Thursday, April 5, 2012

"Red River Shore" and "Hanna Lee"

This is a half post, really. I'm working on something rather more involved for this week, but these two songs are ones I loved as a youth many a decade ago, and though there aren't many different takes on the tunes, I thought it might be fun to take a brief look at each.

The inception of this page was, as noted at left, in posts that I had made for the wonderful Kingston Crossroads message board, a great site for discussing all topics folk and roots related, though of course the prime focus is on the Kingston Trio, its 55 year history and recordings, and the doings of its current incarnation, which has just released the first CD in decades of all-new material by the group, Born At The Right Time - more on this to come. Most of the more than 140 songs discussed on this site have been recorded at one time or another by the KT, including many now very familiar tunes first waxed by the Trio years before the later hit versions.

A fair number of the more than 250 songs that the group has put on albums, though, are unique to them, as I had thought that both "Red River Shore" and "Hanna Lee" might have been. Not true, as it turns out - and both numbers have an excellent pedigree as folk-flavored pop tunes.

The copyright for "Red River Shore" is assigned as "Adapted by Jack Splittard and Randy Cierley." The former is the pseudonym that the KT adopted for copyrights that the three musicians wanted to claim jointly, much as "Paul Campbell" had been for The Weavers - albeit with the KT-ish humor of splitting the jack, a now nearly archaic term for money. Cierley, however, is a very real person who figured in the late stages of the Trio's first decade; he has had a fascinating and somewhat harrowing life and musical career that he chronicles in a great website HERE. It's certainly worth a look: Cierly has worked with some of the greats and has endured more than most of us ever will. In his youth, though, he worked as a musician and arranger on some of the cuts on the Kingstons' failed attempt at folk-rock, Something Else - though this arrangement of a traditional song works somehow mysteriously for me:

The organ and military-styled snare drum are rather less obtrusive than the rock instrumentation is on most of the album's other cuts. John Stewart has the lead spoken vocal, as he did on a number of other KT songs.

Cierley's and the Trio's changes to the original song are apparent when you listen to a version from five years prior by the Norman Luboff Choir, a wonderful chorale that I remember most for supporting Harry Belafonte on a number of his 1950s and 60s albums:

Aside from the alterations to the tune and some creative shifts in the chordal accompaniment, the biggest difference is clearly in which of the doomed couple dies, and why. It's an easy inference that Cierly and the Trio were adapting the song under the long shadows of Marty Robbins' "El Paso" (though Randy remarked recently that he was "pretty sure that 'El Paso' had nothing to do with it" directly) and the Trio's own last Top 10 singles hit, "The Rev. Mr. Black", a number also with verses spoken by Stewart. Thus, we get a shoot-out and some dying words instead of a suicide and accompanying note. Except for its clearly derivative nature (and its clear inferiority to Robbins' classic), I prefer the KT arrangement here.

"Hanna Lee" was co-written by Richard Mills, about whom I can't find anything, and the rather higher profile Stan Jones, who wrote "Ghost Riders In The Sky" and the theme song for the old Warner Brothers western Cheyenne, both of which are enough to endear Jones to any child of the 50s. In case you've forgotten -

Jones is a member of the Western Music Hall of Fame, and his page there is, like Cierly's, a fascinating look at the man's life in and out of music.

"Hanna Lee" is a bit of western fluff, reminiscent of the much superior Wilkins/Dill "Long Black Veil" though HL preceded LBV by several years. The Kingstons had had great success with earlier recordings of hanging-after-murder-for-love songs; though this is a decent cut, the band may have gone to the well once too often:

Other versions were recorded by major 50s pop star Guy Mitchell:

I like the "reckless lovers/pretty devil" line - and Johnny Western is also in the Western Music Hall of Fame as both a performer and as a radio personality:

Next up - something more traditional.

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