Wednesday, April 27, 2011

"You Don't Knock"

Personally, I prefer spirituals over gospel music for roughly the same reasons that I like traditional music over most singer-songwriter numbers. There is a kind of almost democratic populism in real old time folk songs - the best tend to survive and come down to us, and that "best" is determined largely by a kind of collective popular will, expressed over generations of time by the simple fact that people have sung and keep singing them, at least until the advent and then domination of electronic media converted music from something that people made - that virtually everybody made - to something that people consumed, like any other commodity hawked by marketing hucksters.

You could draw a parallel to the spiritual/gospel relationship. Real spirituals, several of which like "Good News" (profiled a year ago this week) and "My Lord, What A Mornin'" (with a longer discussion of spirituals in general) have appeared in these posts, arose from the suffering and longing engendered by slavery and express a collective dream of a brighter day, in this world or the next. Gospel music, which sometimes grew out of spirituals and is the proper category in which to place this week's song selection, "You Don't Knock," has a definitely commercial aspect to it. That of course in no way denigrates it - Bach to Bernstein and everyone in between also created sacred classical music for pay, too.

But I think that "Shenandoah", for example, is unsurpassable for its sheer, flat-out beauty, a beauty that has embedded within it a kind of truth that very, very few individual songwriter efforts have ever matched, a beauty refined and enhanced by the generations of ordinary folk who have sung it. Good spirituals share in the same nature, I think.

Gospel music, on the other hand, is largely performance music. It may invite participation from a congregation, but its power is derived from fine and professional performances of it. Gospel songs are the visions of individual writers; spirituals are the collective voice of the people.

All of this makes "You Don't Knock" an ideal song to consider, because evidence points to a derivation from a lost spiritual while its current form comes from the legendary Roebuck "Pops" Staples, the patriarch of the family singing group that he founded in 1948 with his children. The earliest copyright anyone seems to be able to find for "You Don't Knock" is 1949, assigned to Cedar Walton and Wesley Westbrooks, though the name R. Staples was added to it later in the '50s. Certainly one of the earliest recorded versions of the song belongs to Roebuck S. and his children - the Staples Singers:



Most subsequent recorded version seem to riff off of this one, and the near-identicality of lyrics in other artists' version certainly points to a single origin for the song.

The New Grass Revival (here from Austin City Limits) is certainly one of the highest-calibered assemblages of country/bluegrass musicians put together in recent decades , with Sam Bush, John Cowan, Pat Flynn, & Bela Fleck:



I love the fact that they have converted the basic African-American sound and rhythm of the number into their own idiom, a kind of old-timey mountain music sound that skirts the edges of rockabilly.

The Kingston Trio translates the song into another idiom entirely - just a whisker on the folk side of rock:



It's hard to believe that this is from Dave Guard's last album with the group. He sounds like he is having a heck of a good time, whaling away as he is on his still-new jumbo Gibson 12 string guitar and vocally going Elvis-on-steroids in his treatment.

The Gaither Vocal Band, which includes the famous brothers, does a fine country-gospel rendition:



One of the better and more interesting pop collaborations in recent years has been Led Zeppelin rocker Robert Plant with roots music superstar Allison Krause:



Who would ever have thought that Dave Guard would out-rock Robert Plant? Clearly, though, Plant and Krause are going back to rock's deep roots in blues - interesting to compare this to the Staples.

The Detroit Cobras are a covers band that nonetheless brings an original approach to the song - almost country-rock, I'd say, sort of the Staples Singers as imagined by the Joe Walsh-era Eagles:



And two final versions for fun. First, home videos from a group only known as Anthony, Isaiah, and Dallas:



Regular readers of this blog know how much I love videos of folk music well-performed at home by amateurs who love what they are doing - as with these young guys.

Finally, what may be the weirdest version of a song I have ever posted in 132 articles - the young ladies of Alpha Xi Delta at the University of North Carolina Wilmington:



Here's what they are chanting:

Dont knock dont knock
just walk right in
the door the door
to the alpha xi den
there's love theres love
theres joy for you
to share to share
your whole life through
i know i know
my friends are there
the golden quill we'll always wear
the gold the quill
the double blue
the doors wide open just waitin for you
dont knock
just walk right in
dont knock
just walk right in


I'd say that that removes all the spiritual/gospel elements from the song most effectively. Guess that's just part of the folk process.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Paradise Lost: Ole Bull And "Oleanna"

Sometimes as I consider the economic and political life of our country in 2011, I can't help but feel that we are in some ways being dragged headlong back into the 19th century, and the worst elements of it at that. Public life in the latter third of that century featured economic bubbles of speculation and subsequent crashes, concentrations of massive amounts of wealth in the hands of a tiny coterie of Wall Street bankers and their associates (industrial capitalists at the time), demagogic hysterics on both the right and left railing at abuses perceived and actual, and a government that seemed to be a wholly-owned subsidiary of moneyed interests.

What we sadly have not imported from that period are its best elements - like selfless dedication to causes that transcended personal interest or greed, causes like women's suffrage and abolition and temperance and trade unionism. The practical patriotism of the day may have been tinged by jingoism in foreign affairs, but our tough-minded forbears did not propound the illusion that their beloved Columbia The Gem Of The Ocean was a perfect place that was, like the Blues Brothers, on a mission from God. Rather, with the profound doubts about human institutions and perfectibility inherited intellectually from the Puritans, they believed that America was a work in progress whose perfectibility rested in their own hands and efforts.

Nowhere was that more in evidence than in what today appear to be the charmingly idealistic and quaint efforts to create Utopian communities, like the Transcendentalists' Brook Farm in Massachusetts, or New Harmony in Indiana - or Corning, Iowa, or the scores of Amish and Mennonite and Shaker communities stretching from the mid-Atlantic to the prairie states - or to the Great Basin Kingdom itself, Mormon Utah. Despite ethnic and religious differences, all of these shared in common the desire to become the New Jerusalem, the city on the hill that would become a model for national and eventual world-wide reform.

One of the lesser-known of these visionaries - or rather, a man known less as a visionary than as a musician - was the Norwegian violin virtuoso Ole Bornemann Bull (1810-1880). Bull was reputed to be second only to the legendary Paganini as the greatest instrumental soloist of the century, a reputation cemented by more than 40 years of extensive touring (he performed an authenticated 237 concerts in the U.K. alone in the year of 1838 - and then went off to tour Germany) and collaboration with the great composers and orchestras of his day. Bull was a veritable rock star, wildly applauded and mobbed by fans wherever he went. He was also a first-class luthier and made a fortune which today would be in the millions of dollars.

But Bull was also an idealist and a patriot, one who believed that his native Norway should be independent of Sweden (which it was not until 1905). He toured the U.S. several times and was so taken with the country and its ideals that in 1852 he decided to create what he called a New Norway colony in northeastern Pennsylvania. Bull used what today would be about half a million dollars of his own money to buy land (much of which today is Ole Bull State Park), and in September of 1852 started the colony in the rugged mountains of virgin forest with a few dozen countrymen, proclaiming, "We are founding a New Norway consecrated to liberty, baptized with independence and protected by the Union's mighty flag." Eventually more than two thousand people joined Bull in four sub-colonies, the last of which he named for himself and his mother - "Oleanna."

Like most of the other American Utopias, New Norway failed in a few short years, largely because Bull had been tricked into buying tracts that we virtually un-farmable due to steep slopes and rocks. Most of his Norwegian colonists ended up leaving for (you guessed it) Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Dakotas to become later beneficiaries of the Homestead Act, where good land was free to those who would work it. Bull continued his splendid career in Europe, though returning frequently to America and in fact marrying a Wisconsin woman in his declining years. His whole story is well told HERE.

So how did a Norwegian classical musician and communal idealist become the subject of an American folk song?

Though Bull's dream community had died, the power of his vision and his total dedication to it had not. In 1853, Norwegian editor Ditmar Meidell wrote a poem in humorous and satirical praise of Bull's ideals and set it to a popular tune named (of all things) "Rio de Janiero." The song has been popular in Norway ever since but was not translated into English until the 1930s, with 22 verses. Working off of that translation, in the mid-1950s Pete Seeger edited it down to six verses, preserving the flavor of the original, as in the first verse -

Oh, to be in Oleanna!
That is where I'd like to be,
Than be bound in Norway,
And drag the chains of slavery.

