Friday, June 26, 2009

Urban Legends And "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?"

You would think perhaps that after very close to fifty years there would be relatively little left to say about a song that is as familiar and as much of a standard as "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?" is. The simple timelessness and beauty of the song are self-evident, and most folk fans know at least the general outline of the history of its composition. It has been put to excellent use in countless ways and has been sung in churches and at rallies and around campfires for two generations.

In the last three years, however, a minor controversy regarding the song, based on an old canard and an even older prejudice, has re-surfaced and threatens to enshrine itself as historical despite its utter lack of veracity.

First and briefly, a recap - WHATFG was written by Pete Seeger. According to Seeger, he had been reading the epic novel And Quiet Flows The Don by classic Russian author Mikhail Sholokov, whose 1965 Nobel prize for Literature can be attributed in significant part to the critical respect accorded to this work, when he came across a passage that included a fragment of a Ukrainian folk song that, like the passage from the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes that became Seeger's "Turn! Turn! Turn!," Seeger appropriated nearly verbatim and set to music. Seeger wrote the first three verses only; Joe Hickerson added the last two, with Seeger's approval.

There's another urban myth trying to gain traction about the song - that Pete adapted the melody from the old Irish American railroad song "Drill Ye Tarriers," familiar to many of us from the Weavers or the Chad Mitchell Trio or - The Tarriers, who - yes - did take their name from the song. But you judge. Here's a MIDI of the "Tarriers" song:

Drill Ye Tarriers

And just so the formats are the same, a MIDI for "Flowers":

Where Have All The Flowers Gone?

There is no structural or melodic similarities between the songs whatsoever.

I'm hoping that the source for this is not Seeger himself, especially if it's from an interview in the last several years. Pete has already made a statement in good faith about the song that is, however, patently untrue - the canard I referred to above. In the 2008 book How Can I Keep From Singing? The Ballad of Pete Seeger, author David King Dunaway reiterates the assertion made by Seeger on camera in the 2006 documentary about the KT 50 Years Of Having Fun that the Kingston Trio, thinking the song to be traditional, originally tried to claim copyright credit for the song until Seeger called Dave Guard and got the group amicably to correct its error.

Nice story, but impossible. The KT that heard "Flowers" in 1961 from the then-unknown Peter, Paul and Mary at Boston's Storyville did not include Guard, who had left the group in June of that year, was about to move with his family to Australia (Seeger later stayed at Guard's Australian home while on tour there), and had been replaced by John Stewart, who was on the recording. All of Capitol's pressings of both the single hit record and the album on which it appeared attribute the copyright to Seeger. Seeger at a distance of 45 years may well have been confusing the "Flowers" song with any of a number of other Kingston Trio songs on which Guard and his bandmates claimed composition credits but which were actually under copyright to someone else, including a few that had been recorded by Seeger's The Weavers - but "Flowers" was not one of these.

Aside from this unfortunate mis-recollection by Pete himself, the credence that the story has gained to reputable historian Dunaway and through him to Wikipedia, which - like it or not, folks - has become the de facto source of choice for a huge percentage of the population under forty, is disturbing. Hence my reference to an "older prejudice" - the one against the Kingston Trio as being popularizing lightweights and not musical innovators and trendsetters.

I've contacted the redoubtable Allan Shaw about this, because we need a sourced reference to edit the falsehood out of Wikipedia, and it's important that we do so. I watched 50 Years Of Having Fun at FC7 with Allan, PC Fields, Zach Kaplan, and a couple of other folks, and we all caught the error. Allan said that he'd contact his friends at Capitol and Joe Hickerson to see if he can help establish the truth.

But this is, of course, a comparative videos post - and leaving the controversy aside, there are of course many, many splendid versions of the song. We start with the Billboard #21 hit:

One of the remarkable facets of this group was how faithfully they were able to reproduce studio sound in their live performances when they chose to - and this song is an excellent example.

The first actual recording of the composition, though, made even before the Trio rushed into a studio (fearing heavyweight Harry Belafonte's rumored recording, not that of fledgling unknowns PP&M) was by none other than the inimitable Marlene Dietrich - in French and then German and English. Here's a 1965 TV performance from late in the life of this great chanteuse:

Of all the fine versions available from Peter, Paul and Mary - this one is one of the best from their later years:

And talk about a great chanteuse - Joan Baez singing the song for Pete Seeger at the Kennedy Center Honors for him in 1994:

A characteristically gentle interpretation from the Brothers Four:

And finally from Pete himself - in 1994 at Wolf Trap with grandson Tao Rodriguez, at a mere 76 years of age:

I was tempted to add a comment to to Ken's post below about the death of Michael Jackson, the old Latin phrase Sic transit gloria mundi - "Thus (or so) passes the world's glory" - that is unless, perhaps, you've done what Pete Seeger has done, and that is write a song that you know in the twilight of your years will outlive you by generations.

Addendum - 11/19/13
Here is an undated video of Marlene Dietrich introducing the song in French and singing it in her native German, which was how she sang it in her international hit rendition - as "Wo die Blumen sind?"

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Carters Meet The Kingstons Again: "Bury Me Beneath The Willow"

While it would be no more correct to say that the Carter Family "invented" country music any more than it would be to suggest that the Kingston Trio did the same for folk , it is more than fair to say that both groups played a key role in popularizing their respective genres and perhaps even more importantly making them commercially viable. Both stood on the shoulders of giants (Belafonte and The Weavers for the KT and Jimmie Rodgers, Grayson&Whitter and more for the Carters) who were also their rough contemporaries - but both took the music through recordings and radio airplay farther than anyone else had imagined possible. The KT's unprecedented four albums in the Top Ten in a single week in 1960 bookends neatly with the Carters' sales of a staggering 300,000 recordings in 1930.

(l-r AP, Maybelle with guitar, Sara with autoharp)


And the similarities only begin there. Both trios were self-taught but innovative musicians, the KT with Shane's Hawaiian-influenced rhythm strums and Guard's amazing re-definition of the longneck 5 string folk banjo, and Maybelle Carter with the "Carter lick" on guitar that has become one of the standard methods for playing both country and folk guitar. Both trios had ambitious and talented producers, Voyle Gilmore for the KT and Ralph Peer for the Carters.

Most interestingly, both were collectors of songs of traditional or otherwise less than certain authorship - songs that ended up being copyrighted by the trios and have come to be regarded as "Carter family songs" or "Kingston Trio songs,," though in neither case did the group members actually write those songs. AP Carter spent weeks at a time combing the hills and hollows of Appalachia for songs, and as we know here the Trio combed through Weavers records (at first) and a truly amazingly wide range of sources for album material.

It should be no surprise, then, that the Kingstons used their fair share of Carter Family songs, especially early on. "John Hardy," "A Worried Man," "Reuben James," "The Reverend Mr. Black," and "Bury Me Beneath The Willow" all are derived from songs recorded and made popular by the Carters, and it is the last of these that is the subject of this Weekend Videos.

"Bury Me Beneath The Weeping Willow Tree" was the first song recorded in their first extended recording session on August 2 of 1927 in Bristol, Tennessee. It set the pattern for most Carter Family recordings - Maybelle's powerful alternating bass, Sara's rhythm autoharp playing and clearest lead vocal, AP chiming in with harmony:

The purity and "authenticity" of this recording throws into sharp relief exactly what was so controversial about the Kingston Trio's treatment of folk material when we contrast the Carters with the Trio. John Stewart adds a singularly tasteful and understated banjo accompaniment here (one of the few times you'll see the words "banjo" and "understated" in the same phrase), but Nick Reynolds' bongo rhythm wrenches the song out of its folk/country roots and thrusts it closer to the KT's calypso origins. And as much as I like this recording - and I always have - it's no more traditional than taking the Carter's rough chain-gang song "Worried Man Blues" and turning its lyric into a 50s sitcom plot:

This is one of those songs on Close Up that I can really hear being done by the Guard trio as well - the vocal lead, which Stewart handles well here with its soft tonalities, seems tailor-made for the vocal stylings that we hear from Guard on songs like "San Miguel," "Senora," and "Fast Freight."

