Thursday, September 24, 2009

Malvina Reynolds' "Turn Around"

It would be hard to find a song writer of the 1960s with better folkie bona fides than Malvina Reynolds (1900 - 1978), who penned three classic folk-type songs of that decade: "Little Boxes" as sung by Pete Seeger, a minor singles hit about the "ticky-tacky" life of modern suburbia, "What Have They Done To The Rain?", a pretty big hit by the Seekers, and "Turn Around," which provided the audio for one of the most widely-seen, warmly-remembered, and financially successful commercials in U.S. television history.

"Turn Around" is just a flat out oddity. Reynolds created melodic but forceful protest songs like those above for most of her musical career - her husband had been a communist party organizer, and she herself was a socialist and a close ally of Pete Seeger, who brought her to national attention with his recording and promotion of the "Boxes" song. Reynolds performed both with Seeger and on the same stage as a soloist in a number of civil rights and antiwar protest rallies. She had a nice if ironic touch with lyrics, but you just didn't expect the outright sentiment of "Turn Around" from her.

Further, as with the off-Broadway "Try To Remember", "Turn Around" has been preserved largely by folk-type groups, including the Kingston Trio. There again, though, an oddity - it appears on the KT's Time To Think album, a record full of otherwise serious, often political songs. "Turn Around" just sticks out there as well.

First this week, a video of Reynolds herself from Seeger's Rainbow Quest, a fine singer who started as a violinist and didn't come to folk singing and writing til her late 40s.

(So the web sheriff and CopyrightCops bagged Malvina - until she returns, here is a fragment of her doing the song with a strange video:)

Snow Day #2
Interestingly, as with "Scarlet Ribbons", partial copyright is claimed for this song by Harry Belafonte, who also did a fine job with it.* The lasting impression of the song, though, comes from Paul Arnold (not as I had thought from the marvelous baritone of Ed Ames), who supplied the vocal for the Kodak commercial that took the country by storm around 1962:

The KT recorded it in November of 1963, apparently just prior to the JFK assassination. I would have thought that this number might have been more effective with a Bob Shane solo treatment:

Interestingly, it was a duo named Dick and DeeDee whose version of the song hit #1 on the Billboard singles chart the week of the JFK murder, which means that the KT was in process with this song while it was climbing the charts. The original Dick died in 2002, but DeeDee continues to soldier on with a replacement - here from 2009:

Where the KT went in mellow-land, the Brothers Four were sure to follow, as they do effectively here. Only Bob Flick on bass is an original, but they have that same mellow sound and spot-on harmonies as the original group had - here from Japan last year -

The current KT gives the Brothers more than a run for their money, here from this year's Kingston Trio Fantasy Camp - video courtesy of Bo Wennstam:

Finally, a lovely home-made instrumental on the harp by Harpist Dan:

So we are reminded by this unabashedly emotional and sentimental song of some of the goodness that is the real antidote to all that is sordid....

*Some time after this article was written, an upload of Belafonte's recording on vinyl popped up on YouTube:

Friday, September 18, 2009

Carl Sandburg: "This Mornin', This Evenin' So Soon" ("Tell Old Bill")

Talk about getting not nearly enough respect for a career of splendid achievement. Carl Sandburg (left, with Jean Ritchie), regarded during his lifetime as a major American poet second only to his contemporary Robert Frost, is now neglected to the point of being all but forgotten. I suppose one possible reason for this is that he is sandwiched in terms of time between two other great free verse poets, his own role model Walt Whitman and his more flamboyant successor Allen Ginsberg.

But Sandburg is much more dimensional than either of those two, and in his cultural importance - and in his importance to those of us who love folk music - he beats out nearly every other writer and folkie in American history in one critical regard. Sandburg is the link, the connection, between the high culture of published poetry and the people's culture (of folk music, actually) in a way that Whitman dreamed of but never quite succeeded at and that Ginsberg attempted but never realized (Ginsberg's success at being the iconic voice of the outsider).

