Saturday, May 30, 2009

"The Song As We Found It Down There Was...Naughty" - "Zombie Jamboree"

I was struck by a phrase in a Jeopardy! clue the other night about the KT - the Kingston Trio was described as "clean-cut," which we all know was exactly the image that Frank Werber and the guys wanted to cultivate, at the very least to distinguish themselves from the vaguely shadowy politics of The Weavers and probably more especially from the parent-infuriating gyrations and pelvic thrusts of Elvis Presley.

But the Trio started its life as a nightclub act, and that suggested some - suggestiveness, I guess you'd say. Your average 1950s club was a place neither for the wholesome nor the easily-offended. If the comedians' humor had not yet descended to the scatological and obscene level that it routinely has today, it was nonetheless implicitly edgy - Tom Lehrer and the Smothers Brothers and Lou Gottlieb and George Carlin and Lenny Bruce all started out around the same time as the Trio did. Except for Bruce, who was up and in your face, the comics played for "naughty" - and the Trio fit right in, not least because their initial genre was calypso music.

Calypso music proper originated in Trinidad and Tobago, and some purists maintain that Caribbean music from other places like Jamaica and the Bahamas should not be termed calypso. But thanks mainly to New York City's Harry Belafonte, born there of Jamaican parents, the term came to be an all-encompassing word to mean most Afro-Caribbean music.

It's a bit of a wonder that calypso music took off in the relatively uptight world of 1950s America because virtually all of it includes sly double-entendres, political commentary, and really off-color humor. I've always guessed that those Puritan-bent Anglophone ears that we grew up with just didn't pick up on the meanings very well any more than our parents' Big Band generation quite got what those "great balls of fire" were or where Johnny B. Good was go go going. But go back to those three great Belafonte albums from the mid-50s - "Calypso," "Belafonte," and "Belafonte Sings Of The Caribbean" - and listen to the songs with adult ears. You might be surprised. "Judy no drownded Judy lie in bed" indeed, and "Matilda run Venezuela" with more than the guy's money; "Angelique-O's" mama got to take her back to teach her all the things she lack - and so on.

While Kingston Trio fans recognized the sly, eyebrow-raised humor of "Ah Woe, Ah Me" from Back In Town - I wonder how many picked up on Lord Intruder's little quips in "Zombie Jamboree." Intruder was the stage name of Winston O'Connor, born in Tobago into the original calypso tradition. (There really was a Lord Invader, but he didn't write "Jamboree" - and the 12 Penetrators never existed except in Dave Guard's scripted and slightly bawdy song intro. The "Conrad Eugene Mauge, Jr." of the copyright is just another of O'Connor's stage names.) Lord Intruder is poking fun at expatriate Caribbeans (like Belafonte's parents) who lived in New York - hence the Long Island locale of the song and other pretenders to his throne ("some of them great Calypsonians"). But Intruder's reference to the "season was Carnival/They got together in Bacchanal" leaves no doubt about the song's intent.

Carnival, of course, is the Latin name for Mardi Gras, a slightly naughty event in New Orleans that in its roots and in its most famous manifestation in Rio De Janeiro reaches heights (or depths) of debauchery that conservative Louisianans could scarcely imagine. Just take a look at the costumes that the dancers wear in Rio and you'll see what I mean. And for a little refresher vocabulary - Bacchanal means an alcohol-drenched orgy.

Take the lyric from there. The female zombie of the song is clearly bent on seduction with her quart of wine - and Intruder's humor becomes clearer when you consider the rather literal implication of "an old bag of bones I cannot love" when being "belly to belly." The unexpurgated lyric also apparent had a different one syllable word than "after you kiss this dead zombie."

But our "clean cut" Trio weren't going to belabor those points. They sang the song for fun and money and let the audience make of it what they wanted:

This has always been one of my all-time favorite trio performances.

The current Kingstons also do a delightful job, showing respect to their predecessors' arrangement while leaving their own distinctive stamp on it:

Many Gen Xers are unaware of the KT's connection to the song and know it primarily from the 1990's vocal group Rockapella, who has perhaps fifteen different recorded versions on YouTube. They keep the song fun but take it further from its roots:

Brazilian vocalists Jack Jeans use Rockapella's words but give us a video a bit more in keeping with Intruder's off-color humor and the inescapably erotic rhythms of calypso:

Last December I included Alvin and the Chipmunks' version of "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" as an antidote to the Everly Brother's turgid rendition of the same. We close today with that legendary trio's version of this classic:

I saw Dave Guard live with the Modern Folk Quartet at the Ice House in Pasadena CA in 1976, and the group's closing number was "Zombie Jamboree." It was also, as noted in KTOR and on the Capitol twofer of the KT's first two albums, a song that Dave specifically requested be played at his funeral - the KT Hungry i version. I was delighted to read that the late great Dave Guard thought as highly of that cut as I and countless other fans did.

Appendix - 6/20/09

This humorous video on YouTube uses as its musical background the version by Lord Jellicoe & His Calypso Monarchs:

Appendix 2 - 6/16/10

And a rare video of a live performance of the song from the greatest popularizer of calypso music, Harry Belafonte:

Friday, May 15, 2009

"The Colorado Trail"

"The Colorado Trail" is one of those folk songs in the American tradition that appears as a genuine surprise, like maybe "Shenandoah" and "The Streets Of Laredo" and "Coffee Grows On White Oak Trees." American frontier culture has given rise to rough-hewn ballads like "Jesse James" and fiddle and dance tunes like "Old Joe Clark" and "Turkey In The Straw" and topical/historical pieces like the hundreds of Civil War songs and railroad songs and sea chanteys. We're not generally known, though, for the lyrical beauty of the Celtic songs of Ireland, Scotland, and Brittainy or the stately and often melancholy classics of England (think "Greensleeves" or "Barbara Allen").

Every so often, though, some anonymous American worker came up with a melody and some words of genuinely aching beauty, real polished diamonds set sparkling against the rough and grainy backdrop of American folk tunes. Such a song is the very real cowboy ballad, "The Colorado Trail."

We owe our knowledge of this obscure ballad to classic American poet Carl Sandburg and Weaver Lee Hays, the same pair who gave us "The Wreck of the John B" and dozens of other traditional songs that found their ways into public consciousness through the books of Alan Lomax and the records of Burl Ives and The Weavers. The story goes that Sandburg "collected" (as they say in the folk music biz) the song in 1927 (about the same time as "John B") from Dr. T.L. Chapman, an old surgeon in Duluth, Minnesota who maintained that some decades earlier he had treated an anonymous cowboy for "bones of both upper and lower legs broken, fractures of the collar bone on both sides, numerous fractures of both arms and wrists, and many scars from lacerations." According to Chapman (from Sandburg), the cowboy spent several weeks convalescing, singing "The Colorado Trail" several times daily to other patients who just couldn't get enough of it.

And no wonder. The song is pure (if a bit schmaltzy) genius and includes one especially fine technical point - the rise in the melody of the chorus where the meaning of the words rises - "wail, winds, wail" - with the subsequent gradual stepping down of the melody as the words return to earth - "all along, along, along - The Colorado trail." [Lomax's published musical setting gives you the option to sing the word "wail" at either the high end of an octave as the Kingstons do below or the lower as with the Bar D Wranglers - Ives did the high octave.] You generally don't hear that kind of sophisticated gambit in any kind of music outside of the really serious pop and classical stuff. That ol' cowpoke knew what he was doing.

I first heard it on what may have been the earliest commercial recording by Ives, who put out literally hundreds of 45rpms and 78rpms before the mid-Fifties debut of LPs. The Weavers may also have waxed it in the Gordon Jenkins sessions with Decca, though I can't say for sure or find direct evidence of it.*

It's safe to say, though, that the awesome commercial punch of the Kingston Trio in 1960 brought the song its widest attention to date, appearing as it did on their album String Along, the fifth consecutive (and final) album of the original trio's to go to #1 on the Billboard charts, where it stayed according to The Kingston Trio On Record for an impressive ten weeks. The Trio's reading stands after nearly fifty years as one of the loveliest cuts that they ever recorded:

Given the single source for the song from Sandburg, there are still major variations in the lyrics because a)Lee Hays added two verses of his own to Sandburg's find, including the last verse that the KT sings, and b) most of the other artists who have recorded it (Johnny Cash, Don Williams, Tex Ritter, and more) have felt free to write their own verses as well.

We have some fine performances of the song from amateurs and professionals alike. For a pure and simple folk arrangement featuring only vocal, guitar and recorder, I would like to start with one of my favorite singers of all time, Cisco Houston, who died at 42 years old in 1961 just as his career was taking off in the folk boom. Houston had the best baritone voice in roots music, one that some traditionalists felt was "too good" for the simple tunes he sang. I disagree most emphatically:

Rick Devin is a multi-faceted and thoroughgoing professional who has had different incarnations as a rock, folk, and blues performer. Since 1985, though, he has focused on cowboy songs, teaming up with Michael Martin Murphey, among others. This video is a bit of a commercial but still a fine performance:

Marshal Bailey and The Silver Bullets put a definite and very melodic country spin to the song - this was recorded last June at the Colorado Bluegrass Festival:

Mike Iverson gives a genuine and authentic-sounding reading at last year's Western music Alliance meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico - the mouth harp makes you nearly smell the campfire smoke:

A lovely, understated melody, melancholy tone, haunting lost love theme - "The Colorado Trail" includes for me just about everything there is to love about traditional music.


Well, here's some pretty direct evidence - The Weavers with Lee Hays on lead. Seeger is playing the recorder, but the brush drums and strings are the work of Gordon Jenkins, so this is indeed from the 1949-52 Decca era of the group.

Updates, April 2013

In the nearly four years since this post first appeared, the number of videos of all kinds posted to YouTube has more than tripled, and despite the occasionally problematic actions by record companies to enforce copyright restrictions (as has happened with the Kingston Trio video above), this has been good news for music lovers of all stripes. In May of 2009 when I wrote this, I had a hard time coming up with YT renditions of "The Colorado Trail" that I liked enough to include in an article such as this. The ones in the original posting above are of genuine excellence - but they were all that I could find. Recently, though, especially in the last year, a substantial number of outstanding versions of the song have been uploaded to YouTube. Here are several of the best of those, all by major artists whose work was not available in video form four years ago.

Don Edwards

Connie Dover

The Norman Luboff Choir - 1955

Noël Wan, Harp - 2007

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Variations From The Theme: "The Best Of The Kingston Trio"

The previous 39 posts in this series have more or less adhered to the same format of presenting different interpretations of songs traditional and modern that might be termed at least loosely as "folk."

However, as the margin note to the left indicates, all of these pieces appear originally on the Kingston Crossroads message board, and last week and this week I've posted essays there that don't quite fit the pattern. Last week's post was simply a collection of YouTube videos of the twelve songs included on the 1962 album The Best Of The Kingston Trio, and this week's is a consideration of the Rod McKuen/Jacques Brel song "Seasons In The Sun," which cannot be stretched in any way to be called folk or roots or Americana.

But Kingston Crossroads doesn't archive posts, and a few friends have asked that these two entries be preserved, so I'm uploading them here.

Next week - back to CompVid.

In celebration of the fortieth post in this series and twenty-ninth consecutive weekly entry, I've decided to forgo the "comparative video" approach just for this week and use the miracle of the internet to present a video version of the 1962 album The Best Of The Kingston Trio.

When I began uploading videos to YouTube in July of 2006, about seven months after it came into existence, a search for "Kingston Trio" was likelier to pull up my Chilly Winds group than anything by the KT, simply because nothing at the time had been posted of the greatest of all folk groups. In fact, I attribute the (to me) astounding ongoing popularity of Chilly Winds videos on YT to that fact - people found us early on and continued to look in even after the KT began to appear in first dozens, then scores, and now hundreds of video uploads.

A telling point is that of the twelve videos herein presented, ten were already on the internet when I conceived of doing this a couple of weeks ago. Only "Everglades" and "Billy Goat Hill" were created by me specifically for this post. The rest of the videos include seven actual (if not always complete) performance videos by the Trio, one amusing home movie, and two video montages.

It's a testament to the amazing popularity, longevity, and durability of the Trio and its music. So, without further ado and presented in order by side of the original LP -The Best Of The Kingston Trio.

Side A

(Note: The original KT video of "Rasberries, Strawberries" was removed, so here's the current KT.)

Side B