Friday, December 25, 2015

For The Season #8: "The Cherry Tree Carol"

One of the most charmingly poignant of all English Christmas carols is also one of the oldest, a fitting companion in both its age and its source to "The Bitter Withy", which was the subject of my Christmas post two years ago. Both carols date at least to the middle of the fifteenth century and almost surely even earlier since each song appears in both handwritten and printed copies in Middle English, that odd hybrid of Anglo-Saxon and Old French that was the percursor of the Modern English that emerged around the time of Shakespeare. Yes, as an English teacher for 40 years I am well aware that lots of people think of Willie Shakes as "old English," but his work really isn't that at all. Most of us can make easy sense of at least half of what Shakespeare wrote simply by listening closely to good actors perform his plays or recite his poems. How hard is "To be or not to be..." or "But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun" to understand, grammatically at least? Want a bit of genuine Old English to chew on a bit this fine Christmas morn? OK, try this on for size:

  Fæder ūre, ðū ðē eart on heofonum,
  Sī ðīn nama gehālgod.
  Tō becume ðīn rice.
  Gewurde ðīn willa
  On eorþan swā swā on heofonum
.

Got it, right? Plain as day, no? OK - even in Shakespeare's time, those five lines were incomprehensible to the average person and were translated from that 9th century Old English to this, although with slightly different spelling:

Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed by Thy name.
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.

As grad students like myself decades ago could attest, Middle English is tough but much less of a challenge. For example, here is the opening of "The Cherry Tree Carol" in one of its earliest printed versions, from about 1478, shortly after William Caxton brought the first Gutenberg printing press to England. Jesus' mother-to-be Mary speaks first:

A my swete husbond, wold ye telle to me
What tre is yon standynge upon yon hylle?


You scarcely need me to tell you that Mary is saying "Ah, my sweet husband, would you tell me/What tree is yonder standing upon yon hill?" Even at that, Middle English was a thing of the past a generation or two before Shakespeare's 1564 birth - but its grammar, syntax, much of its vocabulary, and certainly its aural rhythms were so close to our own language that a) most of us could go back to 1478 and after a few days of adjusting our pronunciation and adding some now-archaic words to our repertoire, we could make ourselves understood, and b) many poems and songs like "The Bitter Withy" and "The Cherry Tree Carol" transitioned fairly easily from Middle to Modern English.

The source for "The Cherry Tree Carol" is likely the same Apocryphal  Gospel of  Pseudo-Matthew that also provided the major plot points for "The Bitter Withy," though as with that song as discussed in the article linked above, the English composers adjusted the stories and their details to the landscape of Britain. But just as "Withy" conflated some details of the apocryphal story and changed others outright, "Cherry Tree" alters the time, place, and circumstance of the earlier tale. Cherry trees were as uncommon in the ancient Middle East as they are common in England and across most all of northern Europe, and the analogous story in Pseudo-Matthew has baby Jesus commanding a much more geographically-correct palm tree - a date palm, presumably - to bestow its fruit in his mother's lap. Virtually no one in late medieval England would have ever seen a date or a palm,  so cherries made an admirable and familiar substitution, with the added advantage of a kind of archetypal fertility symbolism as well.

"Withy" and "Cherry Tree," however, part company to a degree in the nature of their emphases. "The Bitter Withy," you may recall, has a little boy Jesus building a bridge of sunbeams with which to entice some disdainful rich lads to play with him. Jesus' divinity enables him to do this and to prance across the bridge, while the other boys plunge to their deaths when they try to follow him. Now, the divinity element was a given in any Jesus story that appeared by the eighth century date of  Pseudo-Matthew, but even then the question of whether the infinite God could be truly a finite human was still a matter of (secret) debate. "Withy" comes down emphatically on the "yes" side, with little Jesus experiencing and reacting to some very recognizable human emotions: desire for companionship, sadness over rejection, anger, and resentment of his mother's punishment of his misdeeds. "Cherry Tree," however, invents a non-canonical miracle when infant Jesus, still in utero, commands the aforementioned cherry tree to yield its fruit to his mother, who is suffering the scorn and rejection of her husband, who has just learned that she is pregnant with a child he knows is not his. Little fetus Jesus is thus shown to have the full power of the God of Nature and a preternatural ability to talk, and the net effect is to stress that this is no ordinary mortal boy.

The first version of "The Cherry Tree Carol" that I recall hearing remains my favorite. It was Mike Kobluk's solo on The (Chad) Mitchell Trio's 1965 LP, Typical American Boys:



Kobluk is a marvelous interpretive singer, as this track demonstrates. His lead on the CMT's ensemble performance of Ian Tyson's "Four Strong Winds" is a large part of why I believe that cut to be the finest version of the song ever recorded.

"Cherry Tree" is arguably more deeply embedded in the English aural landscape than it is in the American, so it is to me no surprise that Gordon Sumner/Sting does as fine a job with it as he does here:



I had liked Sting's work fronting The Police in the early 1980s, but with the release of his Ten Summoner's Tales album a decade later, I became a major fan as I realized both how much of a genuinely literary background this former secondary-level English teacher had, and how skillfully he had integrated significant elements of British Isles balladry into his writing. "Fields Of Gold" from 1993's Summoner's Tales is a nearly perfect amalgam of a kind of Romantic-era poetic sensibility with the structure of a 14th century Middle English ballad. Quite an achievement, really - and a key to how he can translate this old song into his own vocal style and idiom.

Now I don't need much of an excuse ever to include a Judy Collins performance in these posts; she is one of the greatest singers of my lifetime, and like her contemporaries Linda Ronstadt and Joan Baez, she has worked her vocal magic across a variety of genres and styles. But Collins brings something special to ballad-based folk tunes, most especially I think when she deals with a protagonist in the lyrics who is a female, often one in some sort of travail. "Anathea" and "In The Hills Of Shiloh" from her early repertoire spring instantly to mind. That sensibility lends an immediate and striking pathos to the lyrics of "The Cherry Tree Carol," with Collins here in a 1996 performance at the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina:



The source story in Pseudo-Matthew creates a different context for the miracle than does "Cherry Tree." Instead of the latter's journey during Joseph and Mary's betrothal period, the Pseudo-Matthew context is the Flight Into Egypt, when the Holy Family as it came to be termed is fleeing from the murderous wrath of King Herod (see last year's "Coventry Carol" post for more on this delightful character). Both J and M are suffering from thirst and hunger, and that prompts infant Jesus to command the palm tree to bow down and give them its fruit and to "open a veyne" to supply them with water as well. There is no recrimmination here regarding the parentage of Jesus, and it is that aspect of the cherry tree tune - emanating as it does from Joseph's moral rectitude - that adds the element of pathos to Mary's silent suffering of an understandable but unjust accusation, as well as her wonder at the miracle and her resolute determination as she "went home with her heavy load" of cherries. Judy Collins' sensitive reading captures all of that quite effectively here.

For something entirely different, here is The Mark O'Connor Bluegrass Band with an instrumental rendition:



O'Connor's group is adept at creating the more usual blazing bluegrass sound in the rest of its repertoire, but I think that it takes a stroke of imaginative musical genius to recognize the idea that the standard bluegrass instrumental blend could be put to so quiet and moving a rendition. "The Cherry Tree Carol" not surprisingly does appear here and there in southern Appalachian folklore, though not at all as O'Connor and his band present it.

There are scores of variations on the lyrics of "The Cherry Tree Carol" across the English-speaking world, and a YouTube search will turn up more than a hundred recording and performance videos of the number, a significant percentage of which are by large chorales and classical orchestras. But "The Cherry Tree Carol" came into existence as an acoustic folk song, as we would term it today, and that is why I greatly prefer the simplicity inherent in these four renditions. The ancient roots of the song and its hauntingly beautiful melody make it a companion worthy  to stand with its better-known relatives in the body of music associated with Christmas.
_________________________________________

*The first seven songs in this series of holiday-related folk tunes include #1 - "We Wish You A Merry Christmas"; #2 - "All Through The Night/Ar Hyd Y Nos"; #3 - "When Was Jesus Born/The Last Month Of The Year"; #4 - "Gloucestershire Wassail Song"; #5 - "Sing We Here Noel"; #6 - "The Bitter Withy/Mary Mild"; and #7 - "The Coventry Carol."   Other Christmas-themed articles on CompVid101 include "The White Snows Of Winter", "Children, Go Where I Send Thee", "The Virgin Mary Had A Baby Boy", "Riu Riu Chiu/Guardo Del Lobo", and "Go Tell It On The Mountain".

Monday, December 21, 2015

Nick Reynolds And "Goodnight, My Baby, Goodnight"

The late Nick Reynolds was allotted by Providence with a greater range of talents and interests than most of those mere mortals among us could ever imagine. He was best known, of course, more than half a century ago as a singer and percussionist with the Kingston Trio in its heyday in the late 1950s and early 1960s; the high harmonies that he generally created himself became an integral part of the group's signature sound. And because he could play a bit of guitar and needed to find a rhythm instrument whose sound could cut through that of the booming rosewood Martin guitars of his bandmates Bob Shane and Dave Guard, Reynolds adopted the all-but-forgotten four-string tenor guitar, so effectively resurrecting the instrument in public awareness that when the national Tenor Guitar Foundation opened a hall of fame in 2011, its first inductee was Reynolds - even though there were many other distinguished tenor players from earlier generations, including actor Scatman Crothers and Mousketeer-in-chief Jimmie Dodd.

In the picture above, Nick's original Martin tenor had been modified to an eight-string version of the instrument, with the extra four strings being doubles and octaves, much as you would find on a 12-string guitar. Holding the instrument in this photo from about 1962 is Nick's son Josh, himself now an accomplished professional in advertising and communications and the chief proponent of his father's musical legacy as well. And "Goodnight, My Baby, Goodnight," a sadly little-known Christmas tune from an excellent but largely forgotten record album, is a song whose inclusion on that LP is precisely because of Nick and Josh.

The record itself was The Last Month Of The Year, released in early October of 1960. It was a startlingly different kind of holiday album, as Bill Bush notes in his 2012 book Greenback Dollar that chronicles the earliest years of the Kingston Trio:

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What the album did include was a genuinely eclectic mix of songs: a medieval French carol, an ancient Welsh lullaby, a couple of seventeenth century English wassailing tunes, two African-American spirituals, and more, all masterfully arranged to stay within the musicians' somewhat limited vocal and instrumental ranges while at the same time respecting the traditions from which the songs sprang and in the process creating as memorable and original a holiday album as U.S. pop music had ever seen to that point in time.

But Last Month was a landmark KT album in other and less positive ways as well. It was the Trio's sixth studio album, with the first five reaching #1 on the Billboard 200 album charts and attaining gold record status. Further, the Kingstons had had the top-selling album in the country for 18 weeks in 1959 and a fairly astounding 24 weeks in 1960. Last Month's top chart position of #11 and eventual sales of 200,000 units may not have been chopped liver and well may have been a signature effort for less dominant performers - but it was so disappointing for a group that had sold about five million recordings in the previous two years that the band's label, Capitol Records, pulled the LP off of the market and offered it for sale for only two more years during the holiday shopping season.

That is a large part of the reason why pretty much only the hardest core of Kingston Trio fans have ever heard "Goodnight, My Baby, Goodnight." And a pity that is. Bill Bush remarks above that each Trio member volunteered suggestions for songs to include on the album, and "Goodnight" was one of Nick Reynolds' two choices, with the Welsh "All Through The Night" being the other. Reynolds claimed copyright for both of those numbers, though it would have been for the arrangement and some slight modifications to the lyrics for "Night," which is hundreds of years old. The case isn't so clear for "Goodnight, My Baby," though. Josh had been born a few weeks prior to the early summer recording of Last Month, and Reynolds remarked to Bush that "I was just knocked out by having a kid." If there had been an antecedent melody from which Reynolds derived "Goodnight, My Baby, Goodnight," it is still clear that Reynolds reshaped it and supplied lyrics that conformed to his characteristically emotional reaction to new fatherhood. I believe that those emotions are audible in Reynolds' vocals here:



While some of the arrangements and performances on this LP are most assuredly more intricate - and nine of them appear in other CV101 articles - none is more heartfelt, and for some people whom I know very, very well who are intimately familiar with this album - this is their favorite track - new parents, many of them, and that is not surprising.

Nor is it surprising that today's KT of George Grove, Bill Zorn, and Rick Dougherty also regularly include "Goodnight, My baby" in their annual series of holiday concerts, as they did here in their 2008 Christmas CD On A Cold Winter's Night:



Lead vocal here is by Dougherty, who owns the sweetest and truest tenor voice of any of the singers who have ever been a part of the group - by which no disrespect is intended toward Nick, who was actually a high baritone with an amazing and elastic upper range.

The other professional folk group still performing the number also has roots deep in the 1960s pop folk revival. The Makem and Spain Brothers originally included three of the sons of Tommy Makem, who was one of the greatest experts on and performers of traditional Irish balladry - and though contemporary with the KT, a major influence of the latter group's selection of Irish material as well.


This was from a December 2012 show in Boothbay, Maine.

"Goodnight, My Baby, Goodnight" remains among my favorite contemporary Christmas songs for its simple innocence. I was about ten years old when I first heard the tune, a bit past belief in St. Nick but only growing into the adult's appreciation of the magic created by that belief in the ready imaginations of so many little children. I watched as my seven younger brothers and sisters grew into and through that belief and all that it entailed, and no memories of my childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood remain more precious and vivid to me than those of Christmas Eves long past. Our family ritual was always the same: following an early light dinner, the youngest four or five would be bathed, pajama-ed, and brought downstairs to the living room for the ceremonial taping of the socks to the fireplace mantel, to be followed by all of the children sitting around my mother, each clutching one of the figurines of our Nativity set, moving them toward the stable as my mother intoned her greatly simplified retelling of the Gospel of St. Luke - and thence to bed, with the little ones in a hyper state of excitement for the five or so minutes it took them to fall asleep. Something about "Goodnight, My Baby, Goodnight" takes me back to those times like virtually nothing else can.

Upcoming in a couple of days - the eighth edition of a "For The Season" articles on a traditional carol.

A Brief Note On CV101

For most of this year nearly past, I have used these blog pages to post radio shows and podcasts and have drifted rather far afield from the original intent of the venture - which was to use what was still the fairly new phenomena (in mid-2008 when we started up here) of YouTube and other video sites to explore the ways that acoustic folk and roots and singer-songwriter tunes transform themselves over time and in the hands of different interpretive artists. As of today, a bit short of eight years into the project, Comparative Video 101 has 203 posted articles (exclusive of this year's 12 radio/podcast pieces) with just under a quarter of a million posts viewed/accessed since Google started keeping stats in May 2010, with readership since January 2013 in 161 countries worldwide.

Needless to say, I have been delighted and gratified by this response. However infinitesimally small these numbers may be in the vast universe of the worldwide web, they are beyond anything that I ever thought either possible or likely, especially for articles that are actually personal essays on songs and performers who for the most part enjoyed their greatest popularity more than half a century ago. There is often a bit of background in the pieces (and as an academic myself, I wouldn't call it "research" per se), but the writing in these pages with which I am most satisfied is that which details emotional connections - mine and others' - to the songs and the manner in which they have resonated with me, often in fascinatingly evolving ways, through all the decades that I have known them.

All of this is simply preparatory to a relaunch of the song and performer articles, in addition to a continuation of the podcast and radio show postings. One of the constants here over the years has been an annual "For The Season" publication in the last seven Decembers of a profile of an often lesser-known traditional Christmas tune, in addition to five more articles about other songs with at least a tangential relationship to our Christian solstice celebration. I have two such essays in process now and will post them during this upcoming week, signalling (I hope) a return to form for this blog in 2016. To paraphrase John Paul Jones - I have not yet begun to write - or as Shakespeare notes in The Tempest - "What's past is prologue."

Monday, September 21, 2015

Roots Radio 11: Emigrant Songs - Music From The Huddled Masses, Part 1: Leaving Home

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Intro: Bound For The Promised Land - Bill Staines - 3:06
Leaving Home - Willy Schwarz - 6:08
Goodbye, Mick - The Wolfe Tones - 3:57
Oleanna - Lillebjørn Nilsen&Pete Seeger - 3:57
Jetzt ist die Zeit und Stunde - Reinig, Braun+Bohm - 3:43
Por Si Acaso No Regreso - Celia Cruz - 5:47
American Land - Patrick Feeney - 3:59
The Emigrant's Farewell - La Lugh - 5:24
Emmigrant Eyes - Ed Callahan - 5:25

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Roots Radio 9: The Tippler's Way - Songs Of Strong Drink & Hard Drinkers Part 1

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This is the first half of my two hour show on KPFK-FM last Saturday, July 18. One hour seems to work better for podcasts, so from here on out I'll be dividing the KPFK broadcasts into two pods.

And as much as I love this aspect of my folk music life - I am fully intending to get back to the original concept of this blog some time in August.

The Tippler's Way
KPFK Roots Music & Beyond
July 18, 2015

Opening Track:  Finnegan's Wake - The Clancy Brothers  Lou Killen

Bottled Poetry (Songs About Wine)
Bottle of Wine - Tom Paxton
Raspberries, Strawberries - Bud & Travis
Wines of Madeira - The Kingston Trio
Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee - Jerry Lee Lewis
Candlelight and Wine - Barleycorn
Strawberry Wine - The Wreckers/ Deanna Carter
Two More Bottles Of Wine - Emmylou Harris

Whiskey You're Me Darling (Songs About Whiskey)
Nancy Whiskey - The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem
The Juice of the Barley - Jack Makem
Whiskey - Trampled By Turtles
One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer - John Lee Hooker
Whiskey Ain't Workin' -  Marty Stuart
Scotch&Soda - Bob Shane
Whiskey You're The Devil - Riverclad

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Roots Radio 8: Desperadoes - Good Songs About Bad People

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Desperadoes: Good Songs About Bad People

Show Theme: From "Forever And A Day" - The Kingston Trio

Opening Track: "Four Rode By" - Ian & Sylvia

Cowboy Era Killers
"Sam Hall" - Johnny Cash
"Jesse James" - Pete Seeger
"Billy The Kid" - Marty Robbins
"John Hardy" - Cisco Houston

North Carolina Criminals
"Omie Wise" - Pentangle
"Tom Dooley - Doc Watson
"Poor Ellen Smith" - The Kossoy Sisters

Public Enemies
"Stagger Lee" - Taj Mahal
"Pretty Boy Floyd" - The Byrds
"The Legend of Bonnie And Clyde" - Merle Haggard

Outro: A Big Hand For The Little Lady
"Lizzie Borden" - The Chad Mitchell Trio

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Roots Radio 7: The Silver Singing River - Folk Songs Of America's Waterways

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Song And Artist Notes To Be Added Shortly
 
Show Theme: From "Forever And A Day" - The Kingston Trio
  
Opening: "That Song About The River" - The Kingston Trio
  
The Great Waters
"The Lovely Ohio" - Matthew Sabatella & The Rambling String Band
"Mississippi River Blues" - Jimmie Rodgers
"Across The Wide Missouri" - The Kingston Trio

 Deep Streams
"Rivers Of Texas" - Mason Williams
"Deep River Blues" - Doc Watson
"Roll On, Columbia" - Hank Cramer
"Oh Cumberland" - Matraca Berg, Emmylou Harris, & The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

 Rivers Of Light
"Shall We Gather By The River" - Uncle Dave Macon
"River Of Death" - Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver
"Down In The River To Pray" - Alison Krauss  

Closing: For Charleston, SC - June 2015
"O Healing River" - Pete Seeger

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Roots Radio 6: Where Highways Never End - Songs For The Open Road

Song and artists notes appear immediately below the podcast player.




Where Highways Never End

Songs For The Open Road


Show Theme: From "Forever and a Day" - The Kingston Trio

"Mountains & MaryAnne" - Gordon Lightfoot (1968)
As much as I love this song and its lyrics - including the second line from which this show takes its title - I think that Gord got a little carried away with the orchestrations here, not only on this track but on the whole Did She Mention My Name? album. His all-acoustic concert version is better but unavailable as a digital recording.

Love, Lost And Found
"Tomorrow Is A Long Time" - Judy Collins (1965)
Collins learned the song from a bootleg tape of a demo that Bob Dylan had done at the end of 1962, as did the dozens of other performers who recorded and released the tune before Dylan himself did so - which wasn't until 1971.
 
"I Dream Of Highways" - Hoyt Axton (1976)
From Axton's  most productive and successful years as a soloist. His singing partner on this track is Renee Armand.

"Chilly Winds" - John Stewart (1973)
This is one of Stewart's best-loved compositions, and for my money this is his absolute best recording of the seven or eight versions that he waxed of it. The Cannons In The Rain album/CD on which it appeared in '73 is also likely the best introduction to Stewart for people who don't know his work - or that he also wrote the evergreen pop-rock classic "Daydream Believer" for The Monkees.

Looking Back
"Me And You And A Dog Named Boo" - Stonewall Jackson (1972)
Jackson's peak years were between the late 1950s and about the mid-1970s when he scored a significant number of hit albums and singles on the country charts. He's retired now and living comfortably outside of Nashville, age 82.
 
"Freeborn Man" - Liam Clancy (1965)
This was the opening track on Clancy's self-titled first solo album (independent of his brothers Paddy and Tom and his friend Tommy Makem) from 1965. I am stunned to think that this was fifty years ago.
 
"On The Road" - John Denver (1974)
From what I think may well be Denver's finest and most completely satisfying album, 1974's Back Home Again. Composer Carl Franzen lives near Minneapolis and has recently resumed his musical career after a four decade hiatus. The tune was also recorded by Michael Johnson of "Bluer Than Blue" fame.

"Country Road" - Keith Urban (2006)
I knew of Urban's work mostly from radio, and I admired not only his skills as a rock/blues/country guitarist but also his good taste in creating musical lines that complimented his vocals rather than dominated them. I think this rendition of James Taylor's tune demonstrates all of that most effectively. Parenthetically - I was surprised to find out just how long ago this Music Cares tribute show actually was.

Looking Ahead
"Settle Down" - Peter, Paul and Mary (1962)
The Moving album to which I alluded in the 'cast also included a little tune called "Puff, The Magic Dragon." For more on composer Mike Settle, see his page here on my friend Jerry Kergan's excellent Kingston Trio Liner Notes site.
 
"Northwest Passage" - Stan Rogers (1981)
Rogers' best-known compositions in addition to this one are probably "The Mary Ellen Carter" and "Barrett's Privateers." His inclusion here and my remark in the show that you could do an entire podcast on his music has elicited a significant number of enthusiastic endorsements, so I expect to do one somewhere down the line.
 
"One More Town" - Hank Cramer (2004)
Hank's personalization of the lyrics as noted in the 'cast has an interesting twist to it. When John Stewart wrote the song at the age of 21, he had never been to some of the places of which he sang - in verse 1 West Virginia (where Hank substitutes his native Carolina) and New Orleans in verse 2. In fact, following the Hurricane Katrina disaster of a decade ago and not long before his death, Stewart recorded a mournful number called "Never Been To New Orleans,"  and it was sadly true. Hank Cramer's website in all its considerable glory can be found here. 

"Gotta Travel On" - Paul Clayton (1958)
Of the distress that I expressed in the show about Clayton's anonymity today, the most painful part for me is that where he is remembered at all it is as a mentor to Bob Dylan and not for the tremendous impact that he had had on the repertoires of virtually every other folk performer of the 1950s and 1960s - nor for the subtle beauty of his arrangements of traditional songs and the grace with which he sang them. This track, I believe, is an excellent example of all of that.

For Ronnie Gilbert, 1926 - 2015
"On My Journey" - The Weavers (1960)
Two of my internet friends responded to this track with such articulate and thoughtful remarks that they deserve to be included here. First, from Bruce in Montreal:
"Somehow, when [a] person dies, something inside them still lives on, and we become closer than ever before. In the case of Ronnie Gilbert, I believe it's her wisdom + her quest for justice + her talent. She sure made THE WEAVERS sound incredible. She gave them (and by extension, us) her magnificent voice...and through the mastery of recording, we get to listen to Ronnie Gilbert sing forever." 
And from Jack in the Great Northwest:
"Thank you for the much-deserved tribute to Ronnie Gilbert at the end of the show.  You couldn’t have chosen a more fitting song and that it was a live performance with applause at the end only made it a more fitting way to salute a great performer."  






Monday, May 18, 2015

Roots Radio 5: Bound For Californ-i-o: Golden Songs Of The Golden State



More information on Artists and songs in italics below.



Bound For Californ-i-o

Jim Moran's Folk Music Podcast May 18, 2015

Show Theme: From "Forever and a Day" - The Kingston Trio

Opening: California, Here I Come - East Bay Banjo Club
A delightful group per show commentary. Their last big gig was in April at Sheep Shearing Day at Forest Hill Farm. That about says it all.


The Gold Rush

Santy Anno - The Weavers
From the group's 1957 album "The Weavers At Home." Perhaps the definitive 20th century rendition of the tune and ample evidence of why this was the greatest pop-folk group of them all.

Days of '49 - The Knob Lick Upper 10, 000
Knob Lick is in Kentucky; "upper 10,000" was the group's translation of a German word that most of us would render as "upper crust" or "elite." The trio consisted of  Erik Jacobsen, Dwain Story, and Peter Childs, who met as students at Oberlin College, which had one of the oldest and most active folk environments of any college in the country. The KLU10k released three excellent albums at precisely the wrong time, in 1963 and 1964, right when pop-folk-acoustic music was being washed away by the British Invasion. Too bad.

Bound For The Promised Land - Craig Duncan
Duncan specializes in hymns and church music, especially as those were sung during the country's formative years. This hymn can be rendered as an exceptionally stirring and messianic march; Duncan's choice to perform it more quietly with dulcimer layered on dulcimer is sublime. The chorus runs "I am Bound for the Promised Land/Bound for the Promised Land/O who will come and go with me?/I am bound for the Promised Land."

Oh, California! - Andrea Zonn
Zonn was the original fiddler with The Union Station before Alison Krause joined the band. Zonn has been most visible during the last fifteen years or so as the principal fiddler for James Taylor, and the two interact warmly and brilliantly in live performance - to which a host of JT PBS specials attests. The other Grammy-winning fiddle-playing Alison - Alison Brown - also performs on this track.

Banks of Sacramento - Tom Brown
Brown's "Short, Sharp Shanteys" is one of the most delightful albums of sea songs in recent years - and Brown frails that ol' banjo with the best of them.

The King of California - Dave Alvin
From the king of California folk/roots songwriters. An exceptional re-imagining of the Gold Rush era.

The Land of Dreams

California Mudslide - Lightnin' Hopkins
There are millions of people in California today wishing that we had had enough rain at any point in the last four years to create a mudslide. Well, not really, except as a metaphor for the agony of our current devastating drought. Hopkins presents the opposite end of the spectrum, with the mudslide viewed as a disaster in itself that seems often to be a precursor to even worse. That's a cheery thought.

California Dreaming - Lisa Ferraro & Erika Luckett
Ferraro styles herself as a jazz singer, but with her frequent partner Luckett she can do just about any kind of song - as she proves here.

Going To California - Johnny McEvoy
I ran across McEvoy while looking for songs for this blog, and he does a fine and polished job on such classic Irish folk standards as "The Leaving of Liverpool" and the Celtic "Portland Town" (not the Derroll Adams tune). But McEvoy is also a skilled and successful writer, and this tune has been covered dozens of times on both sides of the Atlantic.

California - Joni Mitchell
Written and sung with the fervor of one who has adopted California as a home. Mitchell manages to get just about every major theme of this show into her song - the freedom, the beauty and the weather - and the possibility of re-invention of self. A classic Mitchell composition and performance.

California Bloodlines - John Stewart
Stewart's love letter to the only state he ever really called home. Though he spent most of his life living in the Bay area, Stewart died in 2008 in the hospital in which he had been born in San Diego 68 years before . That seemed absolutely fitting somehow.

Outro: California/I'm Going Home - The Kingston Trio
An excellent example of why this second-generation band is every bit the equal of its predecessor group(s). There are those abroad in the land who whisper that George Grove, Bill Zorn, and Rick Dougherty actually perform this number better than the originals. Shh!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Roots Radio 3 - Echoes of April

The podcast for my KPFK-FM show "Echoes of April" is up and running and embedded here for the convenience of those inclined to listen in.The farther I go with this show - and it's been over four years now - the more I find myself inclined to spread out the music selections to include as many aspects as possible of my musical interests, well beyond the pop-folk material that characterized the earliest broadcasts. My abiding love for early British ballads is reflected in three selections early in the show (including the opening tune); for blues-inflected pop with Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday numbers; for authentic blues and gospel with the Titanic songs in the second half; for well-written singer-songwriter tunes in selections throughout; and for Irish music with Liam Clancy closing the program. The KT figures in as always, and John Stewart is represented in two songs as well.
In later podcasts I may well be able to divide the program into song-by-song chapters. For now, some creative work with the cursor and the playlist below can enable skipping around from selection to selection.

I'm proud of the show, but of more import is the fact that I loved putting it together and enjoy listening to it. Can't say how widely that sentiment will be shared, but it's the best lamp I have to guide my feet.

Give it a click if you are so inclined.


Echoes of April

KPFK Roots Music and Beyond April 18, 2015

Playlist

Opening: On One April Morning - Jon Boden


Love And Roses

April, Come She Will - Simon and Garfunkel
A Rose In April - Kate Rusby
April Is The Cruelest Month - Airborne Toxic Event
In April - Johnny Flynn
Pieces of April - Three Dog Night
A Week Before Easter - Moira Cameron

April in Paris - Ella Fitzgerald/Louis Armstrong
 I'll Remember April - Boz Scaggs
April In My Heart - Billie Holiday
Sometimes It Snows In April - Rebecca Cavanaugh

April Showers - Sugarland
Hearts of the Highlands - Jeff McDonald/Autumn Reynolds
6'2 - Marie Miller
April After All - Ron Sexsmith
Green Grasses - The Kingston Trio

April Is The Cruelest Month

God Moves On The Water - Blind Willie Johnson
The Titanic - Leadbelly
When That Great Ship Went Down - The Dixiaries

The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere - Razzle Bam Boom (Mark Beckwith / Obediah Thomas)
The Battle of Shiloh's Hill - Magpie
When Lilacs Last In The Dooryard Bloom'd - John Slade
The Foggy Dew - The Wolfe Tones
And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda - Liam Clancy

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A Time For Giving

As many of my readers know, I am proud to be co-host of Roots Music & Beyond, the Saturday morning folk and roots music show on KPFK-FM, Pacifica Radio for southern California but of course streaming worldwide over the web at KPFK.org.

KPFK is a listener-supported public radio station with a wide variety of programming - musical, informational, educational, and political. We are currently in the midst of our April fund drive and trying to reach out via social media to the broader audience that we know we have nationally and even internationally. Roots Music and Beyond presents a kind of folk programming that you won’t hear anywhere else on Southern California FM radio - and few other places on the web or over the air nationally, for that matter.

 
Some simple stats:

It costs us over $7 a minute just to be on the air.
Doesn’t sound like much?
Well that’s over $10, 000 a day ($10,086.47 to be exact)
Over $ 70, 600 a week
Over $ 307, 000 a month

Is this a pitch for money? You betcha!

 It’s your radio station if you want it. Support us, please, with a large or small donation. Simply click on the KPFK fund drive link here -

KPFK Fund Drive

Or Listen Live HERE to our fund drive programming for thank-you gifts and information about the benefits of ongoing contributions.

Up or down, agree or disagree, you won’t find better and more intelligent programming like this anywhere else.

Please consider making a donation to help keep us on the air with the kind of vigorous and refreshing set of perspectives that you just won't find on commercial radio.

And tune in for my next program on Saturday morning, April 18th - information and links to follow.

Thanks!

Jim

Saturday, January 31, 2015

In Memoriam Rod McKuen: "Love's Been Good To Me"

Rod McKuen's death on Thursday at the age of 81 was another one of those all-too-frequent-these-days John Donne moments, as in Donne's famous meditation on the connectedness of all people that climaxes with "Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee." That funeral bell tolls perhaps rather more loudly for McKuen than it may well do for many of the rest of us, because for several decades McKuen was a major force in U.S. popular culture, with his songs selling tens of millions of copies (generally recorded by higher-profile artists than McKuen was like Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams, Judy Collins, Glenn Yarbrough, Madonna, and many more) and his books of simple, emotional poetry appearing ubiquitously for some years on high school and college campuses throughout the land. By his own count, McKuen had recorded over two hundred albums and earned 63 gold and platinum records worldwide. In television and film, McKuen also racked up an impressive list of credits, as his IMDB page indicates HERE, and I recall seeing him quite accidentally and surprisingly one late night as an actor in a B western from the late 1950s. Yet though his death was treated as a major event in national newspapers and websites, it was often accompanied by the sort of "I always wondered what happened to him" reaction, or less kindly, "I didn't even know he was still alive."  This was due in part because McKuen's fifteen minutes of fame had expired decades before, but also because a major bout of clinical depression stemming from an abusive childhood engulfed him in the 1980s, in his early mid-life when he had been at his most productive, and he disappeared from the public eye for some time. He emerged from that shadow later in the decade, but times and styles had passed him by. McKuen continued to work - to write, to score, to perform - right up until shortly before his death, though on a smaller stage and with less public acclaim.

McKuen's name has appeared in the posts on this site with some frequency, primarily because the pop-folk groups of the late 1950s and early 1960s like the Kingston Trio, The Limeliters, The Brothers Four, and others were the first to record and attract wide attention to his songs, including tunes profiled on this site "Seasons In The Sun," "Doesn't Anybody Know My Name?", and "The World I Used To Know".  I'd like to crib from myself a bit here from those earlier articles because they express better than any rewrite could what I have thought of McKuen through the decades. First -

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 In The Sun" 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 more to the point of today's song - 

I always thought that McKuen the composer was at his best when, as with French writers like Brel, his lyrics and melodies were tinged with a kind of fin de siècle melancholy, a sadness as gentle as an autumn mist. Think, for instance, of the lyric derived from William Butler Yeats in McKuen's "Isle in the Water" - the subtle changes he makes to Yeats' poem and his original lines make even this love song quietly wistful. "Love's Been Good To Me" is one of the 60s best reflective ballads...

"Love's Been Good To Me" is as fine a song as McKuen ever wrote at expressing quietly a sense of  passing time and its attendant loss, and as such makes a fine eulogy for its composer. It is in its chord structure and lyric sensibility most definitely a mainstream pop number, and of course the best-known version was as a middling hit for Frank Sinatra, recorded for the aforementioned A Man Alone album.  Yet interestingly, the song comes across most effectively in the roots-y performances below by Johnny Cash and the Kingston Trio, both of whom respect the song's pop origins but present it with minimal instrumentation and without the lush orchestrations common to most other versions - and as we will see at the end, it is this simpler and less ornate approach that McKuen himself took with the song in his later years.

McKuen first recorded his song in early 1964:



McKuen was self-taught as a musician, and in his early years as a performer in the late 1950s in San Francisco's North Beach clubs like The Purple Onion, he accompanied both his singing and his poetry reading with a simply-played guitar. However, his time in Paris with Jacques Brel from about 1960 through 1963 became for McKuen a kind of education in music theory and arrangement, and when he returned to the U.S., he did so with sufficient knowledge to score the orchstrations on many of his albums, as he did here.

The first cover version of the tune was by the Kingston Trio, at the end of 1964 about six months after McKuen's original:



The lead here is by Bob Shane, quite naturally since he had the best voice in the group and because he was the member most comfortable with pop numbers and Broadway tunes and the like. The Kingstons had never liked being characterized as "folk," and from their first album six years prior to this recording and on from there, the Trio had always included pop-styled selections, sometimes to the chagrin of their record labels Capitol and (here) Decca, which were trying to market the band as "folk." As wrong-headed as that was, it did have its advantages for the companies: neither label had to hire anyone to score and play orchestral arrangements to back the group, and the guitar-only accompaniment for this track enhances the effect of McKuen's quiet if sentimental lyricism.

Johnny Cash had long been an admirer of McKuen, which might strike one as strange at first given Cash's identity as a country/rockabilly/roots artist - but The Man In Black responded most strongly to and recorded many of McKuen's earlier and folkier creations, and Cash featured McKuen several times as a guest on the former's long-running and highly-rated television show. It is no surprise then that Cash included a couple of McKuen tunes in his last studio sessions, the widely-lauded "American Recordings" for the label of the same name. In fact, the fifth album in the series is A Hundred Highways, the title clearly derived from the lyric of this song:



Cash's aged, craggy voice at this late point in his life and career is perfect for the lyric, and I find it singularly affecting, as are many of Cash's other tracks from those last years of his life.

Clearly, you can't talk about "Love's Been Good To Me" without including Frank Sinatra's rendition. Sinatra was so taken with McKuen's compositions that the A Man Alone LP includes only RM numbers, and "Love" was chosen as the flagship single from the album:



The 45rpm reached only #75 on the Billboard Hot 100 but scored a number eight position on the adult/contemporary charts. The orchestration here is somewhat muted by Sinatra standards; Ol' Blue Eyes generally went for accompaniments that in many cases might today be described as over-done or schmaltzy...

....which is why I especially like what McKuen is doing with his song here, in the television show from 2009 at Royal Theatre Carré in Amsterdam:


There is a clear connection here to what Johnny Cash did with the tune. McKuen's vocals had always been throaty, but the addition of a few decades of wear and tear to his voice helps here to transform a ballad that might have seemed to be the superficial sentiments of a callow playboy when sung by a youth into a far more moving and reflective retrospection by an older man on a life now all-but-over. That is why for my money this last version and Cash's are the best ones ever waxed and help to transform a middle-of-the-road pop composition into something deeper and more satisfying.

McKuen enjoyed a career that could be fairly described, like the artist himself, as bi-polar. He sold over a million books of poetry in 1968 alone - in an industry in which even then selling fifty thousand units would make a book a number one bestseller - but he was excoriated by serious critics with a savage vituperation that I have seldom seen launched at any other artist in my lifetime. As a lifelong devotee of poetry, I have never had much use for McKuen's verse - but did he deserve this, a day after his death?

"Rod McKuen, The Cheeseburger To Poetry's Haute Cuisine"

I think not. Neither his music nor his writing might be to everyone's taste, but his compositions of both spoke deeply to millions of people throughout the world, and that counts for something in my book - quite a lot, really. And so it was that I was pleased to see that McKuen may well have written his own epitaph in an interview in 2001 when he observed that, "I battled my way back to some kind of sanity by finally realizing I had absolutely nothing to be depressed about...I’ve had and am having a great life and I’ve never been happier. Besides, who knows how much time I have left on this earth? I have too much to do and too many things started and unfinished to afford the luxury of being unhappy."

For that - good on ya, mate.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Roots Radio 2: Where The Time Goes - Songs For Seasons Of Change

The second installment of podcasts from my radio show "Roots Music & Beyond" on KPFK-FM in Los Angeles has now been published and is available here. As the playlist below it indicates, the song selections in this show are wide-ranging and eclectic, though unified by the overarching theme of changes in winter. I have gone a bit off the roots reservation, at least in the narrowest sense of the term, by including a pair of New Age-ish Windham Hill Records artists and some contemporary country as well. But overall there is a kind of quietude here, a kind of refraction of winter dreams and the snowy landscapes of the imagination. My promotional pieces pointed out that though we are in the middle of January, the daylight hours are already perceptibly lengthening into spring. The year has turned, with its inevitable wheeling of the seasons - or as Shelley wrote, "If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?"



Where The Time Goes: Songs For Seasons Of Change

Intro Song:
Who Knows Where The Time Goes? - Judy Collins - Colors Of The Day - 4:53

Change of Season
Sometimes In Winter - Blood, Sweat & Tears - BS&T Greatest Hits - Columbia/Legacy 3:06
Song For A Winter's Night - Gordon Lightfoot - All Live - Warner Music Canada - 3:02
Welcoming - Michael Manning - Conversations With God - Windham Hill - 4:52
A Hazy Shade of Winter - Simon and Garfunkel - Bookends - Columbia - 2:02
Cold Weather Blues - Muddy Waters - Delta Mudslide Blues - Orange Leisure - 4:44

Season Suite: Winter - John Denver - Rocky Mountain High - RCA - 1:35
Footprints In The Snow- Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys - The Essential Bill Monroe - RLG - 2:35
Walking Through Your Town in the Snow - Jody Stecher & Kate Brislin - Heart Songs - Rounder - 4:00
The White Snows Of Winter - The Kingston Trio - On A Cold Winter's Night - Silverwolf - 2:47
If We Make It Through December - Merle Haggard - If We Make It ... - Capitol/Nashville - 2:42
Winter - Tori Amos - Little Earthquakes - Atlantic - 5:42


Change of Life, Change of Heart
Aerial Boundaries - Michael Hedges - Aerial Boundaries - Windam Hill - 4:40
Changes - Phil Ochs - Classic Folk Music - Smithsonian Folkways - 4:19
Old Friends/Bookends - Simon and Garfunkel Live 1969 - Columbia Legacy - 3:18

Urge For Going - Tom Rush - The Circle Game [Expanded/Remastered] - Rhino/Elektra - 5:48
Church Street Blues - Tony Rice - Church Street Blues - Sugar Hill Records - 3:07
Kansas - John Stewart - Phoenix Concerts - RCA - 3:36

Winter - Joshua Radin - We Were Here - Columbia - 3:23
Second Avenue - Tim Moore - Tim Moore - Rhino/Elektra 3:56
Colder Weather - Zac Brown Band - You Get What You Give - Atlantic/Southern Ground - 4:33
Northern Sky - Nick Drake - Bryter Layter - Island Records - 3:43
The Circle Game - Joni Mitchell - Dreamland - Rhino/Elektra - 4:51