Friday, August 9, 2013

"Bimini Gal"

Folk music and drinking seem to have a natural affinity for each other, and there is no wonder in that given the really large number of traditional songs that celebrate the imbibing of alcohol in all its forms. Some of those numbers are sprightly tunes that depict dancing and fellowship and good times and the virtues of spirituous liquors, others rather darker in nature as they recount hangovers, fights, violence, and disasters begotten of alcoholism. Not surprisingly, the Irish seem to lead the pack in the sheer quantity of songs of both kinds about alcohol  - but the Caribbean balladeers really aren't very far behind them, and our island friends seem to be even better than the Irish at blending the two themes into a single song. Think of some of the highest-profile island songs and you'll see what I mean. "The Banana Boat Song" as we know it today is about backbreaking labor on the graveyard shift, the reward for which is "work all night for a drink of rum." Perhaps the most internationally famous song from the area, "The Wreck of The John B" as Carl Sandburg titled the first published version, is generally performed with a happy, somewhat uptempo rhythm - this despite the fact that the lyric is about as dark as drinking lyrics come. Recall that singer, grandfather, and crew all get so plastered that they end up in a confrontation with each other violent enough to trash the ship and force the local police to intervene and (by implication) haul them off to the slammer, from which the singer (sounding as if he is still drunk) "want to go home" because "this is the worst trip/Since I've been born." Not your garden variety good times and brews tune,  however much that everyone from Blind Blake Higgs to The Beach Boys seems to perform it that way.

"Bimini Gal" and its later adaptation "Bimini" are first cousins to "John B." Both are Bahamian in origin, with "John B" traceable to a real ship that sank in the harbor of Eleuthra Island about the year 1900 and "Bimini" (whose harbor is depicted above) arriving some decades later from the eponymous pair of islands a mere 80 miles due east of Miami.The oldest version of "Bimini Gal" seems to exist only as a fragment, perhaps the chorus of a sea chantey-like work song for repetitive labor. Its sole lyrics were

Oh, when I go down to Bimini
Never get a lickin' till I go down to Bimini.

Bimini gal is a rock in the harbor
Never get a lickin' till I go down to Bimini.

Pete Seeger identified it as "a descendant of a street dance from Nassau" and included it on his Folkways recording of Folksongs Of Four Continents from 1955. A sample of this version appears on the Smithsonian/Folkways page for the album HERE, and if you play the clip you'll hear Erik Darling on lead, three years before he replaced Seeger in The Weavers.

The most unusual rendition of this version - and oddly, perhaps the most influential - was recorded by legendary Bahamian guitarist and singer Joseph Spence (1910-1984), a unique musical artist if ever there was one. As Allmusic's Mark A. Humphrey has written, "Spence created an idiosyncratic (and inimitable) guitar style rife with percussive and improvisatory vamps....He was a folk guitarist's Thelonious Monk, and his growling vocal counterpoint and surprising inventions are one of folk music's great delights." And further-

The combination of Spence's voice and guitar is one of music's most unforgettable. It is a low, rumbling voice that is sometimes simply moaning and mumbling, as if this was a Glenn Gould voice track. As for lyrics, clearly enunciating two words out of a line is a good average for this man, and the results should make many other vocalists think about following suit. His vocal style could be appreciated simply for being bizarre and unorthodox, true, but the same could never be said for his guitar playing. He often uses a drop-D tuning, which means his bass string is lower than usual. This in turn creates many variations in harmony as he plays, combining very nicely with the hard, percussively snapping feel of his picking.

Lest you think Humphrey is exaggerating here, take a listen to Spence's mesmerizing delivery of the number:

Inimitable to be sure, and if Spence's vocals aren't to everyone's taste, you still have to stand in awe of what the man is doing with his guitar. Fleetwood Mac's Lindsey Buckingham once told John Stewart that a good song should sound "repetitive and hypnotic," and I think that is a perfect description of what Spence is doing here.

Bruce Molsky is a folk artist whose work I have learned of only in recent years, mainly from research for this blog. He is talented and tasteful, and he presents a more conventional instrumental of Spence's "Bimini Gal" here:

Like Spence, Molsky is using a dropped D tuning, though he is using finger picks as opposed to Spence's hammering flatpicking. Without exactly imitating Spence, Molsky retains the "percussive snapping" effect that the Bahamian achieves in his rendition.

The original lyric that Spence growls out is suggestive of the later "Bimini" song. The "Bimini gal is a rock in the harbor," which sounds a bit odd until you realize that a rock in a harbor is likely to sink a ship, which for our singer is getting that licking that he had never experienced before. There were other Bahamian songs recounting bar fights over girls, with some expressly citing Bimini Bay or Bimini Harbor as the locale for the ruckus, so it wasn't much of a leap for songwriters Bill Olofson and Mark McIntyre to fuse "Bimini Gal" with one of those other tunes and come up with "Bimini" (in much the same way that Seeger combined another Bahamian fragment, "When The Whale Gets Strike" with the old Anglo-Irish "Greenland Whale Fisheries" to come up with the most familar modern folk version of the song, sung in that manner by Theodore Bikel, Judy Collins, Peter, Paul and Mary, and The Weavers). The Kingston Trio included the new combined song on its fourth studio album, 1960's Sold Out.

The album cover in the video is, of course, a picture of the wrong edition of the Trio, but the track retains its appealing energy a half century after it was recorded. The aforementioned fusion creates an oddity - a song with two choruses, the "Never get a licking" from "Bimini Gal" and the "Send my bail down to Bimini" of the more modern tune. The cut also underscores one of the strengths of the first configuration of the Kingston group, that being the marvelous sense of rhythm that each of the originals possessed - Bob Shane on guitar, Nick Reynolds on bongos, and Dave Guard on banjo.

The current KT slows the tune down a bit and invests it with a bit more of a pop-calypso feeling:

The Olofson-McIntyre version has also remained a favorite of amateurs - here, Chicago-based band "A Bunch of Coconuts," one of several versions currently on YouTube:

Finally, contemporary Caribbean artist Stevie S and the Calypsonians do a modern riff on the original "Bimini Gal" song:

Stevie seems to be going for repetitive and hypnotic, as he melds calypso and ska rhythms with a dash of reggae - and if you listened long enough, a touch of bluegrass as well.

There is a good-natured, good-humored element in both these songs. Our local lady may be a dangerous rock, but that doesn't seem to keep the ships away, impending licking or no. And while she may be the proximate cause of a "Sloop John B" kind of alcohol-fueled disaster, it's pretty clear that once that bail arrives, our boys will be out and about and after her again. Warm breezes, tropical women, and a bit too much rum can do that to a guy.


Sovereign said...

The song Bimini Gal is actually first mentioned in 1930 by Zora Neale Hurston when she was visiting the Bahamas for research. Alan Lomax recorded the song in 1935 performed by the Nassau String Band. It is a very old song probably dating to the 1920's if not earlier. It is a contemporary with Bahamian Folk songs like the Bellamina, peas and rice and coconut oil, and Do wah nanny do, Bahamian folk songs that were very popular in the Nassau in the 1920's.

Jim Moran said...

Thanks for this, Sovereign! I'm delighted by the Hurston connection since I read her extensively in college. That 1935 recording adventure by Lomax was fruitful - it's also the period when he field-recorded the first known version of maybe my favorite Caribbean song, "Bay of Mexico."
Jim M.