Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Derroll Adams, John Stewart, And "Portland Town"

It has been just over 35 years since former Beatle George Harrison was forced into court in late February of 1976 to defend himself against charges of copyright infringement and plagiarism by Ronald Mack and Bright Tunes Music in the case of Harrison's hit single "My Sweet Lord," which Mack and Bright Tunes contended was stolen from the song "He's So Fine" that Mack had composed for The Chiffons in 1963. Harrison acknowledged that he had heard the song but contended that the guitar setting and overall meaning of the piece were different enough to warrant consideration as an original composition. The trial lasted three days, and the judge's decision was swift: Harrison was indeed liable and ordered to pay $1.6 million (rather more valuable dollars then than now). Thus the term "unconscious plagiarism" became a part of the world's vocabulary when discussing intellectual property. There is a good and relatively brief discussion of the case HERE.

The case involving this week's song "Portland Town" was a bit simpler and more straightforward, but some of the same issues of ownership of an idea or a musical phrase did crop up. "Portland Town" was written in about 1957 by Derroll Adams, an American who never achieved much success in the U.S. but was and remains highly regarded as a kind of godfather figure in the European folk revival, especially in the U.K. Adams was a colorful character, an Oregonian (from Portland, of course) who joined the Navy at the under-age of 16 in 1941 to fight in the war - until the military found out about his age and a debilitating medical condition and discharged him. Adams went to Portland's prestigious Reed College and its art school - where he saw Josh White and became enthused about folk music. He taught himself the rudiments of the five-string banjo while working at several different jobs but only became serious about it after he met Pete Seeger around 1952 - and learned how to tune it properly. Adams drifted to southern California, living first in San Diego and eventually on Will Geer's Topanga Canyon ranch, which was a sort of art colony for radicals. It was there that Adams met the newly re-named Ramblin' Jack Elliott (born as Elliott Adnopoz), and the two became fast friends and performing partners, eventually moving as all early 50s folkies did to New York City.

Elliott sought greener and less McCarthyistic pastures in Europe and urged Adams to join him. Adams did so and spent the rest of his life there, mainly in the U.K., Belgium, and Italy, with sojourns in Denmark several times as well. His now fully-developed banjo and guitar skills won him an impressive following of soon-to-be influential musicians, most notably Davy Graham, Donovan Leitch (who idolized Adams), Paul Simon, Bert Jansch, Ralph McTell, and dozens more. Despite a troubled personal life that included extended bouts of alcoholism and extended hiatuses from performing, Adams remained a seminal figure in the Old World, appearing at and being honored by folk festivals across the continent until his death in 2000.

Adams wrote "Portland Town," he said, as a response to a couple he knew who lost their only son in the Korean War. Here is the song as he wrote it:

It's easy to discern the mid-50s folk/radical/Seeger/Geer nature of the song - and to understand why an America in the shadow of the Red Scare and McCarthy hearings was none-too-friendly an environment for Adams. But it is equally easy, given the simple, traditional-sounding and compelling nature of the song, to understand how a 22-year-old John Stewart of the Kingston Trio could have mistaken it for a traditional number. Where Stewart heard it first is unclear; it may well have been in one of the Greenwich Village folk clubs that Stewart frequented as a member both of the Cumberland Three and the KT. In any event, Stewart re-wrote both melody and lyric in his first year with the Trio and chose the song as his solo for the second KT album on which he appeared, the orchestra-supported Something Special. Stewart took the basic structure and some of the lyrics of the piece but turned them from an anti-war statement [which interestingly prefigured Stewart's own "Oldest Living Son" from his early solo album Willard (1970)] to a plaintive love song. Here is his acoustic track for the album:

The dressed-up album cut sounded like this:

This is instructive, I think. There is a charm, innocence, and longing in Stewart's acoustic version, which retains the simplicity if not the meaning of Adams' original. The Jimmie Haskell orchestrations, however, distort those charms here as they did on most of the cuts on the album and turned Stewart and the KT into a kind of poor man's Brothers Four, a pop vocal group before the folk boom whose Four-Preps-type roots showed in most of their recordings, many of which were unabashedly similarly orchestrated.

Stewart was not the only artist to mistake Adams composition as a traditional song. British pop superstar Marianne Faithfull (who had folk roots as well) recorded the song for a 1965 album and cited it on the record as "Traditional." She performs the song as Adams wrote it:

At a distance of 50 years and with Adams now departed, it is hard to ascertain what exactly his response to these versions was. One music website claims that he "never even attempted to reclaim his lawfull [sic] rights on this song," citing Stewart's adaptation as an example. But Adams' good friend Frank Hamilton - co-founder of Chicago's influential Old Town School of Folk Music and one of Pete Seeger's banjo-playing replacements in the Weavers - wrote just three years ago that "Derroll didn't get anything for Portland Town 'cause John Stewart of the Kingston Trio stole it from him and used up the royalties supposedly to go to Derroll in court costs. Welcome to the music business." Hamilton clearly implies that Adams either sued or threatened to sue Stewart. I can find no hard evidence of this on the web, and it would take more time and better legal research skills than I have to determine exactly what the interchange between the two was. I suspect that legalities were involved if not an actual suit, and with songwriter's royalties for a tune on a #7 charting album with sales approaching 300,000 copies, there would have been quite a lot of money at stake, if not at the gargantuan proportions of George Harrison's liability. Two things seem to me to be uncontestable: first, Stewart was not cynically and deliberately plagiarizing, as Hamilton implies (which BTW would not have mattered in an actual lawsuit), and second, that Adams never made any money off of Stewart's efforts. History has had its revenge, however: Stewart's version today is largely forgotten while Adams' original is still performed. Here is an unnamed Korean trio from two years ago:

An equally eerie-sounding take on the song from A Hawk and a Hacksaw from 2006:

A more straight-on interpretation of the number from the now ragingly popular roots/rock band, the Avett Brothers from last August:

There is no great lesson here, no grandiose conclusion to be drawn. Adams' original marches on, like "Blowin' In The Wind," because there are always cannonballs flying somewhere that still need to be forever banned. Stewart's nearly forgotten rewrite remains only as a minor memory to those who loved the popularized folk music of an era that in public perception is practically invisible. That fact is more melancholy than the song itself.


For comparison's sake -


greenhawk46 said...


interesting musical and legal history, I liked what Maryanne F. did with the song-but the upshot is-I get the feeling that Adams needed another verse, the song to me doesn't seem finished somehow?
Jim H.

prof_5string said...

Joan Baez did a version with a Am-D-F chord progression. You can hear a sample of it on

teehatch said...

Check out Arlo Guthrie's version and story about Derroll on his "Live in Sydney" CD. Very entertaining and interesting.

Jim Moran said...

Thanks teehatch - I just happened to be reviewing this post when your comment came up. I will indeed check that out!