Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Best Of Comparative Video 101 - 2009

Not exactly a retrospective, this - but one of the joys of doing this blog (whether readers number in the single digits, as they sometimes do, or the thousands, as they have when someone else picks up a post from here on a higher profile blog) has been discovering creative, fresh, interesting, or strange versions of songs that in virtually every case I've known for more than forty years.

There are forty seven songs that have been profiled on this blog this year, and here are the eight versions (out of more than 250 embedded renditions) of some of those songs that I enjoyed the most, with the heading linking to the original posting.

Happy 2010 to all who stop by here!

Eric Bibb (see "Tell Old Bill" below)

Altan: "The Jug Of Punch"
- 12/31/08

Ladysmith Black Mambazo: "Wimoweh/Mbube" - 1/15/09

Dolly Parton: "Deportee" - 4/10/09

CooolJazzz: "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" - 4/24/09

The Bar D Wranglers: "The Colorado Trail" - 5/15/09

Roy Rogers: "Get Along, Little Dogies" - 7/03/09

Eric Bibb: "Tell Old Bill" - 9/18/09

Judy Collins, Eric Andersen, Arlo Guthrie, Tom Rush: "Thirsty Boots" - 12/4/09

Thursday, December 24, 2009

For The Season #2: "All Through The Night/Ar Hyd Y Nos"

Holiday albums seem to run the gamut from the utterly banal to the truly inspired. There are classics of the genre, among which I would nominate the London Symphony for orchestral perfection at rendering traditional carols; any of several Mormon Tabernacle Choir recordings for choral versions of the same; and perhaps Andy Williams' album from the 1960s for smooth pop vocals of many more recent compositions.

One of the most original and ultimately satisfying holiday efforts was the Kingston Trio's 1960 album The Last Month of the Year. Unlike many other pop artists, some of whom in their holiday albums got way out of their depths in attempting songs that they could not do or crassly altered carols to fit into their pop or rock styles, the KT stayed squarely within their power zone of folk-type music and created a classic album by both presenting genuine folk carols like "Somerset-Gloucestershire Wassail" and "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" (link to last year's Christmas post with some comments on carols in general) and presenting less familiar (to U.S. audiences) folk carols from our country and around the world, often with unusual instruments like the bouzouki. I loved these, especially the spiritual "Go Where I Send Thee," "Follow Now, O Shepherds" from Spain, "Sing We Now Noel" from France, and most especially "All Through The Night" from Wales.

This lovely song is one of several numbers from the Welsh language that have broken through the language barrier to become in translation part of the folkways of English-speaking peoples ("Men of Harlech" would be my nominee for #2 in this category). The Welsh, of course, are an ancient and fiercely independent Celtic group, the last remnant of the ancient Brythons who were driven from their country by the invading Saxons fifteen hundred years ago - and in all that time, they have never given up their national flag, identity or language. Or, I might add, their music - one of the most common remarks I noted on YouTube versions of "All Through The Night" was the plea "Nice, but can't you sing it in Welsh?"

The air to the song known originally as "Ar Hyd Y Nos" is a very old harper's tune that dates back hundreds of years and was published as early as the mid-1700s. But the lyrics with the Christmas theme were added in the nineteenth century by beloved Welsh poet John Ceiriog Hughes, and the English words that we know were rendered apparently very loosely from Hughes.

The KT's version demonstrates their skill with genuine three part harmony, and its fidelity to the original and no-frills instrumentation belie the critics who said that the group could not deliver traditional songs in an authentic and meaningful manner:

Now, back to the source song. Here's the Men's Choir of Wales singing Hughes' words - the number (like "Harlech") is a standard for groups like this:

Welsh-born tenor pop star Aled Jones gives it a go with full chorus in 2002 - ruggedly masculine and beautiful:

The great American baritone Paul Robeson brought his operatically-trained voice to bear in this stately version:

Next, a different take on the song from jazz/blues/pop legend Nancy Wilson - this is non-traditional but somehow works for me:

By way of contrast, Olivia Newton-John (with Michael McDonald) gives the song that breathy treatment we hear so much on American Idol - not my cup of tea at all, but McDonald's harmony partially redeems this version:

Finally, an informal, almost home video of current British pop and folk singer Meinir Gwilym singing in a pub with Anwen Jones - this intimate version is just so right:

So a Merry Christmas to all, remembering the spirit of the season from the man who expressed it best, Charles Dickens - "It was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!"

Friday, December 18, 2009

"Three Jolly Coachmen"

Every Kingston Trio  album was structured like one of their concert sets - a strong opener followed by a change-of-pace, heading toward a high-profile big number (not necessarily uptempo - maybe a single or familiar hit or promoted song from a new album), and then repeating that pattern leading to the high-energy finale.

The Kingstons to this day proclaim with pride on their press releases that they "emerged from the clubs of San Francisco's North Beach," and it is as a nightclub act for which their early sets were designed. As great as they proved to be in concert halls, the intimacy of the upscale clubs always seemed to me to be the natural habitat for the group and their music, and "...from the Hungry i" gives plenty of evidence for that thought. When they played for, say, five thousand people, a barn-burner opener like "Hard Travelin" or "Hard Ain't It Hard" was almost compulsory - but in the smaller and quieter clubs, they could and did open with songs like "Three Jolly Coachmen."

And a fine opening for Capitol T996 it was, being a re-arranged (and, ahem, cleaned up) version of a traditional song, with all the hallmarks of the Kingston Trio style - great energy, strong interpretive dynamics, some humor, and solid if not spectacular musicianship.The root song was known as "Landlord, Fill The Flowing Bowl" and appears in a play by Shakespeare collaborator John Fletcher about 1630; it's said to be either Scots or English in its origin. The unexpurgated (and very funny) lyrics are here:

The Original Bawdy Coachmen Song

So return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, June 1st, 1958 (my eighth birthday, in fact) for the very first cut on that legendary first record album:

And courtesy of our Mallorcan Swedish friend Bo Wennstam - fly with us back to last August in Scottsdale to see the combination of fidelity to the original and musical innovation with which today's Trio performs the number:

The most interesting other version that I found on YouTube is from the Husky Singers from Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania, a fine choral adaptation that includes both some of the more risque lyrics and an excellent satiric last verse:

Adding a delightful feminine touch to the song are Molly and Sonny Boy from Minnesota - this is a traditional version I've seen in songbooks that truncates the verses somewhat:

For a talented amateur group - a garage Trio of Chilly Winds/County Line Trio vintage - the Tungsten Trio from Pennsylvania:

I have a feeling that renditions of the song from, say, two hundred years ago may have looked something like this tavern version from what appears to be a Renaissance fair group of enthusiasts:

Finally, and continuing the costume/re-enactor theme - a Madrigals group from Hiram College in Ohio:

Next week - a special Christmas song from one of the great holiday albums of all time...

Friday, December 4, 2009

"Dancing Cliffed Shattered Sills" - Eric Andersen's "Thirsty Boots"

John Stewart almost certainly snags the award for Most Under-Appreciated Songwriter/Artist of the last half century - but he's not alone in that regard. There is a cluster of other singer-songwriters whose bodies of work go neglected in the odoriferous cesspool that American mass popular culture has become. Steve Goodman always comes to my mind first - had he written only "The City of New Orleans" he would still be a minor deity of the art, but the whole of his work is so much more than that one song. Jim Croce is largely forgotten, and Phil Ochs wrote some of the loveliest tunes of the 60s with lyrics that could be trenchant, satirical, or powerfully emotional. Even Leonard Cohen is a name unknown to most folks under thirty, whose only contact with the musical artists of our youth seems to be with the prodigiously talented Bob Dylan - a rare artist indeed, but not the only one, and I'm not even sure the best one.

Had Eric Andersen written only "Violets of Dawn" and "Thirsty Boots," he would be accounted a fine songsmith. But Andersen has released dozens of albums since his Greenwich Village debut in the early 1960s, and like Stewart, Andersen has produced dozens of really outstanding songs on those albums that have been heard sadly only by the few thousand fans who have stayed faithful to him and continued to buy his recordings. The list of artists who have played with him on those albums is as much of a Who's Who of folk royalty as is the list of artists who have recorded his songs. The latest crapola contestant on American Idol becomes universally if temporarily recognizable by millions while a genuine artist like Andersen labors in the shadows of small venues. At age 66, he's still on the job.

"Thirsty Boots" is a song that I believe will long outlive Andersen just because it is so damned beautiful. Its roots, of course, are in the civil rights protests and demonstrations of the 60s, and Andersen himself has said that he wrote the song for a friend of his who had actually gone down to Mississippi while Andersen had stayed in the relative safety of New York City. But whatever flood of guilt or bright moment of epiphany prompted Andersen to write the song - what he came up with is a song for the ages, one that celebrates all youthful sacrifice and idealism - and he did so with a lyrical beauty that for my money even Dylan never bested.

This first version from the Kingston Trio is not the more polished version released in 2008 on Twice Upon A Time. Rather, this is the bootleg tape from a 1966 concert that I've downloaded from Rick Daly's FolkUSA that for many years was the only recording available of one of the Trio's best performances from late in their initial run:

Here is a clearer and more recent upload of the KT doing the tune, from their final concert at San Francisco's Hungry i in 1967:

Hearing the original artist do his own work is always revealing, and here we have a wonderfully clear video of Andersen performing his masterpiece in New York in 2012.

The closest anyone ever got to a hit with the song was probably Judy Collins, with whom the number is most identified. In 2002, Collins sponsored the Wildflowers Festival (named after what's likely her best-known album) and is joined on the song by (left to right) Tom Rush, Arlo Guthrie, and Andersen, who takes the second verse. This version is masterful:

Unless you happen to be a major John Denver fan - and there are many of us on this board who are- you may not have known that on his first three or four RCA albums, Denver did largely covers of other writers' work, almost always to wonderful effect. Listening to this recording is yet another pull of nostalgia for me - I miss Denver's voice, his writing, his concerts.

Finally - the recording that with Nick Reynolds 70th birthday prompted me finally to go to Fantasy Camp 4 in 2003. I had talked to Paul Rybolt on the phone about signing up, and Paul was good enough to send me the DVD from the 2002 camp - loads of fun with a great amount of talent among the campers. But it was this number by my now friends Pete Bentley, Michelle Stevens, and Bob Kozma (who sings the lead) that really really made me want to go. It was a life-altering decision in every possible good way:

A sublime treatment of one of the great songs of the era.

Friday, November 27, 2009

"Bonnie Heilan' Laddie"/"Highland Laddie"

Roots and branches - that's what these sixty-odd posts have been about - where songs come from, and how they morph into a variety of often very different versions over vast stretches of time and place. Additionally, I've been able to rediscover for myself both the richness of the Kingston Trio's versions of these songs (and sometimes have noted the limitations of the same) as well as some wonderful, original, traditional, funny, or in some cases outright bizarre versions of those same tunes.

Well, this week's selection, "Bonnie Heilan' Laddie," embodies quite literally all of the above. The benchmark performances belong IMHO to the KT and Pete Seeger (a fine pedigree indeed) but extend as well in the videos below to some startlingly original arrangements, a go at the song by one of the greatest musician/composers who ever lived, and perhaps the weirdest video I have ever offered here.

"Bonnie Heilan' Laddie" is a Scots number of course, and I'm guessing that most of us figured out fairly early that "heiland" was Scots for "highland." It's just as clearly a sea chantey, though what connection our highland boy has with all the places named in the tune is obscure, or even why the singer is asking if the lad has ever been there.

The song seems first to have been a piper's number, and it remains in its original form of "Bonnie Laddie, Highland Laddie" the regimental march of about two dozen military units both in the UK and across the Commonwealth. It's a stirring and inspiring piece, a dramatic reminder that in Celtic countries what we refer to in English as "bagpipes" were known in their original languages as "war pipes," the purpose of which was not only to rally one's own soldiers but to inspire fear in the enemy through the eerie sound of the pipes (the exact effect accomplished according to veterans of the Battle of New Orleans as General Edward Pakenham's Highland Infantry charged Andrew Jackson's emplacements through a thick fog - to no avail, of course, though the sound of the pipes scared the bejesus out of Andy's men).

Now I know that the pipes do not excite the same thrill in everyone as they do in many of us who claim Celtic ancestry, so here is a short clip of massed pipers doing the song - the melody is a bit different from "Bonnie Heilan' Laddie," but you can clearly hear the "bonnie laddie, highland laddie" section repeated at the end of each musical phrase:

It is easy to infer that a memory of this tune inspired some nameless Scots sailor boys to adapt the basic music into a song that could be accompanied by a fiddle or pennywhistle, which were by far the most common instruments brought onto 18th and 19th century sailing ships, whose voyages could last for months at a time and on which music and dancing were the only forms of genuine recreation. Dave Guard of the KT and respected music archivist Joe Hickerson arranged the sailors' folk song into this version, adding a fragment of another song ("This Boston town don't suit my notion...") that exists only as - well, a fragment:

I love this version from the "dark" album Make Way - but I felt that the Trio was holding back a bit on it, that it could have benefited from a bit more of the full-steam-ahead enthusiasm that Pete Seeger demonstrates below. Nonetheless, even crusty old traditionalist and banjo master Billy Faier, who finds little to like in the Kingston Trio at all, approves of their treatment of "Helian Laddie."

Billy Faier On The Kingston Trio

Seeger essentially owns this song, having rescued it from folk obscurity and promoting it as a concert sing-along, which he tries to do in this video from Australia in the early 1960s, albeit without a whole lot of success. It's a great solo effort even if it wasn't intended to be:

Note: The cited video was taken down for CopyVio, but a fragment of Seeger doing the song can be heard around 4:22 in the video below -

Now the result would have been very different had Mick Coates been in that hall!

In the last few years, there have been a number of internet polls conducted trying to ascertain who the greatest of Irish folk singers is/was. The winner is invariably one of three men - Luke Kelly of the Dubliners, Liam Clancy, or my own favorite, Tommy Makem:

There are a number of pretty good amateur versions on YouTube, though only the Brothers of Through here have posted a full version of the song - rough-edged but enthusiastic:

Finally - like many other classical composers, Ludwig von Beethoven occasionally turned to folk music for musical phrases and themes and occasionally complete airs. In 1818, he debuted his "25 Scottish Songs For Voice With Piano, Violin, and Violincello" with lyrics adapted by James Hogg (Hogg's Lyrics As Sung In The Video Below). Beethoven's tune is recognizably the same as the pipers' number and is a favorite of leider singers. But Robin Hendrix is an opera singer, here recorded doing the number in France earlier this year. I am not sure what was going through Ms. Hendix's mind - but this is certainly the strangest interpretation of a folk song I have ever seen:

Well. I think I'll stick to my own version, one that I play for myself often, which cross-pollinates the KT with Seeger and Makem. Seems like everyone else has had a run at adapting the number, so I have as well. Feel free....

Friday, November 20, 2009

"The Wagoner's Lad"

One of the things that I have always loved about folk music is its capacity to surprise. You can be humming along through all the wonderful chanteys and cowboy songs and ballads and love songs...and then stumble unexpectedly on the surpassingly beautiful (like "Shenandoah" or "The Mountains of Mourne") or the darkly tragic (like "The Sloop John B") - or amazingly modern sentiments in a very old song, like "The Wagoner's Lad."

The very first verse of the song, which is known in a host of variants including "My Horses Ain't Hungry" (recorded famously by Peter, Paul and Mary as "Pretty Mary") and "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" and which dates to the early nineteenth or even late eighteenth century, tells us that we are not in the standard folk universe in this song, where women are usually the objects of either romantic desire or borderline misogynistic humor or scorn. Instead, "Wagoner's Lad" opens with a plaint as old as time, one that remains distressingly true for a really unthinkable percentage of the world's women today - in the Middle East, in most of South Asia and much of East Asia, and in large parts of Africa. Perhaps half of the women in the world today do not choose their husbands freely, making that opening verse perpetually relevant:

O hard is the fortune of all womankind
They're always controlled, they're always confined...
Controlled by their fathers until they are wives
Then slaves to their husbands the rest of their lives.

The sad story of an unsuccessful courtship - due to the unsuitable poverty of the young man and the consequent forced and permanent separation of the young couple - is related in the voice of the girl, itself a bit unusual but not unheard of in English language folk songs. What is unique, though, is that the direct bitterness of the opening verse colors the rest of the tale of the lyric with an underlying and inescapable tragedy, as our narrator herself seems at some point in the future doomed to the "slavery" that she so despises, even sadder because love and happiness have flirted with her in the shape of her wagoner's lad, driven off by an unfeeling and unsympathetic father.

One of the earliest recordings of the song was by the legendary Buell Kazee, a Kentuckian who hit his stride in the 1920s a bit before the Carter Family came on the scene with a series of recordings for Brunswick records. Kazee's real ambition was the ministry, which he pursued for the rest of his life. The YouTube recording of Kazee has been removed,* but Smithsonian/Folkways Records has posted an equally authentic traditional rendition by Mr. and Mrs. John Sams of Kentucky - a field recording by John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers:

By way of contrast - here it is as sung by a woman, contemporary Anglo-Irish-American folksinger Sarah McQuaid - a fine a capella version:

And for contrast within a contrast, another lady's a capella version - who better than Joan Baez? This is the younger Baez, singing in that ice-clear soprano, very different from McQuaid's warm, full alto:

The Kingston Trio gives the song a respectful and almost traditional reading - they change the speaker from the girl to the wagoner's lad, much as they did in Ian Tyson's "Someday Soon", and add a chorus from a verse ("Pullin away...") but otherwise keep within the original thought of the song - one of the last times they did so with a folk number. This is the Something Special album version with the orchestra blessedly removed:

Our UK cousins Bert Jansch (of "Anji" fame) and John Renbourn deliver a wonderful, blues-tinged instrumental:

We sometimes forget that singer-songwriter John Denver began his career doing pop-folk versions of traditional songs, both with the Mitchell Trio and here in 1966 solo - the first song on the video with a fine 12 string guitar part:

Finally, Simple Gifts features the alternative version "My Horses Ain't Hungry" reminiscent of PP&M but featuring a guitar played in open D and a hammered dulcimer - really pretty:

Addendum, April 2012

Buell Kaze is back on YouTube, at least for a while:

Friday, November 6, 2009

Fred Geis' "I'm Goin' Home"

Something a little different this week. Over the last 61 song profiles, I've generally posted professional or near-professional musicians doing interesting and different variations on songs that many of us first heard from the Kingston Trio. Some performers seem to keep cropping up - Johnny Cash, the Carter Family, the Chad Mitchell Trio, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem here and there, and so on. Only rarely have I posted the uploads of enthusiastic amateurs unless they were really really good, most often because I had just too many good professional performances from which to choose.

However - the later chronologically you go into the KT's recorded work, the less likely you are to find songs that have alternate versions, especially during their years with Decca Records. One big reason for this is that the Trio had been moving steadily away from the songs that had originally been called folk, those traditional tunes arranged or adapted by members of the group and thus not surprisingly recorded in different versions by other artists. And while some of those Decca era songs became popular in other recordings, by the time you get to Something Else and Children of the Morning, the only songs on those albums with alternative versions had already been done - more famously - by other performers. Yet there are a number of really quality tunes on those Decca albums, some of which truly deserved a better fate than the near-anonymity of those light-selling LPs (well, light-selling by Trio standards).

One of the best examples of such a song is the Fred Geis composition (or semi-composition) "I'm Goin' Home," which many fans still call "California" and which makes the short list of nearly every Trio fan's favorite all-time KT songs. It certainly has always been one of mine, and if it never quite equaled my enthusiasm for "Bay of Mexico" or "The Sinking of the Reuben James," it's still IMHO one of their best ever uptempo numbers.

The song and writer have a typically (for KT material) complicated history. Geis was (unbeknownst to me) a fixture on the Chicago folk circuit in the very early 1960s, (when I was too little to go to folk clubs) a friend and comrade of Fred Holstein, who with Steve Goodman and the great Bob Gibson constituted our local folk royalty. Geis was a California Central Valley kid who, as Nick Reynolds and John Stewart often recounted, had been a real hobo. Reynolds said he met Geis when the latter was living in a purple Cadillac, and Stewart recalled that whenever you got together with Geis, in best hobo tradition, he'd cadge something from you - a drink, a cigarette, a ride, a dollar, anything just so he wouldn't leave you with his hands empty.

But it was apparently in Chicago that Geis wrote "I'm Goin' Home" around 1960, and the aforementioned Fred Holstein was the first to record it - and what I wouldn't give to hear that version. When the big break came for Geis when the KT recorded the song in 1964, he wasn't quite ready for it. Even a light-selling Trio album, as the Decca release Nick, Bob, and John was, sold well over 100,000 copies, and the compensation structure was such that the copyright holder for a recorded song made more of a royalty on the sales and radio airplay than the performer did. At 9 cents a sale per song on an album (can't swear to that but it's a figure I recall), Geis would have made between $9,000 and $15,000 for that one song - upconverted from 1964 dollars, that would be between about $60,000 to $90,000 in 2009.

Enough, in other words, to attract the attention of the real composer of the melody, Broadway's Jerry Herman, later famous for Hello, Dolly! and Mame among many others. Herman's first successful Broadway show was called Milk and Honey - and the title song was melodically virtually identical to IGH. Herman sued Geis and won a suit for "unconscious plagiarism" (like George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" derived from "He's So Fine"), and Geis had to split the profits with Herman. It didn't seem to faze Geis, though, who lived until January of this year - obit is linked below.

What makes the Kingston Trio recording of "I'm Goin' Home" so special is that it is one of their last recorded songs that adheres to their original high-energy, banjo-based formula. No matter that it isn't a purist's idea of a folk song - it's just a rippin' good number performed with a gusto that reminded me of earlier albums - here from the group's first album on Decca Records in 1964:

You'd think someone could do something digital to enhance the video here...we can always hope.

