Friday, April 15, 2011

Will Holt, Part I - "Lemon Tree"

I have to say at the outset that the charms of this particular song have eluded me for half a century, though I am certainly an admirer of its composer Will Holt and of the artists whose renditions are presented below. But "Lemon Tree" is one of those songs that falls into the odd cracks and fissures that characterized the folk revival, not unlike some of the early songs of Rod McKuen or possibly even Irving Burgie - not quite really full-blown pop music but hard to categorize as folk, though tunes like it were popularized by guitar-strumming acts that were identified in the popular imagination of the time as "folksingers."

Holt (who will turn 82 on April 30th) is a man of considerable talents, though it might be said of him that no single one of them was so dominant that it became an immediately identifiable signature, like Sinatra's phrasing or Bob Dylan's songwriting. But an outstanding singer Holt has been (as we will see below), and though his early 1960s albums on Elektra might be loosely termed folk, his likely most enduring performances on vinyl were his duet efforts with Martha Schlamme interpreting the dark musical theater vision of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. He wrote a few dozen songs, several of which like LT were widely covered; he acted on Broadway and on television - and following the stuttering end of the pop folk fad in the late '60s turned with great success (and a few flops) to writing book and lyrics for Broadway shows such as The Me Nobody Knows (1970), Me and Bessie (about blues legend Bessie Smith) in 1976, and A Walk On The Wild Side (1988), for which he also wrote the music. Holt is still performing, and as recently as 2005 recorded yet another album of Brecht/Weill numbers with Gisela May, overdubbing some original Weill-supervised tracks by the legendary Lotte Lenya.

Like McKuen, Holt seems to have been less interested in actual folk songs than he was in the worldly cabaret style of music (French for McKuen, German for Holt) that fascinated post-war Americans rather more in the '40s and '50s than it seems to today. European music appeared more urbane and knowing than either American pop or folk, and even when Holt ventured into pure folk, he did so with a polish and sophistication generally not seen in the genre before him - as here with his rendition of "Shenandoah":

"Lemon Tree" is probably the best-known of the compositions that carry Holt's name on the copyright, but he has always been open about the fact that he was creating a free-hand translation of the melody and lyrics of a 1937 Brazilian composition called "Meu limão, meu limoeiro," based on a traditional song in Portuguese. The original has the lost love theme and the mention of the lemon tree, but the father's advice and the son's bitter lesson are pure Holt. The first version of it that I (and about 3 million other Americans) heard of it was on the 1962 first album by superstars-to-be Peter, Paul and Mary - whose version here is so well-crafted that it remains after 50 years probably the definitive rendition of the song:

Intentionally or not, PP&M are preserving just a hint in their syncopation of the Brazilian origins of the tune. But their version, with the pause before the change of key that leads to the chorus, also emphasizes just how far the number is from traditional Euro-American folk, where such shifts are fairly rare.

A number this mellow eventually just had to be covered by the masters of mellow folk-type music, the Brothers Four:

This version is from the group's 1997 Greenfields And Other Gold album; Bob Flick is the sole remaining original member of the group on the recording, though Mark Pearson and Bob Haworth each had spent more than 20 years with the group by the time this was waxed.

It probably should not be surprising that the Kingston Trio also recorded "Lemon Tree," actually some months before PP&M or nearly anyone else. It appeared on Goin' Places, their ninth and final album with original member Dave Guard, released almost exactly 50 years ago in April of 1961:

The superior recording techniques of producer Voyle Gilmore and engineer Pete Abbott just aren't sufficient to cover the essential weaknesses of this perfunctory performance, which takes most of the affect out of the lyric. Perhaps the Trio went to the well once too often: they had previously successfully recorded Holt's "Raspberries, Strawberries" and the "MTA" song that they had first heard from him, and those two both became top 40 singles for the group. But the gleeful, uptempo arrangement presented here suffers in comparison to what PP&M did with the tune.

Britain's semi-folky Chad and Jeremy seemed to split the difference between the versions of the two giant American folk groups: they take the essential PP&M arrangement with its gentle verses but blast the chorus up to KT speed:

Trini Lopez, who IMHO never gets sufficient credit for introducing rock elements into folk-styled songs years before McGuinn or Dylan, puts his distinctively Latin syncopation into his rendition:


No article of this nature would be complete without presenting the version of Australia's Seekers for just about any tune that they recorded:

This is one of the few Seekers' songs I can think of where the distinctive vocals of Judith Durham are mixed down into the blend rather than featured prominently.

Will Holt is a protean artist, changing genres and styles with an easy virtuosity. It seems as if today few people remember his contributions to pop folk music, which may not be such a bad thing. He is a wonderful and engaging vocalist, and I still listen to his Brecht/Weill albums from time to time. But the fact that rockers Fools Garden have recorded a completely different song with the same name (often covered around the world) has served to bury this number even deeper into 1960s obscurity. Holt deserves a better fate than to be remembered mainly as the composer of this slight and pleasant bit of fluff. _____________________________________________
Appendix - The Original Song, "Meu Limão, Meu Limoeiro"  

The source song whose melody Holt adapted closely is sung here by Inezita Barroso, one of several Brazilian singers who popularized the tune in the 1940s and 1950s. The title translates as "My Lemon, My Lemon Tree," and while Holt's lyrics are his own, they follow the sense of the original tune as well.


chjajones said...

I grew up in Chicago in the '60s. I've always referred to Will, Gibson and others like them as "cabaret folk." Actually, from listening to the Midnight Special on WFMT that's my favorite folk genre. But back then too I could get the real folk at the UofC Folk Fest or listen to the Wiseman's on the WLS Barn Dance. A great time to be learning music, and I still love it. I'm doing "I Hear America Singing" at the song circle next week. That would be a good one to cover on your blog.
Keep on keeping on,Chris in soggy Portland

Jim Moran said...

Thanks for your comment Chris - and for the one on the Clancys. I too grew up in Chicago and used to listen to the Midnight Special (WFMT, right?) and Studs Terkel, who also used to have a lot of folk. I may well do "America" upcoming - if you poke around the blog archives a bit, you'll find our own Carl Sandburg discussed a number of times - "Sloop John BB," "Tell Old Bill," and "Colorado Trail" come to mind immediately.

chjajones said...

Jim, old Carl came to Oak Park High in the spring of '58 with his guitar for a lunchtime program. One of my greatest memories. His voice and the string strap.
Fortunately, Meridien and the Fare-Thee-Wells are coming to Portand again, so I can get some Gibson without being in Chicago.
they are nice enough not to tell me to shut up when I sing along.
At OP, I heard about the Old Town School from Dawn Greening's daughter - right place at the right time!