In the past 12 months, I've profiled The Kingston Trio singing sea chanteys, cowboy songs, love songs, spirituals, patriotic songs, protest songs, and more - but it was only this week that I discovered in preparing this week's selection what a bunch of subversive, anti-American, disreputable scofflaws these musicians have been. For 52 years they've been pulling the wool over our eyes. They've propounded a crisp, clean, All-American image while in reality they have been undercutting our most basic societal values. They glorify crime and criminals and just keep singing about them. The FBI must have a file on these guys several inches thick.
What were we thinking? The clues have been there from the first. They start their career with a song that sells 3.5 million singles and maybe as many as 3 million more on albums - about a guy who gets his neck stretched for murdering a girl. I mean, really - that song borders on the sympathetic! "Poor boy, you're bound to die"? Poor boy indeed! Where's the commitment to law and order? (see Appendix)
So it is with a great deal of indignation that I present this week's song selection cited above, "John Hardy." There are object lessons galore in this story, one that I have to say seriously that I knew nothing about (unlike most of the other CompVid selections) until I looked into it this week.
John Hardy was a real man, hanged for murder in Welch, WV in January of 1894. Hardy was a black railroad worker (the same as another real character of folk song, John Henry) who shot a man named Thomas Drews after either a poker game or a game of craps, though Hardy brought a pistol with him to the game and the underlying cause seems to have been a "pretty little girl." Oddly, like Tom Dula, Hardy had a first-rate defense team headed by a retired judge, and again like Dula, Hardy's case generated widespread attention including articles in New York newspapers. The passage of time has obscured the reasons for this attention to a couple of run-of-the-mill murder cases.
Hardy was hanged at Welch a year after the murder and four months after his conviction, and above is an actual picture of Hardy immediately before. As the song suggests, Hardy experienced a religious conversion while awaiting execution and was let out under guard from jail on the morning of his hanging to be taken to a river for baptism. Three thousand people attended the hanging, and it took him 17 1/2 minutes to die (more here). Ugh.
The song sprang up immediately, rather in the fashion of a broadside ballad, and like so many other mountain songs came to national attention through the Carter family recording, here with a great example of the Carter lick on the guitar played by Maybelle - I think the vocal is by Sara:
The Kingston Trio took the basic song and gave it the sort of arrangement that I call "hushed urgency" characteristic of many NBD cuts but not so much from NBJ - think "Tom Dooley" and "Sloop John B" and "Fast Freight" among others, songs that are not slow but quiet and intense:
The pictures in this video that I uploaded are largely purloined from the KT FaceBook, which includes some rare and little-seen pictures of the group's early days.
Another early recording with fabulous guitar work by the great Roscoe Holcolmb:
Today, you're likely to hear the song done most often in bluegrass style, so here are a few in that style - first The Bluegrass All Stars with Allison Krause and Tony Rice and friends:
Also, a blazing instrumental from Dan Paisley and Southern Grass from two years ago:
Speaking of bluegrass...the acknowledged masters Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs from a couple of decades back:
A blessing indeed that these two giants are still with us...and still performing.
A different proto-folk-rock version from 1962 by British invasion group Manfred Mann:
Just because other artists have also done this song, the basic fact remains: The Kingston Trio is a subversive act that glorifies crime and criminals. I'm gonna go and get my copy of the Patriot Act out to see if there's something that can be done about this.
For those of you other soft-on-crime types who play guitar and want to do the KT arrangement - here's one of those wonderful instructional videos put out last year by Xroad friends Bert Williams, the pride of Tucson and a mean guitar player himself, speaking, and Gentleman Tom Sanders playing - this is the slightly different version from the one above - this one as the KT performed it with John Stewart:
And for those who question the basic thesis - Well, look at this little list I've compiled by album - song first and then the crime that's being glorified in parenthesis:
The Kingston Trio: "Banua" (drunk and disorderly) "Tom Dooley" (murder) "Sloop John B" (assault,drunk and disorderly) "Little Maggie" (violation of federal excise laws)
Hungry i: "Tic,Tic,Tic" (pickpocketing/petty larceny) "New York Girls" (solicitation, larceny)
At Large: "Corey, Corey" (violation of federal excise laws), "I Bawled" (assault) "Getaway John" and "Long Black Rifle" (murder)
Here We Go Again: "E Inu Tatou E" (public intoxication)
Sold Out: "Bimini" (drunk and disorderly)
String Along: "Badman Blunder" (murder) "John Webb" (jail breaking) "This Morning, This Evening, So Soon" (sexual harassment, murder)
Goin' Places: "You're Gonna Miss Me" (murder) "Razors In The Air" (assault, drunk and disorderly)
Closeup: "The Gypsy Rover" (kidnapping) "Jesse James" (armed robbery, murder)
College Concert: "Roddy McCorley" (treason)
New Frontier: "Honey, Are You Mad" (public intoxication) "Poor Ellen Smith"/"Adios, Farewell"/"Long Black Veil" - murder
#16: "Run The Ridges" (murder)
I think I've made my point without going any further into classics like "Hanna Lee" and "Parchment Farm" and so on. Any group that even includes this many acts of criminal behavior in their repertoire needs to be on some law enforcement watchlist somewhere!