As last week's article on "My Johnny Lad" indicates once again, my personal taste in folk music tends much more strongly to traditional tunes, often polished and re-imagined, than it does to the singer-songwriter material that overwhelmingly constitutes what people today seem to think of as folk. One reason for this is reflected in the nature of probably 85% of the 120 posts archived on this blog. Traditional songs usually exist in a wide range of variants, lending themselves to often radically different interpretations that make (for me at least) interesting listening and I hope interesting reading. Singer-songwriter compositions, on the other hand, are usually copyrighted, words and music both, and consequently tend to have less diversity in presentation.
There are, of course, many exceptions to that rule of mine. I've always thought that the all-time champ for singer-songwriter numbers that have spawned some truly original arrangements is Gordon Lightfoot's "Early Mornin' Rain", but of course there are many more. And it isn't as if I'm not a wild aficionado of singer-songwriters like GL and Tom Paxton and Paul Simon and Ian Tyson and John Denver and dozens more. It's just that something in the traditional speaks to me at a deeper and more lasting place in my being than do most contemporary numbers, regardless of how well they are written or how artistically performed.
Of the several exceptions to that point for me - at the head of the list is Michael Peter Smith's "The Dutchman." The song is a veritable miracle - because out of the awfulness of senility and dementia Smith is able astoundingly to create one of the most beautiful testaments ever set down to the enduring power of love. And he does so in the deceptively simple framework of a song that includes many of the qualities that I have frequently cited in these posts as the hallmarks of a legitimately folk-type modern composition - simplicity of melody and lyric, an easily-mastered and remembered chorus, and an instantly identifiable trope or lyric passage - here, perhaps, "And dear Margaret remembers that for me."
Smith wrote the song at the very beginning of his long and honored (if under-appreciated) career in 1968. After his own recording of it, Smith's classic-to-be was first covered about a year later by Steve Goodman and added to "Chicago Shorty's" concert repertoire immediately - which I know because in my senior year at Notre Dame in 1970, the student union invited Goodman to perform a solo concert, one at which he performed "The Dutchman" and "The City of New Orleans," though he didn't record the former until his second album on Buddha Records (Somebody Else's Troubles) in 1972.
Goodman's version of "The Dutchman" became an instant FM radio hit back when that meant something - when FM with its shorter broadcast range and outstanding sound quality was a hotbed of originality and innovation - when you could hear extended music sets without interruption of commercials and jabbering DJs. How well I remember and miss those days...listening late into the night with a very special young lady to LA's KNX-FM and hearing early cuts from many of the great acoustic artists of the day, Goodman foremost among them. When I heard his recorded version, I was immediately reminded of his live performance, and for me and I suspect a whole lot of other people, "The Dutchman" will always be a Steve Goodman song:
One of the highlights of this version for me is the fact that it is entirely acoustic - Goodman demonstrates how resoundingly beautiful two expertly-played and impeccably arranged complementary guitar parts can sound, in addition to his great vocal.
Smith has often been questioned about what basis in actual life experience his song had, if any...did he know someone with Alzheimer's disease? was there a Dutch uncle in his background? is he close to someone named Margaret? (For the record: answers are no-no-yes.) In April 2010, Smith provided a well-considered answer to the question of his composition in response to questions from a Dutch music writer HERE. Click and you'll see how fine a writer of prose Smith is (and you'll find links to lots of his other songs as well). For those who want a precis - Smith's sister is named Margaret; she had a Dutch boyfriend decades ago; he has never been to the Netherlands; he tried to jam every cliche about Holland (canals, windmills, wooden shoes, tulips, Hans Brinker's grandpa) that Americans cherish into the song's lyric...and emerged with a masterpiece despite it all. And while the artist is never the last or best word on the meaning of his/her work, and while composers may not always be the best interpreters of their own music - there is still something magical about hearing a song the way the composer imagined it - Smith, here from 1997:
There is a quiet, reflective gentleness to Smith's rendering of his song that I find profoundly moving.
Smith has credited Goodman's performance of "The Dutchman" with propelling his songs to a higher degree of visibility than prior, emboldening Michael to ask Liam Clancy ("the greatest ballad singer of all time" according to Bob Dylan) to record it, which Liam did, here with Tommy Makem in 1983:
As you can tell from contrasting Liam's intro with Smith's comments - Clancy is imagining his own story for the song, as all great interpretive artists do.
Some Clancy fanatics attribute a kind of "ownership" of the tune to LC, and I recall comments on the Clancy message board disparaging the fact that Bob Shane of the Kingston Trio was including a version of "The Dutchman" on his first solo album. Too bad - because as Smith makes clear in this post from his blog from 2008, his first musical dream as a boy was to write a Kingston Trio song - Smith on the KT - scroll down to May 2008. Smith comments -
Bob Shane of the Kingston Trio has recorded "The Dutchman" on his very first ever solo CD and it's coming out momentarily and I've heard it and he does it so good, it makes me cry. It is the definitive recording of "The Dutchman" as far as I'm concerned, and "The Dutchman" is a Kingston Trio song at last, fifty years after I first heard the Trio... :
The banjo here is played by current Kingston Trio member Bill Zorn, who was also a member of Shane's New Kingston Trio from 1973-76 with the late Roger Gambill, whose voice I believe I hear at the top of the blend. If so, then this is a NKT number from the mid-70s unreleased until Shane's solo effort.
Jerry Jeff Walker gave "The Dutchman" just a touch of country in this excellent 1992 performance:
Finally - I wonder how many remember that original Starsky and Hutch actor David Soul had a sweet tenor voice and a monster hit in 1977 with "Don't Give Up On Us Baby." He does justice to Smith's song here from the mid-80s:
Part of the magic of "The Dutchman," I believe, lies in the fact that it marries a chilling fear to a profound and beautiful hope - that if, God forbid, we should lose our selves in the mists and then darkness of old age, there might be someone there whose love is so complete that he or she can see past the wreckage of what we have become to the beauty of what we once were. Smith's song makes us believe that it is possible that the dark realities of aging can be held at bay to a degree at least by the miraculous reality of a transcendent love.
This post has elicited some wonderful suggestions from friends of mine in the John Stewart/Kingston Trio internet world. Tim Riley, proprietor of Bloodlines (the very long-running John Stewart message board) related his admiration for the version by the protean pop-rock-folk rock group Cashman and West, and my fellow subscriber to Tim's board and Trio fantasy camp buddy and fine performer in her own right Kate Snow did the same for Steve Cottrell's take on the song, Steve being a mutual friend. I'm delighted to present those two versions here as well:
Cashman and West
And courtesy of my NorCal friend and general folk expert PC Fields, here is the We Five (of "You Were On My Mind" fame) from 2009:
A fine version from the Shaw Brothers of New Hampshire, formerly of the Brandywine Singers:
And from 2010, Tony Poole:
Addendum - January 2013
About a month after this post appeared, a video was posted to YouTube in which composer Michael Peter Smith discusses at length how the song came to be: