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.

Addendum

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:

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 loge10, 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 loge10!:

Thursday, March 15, 2012

"Molly Malone"

You cannot, as the old saying goes, make a silk purse out of a sow's ear - unless, of course, you happen to be Irish, in which case the multitude of necessities under which your people have labored over many centuries has become the mother of many wonderful inventions in poetry and song. For all of its scenic beauty, Ireland has always been a very difficult place to live - cold, wet, foul weather, soil too rocky and rough to farm effectively, the watchful and often intrusive eyes of the church on your conduct - and the always intrusive presence in history of that large nation full of Saxons just to the east across the Irish Sea. The Irish genius for survival in the face of such difficulties has a lot to do with the people's ability to make the aforementioned silk purses, or lemonade out of lemons, if you prefer - and nowhere is this more apparent than in the music of the island, which runs the gamut from dark melancholy to light-stepping merriment with plenty of stops at heroic anthem in between.

Take, for example, our song this week, the old folk chestnut "Molly Malone," that seemingly almost humorous and mawkish memorial to a street girl of Dublin. My folk world friend Joe Belogi posted a fine performance of the tune on Facebook a week or two ago (and that was what got me thinking about the song - thanks, Joe!) with the remark that it must have been a pretty tough gig to be a fishmonger and even tougher to avoid becoming one if you came from a long line of fishmongers, as sweet Molly did. Yes - and that is precisely the point, as we shall see.

As with many a song with no known author, "Molly Malone" has created more than its share of arguments as to its origin. There is a persistent myth in Ireland that Molly was a real girl, and the City of Dublin a couple of decades back declared that they had made a positive identification of the inspiration for the song, a Molly M. who died in 1699 and for whom the song was composed. The fact that no copy of the tune exists before 1880 or so casts doubt on such a claim, however, and the chord structure and lilting 3/4 waltz rhythm just aren't right for an 18th or early 19th century Irish street song. They are, on the other hand, perfectly in keeping with the kinds of songs being written in (perish the thought) the English music halls of the day, mocking the Irish and their sentimentality. Nor does it help that the oldest published version of "Molly Malone" actually comes from Scotland, albeit with the same reference to Dublin in the lyric.

Compounding the problem is the statue pictured above, created by prominent Irish sculptor Jeanne Rynhart as part of a millennium celebration in Dublin in 1988. Rynhart has clearly played off of the other part of the Molly myth - that though a fishmonger by day she was a prostitute by night, which would account for the state of partial undress in the depiction. While it is true that in English slang going back to Shakespeare "fishmonger" was synonymous with pimp, such a suggestion in a clearly plaintive and melancholy song imputes a grittier historical reality than the lyrics and music warrant - that a girl selling fish was but a step away from whoring. A Dublin girl hawking seafood was in the exact same position and economic straits as a flower girl in London like Eliza Doolittle of My Fair Lady fame - and does anyone want to turn Julie Andrews (the originator of the role on stage - I never bought into cinema's Audrey Hepburn) into a streetwalker?

I think not - and we shouldn't. The English music hall tunesmiths loved mocking the Irish - "Finnegan's Wake" is another great example. In the lyric, day laborer Tim Finnegan dies in a construction accident, and a drunken brawl breaks out at his wake - until the whiskey from a shattered bottle spills all over the corpse, which resurrects him. All the stereotypes are there - the illiterate and vulgar Irishman, the heavy drinking, the fighting, the whiskey as the magical elixir of life. But the song is genuinely clever and very funny, and as they often had before, the Irish adopted it and made it their own and sing it with self-mocking joy to this very day.

One of the earliest copies of the lyrics to "Molly Malone" was discovered in the papers of English Victorian clown Thomas Lawrence, who characterized it as a "comic song," indicating its intended mockery of Irish sentimentality. But the meanness of the original intent goes further, if you think about it. The lovely tune with its gentle lilt, the idealization of "sweet Molly Malone" that the lyric creates when paired with the music - in the class-stratified society of England, no street-dwelling, fishmongering girl could ever be a figure of romantic longing. But in an Ireland where a hardscrabble farmer's daughter like the Mary MacCree of the equally lovely "Mountains of Mourne" can become "the wild rose that's waiting for me" and the personification of all that the poor boy desires, then our Molly can likewise be a romantic ideal for what she is in the singer's eyes, not for what she does or where she comes from.

Even if the song was composed as a satire, it possesses an undeniable loveliness when sung properly - so for our first version we turn to that most Irish of all folk groups, the Dubliners. This is a later incarnation of the group, with Paddy Reilly singing the lead:



The same group in live performance - Reilly again on lead, but with the addition of founding member Ronnie Drew not long before his death, the gray-bearded gent in the pink shirt singing bass:



From a younger generation, controversial Irish star Sinéad O'Connor employs a sort of new age instrumental background:



David Summerford syncopates the song a bit to an interesting effect - but the highlight of this video is at the end, where Summerford has a bit of a surprise for the viewer:



Many Americans would have heard "Molly Malone" first in this somewhat free adaptation from the 1940s by Burl Ives, who changes the tune and some of the lyrics:



At first I hated this version by San Diego's "American Irish folk punk" band Fiffin Market (with Kimberly Davidson on lead) - but it's grown on me, and I now rather enjoy its bubblegum-ish flavor:



At the same time, I was delighted to find a younger lady who really knows how to sing - she goes by the YouTube name of victoriap1981:



I love this - no breathy, note-obscuring fakery here, just a young lady with a fine voice who knows how to use it.

To close, we turn again to the Dubliners, the current configuration with big, bluff Patsy Watchorn on lead. Watch the audience. This was shot just a couple of years ago at the Vicar Street theater in Dublin. Whatever the song's original intent, the people of Ireland's capital have completely embraced the tune as their own and love it with a passion that few other "city songs" can equal:



I can't say for sure where I first heard "Molly Malone," but I would bet that it was in elementary school music classes, where once a week or so all the children in each grade would be herded down to the auditorium for about 45 minutes of enforced singing with Mrs. Bobka. There was no instruction on technique or breathing or pitch - just Mrs. B at the piano and the children with song sheets, the belief being that singing was one of the joys of life and a necessary part of any child's education. I loved the class, and I loved this song, and now I know why. Joe Belogi was right - fishmongering was a tough gig, and Molly's real life counterparts would have been calloused, rough, and dirty girls coarsened by poverty and labor. But not so in my ten year old imagination, where Miss Malone was a figure of wonderful tragedy, nor in the imagination of the singer of the song, whose Molly is as sweet and lovely as a morning in spring. Would that we all had such eyes through which to see our world.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Donovan's "Colours"

I found myself arguing the other day on the internet with someone whose politics differ from my own (imagine that - arguing on the internet), and I pointed out that he was guilty of a rhetorical fallacy, post hoc, ergo propter hoc to be specific - the false logic of the belief that because one thing occurs after another, the first must have caused the second. I was lucky enough to be in college at a place and time where classical and traditional rhetoric and logic were still taught - were honored and cherished, in fact, to the extent that we had to know the names of all of the fallacies and tropes and techniques by their original Latin names. That was pretty much par for the course back in those days if you majored in the humanities, but it has been, I fear, like so many other good ideas from education in an earlier age, abandoned in favor of easier, more "user-friendly," and less exacting approaches to learning writing and argument.

But it's not that everyone actually learned either logic or rhetoric back then - the history of the time is as rife with monumental mistakes and colossal blunders as is any other historical period. And then as now, far too many people fall effortlessly into the post hoc fallacy - it's an easy trap to be snared by. For many of us who are pop-folk fans, it all begins with the Kingston Trio channeling and extending The Weavers, right? All those other pop-folk stars of the late '50s and early '60s must have been following the KT, right? Well, not exactly. Groups that won record contracts and emerged in mainstream pop music in '59 or '60 included what appeared to be coattail groups like The Brothers Four and The Limeliters. Trouble is - both of those groups were absolutely contemporary with the Kingstons, and the Brothers began singing together two years before the KT was organized, as did the original members of what became the Chad Mitchell Trio. Though their popularity and record contracts may have sprung from the Trio's success, their existence as vocal groups did not do so at all.

One of the enduring misapprehensions about Scots singer-songwriter Donovan Leitch is that he was an imitator of and acolyte to Bob Dylan - mainly because the era of Donovan's greatest popularity and record sales occurred chronologically after Dylan's ascent to stardom. But the development of Donovan's musical style and his earliest compositions were actually nearly simultaneous with those of Bobby D, and the Scots performer was quite understandably more influenced initially by UK folk legend Martin Carthy and the Beatles - and all you need is ears to hear to sense that though Donovan greatly admired Dylan's songwriting, he wasn't trying to ape America's boy genius at all. Dylan's involvement with folk music was a short-lived flirtation; much of his most memorable work features rock rhythms with those brilliantly imagist lyrics. Donovan, on the other hand, came down briefly with a mild case of folk-rock which led him away from his true love - which was British-inflected acoustic guitar-based folk music. The best of Donovan's work should be compared to real American folk writers like Tom Paxton and Phil Ochs, not to Dylan.

Where Dylan and Ochs channeled the rebellious anger of the early and mid-60s, Donovan was writing tunes that pre-dated the "flower-power" movement with which in memory they remain most closely associated. I would venture that his best-known song and the one likeliest to endure is the wonderfully folk-sounding "Catch The Wind" from 1965, two years before the Summer of Love:



I don't think Dylan ever wrote anything this pretty, and his ventures into borrowing English and Irish melodies for his own lyrics just never worked for me. The originals - like "The Leaving of Liverpool " ("Fare Thee Well"), "The Parting Glass" ("Restless Farewell"), and "The Patriot Game" ("With God On Our Side") are invariably better than Dylan's pastiches - much, much better. Dylan just does not connect emotionally to the Anglo-Irish sensibility that shaped and informed Donovan and his best work.

And any list of Donovan's best folk tunes must include "Colours." It is a simple song that I have seen derided as drivel (as indeed all of Donovan's work has been) by those who consider themselves part of the hipster cognoscenti - you know, the folks who identify with the leather-jacketed, handsome, and stubble-faced actor who impersonates the Macintosh computers in those recent commercials in contrast to the portly, be-spectacled, Dockers-wearing PC guy. I suppose if that kind of image appeals to someone - for my money, only the irretrievably shallow - then Donovan is not their cup of tea. But then, genuine folk music wouldn't be either, and Donovan comes a lot closer to the real McCoy in this song than most other singer-songwriters ever have. The proof of that pudding is below - most of the best cover versions of the song are Donovan plus someone else - like Joan Baez and Pete Seeger. You really have to be a stubble-faced Shallow Hal to accuse those two of purveying drivel.

First, Donovan himself in 1965 on the TV show Shindig, shortly after the song was released:



Baez lent the incredible purity of her soprano to her version on the Farewell, Angelina album:



The two combined for a duet on the song at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival:



Pete Seeger just did not lend the considerable weight of his integrity to just anyone, and here (as often on his Rainbow Quest show) he showcases his guest while providing sublime instrumental and vocal back-up:



The Derrol Adams to whom Donovan alludes was an American who became a kind of godfather to the UK and continental folk revivals - we have a discussion of his work in the article on his "Portland Town".

Toward the end of its first ten years, the Kingston Trio had moved away from adaptations of traditional songs and had fully embraced the singer-songwriter movement, being among the first to record songs by writers like Gordon Lightfoot, Ian Tyson, Hoyt Axton, Rod McKuen, and more. They do a straightforward take on "Colours," which wasn't released until after the original group broke up. This rendition is from the group's final performances at the Hungry i in San Francisco:



There are pages and pages of mostly amateur cover versions on YouTube, undoubtedly because of the musical and lyrical simplicity - and I would like to think honesty as well. But three professional versions caught my eye. First, eclectic genius Van Dyke Parks, guru to Brian Wilson possessing his own very unique vision of folk music, came up with this in 1968:



Parks at his best - as Lindsey Buckingham told John Stewart that a good record should be, repetitive and hypnotic.

Finally, Alias Julius is the stage name of a young rock singer-songwriter from Detroit who is now based out of Tampa. She sings lead here on this delightfully country-tinged version:



History is written by the victors, they say, and it is alas too true. Somebody will always be saying that John Stewart sounds like Johnny Cash - and that Donovan was a slavish imitator of Dylan. Not hardly in either case, I say - unless of course you happen to be a stubble-bearded hipster who never learned to avoid the post hoc, ergo propter hoc delusion.

Addendum, April 2012

I somehow neglected to mention that Donovan is a member of the induction class of 2012 for The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which is about the only institution that recognizes the contributions of folk singers to popular music. As above, Donovan did folk, rock, folk rock and more - but in this fine interview in Billboard Mr. Leitch speaks at length about his folk roots and influences.

Donovan Interview In Billboard

Friday, March 2, 2012

"The World I Used To Know"

It is with a bit of misgiving that I approach this week's entry, and for one very good reason - in no way is Rod McKuen's "The World I Used To Know" a folk, roots, or Americana song, no matter how elastic your definition of the same may be or how far you stretch the borders of the genres. No, "World" is just good old fashioned American pop music, albeit with with a 1960s guitar-based singer-songwriter inflection to it. However, like several other pop songs of the decade, most notably "Try To Remember" and "They Call The Wind Maria", many of the cover versions of the tune were released by pop-folk and country musicians, and the nexus of composer, song, and performers gives me the chance to make a few observations about folk and pop music - and to present some interesting versions of a good number, folk or not.

I had my say regarding McKuen in two earlier posts, one on "Seasons In The Sun" and a bit more completely on "Doesn't Anybody Know My Name?", and I don't want to repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that while I am not a fan at all of McKuen's attempts at poetry, I hold him in high regard as a composer and lyricist, one whose musical vision in both songs and orchestral compositions was so idiosyncratic and so out-of-step with the pop culture of his times that an artist whose songs sold tens of millions of recordings (and "Seasons" as done by Terry Jacks is one of only a handful of single records with certified worldwide sales of ten million or more units), who had arguably the greatest pop vocalist of the last century record an entire album of his compositions (Frank Sinatra's 1969 A Man Alone), and who sold millions of books when a genuine bestseller scores in the tens of thousands in hardcover - this artist is nearly anonymous today, despite being a healthy and active senior citizen. So much for the glory of the world.

Part of the problem with McKuen's legacy, and here I mean the fact that this artist whose works in different genres were wildly popular in their day (even though he never evolved into a leading performer himself) is so largely unknown to younger generations today and forgotten by his own, is that McKuen's music was never quite either fish or fowl - never traditional-sounding or protest-oriented enough to be remembered as folk but never quite complex enough to bear comparison with the work of great pop songsmiths like Cole Porter or Johnny Mercer.

And therein lies a tale, and for my money not an especially happy one. For the first half of the 20th century and beyond, American popular music was created largely by a small army of technically competent and usually highly trained professionals. They were musically literate, often steeped initially in classical influences, and they could read and write in formal notation. The best of them, whether they cut their musical teeth in windowless offices in Tin Pan Alley like the Gershwin brothers or Hoagy Carmichael or in smoky nightclubs like Duke Ellington or in grand ballrooms like Glen Miller, created a national popular music that could actually rival the serious European "classical" composers in depth and complexity.

Then came Elvis - or more to the point, then came the rock revolution. Derived as it was from the rhythm and blues music of self-taught African-American artists, rock was by its very nature a simpler, more straightforward kind of music than the older American pop - three simple major chords in the accompaniment, usually, and not a hell of a lot of texture to it. The artistry in this genre, both in its R&B roots and in the various evolutions of rock itself, was in performance and improvisation, not in carefully structured compositions and arrangements. When the three-chord folk influence was grafted onto rock through the lyrical brilliance of Bob Dylan, you had a new version of American pop music take root and eventually supplant the older and much more sophisticated version of the 50s and earlier.

And that created the crack into which Rod McKuen has fallen. His period of greatest musical productivity was the 1960s and 70s, an era when the most successful musicians could play supersonic solos on guitar but who were musically completely illiterate - and still hacking away with three chords when McKuen was (in his orchestral work especially) employing the whole palette of musical colors that his older generation pop predecessors had. In the larger pop world, it was left to a now-aged group of musically literate producers and arrangers, Quincy Jones foremost among them, to create interesting and complex musical settings for singers, bands, and rappers who in a thousand years could never do so for themselves. McKuen had no such problems - but in the Alice-in-Wonderland musical landscape of today, when "folk" music was written five minutes ago and the hilarious oxymoron "classic rock" is an actual radio format and a term people use with a straight face, McKuen and his work have found no place to call home.

Too bad, really, because the man could write really good pop material and channel the French cabaret with uncanny skill. "World I Used to Know" is 100% American musically, but it is tinged with a very Parisian melancholy. Here is how McKuen himself interprets his song:



Note the minor chord structure with which he opens the tune. I have always liked McKuen's vocals on his own songs - that gravelly voice suggests depths of emotion that a more polished one would not.

McKuen wrote and recorded the song in 1963; it was immediately covered in '64 by pop-country chart-topper Jimmie Rodgers and pop-folk stars the Kingston Trio. Rodgers' version broke the top 50 on Billboard's Hot 100 but rose as high as #9 on the adult-contemporary charts:



Rodgers is another one of those innovators who deserves to be better remembered than he is. Long before Dylan and the Byrds, Rodgers was performing a kind of proto-folk-rock - but his gentle arrangements of actual traditional sources like "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine" and "The Wreck of the John B" tend to exclude him from any serious discussion of the genre.

The Kingston Trio did more to bring attention to McKuen's work than any other artist, at least in the early stages of the composer's career when the pop-folksters still had a powerful commercial appeal. This is from the group's last album of their seventeen on Capitol Records, the live Back In Town. Vocal lead is by Bob Shane:



Uncredited on the album, Wrecking Crew member and soon-to-be pop and country superstar Glen Campbell is sweetening the accompaniment. Campbell included his version of the song a few years later on Gentle On My Mind, his first of an impressive seven #1 albums on the country charts:



Also in 1964 - former Limeliter Glenn Yarbrough signaled his move toward pop music by bringing that memorable voice and vocal style to bear here:



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Bless me Woody, for I have sinned - in straying so far this week from my own folk roots and preferences. But I have been thinking quite a bit recently about the directions in which pop music has been heading - and dragging what used to be folk and country music along with it. I noticed on FaceBook that today, March 2nd, would have been the 62nd birthday of Karen Carpenter, a flawless pop singer whose voice, phrasing, pitch, inflection, and good taste are scarcely to be found anywhere in pop music today. I never warmed to the treacly nature of most of what she sang, but she had a voice of liquid velvet and actual musical training that glowed in every phrase she sang. With brother Richard's supremely competent orchestrations and arrangements, Karen Carpenter is as much a relic of a bygone era as Rod McKuen himself - and we are none the better for that melancholy fact.