Friday, April 24, 2009

Ewan MacColl's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face"

A few months back, I mentioned in one of these weekend videos posts that I didn't intend to do any really high profile songs by the Kingston Trio that became famous in subsequent versions because I thought there just wouldn't be enough variety in the performances to justify the time and effort - and I specifically mentioned "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" as an example of such a song.

Well, doing these video reports has been an education for me, and I've found a wide variety of interpretations in songs that I would have guessed had really only one basic arrangement, even really common ones like Scotch and Soda or Greenback Dollar or Someday Soon.

So it was a revelation to me to find out just how many different ways that artists have found to present this classic love song, penned by the late great Ewan MacColl as a paean to his great love (but at the time, not his wife) Peggy Seeger (the couple pictured at left) and first brought to wide attention in the U.S. by the Kingston Trio, whose New Frontier album including the song sold several hundred thousand copies.

I had heard of MacColl several years before this because one of the treasures of my boyhood was the pair of Vanguard albums from the Newport Folk Festival of 1960, which featured MacColl as a solo (doing what many consider the definitive recorded version of the classic Scots traditional ballad "Lang A-Growing," though Liam Clancy's version is also highly regarded) and as a duo with Seeger, performing a topical song that was one of my favorites of the era and covered by many other folk artists, "The Springhill Mine Disaster" about an actual event in Nova Scotia in 1958.

MacColl had a fine, strong, masculine voice with a burr that you could cut with a knife (see appendix), and he projected the same kind of image through a tumultuous fifty year career as a radical labor organizer, street actor, folk song collector, performer, and composer of excellent traditional-sounding songs like "Springhill" and "Dirty Old Town" and "Freeborn Man" and my favorite, "The Shoals of Herring." He was in an unhappy second marriage when he met Peggy Seeger in Britain, and the two began an open affair that created a scandal at the time that even a subsequent marriage never quite completely erased. According to legend, Seeger phoned MacColl requesting that he write a love song for a play that she was to appear in; he wrote the song both for and about her in less than an hour, called her back, and taught it over the phone.

So the first public performance of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" was actually by its inspiration, Peggy Seeger, who performs it here from about 1961:

and more recently in a live performance here:

Intrepid song sleuths Shane, Reynolds, and Stewart knew a good number when they heard it, but they also knew that the slightly PG rating of the third verse ("the first time ever I lay with you") probably wouldn't fly with their wholesome image, so they changed the wording to "ever I held you close" in addition to shifting the tempo and emphasis of the melody a bit. Combined with a stunningly effective guitar duet (and I'm betting on a John Stewart arrangement of that) and impeccably tasteful harmonies, "The First Time" is one of the prettiest numbers that the Kingston Trio ever recorded:

A wonderful version now from the other great folk trio of the era, Peter, Paul and Mary - here from a 1965 BBC show when the group was at the height of its popularity and prestige:

After the KT but before Roberta Flack ten years later, Johnny Cash recorded a version that some feel was among his most effective ballad recordings. This video is a personal montage of anniversary pictures set to Cash:

Later in his career - but before he lost his voice and became a caricature of himself - Elvis Presley came to the song and put his distinctive, soulful stamp on it. Like Bob Shane, Elvis had a marvelously rich, natural baritone with an instinctive vibrato - a truly gifted singer:

You can't talk about this song without acknowledging the truly inspired singing and fabulous, operatically-trained voice of Roberta Flack, with whom this song will ever be associated:

Sublime is the only word for this. Would you like a barometer of how far popular culture has sunk since 1972? Without the Kate Moss anorexic, Barbie-doll looks preferred today - how far would Flack get on American Idol? Let Celine Dionne and Lauryn Hill and the rest of them over-sing their over-produced versions - Flack's is the benchmark performance.

I want you to know that I searched thirty-plus pages into the YouTube results to find these next videos. Three instrumentals - first - acoustic guitar in an open tuning, derived from Bert Jansch by Chumblefish:

Jazz sax by CooolJazzz - really sweet:

Finally, slide guitar from "Shakey":

I have to say that I'd take any one of the least of these renditions over any of the aforementioned hyper-orchestrated mishmashes that come out of pop music today.


Here's what Ewan MacColl sounded like - nice radical union song,"My Old Man":

Thursday, April 16, 2009

"Hobo's Lullaby"

"Hobo's Lullaby"
is one of those songs that most people associate with a particular artist - in this case, Woody Guthrie - and are usually surprised to find out that that particular artist is not the actual creator of the piece. Certainly Woody popularized the song, and his well-known adventures riding the rails always lent a degree of credibility to his performance of it.

But "Hobo's Lullaby" was actually written by an obscure early folk singer named Goebbel Reeves, known as "The Texas Drifter," born in 1899 in Texas and died fifty years ago here in southern California. "Half-written" might better describe the composition. Wikipedia attributes the melody to an earlier Carter Family song (though Reeves was clearly a contemporary of the Carters and not a later artist), but somebody over there just didn't do his or her homework (so I added a little bit to the article, including a KT reference).

Reeves, whose life seemed to rotate among stints in the armed services, flirtation with commercial success (he did a good number of early recordings and was part of the cast at the Grand Ol' Opry for a time), and long stretches as a real hobo, clearly and cleverly re-worked the melody line of one of the greatest songs to come out of the American Civil War and one of the most popular during it (especially for Union troopers), George F. Root's "Just Before The Battle, Mother." [You'd also know of Root for his most famous and stirring march, "The Battle Cry of Freedom," sometimes called "Rally 'Round The Flag, Boys." Yes, as I've said here before, I am a complete Civil War nerd, down to the music.]

Just to see where Reeves got the melody - and because any excuse to post a quality artist will do for me - here is the great Marty Robbins doing a superb version of Root's song:

Reeves had great material to work from, and his lyrics do his effort justice. Woody Guthrie just didn't cover that many songs by other writers, and it has been said by son Arlo and others that "Hobo's Lullaby" was WG's favorite of all songs. The gentle, almost romantic rhythm, the little indictment of the Establishment, the compassion for simple people fallen on hard times - pure Woody Guthrie - and my don't we need him today! So Goebbel Reeves wrote a great song, but one boosted to a wider audience by the popularity of Woody, much as last week's Tom Paxton owed much to the Chad Mitchell Trio's covering of his songs.

For what may be the most sensitive recorded interpretation, we turn to Nick Reynolds, whose solo leads on quieter songs are among the most memorable in the entire catalog of the group. This upload, of course, is from the 1989 video An Evening With The Kingston Trio:

Nick Reynolds' self-effacing nature allowed his enormous talent, here on display as a supremely tasteful guitarist as well as an outstanding vocalist, to seem at times overshadowed by the easy and apparently effortless natural ability of Bob Shane, the fiery artistic temperament of John Stewart, and the witty intellectual brilliance of Dave Guard. But Nick's #1 fan was Shane himself, who described Nick at last October not only as his "best, best friend" but also as "pure genius." And Stewart remarked at nearly every Fantasy Camp that Nick's playing was "the real rhythm of the Kingston Trio" and echoed a comment that he made in his essay in The Kingston Trio On Record - that a roomful of trained musicians could study for a lifetime and never acquire the talent that Nick Reynolds had to entertain people and perform music.

For some other versions now - the voice of an angel sojourning here on earth for an era that we are blessed to be living in - Emmylou Harris:

Arlo Guthrie changes the words slightly, and his voice has a richer and more mellifluous timbre than his dad's - he, too, has always been a great singer:

For a pure folk sound, absolutely nothing tops Pete Seeger, vocal and banjo only:

Michael Jonathon, the host of the Woodsongs Old Time Radio Hour, which has archives on the site that include shows with John Stewart and Ian Tyson among scores of others, is also an accomplished folk musician and here does a fine duet with fiddler Gabriel Witcher:

Finally - Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits will go down in rock history as the writer of one of the great opening guitar riffs in history (with Clapton's "Layla" and Keith Richards' "Satisfaction" among others) in "Money For Nothing," - but like Clapton is a protean guitarist who can play damn near anything on the instrument. Here Knopfler adds a tasteful guitar wash behind the blues-flavored vocals of one of his bandmates,* not identified in the video:

The joy for me of doing these weekly articles is finding great and unexpected performances of songs I've always loved. This week - well, nothing great by Emmylou Harris or Marty Robbins could ever be said to be unexpected - but what a joy to find them nonetheless.

*note stgermain's comment below for information on the other musicians in the Knopfler video - thanks stgermain!


Friday, April 10, 2009

And Justice For All: Woody Guthrie/Martin Hoffman's "Deportee"

I'm not sure that Woody Guthrie ever wrote a piece more direct and powerful than "Plane Wreck Over Los Gatos," more commonly known by the more succinct "Deportee." I say "piece" deliberately because I learned via email a couple of years back from our good friend and too-occasional Xroads poster Peter Overly that Guthrie penned this and published it as a poem in the months following the incident, a January 28, 1948 plane crash in Fresno County, CA that killed 32 people, 4 American crew members and 28 Mexican farm laborers who were being returned to their country. It wasn't until nearly 10 years later that a Martin Hoffman (a teacher and someone I believe that Peter knows) put the words to music.

The incident is as described in the lyric, and I think most of us of a certain age are well aware of the braceros program of the 1940s through the 60s that set the stage for the disaster. The braceros (from the Spanish "brazos" or arms - Gregory Nava's powerful 1980s film El Norte makes an ironic comment on the word) were legal laborers who today would be termed "guest workers," though the use of "guest" obscures both the desperation of the people driven to this most extreme expedient to stay alive and the often harsh and dishonest treatment afforded them by the "hosts." A common trick of the time was to bring the low-paid workers over the border from Mexico with contracts that were intentionally flawed (in English) so that they would have no legal force. Following a season of backbreaking work in California's orchards and fruit fields, the braceros would at times be rounded up as illegals because of the invalid contracts and deported without being paid at all.

Even when the farm owners were just and humane - which I suspect they were far more often than they are credited for being - the wages were so low that the braceros would need to spend much of their money as a fee to a labor contractor to secure work for the next year's harvest.

But it wasn't that fundamental injustice that angered Guthrie the most, again as the song attests. Newspapers across the country reported the incident by naming the four members of the flight crew but listing the others as "deportees" - who were buried in a mass grave near Coalinga and only 12 of the 28 of whom were ever identified by name. (Until 2013, that is; please see the note below the post.)*

It was this dehumanization of flesh and blood people that stirred Guthrie to write his most directly polemical piece. I can think of no other Guthrie song so visibly angry or as direct as the last verse here is - "Is this the best way we can harvest our orchards?" His point remains well-taken, and whatever side of the ongoing and likely eternal and international dispute that you find yourself on, Guthrie's implicit plea for basic decency and humanity transcends the politics and is hard to deny.

We are fortunate to have recordings here of some of the major artists of our time performing the song, each in a style unique to their own form of music.

The Kingston Trio's arrangement from their themed Time To Think album is IMHO the best of their later years and one of the best of the whole initial ten year run. What makes it so, I think, are unique contributions from each member. John Stewart's lead vocal demonstrates the same youthfully idealistic passion that also characterizes another great cut on the album, Stewart's own "If You Don't Look Around." Nick Reynolds had a certain intonation in his upper register - a kind of wail, almost - that could sound impassioned and tragic (think of his marvelous vocal on "The Wanderer"). And Bob Shane's rhythm strumming (as well as the use of sixth and minor chords instead of the major chords of the original) is wonderful, creating the only recorded version of a song about Mexican people that actually sounds similar to a Mexican song:

Capitol Records Studio B never sounded better than it does here.

I suppose it might seem odd to follow this impassioned performance up with a version by Dolly Parton. But her diminutive size, kewpie doll looks, good humor, and decades of Johnny Carson jokes about her figure all may make us forget what a powerful singer and great performing artist that she is. She does the lyric here with a great artist's passion:

Arlo Guthrie here has his usual interesting take on one of his father's song - similar to dad's but still very much his own:

Now I don't know who Michael Pickett is - clearly a blue-eyed bluesman. But he does a flat-out sensational and mesmerizing blues version of the song, here from 2007:

At the dawn of his mega-popularity in 1981, Bruce Springsteen foreshadowed his later-developing interest in folk music leading to the 2006 "Seeger Sessions" CD and tour with this emotional (but truncated) bootleg from a Los Angeles concert:

Now for another duet, more musical - Arlo again with the angelic Emmylou Harris with the incredible Sam Bush on mandolin. This is how harmony is supposed to sound:

The Good Book asserts that "The poor ye have always with ye," and I suppose you could add immigration problems to that as well. But I don't think that the Biblical verse is a simple statement of fact - it's more of an indictment, and admonition, a call to action. In this song, using his own tools and talents, Woody Guthrie stepped up and answered that call.

*Note 7/15/13

In the four years since this post first appeared, ongoing research has finally established the names of all 28 of the Mexican workers who perished in the crash. They were -

Miguel Negrete Álvarez. Tomás Aviña de Gracia. Francisco Llamas Durán. Santiago García Elizondo. Rosalio Padilla Estrada. Tomás Padilla Márquez. Bernabé López Garcia. Salvador Sandoval Hernández. Severo Medina Lára. Elías Trujillo Macias. José Rodriguez Macias. Luis López Medina. Manuel Calderón Merino. Luis Cuevas Miranda. Martin Razo Navarro. Ignacio Pérez Navarro. Román Ochoa Ochoa. Ramón Paredes Gonzalez. Guadalupe Ramírez Lára. Apolonio Ramírez Placencia. Alberto Carlos Raygoza. Guadalupe Hernández Rodríguez. Maria Santana Rodríguez. Juan Valenzuela Ruiz. Wenceslao Flores Ruiz. José Valdívia Sánchez. Jesús Meza Santos. Baldomero Marcas Torres.

The full story from The Los Angeles Times: "Names Emerge From The Shadows"

Addendum, August 2015

Certainly one of the most affecting and moving renditions of the song was recorded by one of our American masters and national treasures, Judy Collins. When I wrote this piece six years ago, Collins' version was not yet on YouTube, an oversight corrected in 2013. With thanks for the timely reminder of this marvelous version to my French friend M. Fanchbrezoneg:

Saturday, April 4, 2009

A Bitter Legacy: Dominic Behan's "The Patriot Game"

A warning here at the outset is, I think, appropriate. Two of this week's videos are graphically and disturbingly violent, one with scenes from the Liam Neeson biopic Michael Collins and another with actual footage of the IRA in action. Newscasts always post such a warning, and I think it's a good idea.

A few weeks ago, something remarkable happened in Northern Ireland. On March 11th, crowds of thousands in several cities rallied in silence to protest the killings in previous days of a policeman and two British soldiers by splinter groups of the militant Irish Republican Army (IRA). Demonstrations and protests are not uncommon in that still-troubled land - but protests in which Catholics and Protestants, Unionists and Nationalists unite, embrace, and weep together are all but unprecedented. And that's what happened on March 11th in Belfast, Derry, Lisburn, and elsewhere.

The events inevitably bring to mind what is probably the most famous song composed about what they have called in Ireland for nearly a century "The Troubles," Dominic Behan's "The Patriot Game." Behan, whose brother Brendan was one of the most celebrated Irish playwrights of the century, was commemorating the deaths of two very young IRA volunteers, Fergal O'Hanlon and Sean South, who were killed on New Year's Eve of 1956 while trying to blow up a barracks of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, a police force that itself has been accused over the decades of brutality and extra-legal violence in attempting to suppress Nationalist sentiment in the North.

Few of the scores of artists who have recorded this song sing the full lyric, which includes a verse about the execution in 1916 of labor leader and poet James Connolly following the Easter rebellion, Connolly having been wounded so badly in the battle at the Post Office that he could not stand to be shot and consequently was strapped to a chair -

They told me how Connolly was shot in his chair,
His wounds from the fighting all bloody and bare.

His fine body twisted, all battered and lame;
They soon made me part of the patriot game

or the verse condoning the killing of policemen -

I don't mind a bit if I shoot down police
They are lackeys for war, never guardians of peace

And yet at deserters I'm never let aim

The rebels who sold out the patriot game.

or the half verse condemning Ireland's first president Eamonn de Valera for permitting the partition of the country -

This Ireland of ours has too long been half free;
Six counties lie under John Bull's tyranny.

But still De Valera is greatly to blame

For shirking his part in the patriot game.

Behan's song came to the U.S. in the late 50s, as many Irish songs did, with the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. That's ironic, because Behan hated that group's rendition because they left out the verses above, transforming the piece from an Irish Nationalist anthem into a more generalized lamentation over the sorrow of war. And when Bob Dylan, influenced strongly as he has always acknowledged in his early days by all the Clancys but especially sole surviving brother Liam (whose signature song this became) borrowed the melody for his own anti-war reflection "With God On Our Side," Behan was further enraged by Bobby D.'s supposed failure to acknowledge "The Patriot Game" as his inspiration (even more ironic because Behan had himself adapted an existing folk song, one that may well have originated in the US).

Today's first video is the aforementioned Liam Clancy's solo from the 1963 Columbia album In Person At Carnegie Hall. This is pretty much the benchmark version, the one that inspired Dylan and the Kingston Trio and Judy Collins and many more:

Here is my simple upload of the Trio's version from their landmark 1964 album Time To Think:

This is a fine and pretty straightforward rendition. I'm not a big fan of the choice to narrate John Stewart's verse because I think it over-dramatizes an already intense lyric, not unlike the KT's drumming on "Roddy McCorley." But the passion and sincerity of the Trio's performance is beyond dispute.

Every one of the scores of versions on YouTube that I checked out for this weekend's selection has dozens to hundreds of flaming comments both pro- and anti-IRA - including this masterful rendition by the The Wolfe Tones, ardent supporters of the IRA through their nearly 50 years of existence:

The artist is likewise unidentified (it may be Ralph McTell) in this powerful version of most of the song, used as a score for real life video of masked IRA gunmen in action shooting at British soldiers and blowing up cars:

A more modern-sounding version is next by Harvey Andrews, whose lovely singing voice seems to me influenced simultaneously by Liam Clancy and the various "Idol" shows.

No discussion of the song would be complete without a version by the Dubliners, here singing it after Luke Kelly's premature death in 1984. The lead is taken by Bobby Lynch, and a fine version it is:

Finally - regarding the March 11th silent memorial in which Northern Irish citizens of both persuasions joined together to protest any attempt at renewing the violence that has cost 4,000 lives since 1969 - maybe, just maybe, we are witnessing the emergence of a consensus for peace that will someday render this fine song as dated and quaint as a madrigal. Maybe not. But I'd like to think so, or at least as Winston Churchill remarked in another context, "This is not the end. It is not the beginning of the end. But it is,perhaps, the end of the beginning."

Appendix - 5/16/09

Courtesy of Bobcat08, whose comment appears below, here is Dominic Behan himself performing his own song, in fine voice and with a powerful reading: