Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Terry Gilkyson And "Fast Freight"

Timing is everything, they say, especially as it concerns success in any number of fields, music and the arts perhaps being chief among these. Vincent van Gogh sold only a handful of paintings in his short and unhappy lifetime; his style was just too radical, too assertive, too dramatic for the tastes of his contemporaries who, as Don MacLean told us in his song, "did not listen - they did not know how." They damn well might be listening now - to the tune of the $145 million paid a few years back for just one of his paintings, as VVG has become just about the personification of the suffering creative genius and one of the most beloved painters in the entire world. Had poet Emily Dickinson been born, say, a generation or so after her 1830 birth, she might well have enjoyed a career as a writer marked by financial success and the public adulation that came to her quietly sublime lyrics only in the 20th century, long, long after her death; she sold and published but seven poems in her 56 years.

The alternative to pining away as a misunderstood and under-appreciated artist, of course, is to take your talent or craft, work on it ceaselessly, be flexible about the uses to which you put it, and make the most of whatever opportunities come your way - to be Terry Gilkyson, in a word. Gilkyson (1916-1999) was a first-rate baritone in the pop vein and a more than competent songwriter of folk-styled music. But he wasn't a crooner like his contemporaries Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, and the "style" of his folk was more pop than that of Pete Seeger, three years younger than Gilkyson - and the songs that he wrote in the folk vein that were covered by or became hits for the likes of Frankie Laine, Dean Martin, Harry Belafonte, the Kingston Trio, and the Brothers Four were performed largely by singers almost a generation younger than he was. Gilkyson was 42 when "Tom Dooley" became a hit and ushered in the commercial side of the folk revival - too old in most respects to become an idol to the college-age and teen crowds whose record-buying habits were fueling the popularity of the genre. He wrote a number of songs that became hits for various pop singers and released several respected if light-selling folk albums of his own.

TG was no stranger to pop success, though - he sang on a couple of million-selling records released by the Weavers, and his composition with fellow Easy Riders Richard Dehr and Frank Miller of "Memories Are Made Of This" became a hit for Martin in part because of the elegantly simple vocal and instrumental back-up provided by TG and the Riders. Gilkyson's folk-ish trio also scored one of the few acoustic hits prior to "Tom Dooley" with its delightful "Marianne."

After the Brothers Four had a major singles hit with his "Greenfields," though, Gilkyson could see the writing on the wall and realized that folk was as much of a pop fad as the calypso that had boosted "Marianne" proved to be. In his mid-40s Gilkyson became something of a contract in-house songwriter for the Disney studios, penning songs and incidental music for such ventures as The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (one of my favorites as a boy), The Swiss Family Robinson, The Jungle Book (for which TG received an Academy Award nomination), and Savage Sam. By refusing to sign a personal services contract with Uncle Walt and become a salaried employee of the studio, Gilkyson was able to retain the highly lucrative rights to those projects and his songs, and he enjoyed an early, comfortable, and very long retirement before his 1999 death. The music and fine arts history books may not have much to say about Terry Gilkyson, but he surely deserves to be remembered as an artist undaunted by shifts in time and tides and one who cheerfully made the most of the talents he had - and passed those talents on to his prominent musician children, roots singer Eliza and rock guitarist Tony.

Listen to Gilkyson take the lead on this recording of "Across The Wide Missouri" backed by The Weavers - this from the group's 1950 sessions for Decca supervised by Gordon Jenkins:

Clearly, TG was a talented vocalist - but as was said of Cisco Houston, with a voice rather too trained for folk but not quite bravura enough for full-on pop music.

One of Gilkyson's songs that has been covered by the likes of Tim Hardin, the Serendipity Singers, and the Kingston Trio - and more recently by James Lee Stanley, Ron Lloyd among many others - is the darkly atmospheric "Fast Freight." The song seems to have been the product of TG's imagination rather than from any real life experience, combining as it does the restless yearning to travel common across all forms of American folk music with the hobo motif thrown in for good measure. The Kingston Trio made probably the highest profile recording of the number - it was included in the group's debut album that sold more than half a million copies and charted for an at the time unprecedented 195 weeks:

The soloist on this rendition is cerebral Trio leading arranger Dave Guard. It speaks volumes, I think, that the most accomplished musician in the early years of the group chose this song as his solo on the band's first album. The hand-strummed guitars and pounding bass replicate musically the rhythm of a locomotive's drive wheels. A comment under the YouTube upload of the song says it all - "A wonderful blend, and what gorgeous dynamics!"

The influence of the early KT permeated much of the early pop-folk field, and that influence manifests itself clearly in this 1962 offering by a very young Gordon Lightfoot, with partner Terry Whelan as The Two Tones:

It's a fine performance, even if the arrangement is pretty much derived from the KT.

The Leesiders were a duo from the North of England in the early 60s who enjoyed a degree of local success and included "Fast Freight" both on an LP and in performance:

It's a different take on the song that works very well, I think.

For something a bit unusual - a 3D version by Fritz Capell. Or so I'm told - I don't have the glasses so I can't tell for sure:

It's a competent rendition, though I remain in the dark about the advantage of extra dimensions.

Finally and even more unusually, Spain's "John Paperback" turns the tune into an almost ethereal new-age blues-flavored meditation:

I'm not sure that this is completely successful, but Paperback gets an A for craft and originality in my book.

And Terry Gilkyson likewise gets high marks for doing the best he could, in his career and with "Fast Freight" - and in the words of a John Stewart song, doing it pretty up-and-walking good.


Addendum, March 2017

And here, far too tardily, is the recent version by Terry Gilkyson's famous daughter Eliza - as suggested below by her son and Terry's grandson Cisco Gilliland, who is also co-producer of the video. The performance is every bit as great as we fans knew it would be.


Jop said...

Thanks for taking the time and trouble to make this great material available

Cisco Gilliland said...

Hi, I am Terry Gilkyson's grandson. I came across your blog while looking for other versions of Fast Freight. I recently made a video for a version that Terry's daughter, Eliza Gilkyson (my mom), released on her most recent album. The video is finished but we are waiting for the record label to premiere it. Let me know if you would like to see it when it comes out. You can stream her version now via Spotify or purchase it at iTunes or Amazon.

Thanks for the great work! - Cisco Gilliland

Jim Moran said...

Hi Cisco! I am thrilled to read your comment and am happy that my effort here about your grandfather strikes a chord with you. I am a big fan of his recorded work (never got to see him in person) and I'm also a big fan of your mother's, certainly one of the finest roots artists out there today. (BTW - when she first achieved national prominence a couple of decades back, I wondered if she was indeed related to Terry - betting myself that she was - and was pleased to find out that she was.)
And please - if your mother's video becomes available in any embeddable form, I'll put it as the first video in the article. I can just imagine what she could do with this wonderful song. It's be a thrill for me. I only regret that I haven't been able to find a recording of Terry doing his own song.
In any event, please keep ne posted about the progress of the video with the record company.


Jim M.

Cisco Gilliland said...

Hi Jim, Eliza's video for Fast Freight is up on YouTube now. Here's the link:

It's definitely too bad that there's no video of Terry playing the song.

Best, Cisco

Steve B. said...

What a great site! I've played guitar and sung since the 60's. Some Kingston Trio and Harry Belafonte songs were in major keys and easy to play and playing them is how I began singin' & playin'. I just sang "Fast Freight" since I'm beginning to get back into it more at age 71. I guess I pattern myself after Dave Guard's version but his is a little soft for me and lacks the dynamics I prefer to put into it. As a singer, it's one of my favorites. Thanks!