Saturday, August 17, 2013
A Whimsical Woody Waltz: Guthrie &"Those Brown Eyes"
- Bill Moyers
Moyers is writing here primarily about "This Land Is Your Land," and he does a fine job in a few sentences of summarizing what public memory celebrates about Woody Guthrie - the populism, the passion, and the politics, for the most part. Yet I would take minor exception to his final sentence, since Guthrie was indeed possessed of a strong sentimental streak, especially for children, and if that sentimentality never quite clouded his vision, it did remain a significant element in much of his songwriting. Throughout his career but especially toward its premature end, as his own brood of youngsters was expanding and growing, he wrote more and more children's songs. In fact, 25 years after Woody's 1967 death, a librarian at Sarah Lawrence College discovered a manuscript of such tunes written in Guthrie's hand, some of which were annotated as co-composed by his wife Marjorie. Guthrie sons Arlo and Joady and daughter Nora reconstructed the melodies both from memory and from some surviving tapes and with their own children recorded and released 20 Grow Big Songs in 1992. All told, Guthrie wrote several score children's songs that we know of, most of which have the virtue, according to Allmusic's Bob Hinkle, of "an unusually strong identification with actually being a child, in all its simplicity and charm..." I would guess that most folk and roots music fans have at least heard this one:
This is the perfectly charming Woody Guthrie, the memory of which has been largely obscured by his more familiar image as a firebrand and activist as articulated by Moyers above.
Another facet of Guthrie's writing and performing that is less remembered today than it should be was his romantic side, both in his selection of traditional and popular songs to record, like "Red River Valley" and "Who's Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Foot?," and in songs that he wrote or significantly re-arranged, like "Those Brown Eyes." This last one is one of those really delightful folk mysteries as to its origin. The version usually sung today has a copyright assigned to "Guthrie/Arkin/Carey/Darling," the last three of course being The Tarriers, who re-arranged Woody's version slightly when they recorded it in the late 1950s. Guthrie added a bit more instrumentation than he normally employed in this mid 1940s recording -
- and The Tarriers followed his general outline for their rendition a decade or so later:
Interestingly, the Guthrie recording cuts the story off at the point where the singer sees the beloved with another man, whereas The Tarriers include the older version - that the fellow was her brother and not a rival for her romantic affections.
Jim and Jesse McReynolds also gave the song a respectful reading in the best tradition of classic American country music:.
Guthrie's copyright tends to underscore the general supposition that WG wrote "Those Brown Eyes," especially since Guthrie was usually direct and upfront about songs that he thought were traditional when he recorded them. Yet an earlier version of the number, nearly identical in the lyric though somewhat different in the melody, had been recorded as "Those Dark Eyes" in 1929 by Jack Copeland Mathis, who released records at different times under the names of Blind Jack, Jack Mathis and Cowboy Jack. According to his daughter, Mathis was born in Kentucky but spent most of his life in Texas, recording, performing, and hosting a popular radio show. However, the year before Mathis's record, a certain Fay and the JayWalkers waxed yet another version of "Those Dark Eyes," again with the same basic story and lyrics but again with a different tune. Fay and the JayWalkers may have a copyright as well - evidence of it seems lost - but it appears as if even they were basing the number on a now-forgotten nineteenth century pop song.
What lends additional weight to that last possibility are several aspects of "Those Brown (or Dark) Eyes" that do not conform to the normal and expected parameters of most traditional American folk tunes. First, the song is written in a 3/4 waltz-like tempo, which while not at all unheard of in the country's folk catalog ("I Never Will Marry," "Streets Of Laredo," and the "Pretty Little Foot" mentioned above, to name three) is far, far less common than straightforward 4/4 time signatures. Further, the mistaken identity/lost love nature of the lyric sounds rather more like a cheesy 1800s melodrama or a Victorian morality tale than it does an Anglo-American or Scotch-Irish traditional ballad.
In any case, the song's popularity has persisted for decades, interestingly most especially in Ireland, where half a dozen major singing stars have recorded versions of the song, notably Johnny McEvoy, and rather more melodramatically here bySean O'Farrell:
The Kingston Trio picked up the song from The Tarriers, whose copyright they acknowledged in their 1963 rendition on the album Sunny Side:
This version is noteworthy only for the dependably excellent lead vocal by Bob Shane and the addition to the instrumentation of a fine supporting guitar line by session musician John Staubard.
For something with a more interestingly contemporary take on the tune, California's great Dave Alvin goes back to the 1929 Mathis lyrics, which echo an 1865 "Those Dark Eyes" published version attributed only to "Armand." Mathis seems to borrow some of the colorful descriptions of the first two verses from that one, and Alvin gives the tune a full-on modern country/roots treatment:
Alvin included this one on his 2000 album Public Domain: Songs From The Wild Land, which features Alvin's arrangements of traditional songs. While Jack Copeland Mathis's daughter does not seem to be interested in enforcing any copyright claims, I wonder idly whether or not some descendant of Fay and the JayWalkers might not be knocking on Dave Alvin's door at some point.
"Those Brown Eyes" is a slight if pleasant song, and I have always wondered at its durability since it keeps popping up somewhere or other, decade after decade. The very nearly mawkish sentimentality of the lyric's idea - the departed and possibly misunderstood lover looking down from heaven on her now-regretful suitor - and the fact that this appealed enough to the otherwise generally tough-minded Woody Guthrie that he chose to record it is certainly indicative of the fact that there was more to WG than anthems and angry protests. A definite streak of sentimentality manifests itself in Woody's recording, so - QED, as we used to say in geometry class.