Friday, February 10, 2012

Will Holt #2 - "Raspberries, Strawberries"

My first post on Will Holt (L) appeared a bit under a year ago. It was a discussion of Holt's re-imagining of a Brazilian folk song as "Lemon Tree," a tune that was probably one of the twelve or fifteen most widely-known songs of the folk era at the time of the revival, thanks in no small part to its appearance on Peter, Paul and Mary's first album. That recording stayed in Billboard's Top Ten for over a year and spent an impressive month at the #1 spot, and "Lemon Tree" was a minor hit, reaching #35 on the magazine's Hot 100 singles chart.

"Lemon Tree," however, was not Holt's first charting composition. That distinction belonged to another reworking of a traditional song, in this case an old French tune that Holt recast as "Raspberries, Strawberries." The latter tune was one of the earliest recordings of the Kingston Trio and the one that for some mysterious reason they chose as a single release to follow up their monster 1958 hit "Tom Dooley." An odd choice, really, because the two songs could hardly have been more different. However polished and commercial the arrangement may have been, "Tom Dooley" was a real folk song, a ballad of obscure origin from 19th century North Carolina. "Raspberries, Strawberries," on the other hand, was a clear attempt by Holt to replicate in English the sense and sentiment of the French cabaret chanson. In that respect, Holt's effort parallels the early compositions of Rod McKuen, who like Holt had fallen under the spell of European cafe society.

For my money, whatever the charms these gentlemen's songs possess, they really don't capture the feel and the atmosphere of the European cabaret, any more than "Lemon Tree" does of Brazil. That may be why I have never responded with any great enthusiasm to either of Holt's best-known songs. The genuine cabaret music has a kind of implicit tragedy built into it, and a depth of feeling that neither Holt nor McKuen quite get to. Consider, for example, the legendary Yves Montand, here with one of his classic numbers, "Les Feuilles Mortes":

Most undoubtedly recognize this as the root song of "Autumn Leaves," though the French lyric - and Montand's delivery - is much more poetic than the standard English versions. The last few lines of the final verse mean something like "But life separates those who love/So quietly and sweetly/ And the sea erases on the sand/The steps of the divided lovers." That's cabaret.

As I noted in the linked "Lemon Tree" article above, I think Holt was much more successful in rendering and performing German-born Kurt Weill's songs for Bertolt Brecht's plays, and subsequent to his fairly brief ventures into folk-type music, Holt had a wonderful career in musical theater both on and off Broadway, winning Obie and Drama Desk awards as well as scoring several Tony nominations.

But in an earlier era, one in which the world seemed larger, more mysterious, and perhaps more exciting, Holt's folk efforts felt more genuine than perhaps they really were. Today we can hear Montand and Edith Piaf and Charles Aznavour at will with a click on a YouTube video or a download from Amazon. In the 50s and early 60s, Holt was about as close as the pop mainstream was going to get to that European sound, at least until all three of the aforementioned artists ventured into the U.S. market, their way being paved in part by the admiration of Frank Sinatra for their work.

So "Raspberries, Strawberries" is a kind of faux-French, just as many of the pop-folk groups were performing what purists in the U.S. derided as faux folk. Fifty years after the fact, both of the above look a lot better than they may have at the time, given especially some of the directions that both pop and folk music have taken since then. So - here is R&S as performed by the current configuration of the Kingston Trio, the group that gave the song its highest profile five decades ago:

For the sake of comparison - the original group's 1958 recording, taken down repeatedly from YouTube, is hiding in the middle of this next video, which is quite clearly uploaded from a vinyl copy. You have to work your way through a Gordon Lightfoot number from his great 1968 album Did She Mention My Name? - but that's a recommendation IMO:

There is a persistent canard, fueled no doubt by the notation in early 60s KT songbooks that the lyrics included "French double talk," that the KT's Dave Guard was either singing ungrammatical French or mangling the pronunciation. About ten years ago I discovered the redoubtable Jerry Kergan's compelling refutation of the tale on his Kingston Trio Liner Notes site, which is great across the board and especially so for this song. (Jerry has also provided a fascinating background page on Will Holt HERE with bio and liner notes from his folk albums.)

Holt was, as noted, working from an older song, one version of which was recorded as "Les Fraises et Les Framboises (The Strawberries and the Raspberries)" by Le Trio Soucy in 1949:

The other main folk-flavored version of Holt's song comes to us from Bud and Travis. Though better known for their thrilling repertoire of Mexican folk songs, the duo also did a lot of "world music" numbers, including a fair number of French-inflected songs - here in 1964:

This is a bit closer to Holt's original than the KT rendition. Trio fans undoubtedly recognize that the third guitarist is none other than David "Buck" Wheat, the Kingstons' bassist for most of their first four years.

Some years after the folk revival, the song was re-done into a polka called "Strawberries, Raspberries" with a completely different set of lyrics. Some sources credit polka king and multiple Grammy winner Jimmy Sturr with this version, though it may pre-date him. In any event, the polka version is most closely associated with Stur - but his version has been taken down from YouTube, so here is popular polka-ista Steve Meisner and his band doing Sturr's version:

That is even farther from the original intent of Holt's song than Bobby Bare's rewrite of Hedy West's "500 Miles". Folk process, I suppose.

"Raspberries, Strawberries" has remained a favorite through the years of Kingston Trio fans, and Holt proudly claims it as his own on his website and in his press releases (he still performs occasionally at the age of 82). It is not, as noted, truly French, but that is not a failing exactly, any more than an Italian or German western film is, and there are plenty of those. If we get a glimpse, however slight, into the ethos of another land, then the song or film has on balance likely done more good than harm. Thus it is, I think, with this song.


Nathan Neuman said...

Nice background info on this! The first polka version was done by The New Brass.

Jim Moran said...

Thanks for this, Nathan Neuman! I'll check around YouTube and Vimeo to see if I can find an embeddable New Brass recording to add to this essay.