcopal priest for more than thirty years, mentioned recently that the group is working up "Cane on the Brazos" for inclusion in future concerts. I'm even more excited to see them again with this number on the set list.)

The UK's Lonnie Donegan did a lot to popularize American folk songs overseas with his distinctive re-interpretation of African-American skiffle music. His arrangements of standards like "The Rock Island Line" and "The Midnight Special" are among the best recorded versions out there, and he lays an outstanding bluesy edge to his performance of "Cane":



Likely the best-known version of the song after the folk boom years is from The Band -



- again translated into their semi-folk-rock-blues idiom. I find this curiously less satisfying than the versions below, and I am a fan of the group. Their vocal performance seems to have stripped the song of its anger, and the light-sounding mandolin is just wrong here. But if you look around on YouTube, you'll find that this arrangement tends to be the base version that other groups like The Black Crowes work from.

Much more satisfying IMHO is Lyle Lovett's approach, here earlier this year:



There is a quiet and aching power in Lovett's vocals. His voice sounds as lonely and desolate as a train whistle at midnight.

Finally, I was happy to find a version by Eric Bibb, son of art folk singer Leon Bibb. I thought Eric's rendition of "Tell Old Bill" was one of the absolute best of the more than six hundred videos that I have included in these posts over the years. He does equal justice to "Cane":



In looking for some more background on this song than I already knew, I found a book by Bruce Jackson called Wake Up, Dead Man, titled from a line in some versions of "Cane." Jackson had accompanied Pete Seeger on his 1960s trip to the Texas prison farms in search of authentic prison work songs. Both men were surprised to find that most of the inmates weren't singing the old songs any more. They seemed equally surprised to find that the treatment of the incarcerated was much, much better than they had imagined that it would be. While the farms were still prisons for people who had done some very bad things, the almost casually murderous institutional brutality of a half century prior had all but disappeared, making at least in 1966 a song like "Cane on the Brazos" something of a museum piece. Such a fact has to create a kind of hope that both as a nation and as individual people we can all be better than we used to be. And that is the ultimate goal of any kind of song that we might label as "protest."

Friday, October 15, 2010

Country, Folk, Harlan Howard, And "Everglades"

A long time ago, back in the early days when radio and records were getting their nearly simultaneous starts as mass media, marketing categories and their accompanying labels didn't really exist as we know them today. Basically, all music was divided into "serious" (what we today would call classical or orchestral) and "popular" (encompassing everything else).

Radio and records in the 1920s helped to create a national audience for popular music that initially had had viable markets only in fairly well-defined regional and racial communities. Ragtime had enjoyed a pre-radio burst of popularity in the very early 1900s thanks to sheet music, but it was not until the 1920s that originally regional music like Dixieland, other forms of jazz, pop Hawaiian, and "hillbilly music" began to reach gradually into the national consciousness.

That last category was the radio station and record company name for what later came to be called country, western, and folk music. In 1940, no great distinction was made among these, though with hindsight we can see the different origins of each - and recognize that the "western" music of, say, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys was a different breed of cat than the "country" music of Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. Both may have had some points in common with Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family, but a lot of people today might find it odd that in 1950, Pete Seeger and the Weavers and Burl Ives were pigeonholed for marketing purposes into the selfsame category. A glance at old issues of Billboard from the late 1940s includes frequent references to both those artists as "hillbilly singers." It also explains why the National Association of Recording Arts conflated "country" with "western" music to award its first Grammy in that category to a group that would next year win the association's first award for "Best Ethnic Or Traditional Recording," the Kingston Trio.

Country music and folk music have always been somewhat like cousins who look alike but really don't get along. As much as the two related forms of music have cross-pollinated with each other over the decades, there has also been a fair amount of public antagonism between them. Some country artists were among the most scathing critics of the instrumental simplicity of the early pop folk groups, and I imagine most of us of a certain age remember country singer Charlie Rich burning the envelope on stage and on national television that awarded the 1975 Country Music Association's "Entertainer of the Year" trophy to folk-oriented John Denver.

And yet - given contemporary country music's nearly total abandonment of its roots (with exceptions like Ricky Skaggs) and the morphing of what record and Grammy people call folk into an unrecognizable hybrid or mishmash - is it any wonder that the now-wide umbrella of "roots music" should include artists like Johnny Cash (always more folk than country), the Carters, Pete Seeger, Willie Nelson, Woody Guthrie, and it seems nearly anyone else who ever played an acoustic guitar?

At the height of the folk revival, the artists borrowed frequently across genre lines. Jimmy Driftwood was country, but "The Battle of New Orleans" could have been done by any pop folk singer and his "Very Unfortunate Man" was, by both Burl Ives and the Chad Mitchell Trio. Billy Edd Wheeler and Danny Dill both wrote songs performed across those genre lines as well.

So it cannot be much of a surprise that one of Nashville's most prolific and successful country composers, Harlan Howard[pictured above] (1927-2002), contributed this week's chestnut, "Everglades," to the folk repertoire. Howard was just getting his start in Music City in 1960 when the Kingston Trio included this composition on String Along, their fifth consecutive studio album to hit #1 on the national charts and earn a gold record. Howard had already had two recorded hits, but in 1961, fifteen Howard-composed songs hit the country charts - eventually in his long career, more than 100 of his songs became hits, including such standards as "I Fall To Pieces" and "Busted." He is in the Country Music and Nashville Songwriters Halls of Fame - which he well could be simply for his pithy description of what songwriting should be - "Three chords and the truth."

The delightful "Everglades" has a couple more than three chords, and I'm not sure how much "truth" there is to it - but then again, it's an early Howard composition, just for fun, and not fraught with the heartbreak and hard times themes that characterized his best-known songs and helped to shape country music writing ever since. So our first version ought by rights to be from a country singer, and I know of none better than Waylon Jennings, who recorded an entire album called Waylon Sings Ol' Harlan:



This would seem to be the way Howard conceived of the song; he played along with Jennings on the recording. But he couldn't have been unhappy when the Kingstons sold about three quarter of a million albums with his song on it, however they adapted it to their own style. He would have made well into the six figures in today's dollars in royalties for this version:



A minor note on the recording: trio member Dave Guard is playing a jumbo Gibson 12 string guitar here, perhaps for the first time on a KT recording, a special order of his inspired by seeing the jumbo Gibsons played by the Everly Brothers (see below) referenced in the joking last line of the song.

Roots music pioneer Willis David Hoover gave the song a go (I think I have to thank Dave Long or Curt Dalton for posting this one - gentlemen?) late in his career. He seems to mock the KT a bit in the intro but without any genuine malice, and he does point out Howard's good-natured joshing at the end of the song:



We also have one delightful non-pro version inspired by the KT. John Dennis Dickey is a YouTube friend of mine who is a long-time trio fan, a member of the his own South Coast Trio, and creator of a goodly number of solo multi-track recordings. I'm happy to be able to include his take on the song:



My own upload of the KT version of the song presented above has generated more nostalgic and positive comments than any other single song of theirs of the 70 or so I've uploaded for this series. The general tenor of the comments is - "I'd forgotten this gem and why don't they make music like this any more?" Amen to that.

Appendix

Here is Howard himself performing his "I Fall To Pieces" that became a monster hit for Patsy Cline:



Finally, the Everlys with their jumbo Gibsons and "Bird Dog," whose guitar riff figures in the KT and Hoover videos above:



And Howard's official website and bio are certainly worth a look here:

Harlan Howard's Official Website

Friday, October 8, 2010

"My Lord, What A Morning"

There is an odd little religio-literary motif that originated in the high middle ages called "The Paradox of the Fortunate Fall." The good monks and scribes and eventually the university theologians and philosophers who emerged from their ranks, inspired by some thoughts from the very early St. Augustine and St. Ambrose, decided that hidden within the Christian belief in the catastrophic fall from grace of original sin was a blessing - that only through the awful evil of sin could humanity have learned of the profound love of a creator who would send and then sacrifice his son for its redemption.

That may seem like a very, very strange beginning for a piece on folk music, even for me. But there was something about that phrase that kept popping into my mind as I was plotting this post as I always do while commuting to work. The Fortunate Fall - that a great good could come from a seemingly ultimate evil. I recalled that a character on the television show The West Wing a few years back described slavery as "America's original sin," and it would be hard to dispute that, not simply in its initial 17th century inception in the colonies but in the fact that it took eight decades and the greatest cataclysm in U.S. history to expunge that sin, or at least begin to.

Yet it is equally beyond dispute that from this great wrong emerged some of the most important, vibrant, and enduring elements of American culture, the first and perhaps the most enduring of which is the spiritual. Before ragtime and blues and jazz and the rock music that emerged from these were the religious songs of the slaves that became the prototype for all of the rest of American music that emerged from African-American culture - European chromatic-scale melody lines underpinned by African rhythms and harmonic tonalities. The spiritual is our first wholly American form of music.

I've presented profiles of several of these that were covered fairly often during the folk revival period - "Oh Mary Don't You Weep," "All My Trials," and "Good News." I mentioned in one post the belief held by a number of responsible scholars (and vehemently rejected by others) that in some of these songs were "coded messages," including instructions to slaves on how to escape bondage on the Underground Railroad in songs like "Follow The Drinking Gourd." Whatever one thinks of the validity of that supposition, a fact that is self-evident is that a very large percentage of the spirituals included references to the end times - the day of judgment and the salvation from the bondage of sin and death. Coded messages or not, the parallel between Christian eschatology and the slaves' dream of freedom is obvious and undeniable.

One of the greatest of these forward-looking songs is "My Lord, What A Morning." We might think of it as the inverse of "When The Saints Go Marching In." The latter song's lyrics are full of the dread of judgment and are clearly a fervent prayer "to be in that number" of the saved, whereas "My Lord" is upbeat and optimistic: the singing congregation by contrast fully expects to be among the elect, and the dire disasters of the apocalypse are for them a clarion call to the "new world to be revealed."

The original song was performed at that moderate-tempoed, swinging rhythm that we associate with many contemporary gospel numbers. Here from France a couple of decades back the Elikya Gospel Singers performing "My Lord" in that style:



The great operatic soprano Marian Anderson often delved into her musical heritage to perform spirituals, but she did so in the idiom in which she had been trained:



Anderson recorded this in the 1930s, and she is attempting to communicate the essence of black American culture in what she felt was a dignified manner that white America could understand.

Also in the operatic vein is Switzerland's legendary Hugues Cuenod, who just celebrated his 108th birthday in June. What is most remarkable about this performance is that Cuenod is the only singer here - all three voices (counter-tenor, tenor, and baritone) are himself alone:



On perhaps a more familiar footing for this blog, the Kingston Trio in 1962 gave the song the familiar uptempo KT treatment:



As usual, there are the kinds of innovations here that made purists uncomfortable. The Kingstons, not unlike Marian Anderson, have translated the song into their own idiom and make no attempt to replicate the distinctively black American intonations and rhythms. Even more - the bongos in the accompaniment give the song a Calypso-styled lilt that the Trio was comfortable with but which in no way resembles any traditional approach to the song.

Likewise, Australia's wonderful Seekers given an effective folk-styled reading with a bravura lead by Judith Durham:



My good friend and fellow folkie Bob Burlinson of Pennsylvania (soon to be Northern California, though) was kind enough to point this one out to me. That last high note that Durham sings is sublime.

And since we seem to be - and I emphasize seem - far afield from the roots of "My Lord What A Morning," why not a jazz-blues-flavored saxophone instrumental by Croatian jazz artist David Kocijan:



I love what Kocijan is doing here. The protean nature of a good folk song means, as I think Comparative Video 101 has demonstrated thoroughly over the last couple of years, that this music can be successfully and respectfully translated into a wide variety of different styles. And neither of these last two versions, the Calypso-tinged Trio version and Kocijan's jazz rendition - is quite as far from the roots of the song as some might allege. Or have we forgotten so thoroughly and so soon from whence those Caribbean rhythms and jazz tonalities originate?

Addendum, July 2012


A fairly recent upload of the song by the progenitor of all pop folk groups, The Weavers - this the second troupe with Erik Darling.They had recorded it as "When The Stars Begin To Fall."