Saturday, November 22, 2008

"That Damned Old Rodeo": Ian Tyson's "Someday Soon"

Given the inextricable link between American folk music traditions and the lore of the Old West, I always thought it a bit strange that the original troupes of the Kingston Trio didn't venture more frequently into the distinct folk sub-genre of cowboy music. When they did so, the results were at times stunningly effective. The Shane, Guard, Reynolds trio recorded few songs lovelier than their version of "The Colorado Trail," a genuine artifact from the cowboy times, and Stewart configuration made a decent attempt at "Get Along Little Dogies," which if nothing else features an interesting and original chord accompaniment structure.

Maybe the cowboy numbers seemed too country-ish for a band that needed to maintain a somewhat urban posture for the nightclub dates that they played all through their career. But then - the Trio had plenty of river songs - and mountain songs - and history songs - just few serious traditional cattle drive tunes.

They fared better with faux cowboy numbers. If "Some Fool Made A Soldier Of Me" was just silly and "Adios, Farewell" a merely unsuccessful attempt to tap into the success of Marty Robbins' "El Paso" - they did score musical successes with a truly great version of the fake folk "Long Black Veil," and I always thought that their performance of "Red River Shore" (another nod to Robbins, perhaps) was the only truly listenable song on Something Else and one of their best numbers from their last two records.

"Someday Soon" from the Nick, Bob, John album fits into this category, as it does in "Really Great Writers And Songs Discovered/Promoted By The Kingston Trio." By 1964, when the KT put this one on vinyl, its writer Ian Tyson was already a superstar in his native Canada and very popular in the U.S., both with album sales and frequent appearances on Hootenanny and other TV variety shows. With his at first POSSLQ* and later wife (and eventually bitter divorce enemy) Sylvia Fricker, Tyson became a major force in folk music on both sides of our (formerly) friendly border - as a performer of course, as a writer ("Four Strong Winds" has been voted the greatest song ever written by a Canadian - and though I agree, you have to wonder what Leonard Cohen and Gordon Lightfoot ["Early Morning Rain," maybe?] fans might say to that), and like Bob Gibson in this country, a discoverer of new talent (it was Tyson who gave Lightfoot his earliest break, and he also sponsored the early recording career of Joni Mitchell).

After the boom period of the folk movement passed and his marriage to Sylvia imploded, Tyson returned to the ranch in Alberta that he was having trouble paying for, sought and found work as a cow puncher and ranch hand, all the while still writing and performing, albeit to much smaller audiences for a time. (I caught him in a crummy bar outside of Edmonton in the early 80s when i was returning from one of my solo adventures to the Canadian Arctic; there were maybe 25 people in the audience, and both of us there who were actually listening heard a great show.) He re-cast himself as the troubadour of the simple cowboy way of life, with steady and increased success since then. As a matter of fact, if you visit his website and check out his discography (Tyson Discography) all you'll find are the cowboy-era albums from 1973 onward - no folk, no "Four Strong Winds" - no Sylvia.

And yet - whatever was between Ian and Sylvia fifty years ago when they met almost fifty years ago has been immortalized in this great song, which is sort of imaginary-autobiographical. Written by Tyson, it seems as if he is conceptualizing the romance through her eyes - he was, in case you didn't know, a rodeo rider before he turned to music and art.

The best-known version of the song, of course, is by Judy Collins from a really great Judy album, Who Knows Where The Time Goes? There is a live performance video of Collins doing the song on TV in 1969 ( Judy Collins Live) and I really wanted to post it - but without that great steel/slide guitar intro and accompaniment, you just lose too much of the flavor of the number. So here is Judy's actual studio recording:

[But since Collins' video above was yanked from YouTube as of 3/09 - here's the live performance, sadly minus slide guitar.]

However - a recent (2009) performance on the Letterman show includes the great slide guitar part - and shows that 40 years later, Collins still has the vocal chops to pull it off:

This came out after the Kingston Trio had flipped the speaker of the lyrics from the girl to the young cowboy. It's a version that few outside of Trio circles have ever heard (Nick, Bob, John didn't sell very well, comparatively) - but it has the virtues of an original arrangement and a strong, masculine vocal by John Stewart:

Now, I'd love to post a full version of Ian Tyson doing his own song - but as Rick Daly knows, Syvia's lawyers don't take kindly to YouTube or websites like his using her performance material. So - several of the songs that came from the 1984 Ian and Sylvia Reunion are now on YouTube - but "embedding is disabled by request" - from Sylvia's attorneys, I'm betting. However - here's a video montage of Ian doing his own composition:

Not surprisingly, the song has remained tremendously popular with female country singers in all the decades since Collins' performance. Here are two of what I think are the best - Crystal Gayle and Suzy Bogguss:

Crystal Gaye, 1979

Suzy Bogguss - Recently

And to close - since as mentioned the pedal steel is such a fine part of this arrangement - how about a pedal steel instrumental version - from The Steel Guitar Association in Ireland, of all places:

A great song, indeed - and in this year of lost legends, we can be happy that Ian Tyson is still alive and kicking, out on the road somewhere, singing and writing into the sunset of his life..............

*POSSLQ is an acronym for "people of opposite sexes sharing living quarters" - one that never really caught on but I always thought deserved to.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Melancholy Parting: Dylan's "Fare Thee Well" And "The Leaving Of Liverpool"

Bob Dylan has attained such an iconic status in the world of American folk and popular music that it's hard to remember (or even conceive) that he was barely twenty years old when he arrived in New York and began a serious attempt to make a living in music. He was a scruffy, shifty, erratic kid about whom there are plenty of less than savory tales told about his behavior, his veracity about himself and his prior life, and his treatment of people around him. Some of those tales are undoubtedly apocryphal and born of jealousy or spite; others have the kind of persistent reincarnation that suggest at least a grounding in truth. At his best, our young genius-to-be seems to have given a fair number of previews of his explosive talent for writing memorable, high-impact songs; at his worst - well, we were all twenty once, and I'd venture to guess that most of us could look back at that time in our own lives and recall some of the things that we ourselves did that we hope will be buried with us.

A window into that time in Dylan's earliest career is provided by Martin Scorsese in his (typical for him overlong and in need of editing) documentary No Direction Home. Many in the Greenwich Village crowd didn't quite know what to make of him, befriend him though they did. Dave Van Ronk, Spider John Koerner, and John Cohen all expressed in the film a kind of bemusement at Dylan's persona and shenanigans - and Liam Clancy found him eager but occasionally annoying. What becomes clear in the film is how much Dylan derived - and how many songs he appropriated - from each of those (and other) older, more established stars of the pre-KT small and largely unknown Village folk community.

I was surprised to see in No Direction Home how many times Liam Clancy was interviewed and how often he and his brothers and Tommy Makem were cited as major influences on Dylan - and I really shouldn't have been, given the number of songs on Dylan's earliest albums that are direct derivations of numbers from the Clancys' repertoire: "Pretty Peggy-O" is a slight re-working of the Brothers' version of the Scots "Bonnie Maid Of Fife" from their first album; "Restless Farewell" is an adaptation of Liam's classic solo on "The Parting Glass"; "Rambling, Gambling Willie" is failed attempt to create an American outlaw song of the same tenor as the vastly better traditional "Brennan On The Moor" with which the Clancys opened most of their concerts; and as most people know, "With God On Our Side" simply substitutes a generic set of anti-war protest lyrics for the more particular, pointed, and effective ones from Dominc Behan's "The Patriot Game." (Behan's objections to Dylan's purloining of his tune were quickly silenced when it became more widely known that Behan himself had filched much of the tune for "Patriot Game" from a really obscure Appalachian folk song. Thus goes the "folk process.")

Recognizing as he clearly did that the power of the CB&TM's performances derived in equal measure from their "leave it all on the stage" attitude and the wide and deep mine of source material of Irish traditional music, Dylan went back to the well at least once more for the melody of his "Fare Thee Well." The Clancys had been singing the old Anglo-Irish waterfront drinking song "The Leaving Of Liverpool" all around the Village for a year or two (Liam once said that they stole it from Luke Kelly and Ronnie Drew, who would become the heart of The Dubliners); Bobby D. changed the tune ever so slightly, retained the basic sense of the lyrics (as he did with "Restless Farewell"), and uncorked "Fare Thee Well My Own True Love."

I had never heard Dylan sing this until fairly recently, except in bootlegs from live performances, but the times they are a changin' and YouTube now has what amounts to a demo from BD of his rewrite in 1963:

I first became aware of the song on this version here - The Kingston Trio from 1964's Nick, Bob and John album. The audio here is from the re-engineered, cleaned up version released recently that attempted to compensate for the many faults of the original Decca recording, which sounded flat and two-dimensional without the recording magic of Capitol Records producer Voyle Gilmore and engineer Pete Abbot:

I'm not sure how much influence (if any besides preventing orchestration and adding a bass) that Gilmore had on the actual arrangements of the KT, but I like to think he might have suggested that they slow down a bit on this one.

At about the same time, the song was also recorded by Dion and the Wanderers, the "Dion" being the same Dion DiMucci who had been a teen heartthrob as the front man for the Belmonts and as a soloist as well. The more mature Dion of 1965, still three years away from his signature hit song of "Abraham, Martin and John", recorded a folk-rock album that included several Dylan songs, including "Fare Thee Well":

For something dramatically different, Ken and Jane Brooks present a classic bluegrass reading of the tune:

Ken Brooks is blistering those strings - that is outstanding bluegrass flatpicking.

The first version of the composition I heard was of course was the root song "Leaving of Liverpool" by the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, a much superior song in its simple and honest melancholy. Here is that legendary group - Clancy brothers Liam, Paddy, and Bobby with the pride of Armagh, Tommy Makem. This is the band's original studio recording from 1963.

For something a tad more Irish in its sound but still polished - Johnny McEvoy does a great job:

Here is a tape of Ronnie Drew, Barney McKenna and more - a sort of proto-Dubliners group - from an early 60s TV show. This one is the rough edged, sort of pre-KT folk sound:

And the best for last - a TV special featuring the great Tommy Makem, quite possibly the best of all soloist Irish folk singers:

The Dylan song is pleasant enough - but for me the original is infinitely superior. Though it's a sailor's song - he is after all coming back, according to the lyric - I've often wondered how often this might have been sung the night before weighing anchor by some of the five million souls who between 1840 and 1910 left Liverpool, never to return, for their own New Worlds.......

Appendix - 7/11/09

And a live performance by a later incarnation of the legendary Dubliners:

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Mystic Chords Of Memory: "Try To Remember"

Here in Southern California, we baked like hell (nearly literally) in the second hottest October since record-keeping was initiated in 1885, thus obliterating for me even the most fleeting memories of the multi-hued autumns of what was my favorite of all months of the year growing up in the Middle West five decades ago. The fading late afternoon light, softened by the sun's declension into a lower arc in the evening, the chill of the early evening air, the pungent scent of burning leaves - all encouraged the wonderfully strange and almost mystical feelings of melancholy and passing time and yearning for I knew not what that sought out the deepest reaches of my adolescent and Irish soul and embedded themselves there, familiar and comfortable annual visitors that gave even my youngest self opportunities for reminiscence and a gentle, not-unpleasant sense of regret.

And into this emotional landscape dropped the song that expresses those feelings as effectively as any song I know, Harvey Schmidt's and Tom Jones' "Try To Remember" from the longest-running show in theatrical history (42 years, 1960-2002, over 17,000 performances), off-Broadway's The Fantasticks. [The original cast from 1960 (including Jerry Orbach,  center) is pictured at left.]

The show itself is a bit of slightly cornball fluff, a romantic semi-comedy that taps into audiences' most accessible emotions about love and youth and age and experience. There is a narrator named El Gallo who sings this number (repeatedly, like "Old Man River" in Showboat), an ingenue couple, wise old parents, and a Romeo/Juliet kind of story though with an almost happy ending.

But the song burst out of the show that resided all those years at the Sullivan Street Theater, a non-Equity playhouse, meaning 99 seats or fewer, and almost immediately became a standard of the American songbook. Like the signature song in many an American musical - you could walk out of the theater, never having heard it before, humming it and wanting to hear it again.

"Try To Remember" isn't a folk song - but then, in the purest sense, neither is "The Mountains of Mourne" - or "Oh, Susanna!" for that matter. Yet all three and many more like them have been beloved of and sung by generations of people, reminding one of Big Bill Broonzy's quip that all songs are folk songs because he never heard a horse sing (or Bob Shane's corollary - "I'm not a folksinger - I'm a folks' singer.")

The song, though, has many of the elements of a folk song - repetition, lyrical simplicity, a fairly easy tune, and an accompaniment structure that can be done with four easy chords (you can throw in a kind of rogue 7th if you feel you have to). It's so widely known now that it might as well be a folk song - and interestingly, after the play itself, it was largely folk type singers who popularized it.

And now to the music. We start with the original El Gallo himself, the late, great Jerry Orbach. Now Law and Order is one of my all time favorite TV shows, and Orbach was its centerpiece as Det. Lennie Briscoe. But I had known of him 25 years before the TV show because of his Broadway career including Tony Awards and nominations - and Jerry gets our first video today - the original cast recording here:

Now Bob Shane of course always had a way with show tunes, from the very beginning of the group with "Maria" from Paint Your Wagon. What I like so much about this great solo from the KT album #16 in addition to the wonderful guitar arrangement (by John Stauber) is that the raw talent that Bob demonstrates on the several live recordings of "Maria" has grown through years and performance into the superb craft of a vocal artist on his take on the song:

Here is Bob again, eight years later in 1970 from a Japanese recording of the New Kingston Trio - interesting to compare it to his first recording:

A year or so before Bob, though, The Brothers Four had one of their patented mellow top ten hits with the number. This video from the 2002 This Land Is Your Land PBS special has only bassist Bob Flick from the original group, though lead singer Mark Pearson is kind of the George Grove of the BF, having joined the band in 1969 and remained with them through the years. I prefer baritones on this number, but Mark's voice is so clear and melodic that he has almost changed my mind:

To some degree in the popular mind of the time, the song "belonged" as well to Harry Belafonte - and with good reason. This video, from 1976, shows the interpretive and vocal power of one of the greatest popular singers of the last century, 39 at the time and at the height of his power. HB is using his own distinctive vocally counter-pointed arrangement and accompanied by all-star guitarists, Brazilian Sivuca on the left and long-time Belafonte collaborator Millard Thomas on the right. That smoky, mellow baritone of Belafonte's still moves me beyond words:

Critics have branded the song as a kind of sentimental nonsense. Sentimental, yes - but like the best songs of that stripe ("Danny Boy," anyone?), an honest and unabashed sentimentality is an art form of its own, one of enduring validity. "Try To Remember" pretends to be nothing more than it is - a simple song whose evocative power resides precisely within its simple emotionality.

Appendix - 6/7/10

Within the last few weeks, a performance video of the great Jerry Orbach doing the number in 1982 surfaced. Given the fact that videos from TV shows tend to disappear rather quickly from YT, I'll post it here for as long as it's viewable:


For the full on pop vocal, the great Ed Ames: