Tuesday, March 27, 2012

"The Roving Gambler"

I first heard "The Roving Gambler" about 1961 on the third album of The Brothers Four, an estimable pop folk group that had started out as fraternity brothers at the University of Washington in the mid-1950s singing vocal group standards in addition to traditional songs. The group's facility with folk-styled music dovetailed chronologically with the boom in mainstream popularity of the genre and spurred them to national prominence - in what some remember as the Folk Revival and the more cynical as The Great Folk Scare, referencing a now nearly forgotten (except for the disdain, that is) controversy about the "authenticity" of performers like the B4 who freely adapted, arranged, and harmonized songs that had previously existed in somewhat simpler amateur and professional recordings. The quartet became one of the most popular and successful acts of the era, selling millions of albums but unlike many of their folk-oriented counterparts also scoring a significant number of Top 40 singles as well. They were solid professionals - really fine singers who worked hard on their arrangements and harmonies and presented an energetic and entertaining live show. The Brothers Four still perform today with founding member Bob Flick at the helm and three long-term group members with him. They are the only band from the late 50s that has existed as a performing entity for an unbroken stretch of 55 years.

Yet the Brothers Four, like many of the other acts that rose to popularity at the same time, are rather less remembered today than they should be. One explanation for why is offered by the excellent music critic Bruce Eder, who specializes in folk and folk-rock on the internet's Allmusic site. In reflecting on the career of the B4, Eder notes -

Most accounts of the post-WWII folk music boom focus on the political and issue-oriented branch of the music, embodied by Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, at the expense of the softer, more entertainment-oriented branch, embodied by the likes of the Kingston Trio, the Chad Mitchell Trio, and the Brothers Four. Those acts and the music they made -- though it sold well and, indeed, for many years defined what most Americans visualized when the phrase "folk music" was mentioned -- are scarcely mentioned in most histories; the Brothers Four aren't even listed in the Guinness Who's Who of Folk Music.

Eder calls it the "issue-oriented branch," but it was really just another head of the Authenticity Hydra, a monster created in a postwar suburban America in which millions who had joyfully escaped their hardscrabble roots in poverty urban or rural suddenly found their children wanting to adapt their own musical tastes to someone else's current hardscrabble misery - and so attempt to establish their own sense of personal authenticity by grafting themselves on to roots that were not their own. Thus did the issue-oriented branch justify its disregard for groups like the B4, though in the wildest irony imaginable, the issues and roots lovers rather quickly abandoned traditional music altogether, and what today is called "folk" or "roots" is an hilariously misnamed amalgam of electric rock, rhythm and blues, and country without a real folk song any where on the horizon. The upshot is that the very groups derided in the '50s and '60s as faux folk - groups like the Brothers Four, the Kingston Trio, and others - have created with all their professionalism and smooth harmonies an approach to folk and trad music that is much more - you guessed it - authentic than what is marketed as such today.

You can see this in play when you have a really good, really old, and really interesting song to work with like "The Roving Gambler," a tune that according to most scholars began its life in England as "The Roving Irishman" or "The Roving Journeyman," probably more than 300 years ago. According to the great poet and accomplished folklorist Carl Sandburg, the earliest British versions did not include a deck of cards or any games of chance at all - because the story was about an itinerant bad boy known as a roving gamboler, or a hopping and skipping playboy, a despoiler of innocent girls. Some of that remained in the lyric as the gamboler morphed into a gambler, a card sharp who courts a proper young lady and steals her away from her mother.

We know of the song today thanks in no small part to its popularization by John Jacob Niles, a Kentuckian by birth but a highly-educated musical sophisticate and a true citizen of the world. Niles performed the song in the strange, high-voiced inflections that he had heard from his rural forbears (you can hear a sampling of Niles' style on the website created to honor him HERE) - but he created a classical-sounding vocal arrangement for the song that hearkens back to the tune's English roots and that is still widely performed today, here by Alexander Carlos Pikarsky in recital:

There is an almost English Renaissance sound to that, and though Niles writes that " 'The Roving Gambler' is one of my early childhood recollections. It must have come into our family from the Ohio and Mississippi River steamboats" - his chorus of "With a click clack oh and a high johnny ho" sounds a lot more like Oxfordshire than it does like Louisville or Memphis.

After World War I, when Niles was gamboling (couldn't resist) about France and the U.S. studying music, a number of very early recording stars were putting "Roving Gambler" to wax in the 1920s, including Kelly Harrell with perhaps the earliest version in 1925. Vernon Dalhart (a stage name for Texan Marion Try Slaughter) had been recording pop and classical songs for Edison records since 1916, having been auditioned by old Thomas Alva himself, but in 1924 he turned to folk and country. Dalhart's "Gambler" was recorded in 1927:

Dalhart's tune is the template from which the rest of our versions are drawn. It is one of a dozen or so versions from the 1920s and 1930s released by a number of performers, enough so that it was a familiar song by the time Elton Britt recorded it in 1952 (with the Beaver Valley Sweethearts) as a kind of western swing:

Both Dalhart and Britt preserve the image of the gambler as a seductive wanderer, a kind of American Gypsy Rover, who works his way into the affections of an otherwise decent girl.

In 1958, the Everly Brothers released a fascinating album called Songs Our Daddy Taught Us that mixed straight folk with country and flavored it with their inimitable two-part harmony:

The single guitar accompaniment is unusual for the Everlys - except on this album, which shows more fidelity to the original songs and - dare I say - more authenticity than albums more widely regarded as folk.

And that brings us to 1961 and the Brothers Four. They were at the height of their popularity when the B.M.O.C. (Best Music On/Off Campus) album including "Gambler" came out:

The Brothers performed with a kind of controlled verve on display here, a kind of early 60s collegiate cool. It's a deceptively simple-sounding cut, but a close listen demonstrates just how tight that harmony is.

A year before his death in a plane crash in 1964 at the age of 39, country star Jim Reeves went to South Africa to play the lead in a movie called Kimberly Jim, and Reeves had a country hit with his version, changing the city names to Capetown and Kimberly to give the tune a South African ambiance:

A year or two before the first iteration of the Kingston Trio disbanded, they added "Gambler" to their concert repertoire. The shirts and hair in this video are a dead giveaway that it's from the mid-60s. Gone are the late 50s crew cuts and 3/4 length striped shirts. What remains, though, is the almost-manic high speed energy of their uptempo performances:

The medley with "This Train," a completely unrelated song, works well here, and in some fashion as the Trio approached what appeared at first to be the end of its existence it was getting back to its own roots. Both songs are traditional - and it had been quite some time since the KT had introduced new trad numbers into their playlist.

There are at least two or three dozen recorded versions of "Roving Gambler" in the 40+ years since the Kingstons' rendition. One of the most recent and best is by emerging country/roots superstar Dierks Bentley, here with the veteran Del McCoury Band:

Bentley's blazing take on the song is very much what we expect from a contemporary bluegrass artist - but note how much more it has in common with the Kingston Trio than it does with Vernon Dalhart or Elton Britt.

The variations in these versions tend to be rather more in the music than in the lyrics, which except for Bentley's character turning murderous are fairly uniform. The story has legs, as they say on Broadway, not least because of that darkest of mysteries to many a teenage boy and young man. Why is it that the good girls go for the bad boys? I don't know and you may not - but the Gambler apparently does.


I couldn't sneak this into the article because it just wouldn't fit thematically, but I wanted to include it. I had forgotten that the late actor Robert Mitchum had an active music career as well - I remember as a boy enjoying his singing of the theme song in the western River of No Return. Mitchum released two albums in his life, but several tracks were released only after his death, including his "Roving Gambler." Mitchum does a pop/jazz/blues take on the song - what I find surprising is the high pitch he uses here. Recall that his speaking voice (and his voice on many of his other recordings) was a robust baritone:

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