Friday, March 23, 2012

Look Away, Over Yandro: "He's Gone Away"

I think that there must be a sentimental afterglow suffusing my spirit this spring in the wake of St.Patrick's Day and my "Molly Malone" post last week. Were that not sufficient to induce a kind of tempus fugit melancholy, then my attendance at a 70th anniversary screening of the piercingly romantic Casablanca in an event sponsored in selected theaters by Turner Classic Movies a couple of days ago surely did the trick - because I have found this week's song, a very old North Carolina ballad, haunting both my conscious thoughts and my dreams for the last several days. Not a problem at all, because "He's Gone Away" ranks with "Shenandoah" and "The Water Is Wide" as among the loveliest airs ever to grace a nation's traditional music.

I say "North Carolina ballad," but not surprisingly the song may have its roots in the British Isles, though exactly where is a matter of predictable dispute, with England garnering the most support, though I have always thought that the general tune sounded more Scots or Irish or even Welsh than English. The problem is that there are no close variants musically in Britain or Ireland (though some scholars maintain that the melody is derived from a Child ballad known as either "Lord Gregory" or "The Lass of Loch Royal") - and the hallmark lyric about returning even if the singer goes 10,000 miles appears in a number of songs in each country. Even if there is a foreign origin for "He's Gone Away," the chord accompaniment in the versions we know today has a distinctively Appalachian twist to it at the end of the chorus - instead of switching from the I chord or tonic ("But I'll be coming back") to the expected V7, the melody walks down a step on the "ten thousand," as from a G to an F, before resolving into the seventh chord on "miles." If that point seems just incomprehensible, as writing about music often does, simply think about the chord progression in mountain classics "Little Maggie" or "Darlin' Corey" where the same kind of shift occurs.

"He's Gone Away" appears in musical archives across America, with some very old printed copies stored in state libraries in Kansas and Missouri as well as in Appalachia. It has several variant titles as well - "The Railroad Man," "Over Yonder," and "Yandro" among others. Some people claim it to be a song from a Confederate volunteer leaving his intended to go off and fight in the war, others that it is the plaint of a runaway slave. It seems likely that the tune is much older than the Civil War, and just as I associate the haunting loveliness of the tune with "The Water Is Wide," the parting lovers motif strikes me as of the same nature as "The Wagoner's Lad", which goes back to 1790 or earlier.

Unlike "Water" and "Shenandoah," however, "He's Gone Away" survives in performances today in choral, orchestral, and jazz versions rather more than it does in guitar-based folk repertoires. I find that disappointing because the song is ideal for a single voice and one instrument, as it might have been done by, say, Judy Collins. So to get a kind of base version from which to start, I had to select a fine, simple choral rendition from the "WJMS Choir":

For the life of me I cannot find out the full name, location, or age of this chorale despite a really extensive search. However - after watching scores of YouTube videos in search of the answer, I think it likely that the "MS" in the YT name stands for "middle school" - which means that that wonderful rendition was executed by a group of 13- and 14-year-old girls. Stunning. Repeated queries via email, telephone, and YouTube email have failed to turn up the artists here - I called school districts in Georgia, Tennessee, and Texas to no avail - so for the moment we'll just have to appreciate the lovely performance without knowing who presented it.

Better luck here with another middle school chorus in a slightly more ornate arrangement with a rather larger ensemble:

I'm surmising that TMEA is the Texas Music Educators Association. This rendition is by their Region 8 All-Region Middle School Treble Choir, recorded on January 31st, 2009 at Midway Middle School in Hewitt, Texas.

Rather less surprising is the quality of the performance turned in here by operatic couple Charles H. and the late Mary Elizabeth Wagner, from 1987 in Chicago:

Folk fans will have already noted the lyrical similarity to both "Hard, Ain't Hard" and "Who's Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Foot?" with the plaint by the singer wondering who will care for her in her lover's absence.

American classical composer Roy Harris used the melody as the fourth movement of his 1941 "Folk Song Symphony," and while there is no recording of that currently on YT, contemporary composer Rick Kirby has created a similarly moving and thoughtful piece from the musical theme:

Composer Robert Beaser also created an instrumental from the song, originally as a duo for guitar and flute. Matthew Slotkin and Craig Butterfield changed the instrumentation to guitar and double bass to a satisfying effect:

One of the greatest of 20th century American poets was Carl Sandburg, and he has appeared frequently in the articles on this site because he was also one of the great collectors of traditional folk songs in this country and one of the genre's greatest promoters. Late in his life, Sandburg retired from poetry, political activism, and his native Midwest to move to North Carolina, where he devoted all of his energies to folk singing for about a decade until his death in 1967. Here is his simple, unaffected take on the song, with a final chorus that I have heard before but which appears in no other versions on this page:

The surprise of the day is the legendary pop/jazz star Peggy Lee translating a folk number into a bluesy cabaret show-stopper:

Perhaps the best-known version in recent years is from 1997 by master jazz instrumentalists Pat Metheny of Missouri (guitar) and Charlie Haden (bass) from Iowa, both of whom recalled the tune from their country-bred parents and grandparents:

While several major folk stars of the revival era attempted "He's Gone Away," curiously the only version that I found on YouTube (going thirty pages into the search, I'll have you know), is a rewrite from the Kingston Trio that recasts the lyrics as a paean of admiration for the original seven American space explorers, the Mercury program astronauts - this is titled "These Seven Men":

Equally curiously - this rewrite was not done as I had thought for years by Trio member John Stewart but rather by his brother Michael, later one of the founding members of the folk-rock group "We Five" of "You Were On My Mind" fame. The excitement surrounding the original astronauts is, I think, captured well in the adulation and very Kennedy-era idealism of the lyrics.

The sheer and quiet beauty of this song has kept it a favorite of mine for decades, and I am disappointed that there are not more folk versions available to listen to. On the other hand, it is a testament to the evocative power of "He's Gone Away" - of lovers separated by time and space but with the yearning hope of reunion - that it has morphed into so many differing styles. If nothing else, that last fact has shaped this into the most musically unusual and eclectic of the 158 articles I've posted on this site.

...And Further...

Courtesy of the comment below from KingKilter, here is a lovely recording from 1947 by the great Jo Stafford, a versatile star performer who in addition to her signature jazz and pop vocals recorded a significant number of folk and folk-styled songs as well. This video wasn't posted to YouTube until 6 months after the publication of this article, which is why it wasn't included in the first place. Thanks to KingKilter!:

And Further Yet....
Thanks to reader Judy Dreis for suggesting the inclusion of this version by the great operatic soprano Marilyn Horne, which became available on YouTube a few months ago:


Linkmeister said...

The KT version reminded me of something I haven't thought of since I was in a Northern Virginia Up With People group myself: The Walk of Ed White.

Astronaut music! I think there might be one more about Yuri Gagarin, but I wouldn't swear to it.

Suzanne G. said...

I'd like to subscribe to your blog. Please put a subscription button on your blog. I'm also linking to this post on my blog.

loge10 said...

Very nice blog on a beautiful song. It was interesting to listen to the various versions. One you don't have which is my personal favorite is that of Jo Stafford.

I heard the song referenced in the commentary track of How the West was Won (which uses the song in the score, quite beautifully) and when I looked it up, Jo's was the first I heard and it blew me away.

Jim Moran said...

Thanks loge10 for the kind comments and the suggestion - as you can see, I've added Stafford's beautiful version to the article with appropriate credit to you.

Ross Monroe Winter said...

Have one more for you! Daron Hagen expressly wrote this movement of a violin concerto based on this tune. Hope you enjoy it.

Jim Moran said...

Great version, Ross! I'll add it as an appendix here ASAP.



KingKilter said...

Great post! Thanks so much :)
Regarding the first video: It sounds to me as though it's someone looping their voice, not a choir. The voices are waaaaay to unified in tone, they sound like the same singer. It's clearly a digitally recorded piano as well, which would make sense for someone recording with their own equipment, but not for a choir. Could be the persons initials?
Also, the Jo Stafford (my favorite version) is a broken link. Here's a working one:

Jim Moran said...

Hi King Kilter -

Thanks for the observations and especially for the working link to the Stafford video. When loge10 provided the original link, it was working here in the U.S. The good thing about yours is that the "#Jo Stafford" and the "Provided by InGrooves" (a copyright watchdog) indicate that this is an upload initiated and sanctioned by YouTube itself, so it is safe from removal. Regarding that first video - on the actual YT page, the uploader names him/herself as "wjmschoir" and has a bunch of other videos that are perhaps more clearly the work of a chorale. The style of the video is consistent with scores of others from middle school choirs in Texas and the Deep South, especially as submitted for competitions, so the question of just who is singing there remains doubtful. If it is one person - she did a great job of layering her singing. But I still think that it is simply a marvelously and miraculously trained junior high chorus.

Mary McGuire said...

The first time I ever heard this tune was when I was a wee one, too busy to stand still very long and watch a whole tv program. But I remember stopping in my tracks when I heard Jim Neighbors sing this. It was either on "the Andy Griffith show" or his Gomer Pyle show. I can't remember which but the song, performed as a guitar ballad by him was amazing.

Jim Moran said...

Thanks for the comment, Mary McGuire! I've always loved Nabors' singing - I just searched YouTube, Daily Motion, and Vimeo for the performance (which was indeed on "Gomer Pyle") but no one has posted it yet. I'll keep an eye out for it; I'd love to add it to the article.

Duquena said...

Hi. Congratulations for this wonderful post. There's a beautiful version of this song (the version who brings me here) by Tanya Haden (Charlie Haden's daughter), in the album of her father "Rambling boy" (I think there is also a documentary with this name). Shenandoah is also sang in this album, amongst other traditional tunes.


LisaLisa22 said...

The song was also featured in an episode of the classic television show "The Munsters". Lily Munster (played by Yvonne De Carlo) sings the song while playing the harp. Lovely rendition of the song that is not diminished by the comedic nature of the show.

Anonymous said...

My path to finding this page started with a short story I read in the 1950's or 1960's, The Desrick on Yandro, available free online at:

I am particularly grateful to you for the link to the Carl Sandburg version of the song, which I imagine sounds more like the fictional balladeer.

margaret krpan said...

On Youtube there is also a very beautiful rendition by Kathleen Battle.

Paul Dexter said...

It was just today that I finally discovered the title to this beautiful song, "He's Gone Away". It was during an episode of "Gomer Pyle USMC" where Jim Nabors sings the ballad to a young lady, with guitar accompaniment. I had to research "clumbs of words" from the lyrics to find a match on YouTube with the title words. When I lived in Lincoln, NE, during the 80's, one of the Omaha TV stations played this ballad each evening when they signed off at midnight. It was a beautiful instrumental with strings supporting a haunting harmonica melody. I would often sit up 'til midnight just to hear it! I'm motivated now to contact the Omaha TV stations for information on that specific recording and the musical group that performed it. If I find out, I'll share it here. If you're a follower of this tune, you'll surely enjoy it. Wish me luck!

Jim Moran said...

By all means, the best of luck to you, Paul Dexter! And please please - if you find out the information, please come back and post the info here. If we can get a copy of the recording, I'll find a way to get it into this article with appropriate attribution to you, either as a YT video or as a track on my SoundCloud account. I would have posted Nabors' version here as well but it hasn't been available on YT het - I'll check again this afternoon.
My own sign-off moment parallels yours in a way. In my Chicago home of the 1950s and 1960s, WGN (now a "superstation" but then just our best local independent) signed off at 1am or so with a beautiful video of clouds, some quiet orchestral music, and a moving recitation of John Magee's poem "High Flight" ("I have slipped the surly bonds of earth...."). As with your Omaha rendition of this song - that video and poem were well worth staying up late to see.

Jim Moran

Paul Dexter said...

Thanks, Jim, I sent out an inquiry to one of the Omaha stations and I'm waiting for a response. In the mean time, in my quest to find the mystery recording on YouTube, I did find another vocal recordinng, similar to the one's above, that's very pleasant to listen to, titled, 'He's Gone Away (full song)'. Sorry, I don't know how to post it here. There's another titled, sung by the United Air Force Singing Sergeants, titled, 'He's Gone Away, from The Mountain Ballads', that you might enjoy. The Liberty Singers also do a rendition of it where they describe it as an Appalachian love song. Finally,the Jim Nabors recording is titled, 'Gomer pyle sing 'OVER YONDER''. Pardon the spelling and grammar errors but that's how it appears. Amazing, isn't it, how haunting a song can be.

NanSC said...

Thank you so much for blogging about this song He's Gone Away.

I first heard the melody on the Soundtrack of the movie How The West Was Won.

I heard it again today when listening to Radio Classics (SirusXM) with the radio staging of Toni Tennille as a Tennessee gal at the beginning of the Civil War and this is the song she sings parts of throughout the production.

Paul Dexter said...

Jim, I FOUND IT! I never got a response from the Omaha radio station but a recent blogger's reference to the movie, "How the West Was Won," got me surfing through soundtrack videos on YouTube. Once again, I don't know how to post the video here, but the title is, 'How the West Was Won, 1962 Soundtrack, Side A, Alfred Newman.' Go to marker 16.25 and you'll find the instrumental version of "He's Gone Away" that I mentioned in my previous blogs. This is the rendition that the Omaha radio station played when they signed off each day at midnight. Like I said, I would often sit up late just to listen to this beautiful song. Enjoy!

Jim Moran said...

NanSC - thanks for this! I would love to hear Toni Tenille's rendition - she has a marvelous voice perfectly suited to the song.
Jim M.

Jim Moran said...

Thanks so very much, Paul! I'll shoot over to YouTube and check it out ASAP. I saw the movie when it was released and was struck by the extensive incorporation of music into the narrative, though I don't remember the "Gone Away" instrumental. As you likely recall, the film used a stirring Mormon Tabernacle Choir-type rendition of that great old gospel/spiritual "Bound For The Promised Land" as a kind of theme song, and deleted from many video versions, about 20 short background clips of trad songs performed by Dave Guard and the Whiskeyhill Singers. Great points that you brought up here, and I'll stand with my blog regarding the sheer and unexpected beauty of this very old song.