Thursday, January 29, 2009

Bob Dylan's "Tomorrow Is A Long Time"

Say what you will about Bob Dylan, two points are practically and incontrovertibly beyond dispute. First, he has been an absolutely protean musician, changing musical styles and voices and directions constantly throughout the years, from angry young man to rock star to recluse to born again zealot to obnoxious head case on stage to...fill in the blank... and second, he has written some stunning and wonderful songs.

I'd add one more accolade - he's absolutely sui generis, - completely unique, often imitated but never duplicated. Sure, musicians cover his songs in the thousands, but like most genuine artists, his own work is fundamentally inimitable. I may prefer, for example, the musicality of Peter, Paul and Mary's versions of his earliest songs like "The Times They Are A-Changin'" (for my money, PP&M's single best cut ever) or "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" or "Blowin' In The Wind" - but I have to admit even at that that they don't capture the peculiar edge that Dylan brings to his own work. Like any great artist from Van Gogh or Jackson Pollock or Aescyhlus or Mozart - no one does it quite like the master himself. I have never heard anyone cover nor can I even imagine anyone trying to cover the most "Dylanesque" of his songs, such as "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" or "Like A Rollin' Stone."

But please don't count me among the hardest core Dylan fanatics and hagiographers. He's not a poet really - not to most people like me who have a far-ranging and lifelong love of poetry. His words lie flat on the page without the melodies that amplify, uplift, and ennoble them - and even more, the performance voices that bring the words and melodies to life.

That's no rap on Bobby D though - the really greatest poets in English of the last century - Eliot, Yeats, Auden, Frost, Williams, Sandburg, Plath, Stevens, to name a very few - couldn't do a thing with music, and collectively they never reached an audience as wide, as far-ranging, or as diverse as Dylan has.

Bob's not much of a musician either, unless three chords and a cloud of dust is someone's idea of great music. John Coltrane or Tommy Dorsey or Aaron Copland or Richard Rodgers or Stephen Sondheim or Leonard Bernstein might have a word or two to say on that score (no pun intended) - even as much as some of them like Bernstein and Sondheim genuinely appreciated Dylan's genius....

...which is as a songwriter, an artist whose gifts combine the poetic with the musical and create an entirely different art. Dylan bears comparison to Stephen Foster or Cole Porter or Johnny Mercer. It's an art unto itself, one that Dylan crafted and dramatically re-shaped in the last half of the last century (and for which, my friends, the erstwhile Robert Zimmerman won a "special citation" - NOT a "prize" - from the Pulitzer committee - the wording of that citation was for "profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power" - but not for poetry or musical composition, both categories awarding genuine prizes that same year).

One of Dylan's most widely covered songs, "Tomorrow Is A Long Time," existed for nearly a decade only in a bootleg concert tape and a discarded studio cut from 1963 that made it only onto a Dylan album in 1971 on his Greatest Hits, Vol.II. Why this is so is a bit of a mystery, since so many other artists had covered it by then (a greatest hit in that sense) and because Dylan himself does such a fine job on this simple, very folky song -

- but both the recording companies and Dylan's own people have been aggressive about keeping his own performances off of YouTube, which is too bad because no one does Bob like Bob. So we start with the highest profile recording of this song, by Judy Collins:

Several other groups and soloists recorded the song before the Kingston Trio added it to their repertoire. I first heard them do it (and their uptempo take on "One Too Many Mornings") on the farewell tour in late 1966. The polish of ten years of professional work shows in this lovely arrangement - you'll have to click on the "Watch On YouTube" link on the video to get a couple minutes of the song, but it's well worth it:

Or alternatively - from the very last performance by the original group at San Francisco's Hungry i in June of 1967:

I sometimes wonder if the Trio got the idea for the song from Bud and Travis, who recorded it here in '64 or '65. Bob and Nick and John all showed great affection and reverence for Travis, who lives in Scottsdale and comes to fantasy camp every year - best to Travis in his current health troubles! If anyone has forgotten just how fine a singer Travis is or how good this duo sounded together, listen here:

Nick Drake, a kind of Gram Parsons figure from the UK who flamed out and died at 26 in the 60s, left behind a lovely version of the song:

I may have heard this first from Canada's greatest folk duo (maybe just its greatest folk act of any description), Ian and Sylvia:

Harry Belafonte, one of the greatest vocalists of his generation, gives a full-on pop rendition:

There are scores more versions on YouTube,many quite good done by amateurs in their living rooms and professionals on stages. But the best (or at least my favorite) rendition from the younger generation comes from the San Diego-based Americana band Nickel Creek:

I remember being very disappointed that the Nick, Bob and John Kingston trio's last album Children Of The Morning didn't include this song - it would have fit in well with the tone and tenor of that album and is (arguably) a better composition than some of the songs that made it onto the record. But then - like I'm sure many of us did - I walked into a record store in 1969 and almost had a seizure when I saw a double LP:


I still think that this number is the best performance on the album, which for lots of reasons is not in my top fifteen of enjoyable KT records. But back then as now - I'd have bought it for this cut alone and felt I'd spent my money well.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Another Woody Guthrie Classic: "Pastures Of Plenty/Pretty Polly"

I guess it was Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen's "This Land" at the pre-inaugural concert that got me thinking even more about Woody Guthrie than usual. The fact that they did all the verses and gave just that bit of edginess to the song that Guthrie intended reminded me of another of his great "Dust Bowl Ballads," "Pastures of Plenty."

Protest songs are almost by definition topical, and you'd think that their usefulness would be limited to the life spans of the issues that engendered them. And yet - will "Blowin' In The Wind" or "The Times They Are A-Changin'" or "Deportee" or "If I Had A Hammer" ever truly be out of date? I doubt it. The best of these songs protest the fundamental injustices of the human condition that, like the poor as the Good Book says, are always with us. So it is, I think, with "Pastures of Plenty" - a song that, like "This Land," makes its point forcefully but without bitterness or recrimination.

Guthrie's song was published in 1941, two years after The Grapes Of Wrath, and it could be argued that the Steinbeck novel and subsequent movie created with Guthrie's song and photographer Walker Evans' pictures our enduring impression of the displacement and suffering caused by our last great economic nightmare. Though Steinbeck and Guthrie may have overstated the extent of the disaster in terms of numbers (migrants from Oklahoma and Texas to California numbered likely in the tens of thousands, not the hundreds of thousands that the book alleges), they capture and illuminate poetically the truths of the suffering as only art can.

We have an all-star lineup for Weekend Videos this week, starting with Woody's own recording:

Guthrie derived the tune from the old murder ballad "Pretty Polly." Of all the outstanding versions recorded over the decades of that song, I always thought that Ralph Stanley's blazing bluegrass banjo version, with its mournful moaning vocals, was among the best. Here's Stanley with Patty Loveless about ten years ago:

The legendary Dock Boggs, though, goes in for the traditional mountain clawhammer style:

Now, the Kingston Trio's version from Goin' Places illustrates the original group's considerable strengths of inventiveness and musicianship - the chord structure here is really unexpected, especially the Gm7th (if you're playing in Dm) that they throw in where you expect a C chord, or maybe an Am - this would be on the word "mountains" in the first verse and the same position in the rest. Dave Guard playing that jumbo 12 string is also a nice touch here:

Arlo Guthrie has an interestingly different take on the song from that of his father, one whose minor chords echo the Trio a bit more:

With all respect to Arlo, I believe that the greatest living interpreter of Guthrie's songs is Pete Seeger, who traveled with Woody and was around when many of them were written. Here is Pete not so very long ago, well on in years. This is absolutely 200 proof pure folk:

And would you believe the Jefferson Starship doing this? Believe me, this one is worth a listen - they do a fine, fine job:

Emphasizing my point above about the universality of a good protest song, here is the sadly recently-departed Odetta - doing beautifully a white migrant farmer's song,

Finally - maybe the most unique version out there. I do not know who Peter Tevis (who sings here/ was. He has a fine voice, maybe more suited to musical comedy or operetta. But the real gem here in this dramatic reading is that the number was produced and orchestrated by Ennio Morricone in 1962, or about five years before he began to score Clint Eastwood's "spaghetti" Westerns. Listen to this version and you will hear definite foreshadowings of Morricone's famous theme from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly:

There are also excellent YouTube videos of Ramblin' Jack Elliott and others doing this one. Guthrie was able in this song to use his considerable poetic powers to express a passionate plea for justice that is both timely and timeless.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

For Solomon Linda And A New Era: "Wimoweh/Mbube"

I thought that I might post something about the coming inauguration...whose meaning and import transcends politics of party, as no one less than George W. Bush acknowledged both the morning after the election and in his farewell address this evening...change is in the wind...

This is my 25th Weekend Videos - as I'm a little short on time, being finals week and all at my school, I'm cribbing part of this from a post from my other blog, The Vivid Air, about Solomon Nisitele "Linda" that I called "The Sad Case of Wimoweh." Here's part of what I wrote back then.

The song was indeed a traditional Zulu chant, though according to Joseph Shabalala of Ladysmith Black Mambazo (of Paul Simon's Graceland recording, if anyone's forgotten), not a hunting chant, as is often alleged. Shabalala believes it was a "tribute" song to someone's majesty, and I have read elsewhere that the song arose in the mid nineteenth century as a tribute to Shaka, the Zulu king who devised their system of warfare, established an empire, and handed the British one of the worst military disasters that their colonial armies ever suffered - a kind of a Custer's Last Stand multiplied by about fifteen times. Shaka was known, not surprisingly, as "The Lion."

The version we hear was codified by Solomon Nisitele, also known as Solomon Linda. Shabalala has pointed out that Linda made a daring, even shocking, change to the performance of the song. The falsetto "verse" was originally a "ululation" - the curdling cry most often heard in the West as intoned by Arab women in celebration or encouragement but apparently common throughout Africa. This "verse" was done in a singing style that before Linda's version was done only by women. For a man to sing the part was revolutionary - part of what Shabalala guesses was the "tribute" factor - to the audience, or the Zulu king, or God.

The song came to America from Linda's record company, Gallo of South Africa, a subsidiary of Decca - which was recording The Weavers. It was Seeger who picked out the song out of a couple dozen on records given him by legendary folklorist and song collector Alan Lomax, and Seeger who pronounced "mbube" (very soft first "b") as "uwimoweh." The Weavers recorded it and included it on "The Weavers At Carneige Hall," and it became a moderately successful single, reaching the Hit Parade Top Forty.

The source for most of the remaining American pop iterations of the song was the first "live" album in 1958 of the t Kingston Trio, recorded at San Francisco's legendary showcase nightclub, "The Hungry i." Except for a slightly sophomoric and lightly amusing introduction, the Trio's reading of the song is pretty straightforward and respectful of the original, delivered with their trademark verve and energy

On "At The Hungry i" the Trio attributes the song to both The Weavers and Linda, and the song was covered a really surprising number of times by other performers.

The problem that arose then and persists to this day is one as contemporary as tomorrow's newspaper - the use and ownership of intellectual property, a bone of sharp contention between especially the US and China, where literally millions of counterfeited CDs and DVDs of mostly American songs and films find their way into international markets from pirate copiers in China, not to mention the recording industry's near-hysterical attack on Napster and Viacom's recent suit against YouTube.

Black musicians were not at the time (Linda wrote the song in 1939) permitted to receive royalties, all of which went to the record company initially (Gallo). Linda received a few dollars for a song that has sold millions of copies in different versions world wide. According to Seeger on the show (a sheepish Seeger who did not remember whether or not The Weavers ever sent Linda any money when their version became successful), George David Weiss , who wrote the "lyric" "In the jungle, the quiet (or mighty) jungle, the lion sleeps tonight," owns the copyright and has claimed to have "written" the song. Seeger related that a US copyright court case determined that if those words were sung, Weiss gets the royalties; if only the melody is heard, the Weavers do. Solomon Linda and heirs - zilch.

The poignant aspect of it was that The Tokens' familiar million seller peaked in 1961; Linda, an accomplished career musician, died in utter poverty in Soweto in 1962. His three surviving daughters live in Soweto; they have recently won international copyright approval for the song, though both George Weiss and Disney are fighting it.

By contrast, the Kingston Trio's attribution of the song in part to Linda (and the fact that "At The Hungry i" achieved platinum status, selling more than half a million copies - an incredible number for an LP in those days) apparently secured at least a small amount of money for the composer through the auspices of his record company, to whom the money apparently was paid. So it's all the more distressing that their "do right" attribution to Linda never made him any significant amount of money - money that might have extended his and his sick daughter's lives.

Here's Linda and the first recording from 1939:

Ladysmith Black Mazambo has a wonderful traditional African rendition, which I'm posting first to demonstrate just how "respectful" the KT version was, especially compared to the Tokens:

And here's the Kingston Trio - good montage-type video:

And where did the Trio get the song? The Weavers of course - here from Carnegie Hall:

The Tarriers from a few years later -

A thrilling version from the recently departed Miriam Makeba, one of the great cultural ambassadors of our time:

A reggae-flavored version from the Mahotella Queens:

I was going to embed the Tokens here - but why? IMHO - they're crass, and each of these versions is sublime.

The PBS show that I saw about Solomon Linda that inspired the post above led me to a whole lot of articles on the web about the copyright issues, which seem to be heading toward a resolution in favor of Linda's estate.

Nothing can undo the multitude of injustices done in the past - not to Linda, nor to Africa, not to any of the poor and oppressed corners of the world, as George W. mentioned tonight. Certainly an inauguration won't make right all the wrongs, maybe not any of them. But as Winston Churchill once said, "This is not the end. It is not the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Evolution Of A Classic II: "The M.T.A. Song" And "The Wreck Of Old 97"

There will always be a special place in my musical heart for the Kingston Trio's performance of "Charlie On The MTA." By the time I first heard the song when it came out in 1959, I had already had two years of classical piano lessons (loved that) but had developed a fascination with guitar both from Jimmie Dodd on the original Mickey Mouse Club and our Chicago local children's show host Win Stracke - "The Uncle Win Show" - who played a great big Martin D-28 and sang in a baritone both bold and mellifluous, if not quite as refined as Cisco Houston's, and with as fine a repertoire of simple folk songs as Burl Ives or Houston himself.

And then one day my commuter father came home with a dark-colored album with three young men seated in matching dark shirts beneath three instruments suspended against a dark background -


- because he loved that odd and oddly funny little song about a guy marooned on the Boston subway for want of a nickel with which to pay a suddenly-imposed exit fare. The song was brash and exuberant, and its tongue-in-cheek humor was apprehendable even to the little boy that I was.

Though my father was basically a big band, jazz, and Sinatra type of music fan, he loved Belafonte and show tunes and classics and even Mantovani - all good music, in fact. But when he and my mother found out that several of their older children enthused wildly over this "new sound" - wise parents that they were, they fed all of our interests by encouraging them, and until we were old enough to afford records with our allowances, a steady stream of Kingston Trio and Chad Mitchell Trio and Clancy Brothers and Newport Folk Festival and Weavers records appeared on birthdays or under Christmas trees or just showed up one day on top of the stereo - and all because of "M.T.A."

I'm sure that all of us old enough to remember that album (and appreciate the lost art of album covers) remember legendary jazz critic Nat Hentoff's liner notes, and his brief explanation of the connection of the song to a Boston election. Articles at the time and subsequently made mention of the fact that the Trio first heard the song from Will Holt, composer of "Lemon Tree" among other things. Now I'm not sure how many people pursued the background beyond that, but the Holt connection in itself is an oddity. I mean, do you remember Will Holt? (from Hootenanny, for example) He was a quiet, skinny, balding guy who was into artsy-craftsy music, his main claim to fame being his teaming with operetta star Martha Schlamme for years singing the Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill songbook (on Vanguard - I learned this and bought those records because of the ads on the inner album sleeve). If he's not the last person in the world I can imagine singing "M.T.A." - he's in the bottom two.

The fact that the Trio got the song and turned it into a pretty darn successful single (one of their few - I think it reached #16 or so on the Billboard charts) is all that matters - except for the song's roots and branches and - here's the kicker - its odd connection to "Tom Dooley."

We all know that Bess Lomax Hawes was the daughter of the great collector John A. Lomax and sister of Alan, that she was a friend of Pete Seeger and Lee Hays and Woody Guthrie, and that she was with them one of the Almanac Singers, one of the first (if not the very first) actual folk groups of city people doing songs from the country's traditions. Hawes and Jacqueline Steiner wrote "The M.T.A. Song" as they called it in support of the candidacy for mayor of Boston of one Walter A. O'Brien, a former city councilman and member of the Progressive Party. O'Brien apparently couldn't afford the normal newspaper ads and campaign flyers, so he had Steiner and Hawes and other local folkies wander around the city performing the song. As we all know, it didn't help, and O'Brien's last-place finish in a field of five candidates was the end of his brief but colorful political career.

Nick Reynolds acknowledged on a number of occasions that the KT changed Walter's name to "George" to avoid association with the Progressives, who had been branded as "fellow travelers" of the Communists by the Red Channels scare group of the earlier 50s. One look at what happened to the Weavers was all the Trio needed to warn them off possible controversy.

So here they are, in a performance of most of the song, the common practice of the 50s as we all remember to cut down the length of hit songs to fit an allotted time slot:

Steiner and Hawes' immediate antecedent for part of the song (the verses) was "The Wreck Of Old 97," one of those early 20th century train songs that, like "Casey Jones" and "John Henry," was based on a real incident - the careening of the eponymous train off of a trestle in Virginia in 1903. Now who actually wrote this song (based on "The Ship That Never Returned," below) is in doubt, but the copyright belonged to G.B. Grayson and Henry Whitter - the same Grayson who was related to the Grayson of the "Tom Dooley" song, the same Grayson and Whitter who copyrighted first that selfsame song, later adapted by Frank Warner and Frank Profitt, heard and published by Alan Lomax (small world, isn't it?) - and discovered by Bob, Nick, and Dave. That makes Grayson and Whitter the god parents of the Kingston Trio's two most famous songs. So what does "Old 97" sound like? No one better than Johnny Cash to answer that:

Or a little more countryish from legend Hank Snow:

"Old 97" was in turn based on a similar song by a Henry Work written in 1865 and called "The Ship That Never Returned." The basic melody line is about the same as "97," but Work's song has something that "97" does not - a chorus, one that reads -

Did she never return? She never returned,
Her fate, it is yet unlearned,
Though for years and years there were fond ones watching
Yet the ship she never returned.

And that explains the Steiner/Hawes chorus.

Folksinger John White of Newfoundland has a fine version of "The Ship" song:

The late Bob Gibson had great fun with the tune and turned it into "Super Skier," performed here with characteristic comedic brilliance by the Chad Mitchell Trio, who as you'll see gives a nod to the KT at the end:

This the very early, Kapp Records era CMT - and that is Jim (Roger) McGuinn on banjo.

There were other parodies, too - one a kind of kid thing that had some mostly unprintable versions, though here's a sanitized one -

I was goin' down the hill goin' 90 miles an hour when the chain on my bicycle broke

I was scratched all over from the rocks and the gravel, and punctured to death by the spokes.

Bob Haworth has a delightful follow-up to "M.T.A." called "M.T.A. Revisited," but I have no video of that yet - hope to soon and will post it if I can get it.

I have to say, though, that I prefer the image of Charlie as a kind of American Flying Dutchman, riding forever 'neath the streets of Boston, and that some day when I'm taking what is now the MBTA...

Appendix - More Fun Videos

The Original Album Cut With Cool Pictures Of The "T"

The Famous But Seldom Heard By Normal People 'Dropkick Murphys' "Skinhead On
- not too offensive...

Dutch Folk Group Harmony Glen With Tenor Banjo

An Odd Accordion Version That Has Garnered 40,000 Views On YouTube By Brian Dewan

From Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour - Er - Fantasy Camp - Two Pros, Me, And A
Chorus of 300

Thursday, January 1, 2009

What Were Their Names? Woody Guthrie's "The Sinking Of The Reuben James"

We all know the basic story behind "The Sinking of the Reuben James" because we all know the song - brave American sailors on North Atlantic patrol, the U-Boat attack, the few survivors, Woody Guthrie, the "Wildwood Flower" tune, the song.

But there's more - much more.

To start, Reuben James himself was apparently one hellaciously forceful figure - a boatswain's mate who distinguished himself in the very early USN in the two wars against the Barbary or Tripoli pirates (1803 and 1815) and in the War of 1812, serving in all three under Lieut., Capt., then Commodore Stephen Decatur. In the first pirate war, James was one of four sailors whom Decatur took under cover of darkness to burn a captured American warship in Tripoli harbor, an exploit praised as the most daring in naval warfare at the time by no less than Britain's legendary Admiral Lord Nelson. James also is credited with saving Decatur's life on at least two occasions, the first in the Battle of Tripoli when despite bleeding from wounds in both hands he threw his body over Decatur's prostrate form and took a scimitar slash for him - then got up and killed the assailant and went on fighting. He served more than thirty years in the USN, retiring in 1836 at 57 due to ill health from his many combat wounds.

I'd say that this was a sailor worthy of the three ships named in his honor, the first of which, DD-245, commissioned in 1919, is the subject of our song.

But as I noted in my WV (weekend videos) on "Remember The Alamo," we tend to remember the myths more than the often-ambiguous underlying realities of history. Such is the case with the USS Reuben James. The actual events of late October 30th and early October 31st 1941 are surrounded in a haze of mystery and likely lost forever beneath the murky North Atlantic waters.

The destroyer was on convoy patrol escorting cargo ships to the UK, part of FDR's Lend-Lease program - regarded by many experts in international law today as an act of war, making the Reuben James a fair target for the German navy. As a sub-hunting destroyer, the James tracked the approach of a U-Boat "wolfpack" and steamed in its direction. What is not clear to this day is a)whether or not the ship that Reuben James was immediately protecting actually was carrying war materiel (as the Germans alleged, the Allies denied, and today seems likely but not certainly established); b) whether the U-552 under Capt Erich Topp (who died at 91 on Dec. 26th just three years ago!) was actively engaging the Reuben James or was firing at the presumed ammunition ship and hit RJ incidentally; and c) whether the rapid sinking and high loss of life aboard the destroyer was caused by the torpedo hitting the forward magazine, or whether the impact explosion set off the destroyer's depth charges stored right below the main deck.

I have never been completely satisfied as to why this did not lead to an immediate declaration of war against Germany - it is, after all, exactly what the Japanese did at Pearl six weeks later. I'm guessing - and check out the article at the end of our first video - that the FDR people realized that they were on shaky legal ground to begin with in using the US military to aid and abet an active combatant nation in war time.

In any event, it was a major national shock at the time, and oddly little remembered outside of the song today. Woody Guthrie, like his fellow Almanac Singers (including Pete Seeger and Bess Lomax, daughter of folklorist John A. and who would go on to co-write "MTA"), switched from opposing US intervention in WWII to favoring it after Hitler betrayed his pact with Stalin and attacked Russia in late summer of '41. Guthrie joined the Merchant Marine with close friend and folk legend-to-be Cisco Houston, shipping together on a number of transports (two of which were torpedoed and sunk, Cisco later remarking that when the ship "didn't sink too fast" he'd get out his guitar and sing the RJ song with Woody and the crew waiting for the lifeboats to deploy).

Woody originally intended to mention each of the 86 sailors who died on the Reuben James by name - one of his early drafts included this:

There's Harold Hammer Beasley, a first rate man at sea
From Hinton, West Virginia, he had his first degree.
There's Jim Franklin Benson, a good machinist's mate
Come up from North Carolina, to sail the Reuben James.

Dennis Howard Daniel, Glen Jones and Howard Vore
Hartwell Byrd and Raymond Cook, Ed Musselwhite and more
Remember Leonard Keever, Gene Evans and Donald Kapp
Who gave their all to fight about this famous fighting ship.

The other Almanacs (John Birchler identifies Pete Seeger) told Woody that no one would ever sing a song so long, so Guthrie cut it to four verses, adding the chorus "What were their names?" at the suggestion of Almanac Millard Lampell to keep the focus on the sailors themselves and not the incident only. The original last verse, a war-time rallying cry, went:

Now tonight there are lights in our country so bright
In the farms and in the cities they're telling of the fight.
And now our mighty battleships will steam the bounding main
And remember the name of that good Reuben James.

The last verse we know was added after the war with Woody's blessing by Weaver Fred Hellerman (who wanted the song to be timeless rather than specific to one war), and that group has a fine and dramatic performance of the song on one of the Carnegie Hall concert albums.

Most of us and much of the folk world only learned of this marvelous song, though, in the Kingston Trio's 1961 Close Up album - this is I think the definitive version of the song. This fine video includes the names of all of the dead from the Reuben James -

What an extraordinary performance! Perhaps in the shadow and under the influence of Goin' Places and their treatment of Guthrie's "This Land" - the Trio manages to be powerful at a very moderate pace, unlike the breakneck speed at which some other groups sang both songs. This would include the selfsame NBJ trio in the mid and late 60s concerts at which I saw them, and here in the 1981 reunion (which truncates a verse, dammit!):

And Trio fans have to be delighted that our current Trio of George, Bill, and Rick have chosen to include this KT classic in their performing repertoire. It seems to me that they split the difference between the two NBJ videos in terms of pace while retaining the power of the original, and George dramatically re-imagines the banjo part:

Only one other major folk group that I know of after The Weavers and the KT made a serious and original attempt at interpreting this song, and that was the Chad Mitchell Trio three years after the KT on the wonderful CMT album Reflecting. Paul Prestopino and Jacob Ander provide ample support for this fine but different version of the song, a bit more like the Weavers:

Banjo maestro and folk traditionalist Billy Faier critiqued the Kingston Trio version of the song as "all climax and no dynamics"; while I clearly disagree - well, the CMT were probably the best of the 60s folk acts at modulating the vocal dynamics in their songs, and their RJ is a great example of that.

3/27/10 - The Weavers And Woody

LordFearsarge has kindly uploaded the Weavers' version from their Carnegie Hall concert album. Aside from its drama and musical excellence, this version is significant because it is the template from which the KT and CMT drew their adaptations, and because the lead singer is the aforementioned Fred Hellerman, author of the last verse:

And since the original publication of this post, Tasedlak has posted Woody himself performing his composition from the series now known as the "Asch recordings" executed by Moses Asch, founder of Folkways Records:

A fine memorial and a wonderful song. The KT IMHO never sounded better.


1) More Videos

First, a million thanks to Xroader/Bloodliner/FC Camper/Swede-living-in-Mallorca Bo Wennstam for taking and posting the video of the GBR trio doing the song last August - I ran out of space for acknowledgments on the first post.

Now, in addition to the video available of Woody Guthrie doing the song himself, there are two versions on YouTube that resemble WG's. First - Aussie Raymond Crooke, living in Hong Kong and a member of the HK Folklore Society, poster of hundreds of folk videos to YouTube, comes closest to Woody's version on guitar and vocals - this video has an extraordinary 42,000 views:

My occasional YT correspondent Alonso Garbanzo performs the song as Guthrie would have - if Woody had been able to sing and play better than he did.

Two years after this article was published, SuperZilla12 posted pop-country star Johnny Horton's version, which was a minor hit on the country charts. Horton sings Guthrie's original lyric in full:

2) Photos

The USS Reuben James


The Actual Sinking


Editorial Cartoon About The Incident


Today's USN Frigate Reuben James


Reuben James Himself Saving Stephen Decatur (Contemporary Illustration)


3) A Final Comment

From the notes by "," the poster on YT who uploaded the RJ video with the KT and all the names:

This version is by the Kingston Trio. Some folk music fans do not like the Kingston Trio, quite possibly simply a backlash against the massive popularity they enjoyed in the late 1950s to mid-1960s. I'm no expert on folk and no purist--all I know is that they sing great together and that there is a lot of power in those guitars and vocals--"Reuben James" sounds great.

I threw this one together myself. The song famously asks, "What were their names?" I've answered that question.

Amen to that. Happy New Year!


Addendum - January 2014

A few months ago, The Almanac Singers' rendition of "Reuben James" was uploaded to YouTube. This is the first recorded version of the song. Pete Seeger sings lead.