Monday, October 21, 2013

Down By The Mission "San Miguel"

One of the sidelights of the American folk revival (from roughly 1930 through about 1970) was the creation of hundreds and then thousands of songs labeled "folk" by their composers or by the record companies or by the music press. At first, of course, ethnologists regarded the thought that a "new" song could be labeled as folk as absurd. The very definition of the genre at its inception as an academic phenomenon was that folk music consisted almost exclusively of traditional songs passed down orally through many generations - and consequently songs whose authorship was usually unknown. Exemptions to the rule were sometimes granted to songs of known authorship that had worked themselves into the folkways of the country, like those of Stephen Foster for instance, or songs whose authorship was discovered by dint of hard scholarly work by those same ethnologists and music historians. Less often, topical songs that provided some cultural insight into a particular period or event were also granted a pass and allowed to enter the sacred Temple of Folk - think of the songs from the Civil War era by George F. Root ("The Battle Cry of Freedom," "Just Before The Battle, Mother") or Daniel D. Emmett ("Dixie") or Patrick Gilmore ("When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again").

These prescriptions and definitions were turned topsy-turvy by the commercial aspects of the folk revival. When mass media in the form of radio and recordings became the primary formats through which music was disseminated (as opposed to previously when live performances and sheet music and family and local gatherings did the job), the public's insatiable appetite for the novel and new, and not coincidentally many performers' desires for more personal artistic expression than traditional music afforded, the term "folk" came to be appended to newer songs that would not have made the grade just a generation before. And when folk became a big-time commercial phenomenon in the late 1950s, after a few years of bitter debate about "authenticity" in the music press and among performers, the thought that a "folk song" necessarily had anything to do with "traditional" went the way of  bobby socks, black and white television, and honor among politicians - gone, and scarcely ever seen again.

Today, no fully satisfying and comprehensive definition for what folk music is exists at all - beyond, of course, Big Bill Broonzy's oft-quoted quip that "All songs are folk songs - I never heard no horse sing." On the whole, this is probably a good thing, since we can recognize distinct elements of traditional folk like melody, form, and instrumentation in the compositions of skilled crafters like Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Billy Edd Wheeler, Bob Dylan, and many more. At the same time, though, another and perhaps lesser brand of song also emerged, derided by critics as "fake folk" or "faux folk" - tunes that sought to imitate traditional tunes rather than to evoke the spirit of the old in contemporary compositions. A song like Jimmy Driftwood's "The Battle of New Orleans" might serve as a good and representative example of these, or perhaps Hoyt Axton's "Greenback Dollar." Nothing wrong with these at all as pop songs written in folk style, but to call them "folk" per se still excites the dyspeptic ire of some critics, one of whom wrote a few years back that "The invention of the faux-childlike faux-folk song was one of the greatest forces in the infantilization of American culture." I'd recommend that the writer take a deep breath and then inhale a couple of belts of a good whiskey - if such a fate has befallen the good old U.S. of A., it wasn't folk music fake or otherwise that made it happen.

One writer/composer who enjoyed a degree of success at creating such songs was Texan Jane Bowers (1921-2000), for whom music publisher and watchdog BMI lists 35 copyrights still in force. In the latter stages of her composing career, from the mid-1950s through the early 1970s, she was identified primarily as a kind of in-house composer for the Kingston Trio, occasionally in collaboration with KT founding member Dave Guard, and the group recorded 10 of those 35 tunes. But a significant number of other folk and country artists like Johnny Cash, Donovan, Lonnie Donegan, Bob Dylan, and Guy Clark also recorded Bowers' tunes. In fact, Bowers' best-known and most enduring song, "Remember The Alamo", the one recorded by most of the aforementioned performers, was initially waxed in 1956 by country great Tex Ritter, three years before it appeared on the Kingston LP At Large.

Bowers wrote a wide range of folk- and country-inflected tunes, but her stock-in-trade was embodying re-imagined and mythologized history in the lyrics of her many of her songs and then creating a tune to match them, as was the case with "Alamo," which the linked article discusses. Bowers' take on early Southwest history, from California and Texas most particularly, was imaginative, to be charitable. In "Coast of California", for example, a song beloved of many KT fans, Bowers fantasizes a pirate type of tale in which some buccaneers intend to boost a hidden treasure from a cave near Ensenada in Baja California. It is purported to be "treasure stolen from the Incas," hidden in the cave when the treasure ship "Clara ran aground." Bowers never explains why a treasure ship bound for Spain would have headed north to Baja from the Incas' native Peru when treasure ships originating there routinely sailed south and hazarded the Straits of Magellan around the tip of South America and thence into the Atlantic and home. And I had to laugh at the lyric

There's a mountain in the ocean on the coast of California
And deep within its side, the tides of night alone reveal
El Diego's hidden cave

There are plenty of mountains in California both Upper and Lower, but none in the ocean unless you count the Channel Islands, a good 250 miles from Ensenada. Yes yes, I know it's just a song - but this is all pretty egregious.

Even with missteps like those, however, Bowers' best work retains both a special kind of lyricism and a well-crafted sense of drama - two qualities that are abundantly clear in her very interesting early Southwestern romantic tune, "San Miguel." The plot line at first seems simple enough. A household servant of a rancho near a Mission San Miguel (there are three: one in Santa Fe, one near San Antonio in Bowers' native Texas, and the most famous and possibly the site of this song, San Miguel Arcángel near present day Paso Robles, California) waits upon the mistress of the casa grande, La Doña María, married to the ranchero. Our narrator named Manuel, however humble he may be, has fallen in love with the great lady. In his imagination, the mission bell warns him against harboring so impossible a dream, though he also imagines that

I hear with my heart what she says with her eyes

-  and the cryptic and pregnant final line of the lyric implies that Manuel may indeed have hope for the lady's reciprocation of his love.

From here, though, the plot thickens. Manuel is a laborer familiar with the mission, and this and the omission of a surname for him point to the likelihood that he is either a Native American or perhaps a mestizo. Bowers' lyric endows Manuel with a child-like simplicity, which in the early twentieth century of Bowers' childhood was considered to be a significant sign of the moral innocence of the natives (in stark contrast to the actual missionaries' sense that they were idolatrous devil worshipers) in a kind of Rousseauian "noble savage" ideal. But the very thought that a romantic attachment could be created or maintained across racial lines would have been charged with controversy both in the colonial era of the tale as well as in the decade of the song's composition. Bowers is treading here, however lightly, on dangerous ground. The mournful and melancholy tune, structured in a mostly minor key and with an authentic and accurate Spanish chord progression, underscores both Manuel's sadness and the secret and forbidden nature of his passion.

The first recording of "San Miguel" was as a vocal solo by the KT's Dave Guard on the group's third studio album, Here We Go Again:

The song is ideally suited to Guard's vocal style and his own sense of drama, and Bowers may well have had Guard in mind when she wrote the number, this despite a sometimes problematic relationship between the two over copyrights and arrangements.

The Here We Go Again album was a raging success, capturing a Grammy nomination in 1960 and entrenching itself as the #1 album on the Billboard charts for an impressive 9 weeks, which was behind only the Trio's At Large and the original Broadway cast album of The Sound of Music for the longest tenure in the top slot in 1959 and 1960. Not surprisingly, a goodly number of the songs on the record were covered by other artists, including "San Miguel." British skiffle legend Lonnie Donegan recorded "San Miguel" two years following in 1961:

Donegan is doing his dead level best here, but he has made some odd creative choices. His uptempo and heavily percussive arrangement takes most of the drama out of the lyric, replacing it with a kind of anguished teenaged angst. And while Lonnie is trying to invest his singing with what he feels is a Spanish flavor, he is making a huge linguistic mistake. The pronunciation of the letter r is of course markedly different in English and Spanish - in the latter, the tip of the tongue starts on the roof of the mouth and creates a kind of clipped roll to the sound. Donegan, however, is pronouncing most of his r sounds with a trill, which is used in Spanish only for the letter when doubled, as in ahorro - but never for an interior single letter, as here Donegan does in "María" and "Carlos" and a host of other words. And I cannot figure out why Donegan would say "Manuel" correctly (as "man-WELL") but fail so excruciatingly as he does by changing the pronunciation of "Miguel" from the correct "mee-GELL" to the awful "mee-GWELL." A sign of the times, I suppose - at least Lonnie is trying.

Nearly a decade later, popular French folk and ballad artist Hugues Aufray, who covered many American folk tunes (most famously "Santiano," a major hit for him, and an entire album of Bob Dylan songs) translated the number into his native tongue:

This was from late 1968. My French is a bit rusty, but Aufray's translation sounds fairly accurate to me. He also employs a guitar accompaniment strongly reminiscent of Dave Guard's.

In the 1970s, popular British-Kenyan balladeer Roger Whittaker gave the number his own distinctive treatment:

Whittaker has made another interesting creative choice here. Like Donegan, he has speeded up the tempo considerably from the original, but he has done so with an eye to creating a flamenco interpretation of the number, emphasized here by the lead guitar line.

Finally - a version performed by three friends of mine - George Grove, a member of the Kingston Trio now for 37 years, plus KT bassist Paul Gabrielson, with lead vocal by Alan Hollister:

The occasion of the performance was the annual KT Fantasy Camp in 2009. Alan creates exactly the right mood vocally, and his hand-strummed guitar accompaniment (something that I have seen him do countless times when we have played together) is perfect for the song. George is staying faithful to the original KT arrangement as he always does but at the same time embellishing it subtly and tastefully - as he also always does. George has a beautiful take on the song himself on one of his solo albums, but unfortunately it isn't on YouTube right now.

Jane Bowers was not trying to pass off "San Miguel" as anything other than what it was: a darkly atmospheric modern evocation of the Spanish colonial era, one which hints at issues which plagued their society and continue to some degree to plague our own. I doubt that she would ever have termed it a "folk song," given the span of her life and the era in which she wrote it. It isn't fake or faux anything, and I doubt that anyone got infantilized by listening to the number and loving it. Ironically, however, Bowers' respect for the authentic music of the era of the narrative, audible in the well-designed melody and in her good faith attempt to write lyrics that captured the ambiance of the time and place, render "San Miguel" rather closer to whatever "real" folk music is than most anything claiming the title that is released today.


In the interests of full disclosure and historical accuracy: the picture above is an 1832 painting of Mission San Gabriel, which happens to be a ten minute walk from where I now sit and whose church remains to this day as depicted here. I just couldn't find a good enough illustration for the real San Miguel.

1 comment:

mark said...

Excellent insights on the nature of the genre and the contributions of Jane Bowers.
I'm sure San Miguel and San Gabriel share enough architectural similarities to justify the picture. No doubt you are familiar with "Leyes de Indias". :)