Vintage Seeger - and here he is singing it, alternating English with the Lillebjorn Nilsen's Norwegian at the legendary Tonder Festival in 1991:



A bit more restrained and with a slightly different translation, Jim Nelson and Lori Ann Reinhall, collectively known as Duo Scandinavica, presented a fine, homey and relaxed version of the song that has unfortunately disappeared from YouTube. Instead, we have here now a modern adaptation from 2012 from an Italian group called Manjola:

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The performance was uploaded in October 2012 but is identified as being from a Christmas party in the video notes. It seems that the performance was intended as a number to which guests could dance. I will clearly have to employ the services of an Italian translator to see if there is any intersection between Meidell's or Seeger's lyrics and what the band is singing here..

International folk songs have been the special province for 60-plus years of another of our national treasures, 86-year-old Theodore Bikel - who happens still to be touring in the demanding role of Teyve in Fiddler On The Roof. He recorded Seeger's "Oleanna" shortly after Pete himself, here with Geula Gill:



No credits available, but that sure sounds like Pete on the banjo.

The song has gone full-on international. Here is a snippet of a group of students giving it a go in Soncillo, Spain:



and the Yellow Devil Blues Band from Lucca, Italy three years ago:



IMHO, that's another in the endless line of unfortunate attempts to "update" an acoustic folk song into an electrified, rocked-out and ultimately bastardized non-entity, neither folk fish nor rock fowl. Yes, Pogues and Avetts and Killigans, I'm talkin' to YOU.

I suppose I'm thankful for that - stuff - for one reason here: it makes the Kingston Trio's somewhat lame attempt to turn Meidell's idealism into 1950s semi-topicality sound downright authentic:



The guys cannot be faulted here for quality of arrangement or enthusiastic vocals. It's just that the chorus has nothing to do at all with the verses, which I always found odd. I'd guess that the group didn't really know the original - this adaptation is by Tin Pan Alley songwriters Mark Seligson and Harvey Geller, who also penned "Mark Twain." As a matter of interest to me only - I always figured this song had Dave Guard playing banjo on it - but now that I listen more closely - it's there, but inexplicably blended way to the back of the digital mix here, barely audible.

The latest incarnation of the term "Oleanna" was a 1992 drama and 1994 film by leading American playwright David Mamet, whose piece portrays the conflict between a smug, superior college professor and a disturbed female grad student who accuses him of sexual harassment. The idealized community of Oleanna in the song implicitly represents the "ivory tower" of the university, both being ultimately unreal and unrealizable illusions. And what a commentary that is - that Ole Bull's pure 19th century vision becomes a sardonic byword for the failures of our own times. Sad it is indeed.

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.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Scotty Wiseman's "Brown Mountain Light"

North Carolina is yet again the setting for this week's song, and for once (as contrasted with "Tom Dooley" and "Poor Ellen Smith" and possibly "You're Gonna Miss Me") the topic is not a murder but rather an interesting paranormal phenomenon, one that has inspired a series of local legends and one often-covered country song, if you can excuse the Gone With The Wind-type attempt to romanticize slavery (a very big if, obviously).

Sightings of the mysterious "Brown Mountain Lights" have been verified back to 1922, though stories surrounding them apparently go back at least sixty years earlier to the Civil War era and maybe before. Brown Mountain is near Linville, NC, and that estimable town provides a fine and comprehensive brief history here:

