When I was deciding which song to profile for my Christmas post two weeks ago, my final decision came down to either "The Last Month Of The Year" or "The Virgin Mary Had A Baby Boy." I chose the former because I thought that the blues/gospel approach of that song was an arrestingly different take on Nativity music than we are normally used to. For all that, though, I could have chosen "Virgin Mary" because it is equally unique as what its collector Edric Connor termed "the only West Indian negro carol I found" in his 1945 collection The Edric Connor Collection of West Indian Folk Songs and Tunes.
With a few different breaks, Trinidad-born Edric Connor (1913-1968) might well have been what Harry Belafonte became. Connor was both a collector (as above) and a performer in Jamaica and for the greater part of his life in Britain. A decade before Belafonte's landmark Calypso album (the first LP to be certified as having sold a million units), Connor was popularizing the genre with a series of recordings including a December 1955 album (praised in a brief review in Billboard HERE) with the same title as Harry B's but pre-dating it by half a year - and underselling it by several hundred thousand copies. Connor was also the first artist to record in 1952 the song that Bob Gibson heard in 1954 and that both he and the Tarriers recorded later in the decade, the song that became the signature hit for Harry Belafonte and that is still heard ad infinitum in ball parks across the land today - "Day-O." Here is Connor performing the song that he collected on the docks in Jamaica:
Fans of contemporary African music cannot help but notice the similarity of Connor's back-up chorus here to Ladysmith Black Mambazo's harmonies. And Kingston Trio fans clearly owe a kind of distant debt to Connor as well, since it was the calypso craze initiated by Belafonte's popularity (and Harry B. acknowledged some influence from Connor) that initially brought the group together.
"The Virgin Mary" might well have languished in Connor's fairly obscure 1945 book had it not been picked up by a group called The DePaur Chorus, who released an album called Calypso Christmas in 1956:
Following the DePaur group, both Belafonte and the second troupe of the Weavers with Erik Darling waxed the number in 1958. Harry B. gave the song his familiar "gentle calypso" treatment that you hear in "Jamaica Farewell", and the Weavers went a capella with percussion supplied by Fred Hellerman thumping the body of his guitar like a conga drum. Belafonte mutes the syncopation a bit in this excellent version:
With the mega-stars Belafonte and the Weavers recording the tune, it was not long before other purveyors of popular folk music also began recording "Virgin Mary." Each retained some elements of the song's calypso origins, but to very different effect. The loveliest melodic version belongs hands down to the Chad Mitchell Trio, who included it in their 1964 Reflecting album:
Seldom in this group's recording history are the trained voices of Mitchell, Kobluk and Frazier showcased to better effect, and note that the instrumental syncopation alternates between John Frigo's bass lines and Paul Prestopino's guitar bridges into the chorus.
The Kingston Trio did not include the song on its Last Month Of The Year Christmas album - strangely so, I would venture, because as a calypso carol this number would have fit beautifully into the aggregation of unusual folk tunes included in that wonderful record. Instead, titled "Glorious Kingdom," it appears in an unusual and definitely non-calypso arrangement in the group's first album with John Stewart:
The line-by-line of addition of each voice in the verses is a nice touch, as is the use of a 12-string guitar for instrumental breaks. Again, the bass (here played by David Wheat on his last recording with the KT) provides the rhythm that connects this rendition however distantly with calypso music. It is definitely an odd take on the tune, especially for a group that cut its teeth on calypso, and I have often wondered if this was an experimental arrangement by the recently-resigned Dave Guard, who had always had a taste for the innovative and unusual.
"The Virgin Mary" has also been a staple since the 50s of choruses and "serious" performers - like New Zealand's Maori-descent opera star Kiri Te Kanawa:
Note: The copyright cops have removed Ms. Te Kanawa; if she returns, I will re-post her version.
Te Kanawa does a creditable job here with a song outside of her normal performing perimeter. She is a real diva - and by this I do not mean the vulgarized pop definition of the word. I mean what the term actually means - a female opera star of surpassing ability and accomplishment.
Gospel groups have also quite naturally gravitated to the song - here, a sprightly and joyous rendition by the Bill and Gloria Gaither group:
An interesting mix of Southern white gospel with a healthy dose of Caribbean-inflected soul.
Finally - because I like to believe that folk music may yet survive the onslaught of the truly bastardized and vulgar pop culture that has overrun our land in this day and age (and tongue is ever so slightly in cheek here), here is a fine performance from three weeks ago by Basket Landing, a real honest-to-God folk group out of the East Ridge School, in New York, I believe:
Praise the Lord! - there may be hope yet for These United States!