Saturday, June 1, 2013

From Sacred To Secular: "Love Comes Trickling Down"

Songs often take strange journeys in their lives, changing sometimes in lyric and melody and meaning, often morphing into very different creations than they started their existences as. This is a fortunate fact, as far as I am concerned, because it is one of the aspects of folk music that has driven my lifelong love of the genre and, in fact, given rise to this site and its 184 articles. A few weeks back I took yet another look at what has come to be termed "the folk process" in ruminating about how a labor protest song by Uncle Dave Macon could be transformed into a pop-folk traveling tune and thence into an electro-pop folk-rock number - which employed Uncle Dave's original chorus. Far stranger stories appear in these posts - "Over The Hills And Far Away," in its various incarnations for example, "Hobo's Lullaby" emerging from a Civil War lament, murder ballad "Pretty Polly" turning into the protest "Pastures of Plenty," and many, many more.

Perhaps the most arresting of these transformations occurs when a secular song becomes a religious one (and the prototype for this process is Henry VIII's "Greensleeves" being adapted to the Christmas hymn "What Child Is This?") or vice versa  - when a song that at its creation was intended for the often narrow confines of church use breaks out into the pop mainstream and becomes a commercial hit number. This has happened with more frequency in recent decades than you might at first think. Elvis Presley's gospel albums outsold most of his rock LPs, and the last 40 or so years have produced international hits like The Eddie Hawkins Singers' "Oh Happy Day" in 1969 at the height of political turmoil and division in the U.S., Cat Stevens' gentle "Morning Has Broken" in 1971, and Judy Collins' high-charting rendition of "Amazing Grace" also in 1971, among many others. This phenomenon is no doubt due in part to a kind of secularized Christianity that pervades much of American culture - but that same American culture also made a hit of John Lennon's aggressively irreligious "Imagine" and George Harrison's Eastern mysticism in "My Sweet Lord," so that's not the whole story. A good spiritual or gospel number often seems to speak to something that transcends doctrine or belief per se. Steven Turner said as much in his Amazing Grace: The Story of America's Most Beloved Song when he wrote:

Somehow, "Amazing Grace" expressed core American values without ever sounding triumphant or jingoistic. It was a song that could be sung by young and old, Republican and Democrat, Southern Baptist and Roman Catholic, African American and Native American, high-ranking military officer and anticapitalist campaigner.

Those core American values, of course, include the dream of a millennial universal peace and justice, and a redemption from our sins personal and societal, religious and secular - an absolution from our many failings as people and as a nation. And it doesn't hurt, of course, that the songs enumerated above were just plain old ripping good tunes performed by the artists with consummate professionalism. Redeemed or not, Americans have always loved ripping good tunes.

That prologue brings us to "Love Comes Trickling Down," a song which enjoyed a brief flurry of recordings in the 1960s by some pretty heavy-duty folk acts. I first heard it on a 1964 Kingston Trio album, attributed to one Jonathan Harris, and I assumed from the sound of the number and the arrangement that it was a relatively contemporary gospel number of the kind that the group had dabbled with before. Not so at all, it turns out. Whoever Mr. Harris was, he simply re-arranged a very old spiritual that likely pre-dates the Civil War and that first appeared in print in 1887 in a book titled Jubilee and Plantation Songs, as sung by the Hampton Student Chorus (pictured above). Hampton University, of course, with Howard and Fisk (whose students also performed with the Hampton chorus) was one of the country's first black colleges, founded in the old South where higher education was denied to former slaves and their children. The musical setting for "Love" appears like this in the original publication:

This first published version reveals two significant aspects of the song. First, the melody is roughly the same as the versions we will hear below, but not quite exactly; the chorus comes pretty close, but the verses are rather different. Second, the lyrics in many post-1900 hymnals cite the last line of the chorus as "love comes a-tumbling down," and there have been some heated discussions on a folk website or two as to whether "trickling" or "tumbling" is appropriate. The publication of the Hampton arrangement above pretty much settles that, at least insofar as the original intent goes.

As noted above, I first heard "Love" on the Kingston Trio album Nick, Bob and John:

Lead vocal and 12 string guitar here is by John Stewart. The chord structure in this arrangement is mostly why I mistook the song for more contemporary than it is. This track is in the key of A, and the guitar introduction moves from the A chord to an A with an added 9th (and a random G# thrown in by the second guitar)- not typical of 19th century folk tunes, even the often complex spirituals. Also, the third line of the chorus (repeated in the verse) hits a C#minor chord - again, atypical and not part of the harmonic structure of the Hampton arrangement above. This was a KT touch, one that makes up in part for the poor quality of the original recording as the Trio had moved from the excellent facilities of Capitol Records and its gifted production personnel (producer Voyle Gilmore, engineer Pete Abbott, and remixing engineer Rex Uptegraft) to Decca Records, which allowed the group to record in its own Columbus Tower studio in San Francisco. Abbot came north from Los Angeles to try to help out, but even he could not save the album from sounding flat and dimensionless. Fortunately, the track above is a fairly recent digital remastering of the original tape, and it sounds rather more like it might have sounded had Capitol recorded it.

Roughly a year later, former Limeliter Glenn Yarbrough used "Love Comes Trickling Down" as the opening track on his Come Share My Life album. Here is Glenn's version, from television's Hollywood A-Go-Go show in 1965:

Two points become clear here. First, Yarbrough was making a career move away from pop-folk to pop-rock - and just pop in general, as this sprightly, cheerful rendition demonstrates. Second, Glenn is at it again - rewriting the lyrics of a public domain song to suit his own interest and style, much as he had taken the spiritual "All My Trials" and turned it into a love ballad, "All My Sorrows," several years before. Yarbrough essentially secularizes this religious song, the chorus of which is adapted from the Biblical Sermon on the Mount. Glenn turns it into a kind of non-spiritual spiritual, making love itself the center of the lyric instead of the original reference to grace.

The Womenfolk enjoyed several years of relatively high-profile popularity, including appearances on television's Hootenanny and in major clubs like the Hungry i. They also had a Billboard Hot 100 single with their version of Malvina Reynolds' "Little Boxes" - at 1:06 running time, this track has the odd distinction of being the shortest recording ever to crack the Hot 100. "Love Comes A-Trickling Down" was the B side of that 1964 single:

The ladies give the song a pleasant, almost country-ish swing. The group attributes the copyright, visible on the record in the video, to L.Kahn and B.Kahn - a pair equally as mysterious as Jonathan Harris and likely just some folks who understood the lucrative nature of copyrighting an arrangement of a public domain tune.

For a more recent version, we turn to Gary Blanchard, whose YouTube channel features his performances of a wide range of folk songs, including several folk spirituals. Blanchard makes it clear in his introduction that he has done yet another rewrite of the tune:

In this entertaining, Pete-Seeger-ish performance from 2010, Blanchard - like Yarbrough - adds his own lyrics that again transform the number from the specifically religious to the generically inspirational. John Lennon would have loved it.

Finally, contemporary gospel group King David's Harp returns the song to its Christian roots in this performance from just short of a year ago:

The quartet is clearly using the song as the unifying element in a sermon and story. Like Blanchard above, King David's Harp sings the tune without minor chords, more in keeping with the original Hampton version. The Harp's chorus, in fact, is closer to the printed music than any of the other versions here.

"Love Comes Trickling Down" bears rough comparison to the much higher-profile "Let's Get Together" in that both are undergirded by orthodox Christian beliefs, but in their recorded transformations become something quite different. However, "Get Together" became folk-rockified and remains a pop standard from the era, and "Love" fades off into near-obscurity. But it doesn't quite disappear. Major folk and rock critic Bruce Eder of remarked about the Kingstons' recording that " 'Love Comes a Trickling Down' is the great lost single (among several candidates) from this LP, a gorgeous gospel-flavored piece with a melody that, in the most beautiful way possible, never quite resolves itself..." High praise indeed for a track and a song that few today remember, and to which I can only add an "Amen." A secular one.

For both reference and nostalgia's sake - here are the three hit songs mentioned above:

The Eddie Hawkins Singers: "O Happy Day"

Cat Stevens: "Morning Has Broken"

Judy Collins: "Amazing Grace"


Eliezer Pennywhistler said...

The word "trickle" implies a minimal, niggardly amount of love, given reluctantly. "Tumbling" gives the sense of utter abandon and free flowing. Not even the Womenfolk can fix that.

Jim Moran said...

I tend to agree, but as you can see above - for whatever reason, the earliest published versions are "trickling." It could be because the word itself is more euphonic than "tumbling," or given the 19th century origin of the song, it may be a desire to avoid including a word with the sexual connotations of "tumble" (rather more so then than now) in a religious tune.