Perhaps a little background information is in order here for readers who have never heard of the lights. Brown Mountain is a long sloping ridge on the edge of the Blue Ridge lying within U.S.Forest Service land at an elevation of some 2,600 feet.... One of the three main viewing points of the lights is at a roadside pull-off on highway 181. The other two look outs are at Wiseman’s View...and the Lost Cove Cliffs overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway (milepost 310).
Since their first recorded sighting by the German engineer Gerard de Brahm in 1771 the
lights have attracted scientific scrutiny. Explanations for these mobile spheres of glowing light have ranged from nitrous vapor to ball lightning, from foxfire to a fourth form of energy known as plasma. The U.S. Geological Survey conducted an investigation of the lights in the 1920s, publishing findings that dismissed the lights as man-made...
About the only thing that most experts can agree on, however, is that the lights tend to
appear in late summer and autumn on cool evenings following some rainfall. Those fortunate ones who have seen them speak of the experience as wondrous and unforgettable. Mention the topic ofthe lights in just about any gathering in the Blue Ridge and cries of “Have you seen them?” and vivid anecdotes will swiftly follow.


Without further ado, the star of the show - from a few years back, one of several good videos of the lights on YouTube:



The song was one of the last that was penned by Nashville Songwriters Hall Of Fame member Scotty Wiseman (1908-1981), who partnered for most of his career from the mid-1930s til 1958 with his wife Myrtle Eleanor Cooper under the name "Lulu Belle and Scotty." (pictured above) They were regulars on The WLS Barn Dance broadcast from Chicago in the 30s and 40s - I've mentioned the program before as the main competition in the vast mid-section of the country for Nashville's Grand Ol' Opry. Wiseman wrote a string of hits that included "Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?" (the country number recorded by Jim Reeves, Rick Nelson, Elvis Presley and many more - not the Rod Stewart/Van Morrison song), and Cooper contributed the classic "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor On The Bedpost Overnight?" to the American song bag. The duo retired in '58 when Wiseman completed an M.A. from Northwestern University and went on to a teaching career; Cooper ended up as member of the NC House of Representatives.

"The Brown Mountain Light" song apparently dates to the early 50s. According to the Linville village web page cited above, Wiseman heard the legend of the slave and the lantern from his great uncle Lafayette "Fate" Wiseman, a drover born well before the Civil War and the man for whom Wiseman's View above is named. Great nephew Scotty always liked the story and came up with this:



I'm a bit more inclined to cut Wiseman some slack about the "faithful old slave" bit than I am for Hollywood depictions, both because of his own pre-modern 1908 birth date and because he was re-telling the story as he and others had heard it from Uncle Fate. But I still get more than a little uncomfortable with any attempt to romanticize slavery in the U.S., especially in the century after it was abolished. GWTW is in most respects a great movie, though unfortunately the somewhat dignified and Academy Award-winning portrayal of the house slave Mamie by Hattie McDaniel is counterbalanced by a truly vicious stereotype in the younger girl played by Butterfly McQueen ("I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies"). I treated the subject at greater length when I wrote about the spiritual "My Lord, What A Morning" last October.

Sonny James' #1 country hit version has been removed from YouTube, but shortly after James's rendition Tommy Faile had a rockabilly-tinged hit with the song:



The 1962 date of James' hit suggests that it is the immediate antecedent of the 1962 version by the Kingston Trio:



The KT also seems to have borrowed James' idea for the narrative opening and that guitar lead in. John Stewart is doing a really creditable banjo arrangement here - which gets all but lost in the awful horns- and percussion-littered cut on the '62 Something Special release.

The Country Gentlemen also did "Brown Mountain," though I cannot find a date in their discography. It seems not to predate the KT's version, though the latter group freely borrowed material from the Gentlemen's first few albums, including "Jesse James", "Long Black Veil", and "Poor Ellen Smith". They do a classic bluegrass arrangement here:



Finally, two non-professional but really good folkish versions, first by Ronda Foust of Tennessee doing a clawhammer banjo accompaniment:



That's a fine banjo performance by Ms. Foust, and it shades the country composition toward folk wonderfully. She mentions that she first heard the song from the Kingstons.

And a bluegrass jam session, from Townsend,TN in 2008:



That's Bruce Fox on mandolin and lead vocal. I love to hear folk-styled music this way - being able to join in sessions like this is one of the chief attractions of going to the Trio Fantasy Camp in August each year. We'll have to see how many folkies remember and like this one when we assemble again in Scottsdale this year.

Addendum - July 2012

Just found this gem - bluegrass master of everything Tony Rice from a few years back: