Monday, September 4, 2017

The Longest Farewell - "Adieu, Foulard"

My long time folk music friend Rick Daly from Connecticut had a bit of extra time on his hands a year or so ago so he decided to look up the translation of the word foulard, part of the name of a lovely and heartbreakingly sad old French song from Martinique whose proper title is "Adieu foulard, adieu madras." Now people of Rick's age and mine likely know what "madras" means, if for no other reason than the brief fad that swept the country around 1960 of madras shorts and madras shirts. If you recall, those items were generally sold in inauthentic plaid-like patterns, and they were made from really cheap cotton and even cheaper dye in the city of Madras (since renamed Chennai) in India. What was distinctive about them was that when they were washed, even in the coldest water, the dyes would streak or run and the original pattern would turn into something approaching a psychedelic vision, giving rise to the term "bleeding madras." The fad didn't last very long because the dye often clung to the inside of the washer and/or dryer and could ruin the next load of clothes, and the garments themselves seldom survived more than three or four trips to the laundry machines. So why is someone apparently composing a musical ode saying goodbye to cheap shorts? Friend Rick was even more puzzled when he found out that foulard is usually translated as "headscarf" or even "headkerchief," which apparently renders the title into English as something like "Goodbye  Headscarf, Goodbye Cheap Cotton."

Of course, the song's title means nothing of the sort.  The picture above shows Martinican women  dressed in their traditional foulards and madras, a costume that likely dates back to the era of slavery, when as slaves they were dressed in the cheapest material available to their masters. I believe that I detect in the colors and flourishes of these designs a kind of quiet rebellion against bondage, as the women long ago made an artistic virtue out of brutal necessaity - as if to say "You may control our bodies but you cannot confine our souls, and we choose to adorn those bodies with color, beauty, and grace." A second glance at this picture demonstrates how brilliantly they succeded in doing exactly that.

Yet the song whose published title was originally  "Adieu les jolis foulards, Adieu tous le madras" ("Farewell to the pretty scarves, farewell to all the cotton clothes") did not emanate from these women but rather from a member of the masters class, an aristocrat from pre-revolutionary France named François Claude Amour, marquis de Bouillé. De Bouillé was a cousin of our friend the marquis de Lafayette, and like his cousin  de Bouillé was a brave and able soldier who also played a key role in our revolution by keeping British forces in the Caribbean occupied in defending themselves against  de Bouillé's raids and attacks and hence unable to aid their country's forces in North America proper. Prior to that war, de Bouillé had been the governor of the French Windward Islands, which included Martinique and where de Bouillé lived for two years. It was during that governorship, probably in 1769, that de Bouillé composed the song that he seems to have called “Les adieux d’une créole,” or "The Farewells Of A Creole Woman."

Right off the bat we have a number of problems understanding both the context and the meaning of the lyric for several reasons, and these center on the multiple and if I may say radically differing understandings of what is meant by créole and its English counterpart "Creole." Today, both terms imply a person of racially mixed ancestry (usually African and European but also possibly Native and Euro or even Native and African) in the Caribbean or Louisiana. But to the French of de Bouillé's 18th century, the word could also mean a white French person who was born in the island colonies and not in France proper, much as the British in the same century coined the derogatory term "American" to describe people of English descent born in North America and whose birth implied a lack of refinement and common couth.* Like the French, our Anglo-Saxon forbears also used the term "Creole" at times to refer to their own Euro-Caribbean colonists who may have dared to inter-marry with other white but non-English folks of (God forbid!) French or Spanish descent. Look back at the character of Bertha Antoinette Mason in Brontë's Jane Eyre for an example of the disastrous results of such nation-mixing (as the Brits saw it, at least).

If you're still with me after that paragraph, you may be wondering "so what?" Well, here's what: with all the variations over the centuries in the French lyrics, we are left wondering exactly who is saying goodbye to whom. In a remarkable and moving essay published a few years ago and called "Singing By Heart: A Meditation On 'Adieu foulard, adieu Madras,'" Dr. Sarah Waisvisz of the Department of English at Carleton University in Canada, herself a woman of mixed ethnicity including a Martinican grandmother, suggests that the lyric is to be sung by a créole woman to her departing French lover, perhaps even de Bouillé himself. This would fit with both de Bouillé's original title and with Dr. Waisvisz's emphasis on the chorus, which she translates as meaning "“My darling is leaving/sadly, sadly, it is forever.” Waisvisz also stresses the utter finality of "adieu" - the word is not a simple "goodbye" in French (that would be the more common "au revoir" or "à bientôt," roughly "see you next time") but rather "farewell," or to give it its proper weight in English "fare thee well." It is, as Waisvisz asserts, "a song  of goodbyes.... a song of diasporas. Of exiles. Of loss. Of a lost home impossible to return to, impossible to find again, but impossible to ignore."

This understanding helps us to grasp the title, if indeed it is a woman addressing a man. She appears to be saying something to the effect of "Goodbye my love - you will miss all the color and passion of me, your island woman of forbidden love, and I know you will never return." It works equally well for me - perhaps even a bit better -  if in some of the gender-neutral lyrics it could be the Euro man regretting his departure from the passion and romance of his island lady - with her foulards and madras - to return to the repressed culture of his native land.

With that in mind, I'd like to present as the first version of the song the one of this group that is perhaps the least traditional but at the same time the most apprehendable to those of us who speak English. It is a solo by Bob Shane of the Kingston Trio for an album that was never released until Collector's Choice did so forty years after the tracks were laid down:

The English translation that Shane employs here is accurate in terms of the emotion of the tune if not literally in terms of the meaning of the French lyrics. The straightforward and very simple folk accompaniment allows the primary emphasis to fall on Shane's superb evocation of the emotion of loss that is at the heart of tune.

Next is a much more recent and modern-sounding pop vocal by Tanya St-Val, a lady of Martinque's island neighbor Guadeloupe. She is abetted by male vocalist Kali here:

St-Val is an accomplished singer of both operetta and jazz, so I suppose she can be excused for investing the vocal with a bit of that post 1980s female pop singers' breathiness. For me, however, the female/male interplay here covers a multitude of sins, as do her multi-tracked final choruses. Really good, and the song more as I think that Dr. Waisvisz understands it.

St-Val's fellow Guadeloupean, albeit from two generations before her 1966 birth, Gilles Sala delivers the number with a simple folk accompaniment but with a dramatic and highly-trained pop vocal style:

Sala's approach is more what I think we would have gotten from his contemporaries like Franks Sinatra, Andy Williams, and Jerry Vale had they attempted a rendition of the song.

Finally, a lovely solo instrumental on classical guitar arranged by Roland Dyens and performed with sensitivity and technical skill by Edwin Erpenbach:

Dyens' arrangement and Erpenbach's rendition invest the tune with the more complicated and jazz-inflected chording that was favored by yet another Guadeloupean, Henri Salvador, in his major 1957 hit version of the number.

For some people, perhaps once in a lifetime, your heart is so broken, so shattered by a loss so profound that you know it can never be made completely whole again, as does the speaker in this song. Never. The finality of that realization and the necessity of trying to continue living in spite of it is, for want of a better phrase, sublimely human. And for those who know whereof I speak - "Adieu, foulard" is your song.

*Regarding the term "American" above: take a look back at Jonathan Swift's great 1729 satire "A Modest Proposal," the one where Swift suggests that the answer to poverty in Ireland is that parents raise babies to be sold for meat. Swift writes: "I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled ..."

My friend Bakersfield Dan Hartfield pointed out that Bob Shane's almost certain source for his version, complete with the English lyric, was San Francisco world music pioneer Stan Wilson, whose vast knowledge of folk and pop numbers contributed mightily to the repertoires of the early Kingston Trio as well as to other Bay Area pop folk acts like The Gateway Singers and The Limeliters. Shane was largely mentored in professional entertainment by Wilson (and Josh White as well), and the extent of Shane's debt to Wilson can be heard in Wilson's own surpassingly lovely rendition of "Adieu, Foulard":


Here is a translation into English of the oldest version of the song:

Good-bye lovely scarves, good-bye Madras
Good-bye golden necklaces
My sweetheart is leaving me
Alas! Alas! It is for ever

Good-morning, Mr Governor I come to submit a request
To ask your permission
To leave my sweetheart to me

My young lady it is too late
Your sweetheart has already embarked
The ship is close to the dock
And is ready to sail

Good-bye lovely scarves, good-bye Madras
Good-bye golden necklaces
My sweetheart is leaving me
Alas! Alas! It is for ever...

Saturday, August 19, 2017

From John Stewart & John Phillips: "Oh, Miss Mary"

(L-R - John Stewart, Barry McGuire, Scott McKenzie, and Michelle Phillips sing at the memorial for John Phillips - Los Angeles, 2001)

When John Phillips died at the age of  65 in 2001, the obituaries and memorials quite naturally focused on his position as the founder, lead writer, and vocal arranger for the mid-1960s folk-rock band The Mamas and The Papas - as well they should have, since Phillips' vocal scores for the group were masterful and mature, surpassed in both complexity and sheer beauty in the pop-rock era by probably only Brian Wilson's arrangements for The Beach Boys. Phillips took the four voices of the band and layered a dozen and more tracks on top of each other, creating a shimmering wall of sound even when the group was singing in unison and not Phillips' famous harmonies and vocal counterpoint.

What most of the obits noted only in passing, however, was that Phillips began his career in professional music as a pop-folk musician with a band that he formed called The Journeymen. Active from 1961 to 1964, The Journeymen were highly regarded for both their adventurous song selection and arrangements and for the blend that they achieved, with Phillips bringing in his childhood friend and long-time singing partner Scott McKenzie - he of the sweet and highly trained tenor voice that we all heard a few years later performing a Phillips song titled "If You're Going To San Francisco" -  and an excellent vocalist in Richard Weissman, who also happened to be (and remains being) one of the greatest banjo players in the history of the U.S. The group was piloted by Frank Werber, manager and to a degree creator of the Kingston Trio, which even in 1961 was clobbering most of its competition in the folk and pop worlds in terms of record sales and income.  Werber helped The Journeymen to win a recording contract with Capitol Records, also the KT's label, and Werber may have been grooming Phillips' trio as a possible replacement for the Kingstons since the latter group's founding member and chief arranger Dave Guard had left that group in a huff, hurling the KT and Capitol into a state of uncertain anxiety.

It was at Capitol that Phillips met John Stewart, chosen over Phillips as Dave Guard's replacement in the KT largely because Stewart was an excellent banjo player and Phillips was not - and the banjo was an absolutely essential element in the sound that had rocketed the Kingstons to the top of the charts in album sales for the three years prior. Phillips and Stewart seemed to bond almost instantly. Both were songwriters, both liked folk music, and both had senses of humor that could be described charitably as somewhat off-beat. Stewart may even have flirted with the idea of joining Phillips in The Journeymen as a full partner, whereas in the KT Stewart was merely a salaried employee.

The friendship quite naturally led to the two collaborating in the writing of four songs:  "Chilly Winds," "Don't Turn Around," "You Can Rattle My Cage," and "Oh, Miss Mary." The Kingston Trio recorded the first and last of these, The Journeymen the last three.  All are well-crafted tunes of the kind that were derided by purists of the time as "fake folk" or "faux-folk," songs that were designed to sound at least vaguely traditional but which had no "authenticity" or folk provenance. Yet "Chilly Winds" and "Oh Miss Mary" have been near the top of the list of favorite songs among KT fans for decades, as are two other Phillips compositions, "Goin' Away For To Leave You" and "Oh Sail Away" (written with Weissman).

There was very nearly one more. Stewart enjoyed recounting from the stage at the Trio Fantasy Camp in Arizona that Phillips, in professional limbo between The Journeymen and The Mamas and The Papas, had visited him in San Francisco in late 1964 and had played for him a recent composition that just knocked Stewart's socks off.  Stewart wanted the KT to record it immediately, so he pushed Phillips into his own car and rocketed over to Columbus Tower, an office building owned by the Trio and home to their corporate headquarters. Phillips refused to leave the lobby of the building and go to Werber's penthouse office because "Frank doesn't like me very much."  Stewart replied that that was nonsense and that Werber had an ear for good songs and that Phillips' new one was fantastic. So Stewart went up to Werber's office alone and told Frank that he had Phillips in the lobby and that the latter had with him a song that was a sure-fire hit. "Phillips?" screamed Werber. "In my building??? Get that drug-addled psychopath out of here right away! I'll call the cops on him!' "But the song, " pleaded Stewart. "We're never going to record anything by that loser again!" Werber fired back.

The song that so excited Stewart was "California Dreaming."

Though not a blockbuster like "Dreaming," "Oh Miss Mary" made Stewart and Phillips a fair bit of coin, appearing as it did on the KT's popular and well-received 1962 College Concert album that rose to  #3 on the Billboard album charts and that sold over 400,000 units. It's a wispy, delightful little bit of faux-folk fluff with an infectious, lilting rhythm and a chorus you'd swear you'd heard before the first time you listen to it. The lead on the verses here is handled by the irrepressible Nick Reynolds:

The KT had pretty much made its folk bones with tunes like this - banjo numbers that plowed ahead and put the singers' natural exuberance on display. So it's no wonder that The Journeymen's version of the song with Phillips singing lead, even with its vocals arranged with perhaps more sophistication, doesn't quite measure up in the energy department:

Energy was never a problem for The New Christy Minstrels, who slow the tempo a bit but add an almost jazzy swing to it here:

The female voices - original members Gayle Caldwell and Peggy Connelly, I believe - add a nice touch, and I do believe that I detect the distinctive sound of one of my friend Art Podell's arrangements.
Barry McGuire may be in the chorus there, but his 1963 "solo" record The Barry McGuire Album included a version with his trademark growl and also featured on it "The Stars of the New Christy Minstrels" - it's a different take on the song:

We'll close our selection of versions with a fine one by Bill Mumy from his album Thank You Kindly. Now, you already know Bill Mumy, who as a child actor starred in Lost In Space and perhaps even more memorably as little Anthony Fremont, the monstrous six-year-old boy who terrorizes his family and neighbors with his psychokinetic powers ("Wish it into the cornfield, son!") on The Twilight Zone episode called "It's A Good Life." What you might not know is that Mumy grew up to be a successful award-winning and Emmy-nominated musician, singer and composer, one who has always loved folk music with an especial appreciation for John Stewart and the KT. He delivers an energetic reading of the Phillips-Stewart number here:

A final note might be in order. Now no one is more impatient than I am with folks who read too much into a song or poem, but in recent years I've noticed something interesting about "Oh Miss Mary." Its composition in 1961 or '62 came at a time when neither families nor society smiled benignly on girls who went off wandering on their own chasing rainbows and crossing rivers. Think, for example, of the delightfully earnest Betty Anderson (portrayed fetchingly by Elinor Donahue) on the old 1950s-60s sitcom Father Knows Best. Think Betty's going to do this kind of thing? Yet her granddaughters well may be pursuing exactly such a course. As I write this, two of the young women who were my high school students and who are now in their middle twenties are off on their own "Miss Mary" excursions. One has been crossing oceans in a sailboat and has wound up in places as diverse as Gibraltar and Brazil. Another has lived on three continents and for the last several months has been motoring around Europe completely on her own, crossing a somewhat dangerous border into Serbia just this morning. I'm pretty sure that neither women's places in the world nor the future of society occurred to John Stewart and John Phillips when they wrote "Oh Miss Mary" - it was just an enjoyable little tune to play on guitar and banjo. But without intending to do so, they may just have penned a song whose time has finally come. I'm wondering where my own young "Miss Marys" will be off to next.

Monday, December 26, 2016

For The Season #9: "Good King Wenceslas"

One of the ongoing pleasures of the holiday season for me is revisiting Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, first in its original format as a novella - and a ripping good read it is and remains being - and then in looking at several of the almost 30 film versions out there today, most all of which make a commendable effort to translate to the screen a complex narrative replete with interior monologue from the storyteller. No single movie of the tale manages to relate the full work in all of its deliciously Dickensian asides and details, and directors inevitably must choose which aspects of the Carol that they want to emphasize. Should the redemptive transformation of an old curmudgeon take center stage, or should the more explicitly religious idea of a hell-bound monster derailed from that destination by the intercessory power of a loving God be the point of emphasis? The cute little crippled and dying  boy or the deeply loving nature of his devoted father and the clearer but tougher vision of his mother? The evils and injustices of the world and the society portrayed in the book (and this is, as we shall see, a large part of the author's intent) or the power of a right-minded individual to rectify some of those evils and injustices?

Like all great stories, A Christmas Carol speaks to each of us in different ways. If you haven't read it of late and/or if you mainly know it or only know it through one or more of the films, it might not be a bad idea at all to give the original text another look. It's not long, it's available free online at multiple sites, and you might well be surprised how much of the original story hasn't made it into any of the movies - and how much of the tale is spot-on relevant today and how thoroughly its importance and its value transcend the Christmas season. It is a book for all seasons in its attempt to wrestle with the same issues of social justice and welfare that have raised their heads into elections around the world in the last year or two, and it emanates from the exact same time, place, and cultural context of its analogue in popular folk music, the great (post) Christmas carol "Good Kings Wenceslas."

And "Wenceslas" most emphatically is a folk song. Its lyrics, characterized as they are by the call to works of charity in the closing couplet, were the sole work of High Church Anglican priest and composer John Mason Neale (1818-1866), but the melody was delivered to Neale by his choirmaster and collaborator Thomas Helmore (1811-1890), who had found the tune (a spring carol called "Tempus adest floridum" or "The time of flowers has come") in an already-ancient book of anonymous medieval songs from Finland. Now, Neale and Helmore together left a powerful and deep mark on the music of Christmas that we know in English today, having composed and/or re-worked the best-known Advent carol in "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," two very popular Christmas songs in "Christ Was Born On Christmas Day" and "Good Christian Men, Rejoice," and the only St. Stephen's Day carol that most of us have ever heard, "Good King Wenceslas."

Neale and Helmore published a truly impressive number of hymnals and other collections of sacred songs over the years of their collaboration, but our case in point here relates to their 1853 Carols For Christmas-Tide in which "Wenceslas" debuted and which appeared exactly a decade after the Dickens classic. "Wenceslas" and A Christmas Carol reach the selfsame conclusion, albeit via very different plot lines. The transformation of Ebeneezer Scrooge is confirmed not by word or by attitude but by deed - Dickens remarks at the close of the tale that

He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world...and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father.

Wenceslas, already regarded as a saint by his people, acts with sympathy and compassion to alleviate the sufferings of a poor man in the depths of winter, giving Neale the opportunity to moralize an explicit lesson in a lyric that becomes a sermon:  

Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing, 
Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.

It is that "wealth or rank possessing" note by Neale that draws him closest in theme to Dickens. Charles D. was most certainly a liberal reformer in his day, having been born into a middle class family that had fallen on hard times resulting in several nightmare years in his childhood that saw him living in workhouses (an enforced servitude of the homeless and jobless poor, notorious for their exploitation and harsh treatment of their residents) and even debtor prisons with his father. These experiences clearly became the grist for the plot lines of some of Dickens's best-known and most successful novels - David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Hard Times, and of course A Christmas Carol among many others. Dickens came to regard both Adam Smith's promulgation of unregulated capitalism and John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism as pernicious lies that ignored the realities of the lives and plights of his own childhood and of millions of others like him in the Industrial Revolution era of the United Kingdom.

Neale shared many of Dickens's convictions, but please. We are not talking here about bomb-throwing anarchists or even members of Britain's incipient Socialist movement. We are talking about a pair of Victorian gentlemen of the upper middle class, High Church Anglicans both, men whose response to the savage inequities of the 19th century capitalist economy would warm the cockles of even the flintiest of hearts of modern American conservatives. For Neale and Dickens both believed that poverty could be alleviated and economic injustices resolved by moral action from those of wealth and privilege, not in the patronizing manner of the French concept of noblesse oblige but rather in the high-minded understanding of the Christian imperative to care for those in need. Dickens's reformed Scrooge and Neale's Wenceslas are literary embodiments of that belief, deeply held by both writers.

It likely doesn't matter that the Wenceslas story is entirely apocryphal or that the actual man was a Duke of Bohemia with the familiar Czech name of Václav who was murdered by his own brother. What bothered some of Neale's 19th century critics was that he and Helmore had co-opted the melody of a perfectly serviceable religious song about God's glory reflected in Spring and turned it into what one Grinch-like writer referred to as "insipid sentimentality" and "Christmas doggerel." No matter; "Good King Wenceslas" is doing quite well, thank you, more than 160 years after it first appeared. However, in the interests of fairness and full disclosure, here is that "Tempus adest floridum" root song in all its pristine glory:

There is much to like here, and the sprightly, even optimistic rhythm and melody fit perfectly with the lyric's joyful evocation of the wonders of Spring:

Spring has now unwrapped the flowers, day is fast reviving, 
Life in all her growing powers towards the light is striving: 
Gone the iron touch of cold, winter time and frost time, 
Seedlings, working through the mould, now make up for lost time.

For a sense of how this may have sounded in the era of its 1582 publication, here is Ernst Stoltz playing an authentic Renaissance lute with an anachronistic but charming and unobtrusive modern guitar:

For a solid pop-folk rendition of "Wenceslas," we turn to the Kingston Trio:

This is the longest-running iteration of the group that will celebrate its 60th anniversary next year, the configuration that has been touring together since 2005 and that features Bill Zorn doing the lead with the King's dialogue and George Grove and Rick Dougherty harmonizing beautifully with the page's lines. That kind of antiphony is characteristic of much medieval music, even if Grove's tastefully understated banjo line is not.

My good friend George, however, is not the only performer to see the possibility of an Americanization of this most English of carols via the inclusion of the banjo. Here is Dr. Josh Turknett, a neuroscientist and major proponent of clawhammer banjo music, with a delightful frailed version of the tune:

And if you were never quite sure what the difference was between the folk/clawhammer/frailing style of banjo playing and modern bluegrass banjo music, take a listen to Banjo Ben Clark with his instructional video in bluegrass rolls and fills - using this ancient carol as his model:

You can find scores more experimental versions of the song all over YouTube and other video sites, including reggae and blues and jazz and fiddle renditions. I love them all for their innovativeness and originality, just as I remarked above that I love the many cinematic versions of A Christmas Carol, however far they may stray from the author's initial intent. But "Good King Wenceslas" is in its own origins a stately English carol composed for Helmore's choir, so our last version today will be a recording of the great Robert Shaw Chamber Singers performing the traditional song as most of us first heard it:

Shaw's always tasteful arrangements and disciplined direction are here enhanced in this 1990s recording by baritone Victor Ledbetter singing the King's lines and mezzo-soprano Katherine Murray as the page.

The poor we have always with us, as Scripture reminds us, and both Charles Dickens and John Mason Neale use the Christmas season and its attendant joy to inspire people of good will everywhere to do what they could to meet the challenge of dealing with that sad fact. Their solution may not be mine and may not be yours, but it is an idea worthy of the earnest men who propounded it a century and a half ago. May we all feel blessed enough this Christmas season to share some of what we have with those who have less and bring the reformed miser and saintly king to life once again in our own world.


*The first eight 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"; #7 - "The Coventry Carol"; and #8 - "The Cherry Tree 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".

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:

 photo CDgmb_zpskafvw63v.jpg

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."