Sandburg took the Whitman-esque style of long lines of apparently rambling free verse and infused it with a more pointed political perspective than Whitman ever quite managed to do. About the most political that Whitman ever got was to endorse the Union cause in the Civil War and fall in love with the idea of Abraham Lincoln. Sandburg, on the other hand, channeled his eighth grade education and early life of manual labor into a poetry that transcended Whitman's dreamy paeans to the common man into a harder edged, more real imagery that nonetheless celebrated the wisdom and virtue of the masses. Does anyone still remember "Chicago"?

Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I
have seen your painted women under the gas lamps
luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it
is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to
kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the
faces of women and children I have seen the marks
of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who
sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer
and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on
job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the
little soft cities....

A lifelong socialist activist, Sandburg had the same faith in the People that we today associate with a Whitman or a Woody Guthrie or a Pete Seeger. But Sandburg was also an early contributor to and editor of the august Poetry magazine, popular among the intellectual elites of two continents, and his work was in fashion in salons from New York to London and Paris.

At the same time, though, Sandburg was out collecting folk songs, inspired in part by the Lomaxes and other early collectors, but also by his own belief that folk music was the art of the common people, with a power in and of itself (without resorting to writing new political songs) to transform and redeem America.

The result of his work was the classic American Song Bag of 1927, my own personal favorite right behind the Lomax books. It was apparently one of the Kingston Trio's favorite books as well, because they took maybe half a dozen songs from it that they list as copyrighted by Sandburg, including landmarks "Sloop John B," "The Colorado Trail," - and "This Morning, This Evening So Soon."

Often called "Tell Old Bill" and copyrighted by Sandburg as "Dis Mornin' An' Dis Evenin' So Soon," the song is clearly an African-American country blues number that may have originated from an older song in Georgia in the mid-nineteenth century. Sandburg told of hearing it in St. Louis in 1922 from a Nancy Barnhart, and it was roughly her arrangement he published. Sometime in the 30s, the recently-deceased Sam Hinton heard another version in Texas and recorded it. Sandburg's later editions of Song Bag reflect some of the elements of Hinton's song, and it is through that latter arrangement that most of us have come to know the number, courtesy of Sandburg's fellow Chicagoan Bob Gibson.

The Kingston Trio's version on their 1960 album String Along follows the basic chord pattern from Sandburg's book but with some extra minor chords thrown in and a bluesy guitar opening that sounds a bit like the Guard trio's opening for "Don't You Weep, Mary":

The vocals on this cut are IMHO just outstanding - one of my all time KT favorites.

And for outstanding vocals - how about Chad Mitchell on lead, from the CMT Reflecting album from 1964:

Next, a version from the great Dave Van Ronk, Greenwich Village's "Mayor of MacDougal Street" who was a powerful influence on the young Bob Dylan and one of the most effective of white singers who interpreted African-American blues:

More recently, Eric Bibb, son of art folk performer Leon Bibb, with Brian Kramer in a version that may be the closest to what the song that Sandburg first heard sounded like:

There is one very significant Kingston Trio connection to Sandburg, one I think not widely known. At my first fantasy camp in 2003, John Stewart and Nick Reynolds duetted on "Sloop John B" in a rough, unrehearsed version that I've posted on YouTube(link below). Even before the thunderous applause subsided, Nick had grabbed the vocal mic and with an asperity in his voice that I found arresting said, "When we were first starting out, there were a lot of people calling us 'phony folksingers' and such. One man who stood up for us - one of the really righteous men - was the poet Carl Sandburg, who collected that song. He sent us all a really nice letter with autographed copies of his works The Lincoln Years*. We never forgot that."

Amen, Nick Reynolds. And God bless you, Carl Sandburg.

Addendum - March, 2012

Thanks to Alex Edouard, whose comment appears below, we can also enjoy Nathan Salsburg & Will Oldham doing their version in 2007 - Oldham is better known by his stage name of Bonnie Prince Billy:

*Nick was referring to Sandburg's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography in two volumes, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years.


Link to Nick and John, Sloop John B:

Reynolds/Stewart Sloop John B

Amateur Time - Nice home recording - Leo Keating:

Courtesy of Bo - Fred Grittner, me, Neal Spivey, Mr Banjo, and Art Yow a few weeks ago:

Addendum, 2/6/10

At the risk of sending Carl Sandburg spinning in his grave - Merle Haggard is a major performing artist whose singing and song selection I usually enjoy. Here, though, Merle got a hold of the number and turned it into something quite different:

Well, I guess that's one use you can put Public Domain material to....

Friday, September 11, 2009

A-Whaling For To Go: "Blow Ye Winds In The Morning"

When I was a boy in the Midwest and a compulsive reader, I developed the greatest fascination for times and places that were part of my imaginative landscape only because the physical circumstance of living on the prairie didn't afford any real life contact with mountains or oceans. I was especially interested in two facets of American history that occurred in the same time frame in those places - the mountain men of the Rockies and the New England whalers.

The latter interest was stoked by the first volume of one of the most remarkable series of books ever written for children in this country, The Story of Yankee Whaling, from the American Heritage Junior Library. In the 50s and 60s (I assume before as well), American Heritage was almost unique among U.S. magazines. It was published in months alternate to its companion magazine, Horizon, in glossy paper, hard-covered volumes - the only magazines I can recall to be bound in such a way. The editor of AH was Bruce Catton, one of the foremost historians of his generation (the Civil War was his forte), and it was Catton who felt that American children should have books on U.S. history as sophisticated and beautiful as his magazine itself - and thus was born the Junior Library. Each volume - and there were eventually about 50 - were upwards of 150 pages, lavishly illustrated in both black and white and color, scrupulously researched and entertainingly written. They didn't talk down to children (aimed at the 9 to 12 age group) and were a delight to read and re-read.

Yankee Whaling came out in 1960, when I was ten, and it gave me a concrete understanding of the harsh lives of those who took to sea to hunt the great whales, whose oil (boiled down at sea from the whale's blubber) lit the street lamps and households of much of early America until the plentiful and more cheaply acquired petroleum of Pennsylvania supplanted it in the 1830s and brought the whaling days of Nantucket, New Bedford, and Mystic to an end. Most of what I knew of whaling before this book came from folk songs, two of which were already then my favorites and remain so til this very day, the Weavers' "Greenland Whale Fisheries" and the Kingston Trio's "Blow Ye Winds."

Alan Lomax included "Blow Ye Winds" in the same 1947 Folk Songs Of North America to which I've referred often before, and about fifteen early KT songs (including "Tom Dooley") appear in the book in arrangements very similar to those that the Trio used. Lomax calls this song a fo'c'sle chantey, one used to accompany ordinary sailors' tasks as opposed to the slower capstan chanteys like "Haul Away" that were used to time back breaking tasks like weighing anchor and hoisting sails. He also dates the original air to the Elizabethan era in the 1500s, so the tune was already old by the mid-1700s when American whalers got hold of it and turned it into the rousing number we know today.

The Kingston Trio's version on the album At Large from 1959 is one of the delights of their early albums. It features the high energy, perfect timing for uptempo songs that distinguished the Trio from nearly every other pop folk group. Two year banjo student Dave Guard acquits himself creditably with what sounds like his own unique modified frailing, and note that the clearest high voice on much of the song is Bob Shane, as it was on several songs on this album including "MTA":

Thanks to Dave Long for uploading a quality digital audio and fine video of the song.

Next - an Irish-American roots band, Siegan, performing the tune at The Down Home in Johnson City, TN on St. Paddy's Day, 2011. Note the unusual minor key accompaniment:

Water Street Bridge is what you might call neo-folk or modern folk, and they describe themselves as "Celtic, blues, Americana, shanty, jazz, Creole, folk, art rock, reggae, comedy and original songs into something that can only be described as “eclectic acoustic.” That would make them the perfect heirs to - the Kingston Trio. This is a fine and fun version of the song:

The Corries were a Scots trio (later duo) about the same age as the Kingstons, and their recording success in the UK in the 60s and 70s was a part of that country's folk revival whose stimulus was also in part the success of the KT. This is a different take on the song altogether:

The Black Irish Band is a northern California roots group who seem here to be doing more of the Dubliners' approach to the song than the KT's.

Finally, our special of the week. This is a solo performance from the Mermaid Inn in Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia on the evening of Tuesday March 10th 2009. The only problem - the videographer failed to get the singer's full name and identifies him simply as "Steve."*** Too bad - he does a fine job here:

I remember hearing the song in my mind as a sort of a soundtrack as I wandered through the pages of that excellent little book all those years ago....

***Note - 7/22/14  - It's taken 5 years, but we have a positive ID - he's Steve Stanislaw. Congratulations to him on a fine performance.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Another Appalachian Classic: "Shady Grove"

Today's intended weekend video was a bit of a downer of a song ( or rather the story behind it), so I decided spontaneously to go two for the price of one - the first and cheerier half of this Kingston Trio medley tonight and the sadder, darker half for a later date.

One of the things that traditional folk aficionados hated about the early Kingston Trio was the KT's refusal to treat folk songs as sacrosanct. The Trio joked and quipped and entertained - often before doing a bang-up job on a traditional number. If some of the humor today seems sophomoric - well, as the videos show, we are talking here about three very young men, barely out of college themselves, the oldest (Nick Reynolds) not yet twenty-five as of this recording whose origin was in the pre-"Tom Dooley" Hungry i engagement era and album and the youngest (Dave Guard) astoundingly not yet 24 (DG turned 24 in October of 1958 when TD was climbing up the charts). A little sophomorism is forgivable, I think - and here I'm referring to Bob Shane's cornpone accent and jokes on the album rather than Dave's intro on the video below.

If you saw the KT Wiki, though, you must have seen Frank Proffitt's remark that watching the Trio doing their take on his own prized arrangement of "Tom Dooley" on TV made him "sorty sick." That was an honest remark, at least, and one Proffitt had a right to. He was the genuine article, a real back woods guy who knew the songs only as the music he grew up on and who couldn't understand what the three guys in the striped shirts were doing to his song. The excoriating reaction to the KT by urban folkies like John Cohen, however, is harder to stomach - city born and bred guys like Cohen (and the late great Mike Seeger) putting on string ties and imitating the nasally intonations of mountain singers in an effort to sound like - Frank Proffitt. That's just fakery with hypocrisy thrown in to boot.

"Shady Grove" is likely an old Irish tune, and the fact that Guard is absolutely correct in his attribution of the song to the Appalachians (North Carolina, to be specific) simply illustrates the intimate connection between the Celtic tunes of Ireland and Scotland and the real traditional folk tunes of the Eastern U.S., settled largely by the Scots-Irish. A number of folklorists I've read, in fact, explain how the African bania (banjo in English) of four strings as played by black musicians sprouted a fifth string halfway up the neck when played by those Scots-Irish Appalachian whites - it was, they suggest, an attempt to imitate the drone pipes of the Celtic bagpipe common to both Ireland and Scotland. The same explanation has been put forth for the drone strings on the mountain dulcimer you'll see Jean Ritchie playing below.

Some accounts suggest that there are fifty different versions of "Shady Grove," some with more than two hundred verses (shades of John Stewart/John Phillips' "Chilly Winds"). It also seems to be related to the Scots-Irish-Appalachian murder ballad "Matty Groves," though clearly Lady Shady is the much happier of the two, worshiped and desired as she is by the singer of the song.

So - if we can get past a bit of the stagey silly humor, we can enjoy first a fine version (that you'll see isn't far off the traditional) featuring developing master banjoist Dave Guard:

I still can't believe that DG at this point was still playing (effectively) with one finger and his thumb.

For comparison's sake, look at what Doc Watson does with the song. Doc is a North Carolinian, born in 1923, and as real a deal as Frank Proffitt - except that Doc may be the greatest musician that the Appalachians have ever produced. Fine singer that he is, it is his guitar work that amazes:

David Holt on banjo here is doing the real old time frail or clawhammer style.

For another fabulous performance focusing on guitar - here's Tony Rice and band after he lost his singing voice - Rice speaks through his guitar now:

Now for the roots from which the branches grew - Jean Ritchie, with John Jacob Niles, the greatest of traditional American mountain dulcimerists. Ritchie, still performing at age 86 is like Watson the real article, born and raised in the Kentucky mountains:

And two fun versions - a more recent (2002) Doc Watson version played with the outstanding Kruger Brothers from Sweden

And a delightful if camped up version by the Dillards from the Andy Griffith Show that makes the KT's version sound absolutely authentic:

There. I feel better already. Nothing like a good old folk song really well-played by five or six artists to lift one's sorry spirits.