You probably noticed that there aren't a lot of country groups today who sound like the Carter Family, so it should be no surprise that this song survives more commonly in the repertoire of bluegrass groups. Here is one of the best, a collection of bluegrass all-stars featuring Alison Krause, Tony Rice, JD Crowe, and David Grisman:

Demonstrating her versatility, Krause gives us another more authentically Carter-styled version here (not at all bluegrass) in a duet with the immensely talented Lyle Lovett - this is one fine recording:

Finally, from Ireland of all places, John Faulkner gives us a version sort of halfway between country and bluegrass:

I suppose that all these years later, the ironies of it all are lost on anyone under about 50. AP Carter did much the same kind of thing that Shane/Reynolds/Guard did - down to and including copyrighting other folks' stuff and making a lot of money doing it - but Carter is regarded as a hero of the folk and country and Americana genres, and there is still the scent of the unforgivably commercial (which means "successful-and-we-made-more-money-than you-did") about the Trio in some folkies' minds. And today, the term "folk" has become so all-encompassing that the Trio's use of actual folk songs and real acoustic instruments seems almost quaint - and compared to the plethora of singer/songwriters playing Guitars-That-Used-To-Be-Acoustic, curiously "authentic."

Talk about irony.

Friday, June 12, 2009

From The American Music Hall: "New York Girls"

Daniel Day-Lewis & Finbar Furey in
Gangs of New York

A few months ago I posted a piece on the English music hall as a source for many familiar American folk recordings like "Three Jolly Coachmen" and "The Unfortunate Miss Bailey" and "With Her Head Tucked Underneath Her Arm". It wouldn't be right to ignore the very real contributions to folk music of the American music hall, precursor of Broadway musical theater and the regional theater and musical companies that have supported amateur performing arts in our country like they exist in no other.

People today find it hard sometimes to imagine our nineteenth century American world, which had star actors, fan magazines, millionaire musical performers - and even successful folk musicians. How was this accomplished without benefit of electronic media? The answer is the same one that John Stewart gave me at the FC Q&A in 2003 when I asked him how the Kingston Trio managed to create and maintain such impeccable timing in their recordings and performances - "We played 200 dates some years - we worked and worked on it."

It was not uncommon for the big stars of that century to play two hundred dates per year - stars like actors Edwin Booth (a far better actor than brother John Wilkes) and James O'Neill (father of playwright Eugene and the most popular star of the era with his adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo) and Sarah Bernhardt from France (who played Hamlet at the age of 70 and was said to be the best in that role of her era) and singers like Lily Langtry and Jennie Lind ("The Swedish Nightingale") and folk groups like The Christy Minstrels, who sang the songs of legendary Songwriters Hall of Fame Members like Stephen Foster, George F. Root, and Henry C. Work.

And they played those 200 dates in every village and town that had an opera house, usually the third building to go up in many a community after the jail and the first church. The town opera house (sometimes just a simple auditorium but frequently an opulent and expensive structure, some of which became the great movie houses of the 19 teens and 20s) could present serious productions, revival meetings, political debates, traveling Chautauqua-type shows when they weren't under tents - and music hall entertainment.

Though Broadway had actual music halls, the term actually refers to a style of theater copied from the English and which featured humorists (like Mark Twain and the forerunners of comedians), pop songs, dancers (later evolving into burlesque), and sometimes scripted shows or sections of shows (George M. Cohan's family were among the biggest stars in this genre).

Out of this milieu came a large number of popular American songs, Foster's first and Cohan's later probably being the best known. But the rough-and-tumble world of the immigrant Irish lent the American songbook a share as well, from sentimental ballads like "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" to raunchy rip-roarers like "New York Girls." The latter (as accurately reflected in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York) had a shadowy birth sometime before the Civil War. It exists in a really impressive number of variants, though the hapless sailor taken in by a lady of the night is the common element. The tune seems to have been based on an earlier Irish reel that is now often performed as a polka (an Easter European dance form not known in Ireland at the time)called "Britches Full Of Stitches" (see Appendix).

Burl Ives sanitized the words a bit, and though he did the more traditional tune (which you can hear in subsequent versions below), it is his lyric that the Kingston Trio credits in their version:

The chorus the boys are singing is of the mysterious "Wayess Annie," meaning of the first word unknown. Most of the other versions hear use the equally obscure "Away, you Santee" - I'm guessing that first is more accurate and that we'll never learn what "wayess" meant.

Much of younger America first heard the song as background in a scene in the Scorsese film, sung by Finbar Furey of the really fine Irish group The Fureys. Here is the full version in all of its glorious naughtiness - note that the Ives version leaves to the imagination what the Fureys' version makes explicit:

The opening fiddle riff is "Britches Full of Stitches" - you can hear how the verse derives from it. (For the song in context of the film, see the appendix.)

Gen Xers may know the tune from the popular neo-Celtic group from the 80s and 90s, Oysterband, here in a rockish version:

I usually have reservations about Springsteen-ized "Seeger Sessions"-type updates for traditional folk songs, but for some reason I like this version by Bellowhead, probably because even with the multiple instruments and drums and all, they preserve the original feeling of the song:

From Later With Jools Holland.

The Dusty Buskers hit YouTube a few years ago. They're based out of Tucson and since their early busking days have become extremely successful on the web, with downloads, and in live performances throughout the Southwest. Here they are busking with the traditional version in Silver City, NM a couple of years ago:

"New York Girls" is also a staple at Trio fantasy camps, delightfully easy to sing and play and just a ton of fun to do with a group.


Irish musicians Jackie Daly and Seamus Creagh Sullivan caught in their native habitat - a pub - doing the root song "Britches Full of Stitches":

The scene from Gangs Of New York:

And a fine, more recent version from Bill Dempsey at the 2009 Adams Avenue Roots Festival in San Diego:

And An Addition 12/8/12

An amusing and somewhat bittersweet updating of the song to the Vietnam War era Saigon called "Chu Yen," the Saigon girl, by vets Saul Brody and Robin Thomas from their album Folk Songs of the Vietnam War:


And Yet Another Update, January 23, 2016

....courtesy of Eric Zorn, whose comment appears below. This is a really great version by a really great group, the U.K.'s Steeleye Span, who with Fairport Convention was quite possibly the best progressive folk band of the era on either side of The Pond.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Nick Reynolds Meets Irving Burgie: "The Wanderer/900 Miles"

[ Irving Burgie Receives An Honorary Doctorate
From St. John's University, 2008]

I've never wasted very much time pondering the imponderables, like what my favorite food might be, or favorite campsite, or favorite country to visit, or favorite graduation class among my three and a half decades of graduating classes. Nonetheless, without conscious deliberation, sometimes genuine favorites actually emerge from the tangled reaches of my unconscious mind. "Chilly Winds" is my favorite song (John Stewart's 1973 Cannons In The Rain version, not College Concert - sorry!). Lawrence of Arabia is my favorite movie. W.H. Auden is my favorite poet. And my favorite Kingston Trio album is Here We Go Again. Really, no other record comes close for me, though there's much to be said for the first album and New Frontier and Goin' Places and even Stay Awhile. But Here We Go Again just has so much right about it - perfect, even - that it has emerged over the decades for me (nearly fifty years now and even with some minor flaws) as the quintessential representation of what was best about The Kingston Trio.

Consider. Start with the cover. I think only New Frontier captures the excitement and the energy and the personalities of the Trio as well as does this shot from Capitol Records Studio B. Released in October of 1959, it is about to become the KT's fourth consecutive "real" album (discounting Stereo Concert here) to go gold and to #1 on the Billboard charts. A year after "Tom Dooley" rocketed the Trio to prominence, the erstwhile Northern California nightclub troupe had become the premier act in American show business, playing to sold out audiences in large concert venues coast to coast - and this record above all others shows why, with its highly original mix of traditional and re-written folk songs, sea chanteys, foreign language/Polynesian tunes, spirituals, nonsense songs - and for my money the three best solos recorded by the individual singers in the group's long and storied history.

Now I know that "Scotch and Soda" is the trademark Bob Shane solo - but I don't think it's half as good a song as Stan Wilson's "A Rolling Stone" - and the jaunty, ebullient, devil-may-care lyric is far better at expressing Shane's onstage persona than the darker, boozier S&S. I don't think that Dave Guard ever sounded better than he did on "San Miguel," and I think it's structurally the best of the Jane Bowers' tunes that the KT recorded.

Most of all, "The Wanderer" is I believe the song that demonstrates best just what an absolutely sublime vocalist Nick Reynolds (center on the album cover above) was. It is, I believe, the only true and complete vocal solo that Nick recorded with the Trio (even "Mountains of Mourne" has some "ooos" by Shane and Guard in the background). Nick's range on the number, that upper-register wail I noted two weeks ago on The Colorado Trail, the bluesy edge, the emotion - this is one great vocal performance.

And Nick was working with some equally impressive material by the little-known and vastly underrated songwriting genius, Irving Burgie. Burgie, born in Brooklyn in 1924 of Barbadian parents, performed under the calypso name of "Lord Burgess," which accounts for the confusion of his actual name. After seeing combat duty with an all-black battalion in Burma during WWII, Burgie availed himself of the GI Bill to study his great love, music - at (get this!), the Julliard School, the University of Arizona, and the University of Southern California. In the early 50s, Burgie played as a solo calypso singer at great clubs like The Blue Angel in Chicago and The Village Vanguard in New York, where Burgie met a man whose towering talents as a singer and actor were matched only by his drive and ambition - Harry Belafonte.

Belafonte was so taken by Burgie's songwriting talents (which, much like Dave Guard's and the early Trio's consisted often of re-imagining traditional songs into something original) that he included eight of Burgie's copyrighted numbers (out of eleven songs total) on his landmark 1956 classic album Calypso - which spent 32 weeks at #1 and is the first recording in history to sell a certified one million copies. Harry B eventually recorded 26 more Burgie numbers, including "Jamaica Farewell" (a real Burgie original and HB's signature song) and "Island In The Sun" (theme from the movie), all of which made the prudent Burgie wealthy for life.

The Kingstons were as Time's Richard Corliss suggested outstanding song sleuths and recorded four Burgie composition/arrangements - "Bay of Mexico," "The Seine," "El Matador" - and "The Wanderer," which Burgie had re-worked somewhat from a very familiar American traditional railroad blues number, "900 Miles." Why it took 52 years for Burgie to be recognized with membership in the Songwriters Hall Of Fame and with a well-received autobiography is a mystery.

But now to the man's work. First a small tribute video I put together with images of NR over this great solo:

For the traditional "900 Miles" number, who better to hear than Woody Guthrie? The YT video doesn't say who, but there are maybe two other musicians playing with Woody here, one of whom may well be Cisco Houston and/or Leadbelly:

And now for something completely different - Peter Yarrow of PP&M's daughter Bethany, a powerful and original singer in her own mode (and a chip off of dad's political block right down to the attitude) with her partner, jazz/folk/blues cellist Rufus Cappadocia - you have to see this one:

Our own Mr. Roadie knew and worked with 12 string guitar legend Dick Rosmini, who played with and influenced the other great 12 string folk players, Bob Gibson and Erik Darling. Rosmini's work here shows why only Leadbelly himself had as much impact with the instrument as Rosmini had:

A fine pop/jazz reading from Alan Arkin, actor (The Russians Are Coming!) and singer with Weaver Lee hays in The Babyitters and all-around great performer:

Finally, a Japanese language version from The Ole Country Boys:

I can't find any other recorded versions of Irving Burgie's "The Wanderer" - but given the awesome sales power of the 1959-60 KT - Here We Go Again sold 900,000 copies - I'll bet Burgie was just fine with the results (figure $50-90,000 in 1960 dollars). Irving Burgie still lives in Queens - and maybe someone else might choose to recognize and honor this remarkable artist while he is still with us.