A later KT version, from 1981 features percussion - this is the Shane-Gambill-Grove Trio, second half of the video:

Here is the 2009 KT doing an outstandingly authentic rendition:

Now for our non-professional but generally quality cover versions, domestic and foreign. First - two by my YouTube friend JordanTheCat from Canada, the first described as in John Prine style - most appropriate since Prine was also a fixture on the Chicago folk scene at the same time as Geis:

Next, Jordan with two friends at a benefit show - full band:

Now - four really interesting versions from Japan, two very recent, where matching striped shirts, Martin guitars, folk clubs, the KT and the Brothers Four have never gone completely out of style - they are really worth a listen:

First, the Antilles Trio (Kio's group?) joined by John Stewart in 2001:

Next, and this is a treat, Sunday's Folk performing the number - in Japanese:

Finally, two really superior renditions and recordings, the first from the Bayside Club Band from March of this year:

And what may be the best for last, Mash Liquor from October 10, 2009 - these guys really know what they're doing:

The fact that it is all of us non-pros who are keeping the song alive and out there (with the current KT, of course) 45 years after the KT recording and nearly 50 after Holstein's suggests to me that "I'm Goin' Home" is well on its way to becoming - a real folk song.

February, 2012

Recently discovered, a pre-KT version by the New Wine Singers, from Chicago in 1963. The intro misidentifies the composer as "Geist" instead of the correct "Geis" - but the female voice here is Elaine "Spanky" McFarlane in her pre-Spanky and Our Gang days, the group that had a number of folk-rock hits in the late '60s:


A thread about Geis from 10 years ago from the best overall folk site on the web, - fraught with recognizable errors about the KT version but still interesting:

Mudcat On Geis

And the Mudcat thread related to Geis' death:

Geis Obit

And - March 2016
It turns out that since 2013, Fred Holstein's grand version of "I'm Goin'" Home" has been up on YouTube. As Joe Offer points out below, it's a great rendition, and for my money the best of all of these on this page:

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Lee Hays' "Lonesome Traveler"

I mentioned a few weeks back in a post about "Shady Grove" that the other half of the Kingston Trio's medley - "Lonesome Traveler" - involved a somewhat darker and sadder story than did the traditional "Grove" song. That was because LT came from the pen and imagination of Lee Hays, a founding member of the first two real popular folk groups, the Almanac Singers and The Weavers, and his story is surprisingly sad, bordering even on the tragic.

With his friend/opponent/collaborator/nemesis Seeger, Hays was easily the most prominent of the four Weavers because of his voice, his size, and the force of his personal presence. The son of a strict Methodist preacher from Arkansas, Hays spent most of his life in rebellion against any element of power that he felt stultified, cramped, or confined the hopes and aspirations of individuals as he felt his father had done to him. The deep and conservative religiosity of the father spurred Hays into the embrace of leftist agnosticism, though as even a casual acquaintance with his music indicates, he continued to frame his angry radicalizing in terms rooted in religious expression - he remained a great singer of spirituals and spiritual-based music, though like Woody Guthrie, who was Hays' friend and collaborator before Seeger met either of them, he often replaced "Jesus" in camp meeting songs with "union" and made similar transformations in other lyrics.

Hays and Seeger were in the Almanac Singers together, and though their avowed purpose was to sing at union organizing meetings and other political rallies, what Seeger and Hays found that they had in common was a belief that the music that rural child Hays had grown up with and the urban and educated Seeger had adopted as his own had the potential to unite common people into a united front against what they perceived as the tyranny of capitalism. It was a Utopian ideal that the two held to so strongly that it drove them into affiliation with the Communist Party - oddly for Hays, since few other organizations have ever been as top-down authoritarian as the Stalin-era CP was. But as I noted a few years back in a piece on Seeger - the Utopia envisioned by Hays and Seeger wasn't the brutal collectivism of Stalin's USSR but more an almost Jeffersonian Arcadia of The People as imagined by Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg and practiced by communal religious groups like the Amish.

Hays and Seeger turned out some of the great songs of the era - "If I Had A Hammer," the arrangements we know today of "We Shall Overcome" and "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine", and the Weavers' signature protest against McCarthyism, "Wasn't That A Time" (a rousing piece that NBD or NBJ would have rocked on). But there had always been a strain in their relationship - Seeger was far the more talented of the two, more articulate, and to Hays' chagrin, more knowledgeable about American folk music. In fact, when Seeger decided to leave the post-blacklist re-formed Weavers in 1957 - ostensibly over the group's 3-1 vote to sing on a radio commercial for a cigarette company (wouldn't I love to find that recording!) but actually to free himself from the commercial restraints of a pop-folk group - Hays complained that he took with him knowledge of over 300 songs that he, Fred Hellerman, and Ronnie Gilbert just didn't know and would find it nearly impossible to locate and arrange.

Though Hays stayed with the Weavers through their post-Seeger reunion tours, he sank further into the related pits of depression and alcoholism that he had struggled in for his whole adult life. The diabetes brought on by the latter condition and his weight problem led to Hays' loss of both of his legs and eventually his life at the age of 67 in 1981.

I'd bet that prior to Peter, Paul and Mary's stirring re-write of the Hammer song (and both Seeger and Hays acknowledged that the pop-folk trio had vastly improved their composition), "Lonesome Traveler" was probably Hays' best-known original composition and certainly the most widely covered. Everybody doing folk music took a swing at it - it just sounded so authentic, and it had that signature Hays combination of a cry for secular/political reform couched in camp--meeting religious terms.

The Weavers naturally recorded it first, in 1950 on Decca, under the direction of producer/arranger Gordon Jenkins. As I've noted here before in other posts - it's downright strange to hear what the gifted Jenkins thought folk music should sound like, a mere eight years before the KT's Voyle Gilmore created a pop-folk genre that sounded so much more "authentic":

Now listen to those crass commercializers, the Kingston Trio, offer their rendering as the second half of this medley. Which group fifty years later is considered the parent of modern roots/Americana/authentic folk music and recently won a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement? Hint: It's not the guys singing here:*

To be fair, even the urban traditionalist Greenwhich Village folkies had problems with the commercialism of the Weavers, especially after Seeger left. Sing Out! founder Irwin Silber lumped the Weavers in with the KT in decrying the "sallow slickness" of all pop folk music.

The pop folkies just continued to pop on, though, and few with more wit and verve than the Limeliters, making their first appearance on my blog here after 61 posts - a shame because they were a great group, and one that probably got the most attention for singing LT - here as a reunion in 1988 at the Chabad Telethon:

The second generation Limes do the song justice as well:

Skiffle legend and Beatle-influencer Lonnie Donegan released his version a year or two after the Kingstons:

Finally, a folk-rock version from the mid-Sixties by Esther and Abi Ofarim, an Israeli married couple who had their greatest success in that decade in Germany - there's a story there that needs to be told:

Makes you want to dig out those Carnaby Street fashions that have been lying in the attic for a few decades.

Back a long time ago in a less benighted time, art was considered separable from artist. Van Gogh could send his ear to the lady who spurned him, Gaugin could abuse friend, foe, ladies, and alcohol with a savage disregard, Beethoven could roll in garrets and die in the gutter - but the sublimity of their creations suffered no taint as a consequence. Lee Hays was more tragic and less objectionable as a person; at nearly 30 years after his death, perhaps we can remember Hays' friend and biographer Don McClean's observation that "weathered faces lined with care/Are soothed beneath the artist's loving hand" - perhaps even the artist's own.


*Addendum: December 20, 2014
Thanks to the comment below from JC, I stopped by this article and was able to replace two videos that had been removed from YouTube, the KT and Lonnie Donegan versions. The Weavers had been awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006; when I wrote this in 2009, the Kingston Trio had not been so recognized, and that was the source of my ironic comment. However, just over four years ago, in December of 2010, the Trio was also voted the award, which sole surviving founding member Bob Shane accepted (with the widows of bandmates Dave Guard, Nick Reynolds, and Guard replacement John Stewart) in February, 2011.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Blind Willie McTell To Johnny Cash: "Delia's Gone"

On Christmas Eve of the year 1900, according to several shadowy but semi-authenticated sources, a fourteen-year-old African-American girl named Delia Green was murdered by her boyfriend, fifteen-year-old Mose Houston (or Huston), in Savannah, GA for reasons that time has obscured. According to the same fragmentary records, young Houston was convicted of the murder but in an act of clemency unusual for the South at the time and likely due to his age was sentenced to life in prison. He was paroled some decades later and vanished into obscurity.

This incident may have - or may not have - been the inspiration of a song (or songs) that come down to us as "Delia's Gone" and that provide a fine example of what we call the folk process.

With some songs, ethnologists and musicologists have a fairly easy time tracing roots and branches. There is, for example, a direct and easily hearable connection between the 17th century Irish lament "The Bard of Armagh" and the grandaddy of all American cowboy songs, "The Streets of Laredo," because the melodies are virtually identical; it's more of a challenge to hear the connection between "Bard" and the old Basin Street blues number "St. James Infirmary," though nearly every discussion of the latter song says it's so. And thus it is with hundreds of the folk songs collected and categorized by giants of the field like Francis James Child and the redoubtable Lomax family.

Like many genuine songs that we now identify as traditional, no one knows exactly where or when people began to sing mournfully about the recently departed Delia. Not surprisingly, one version seems to have been in circulation in Atlanta and Charleston, SC (and please, in honor of Mike Askins, do not pronounce the "r" - it's "Chall-ston") around 1910, and a decade later a substantially different and more ambiguous arrangement pops up in New Orleans. The older one features lyrics similar to Johnny Cash's below - a "Tony shot his Delia/ On a Saturday night" - Cash changes it to first person "I"); the Louisiana number identifies Delia as either a gambler or trusted friend whose death is a cause for sorrow, rather more like Dylan's, and which Waylon Jennings shows cross-pollinates with another New Orleans number. Some experts believe that it was just the natural diversification of song variants that we can see in, say, "The Gypsy Laddie" becoming "Black Jack Davey" and finally morphing into the very different "Gyspy Rover" while others maintain that there were two different root songs - and maybe two different but equally unfortunate Delias.

Whatever the case, one of the really early recordings is from the Library of Congress recording of Blind Willie McTell (who inspired Britain's Ralph may to change his name to Ralph McTell, composer of "The Streets of London") from around 1933:

Now the Kingston Trio didn't venture too frequently into blues-flavored numbers, though when they did (think "Leave My Woman Alone" or "This Mornin', This Evenin' So Soon" or "The Wanderer") they could be very effective. The Trio's version separates the singer from responsibility for the girl's death, leaving him in a pain that can only be alleviated by drinking - "one more round." The instrumental accompaniment here features one of the stronger and more emphatic contributions of KT bassist Dean Reilly - there was an odd comfort and symmetry in knowing now that the last time that Nick, Bob, and John ever played together in August 2007 in Scottsdale that they were joined by a vigorous and beaming 80-year-old Dean:

The highest profile modern rendition of "Delia" belongs to Johnny Cash. There is a fine performance video of JC singing it in 1969 on his TV show, but I found this MTV-era video from the Americanh Recordings sessions of 1994 to be more satisfying - Just Johnny in fine voice accompanied only by his own guitar work, reminding us of what a fine rhythm player he was. JC's lyrics are bloodier than the Trio's and give another possible meaning to "one more round." This is Cash at his folkiest:

The above-mentioned Mike Askins mentioned how much he loved "Hee Haw" (me too, Mike), and Waylon Jennings' rendition of "Delia" is a reminder of how much good music the show featured. Jennings is clearly doing the New Orleans version, which is conflated with another very familiar N.O. classic:

Reggae/blues/rap/all-purpose superstar Wyclef Jean gives an island flavor to Cash's arrangement:

For a completely different take, our late friend Travis Edmondson and Bud Dashiell do that inimitable up-tempo Spanish-flavored guitar accompaniment that only they could pull off - Travis especially here with his rhythmic tapping of the sound board leaves you astonished - from one of Hefner's shows in the 60s:

Now I happen to be in the minority around here, I think, in that I really like Bob Dylan's singing when, as they say in sports, he stays within himself, which he does very effectively in folk blues numbers like this - rather closer to Willie McTell's:

This is one of those weeks when I really, really enjoy this Comparative Videos project - every version is a gem.

Addendum - 6/13/10

Here are some other interesting amateur versions - first, Bill Kostelec doing a fine rendition of the most traditional St. Louis bluesy version:

Warren H. Mayo presents NYC folk legend Happy Traum's arrangement - excellent guitar work here:

If videos of the deleted ones above become available again, I'll re-post them.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Who Lives By The Sword: "The Ballad Of Jesse James"

One of the darker aspects of American culture as it has evolved to this point has been our collective penchant to make folk heroes out of some really bad people, most notably high-profile criminals and sociopaths - Billy the Kid, John Wesley Harding, Wild Bill Hickock, Al Capone, Pretty Boy Floyd, Bonnie and Clyde, and more. The first and most enduring of these has been, of course, Jesse James, who fits the description in the first sentence here perfectly.

It's not that other countries don't have outlaws to celebrate. England has had its Robin Hood (who, as recent discoveries seem to indicate, was a real person), RH's mentor the very real Will o' th' Green, 18th century highwaymen Dick Turpin, your occasional buccaneer or pirate like Edward "Blackbeard" Teach and Captain William Kidd. But these are characters celebrated more for craftiness and guile - their abilities to elude pursuit, evade "justice," and outwit the bumbling tyrants at whose laws they scoffed than they are for the sudden, brutal, murderous, and outright violence of their American counterparts. The English don't make heroes of killers and sociopathic misfits. We do.

The why of that is hard to fathom. It may be because we're a younger country with a clearer image of the misdeeds of these characters, and admittedly with most of the folks on my rogues' gallery above stories have grown around them that seek to mitigate their guilt and justify their violence to some degree - most often as (of course) "Robin Hood" characters, which in fact none of them were at all. I suspect that more significantly, we all aspire to a kind of rugged individualism, in Emerson's phrase, and these outlaws personify the self-created or self-actualized individual who stands outside the bounds of the social order.

Whatever the reason, Jesse James is the perfect character to epitomize the outlaw, a figure in his singular, blind, and raging violence worthy of the first and greatest of American outlaw folk songs. A troubled boy from a troubled family that had been broken and reformed several times in his childhood, James began his career of violence at the age of 15 during the Civil War (or "The War of Northern Aggression," as Mike Askins has instructed me to say) as an irregular cavalryman/guerilla with several notorious outfits associated both with Quantrill's Raiders and the troop of Bloody Bill Anderson. He was a participant at the massacre and scalping of 22 unarmed Union prisoners in Centralia, Missouri in 1863 and may have participated in Quantrill's legendary raid on Lawrence Kansas in which over 200 men and boys were killed (partially in retaliation for a similar massacre in the same town of Southerners by abolitionist John Brown in 1859).

After the war, Jesse and his brother Frank began a long, involved, and violent career of train and bank robberies that resulted in scores of deaths, of law officers, innocent civilians, and a fair number of members of the clannish James family, killed by Pinkertons in retaliation for Jesse's depredations. As most know, it all came crashing down after the failed great Northfield Minnesota bank robbery; Jesse was driven into hiding until bagged by "that dirty little coward" Robert Ford for the reward money.

Within months of Jesse's death, "The Ballad of Jesse James" appeared on songsheets and as a poem in newspapers wherever there were Confederate sympathizers, and the mythologization of Jesse James had begun. The original lyric includes a last verse that attributes the song's composition to "Billy Gashade," but there is no hard evidence that such a man ever existed. It's a real broadside-type ballad - a real folk song.

The Kingston Trio's version here was the first number recorded by the Trio with new member John Stewart, and to the end of his life Stewart delighted in telling how Voyle Gilmore had assembled a number of nervous Capitol Records execs in the glassed-in sound booth - nervous because they feared that their cash cow Trio would cease producing milk with the new guy. Halfway through the first take, Stewart would say, they left the booth smiling when they realized that the basic sound of the group was still as good as gold.

I always thought that this was a Trio misstep, like IMHO "Worried Man" - a great musical setting for a traditional song with disastrously re-written lyric trying to play it for fun. Would have been the best version of the song extant had they taken it seriously. Oh well.

The most recent prominent incarnation of the song has been, of course, by Bruce Springsteen in his 2006 "Seeger Sessions" tour. This is the number in which I think the Boss stayed closest to the folk roots of the song.

The uptempo nature of the song has insured that most of its modern interpreters have been bluegrass bands - here first the very capable Pete Feldmann and the Very Lonesome Boys.

More bluegrass and my find of the week - bluegrass banjo as played on guitar by Martin Tallstrom.

46 years before Springsteen, local Detroit rocker Jamie Coe had a minor local hit with his version:

From the UK, a skiffle-style rendition by the Ramblin' Riversiders:

A damn fine song, born and bred in America, enshrining in popular memory a very bad man whose memory finds some redemption in the ballad.

Friday, October 9, 2009

"Lonesome Valley/The Reverend Mr. Black"

Most Kingston Trio fans know the story of how "The Reverend Mr. Black" became a hit single because it was related expertly in the Blake, Rubeck and Shaw The Kingston Trio On Record. The short version is that a high school English teacher in Chicago was trying to instruct a class in the ways in which small groups could manipulate mass media, so he had his 95 students pick what they deemed as the worst and most obscure cut from a record album that they could find and try to promote it into an attention-getting hit. The students chose this song from the respectably-selling 1963 album #16 and immediately began flooding Chicago station WLS with calls requesting that the station play the number.

Now WLS was much more than the Windy City's most prominent Top 40 station. Along with Pittsburgh's KDKA and a handful of other mega-powerful 50,000 watt stations, its signal blanketed the central third of the country and had already contributed enormously to popularizing country music in the 30s and 40s with its "Barn Dance" show (among others). Owned initially as it was by mid-America's champion of retailing, Sears Roebuck, whose logo "World's Largest Store" gave the station its call letters, it possessed a huge influence in the music industry. If WLS said a song was a hit - it was a hit.

Capitol Records recognized that power, and largely at the insistence of WLS released "The Reverend Mr. Black" as a single. It reached #8 on the national Billboard singles Top 40 chart, the only KT single record after "Tom Dooley" to reach the Top 10.

But the fact that a few score phone calls from teenagers had a part in creating a hit record does not, in fact, tell the whole story at all. They may have tricked WLS and Capitol into thinking that there was hit potential in the song - but over 400,000 units of the recording were sold, and that didn't happen because of a high school English teacher. It happened because of the pedigree of the song itself and because of a rockin' good performance of it by the Kingston Trio.

We know that the song was penned by the great Billy Edd Wheeler (above) and Jed Peters, but as Wheeler explains, he had some pretty heavyweight help. The "Jerry and Mike" he alludes to here are none other than Lieber and Stoller, one of the greatest pop music writing duos of all time ("Hound Dawg," "Stand By Me," "Kansas City," "Jailhouse Rock," and dozens of others).

Billy Edd Wheeler on "Reverend Mr. Black" and "Coal Tattoo"

The other part of the pedigree and possibly the more significant one is that the root song is "Lonesome Valley," one of the best-known of the gospel hymns copyrighted by A.P Carter in the 30s and sung by the original Carter Family (though it's one that AP credited as "traditional"). By the time that Wheeler's song was muscled into public attention more by the KT's star power than by a few students, millions of Americans had already heard the chorus on the radio and from gospel choirs in their local churches. I'd bet that the Trio's decision to include a back-up group of gospel-ish female singers on the record stemmed in part from that and in part from the fact that Bob Gibson's wonderful 1961 album Yes I See (a real stunner if you've never heard it) had sold very well and included the Gospel Pearls quartet as back-up singers on about half of the songs to great and original effect.

So here's the Trio with as we-all-know-now-but-didn't-then Glen Campbell on banjo:

It was this song as much as any other that saddled John Stewart with the "Johnny Cash sound-alike" tag, which wasn't really fair because Stewart had a more mellifluous and on-pitch baritone than Cash did. Given the obvious similarities, though, I always thought that Cash was tipping his hat to Stewart when he recorded it years later:

And a non-embeddable link to a church web page featuring Cash's version : Johnny Cash: The Reverend Mr. Black

For an interestingly different version, here is actor and singer Tim Grimm from Indiana. Grimm has a great resume as an actor and records for Allan Shaw's Wind River records - this is a slower, softer, more reflective take:

"Lonesome Valley" itself has been covered repeatedly and beautifully by some of the greatest folk artists of the century. First up, a later incarnation of the Carter Family, Mother Maybelle with sisters June, Helen, and Rosey with Johnny Cash on harmony, from the 1980s:

Next, as far as I'm concerned, my "find" of the week - Joan Baez with the recently departed Mary Travers at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival, a real gem:

Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie with Pete leading the audience, from about 1990 I'd say. 'Nuff said:

Speaking of classic - the first folk blues artist I ever heard (in the Newport recordings from 1960-61), Mississippi John Hurt:

Closing here with the most soulful version I've heard from the gospel Fairfield Four, as heard in O Brother Where Art Thou?

I'm out of space - so in the words of a comment on Tim Grimm's video - "nice job guys! make this kind of music live on!" Amen.

Addendum - 12/21/09

The current Kingston Trio recently uploaded a video of their performance of the classic - a nice update to the original KT recording. George Grove is doing a remarkable re-imagining of the banjo part from the original - remarkable because on the '62 disc, Glen Campbell was playing a six-string banjo tuned like a guitar. George gives it better tonality and a more authentic banjo sound on his Vega longneck:

And Further Yet - August 12, 2013

Unbeknownst to me until today, a year and a half ago some blessed soul uploaded Billy Edd Wheeler's original recording of the song to YouTube. And a fine version it is, demonstrating not only Wheeler's performing chops but also the fidelity that the Kingston Trio's arrangement maintained to the original: