Thursday, October 29, 2009

Lee Hays' "Lonesome Traveler"

I mentioned a few weeks back in a post about "Shady Grove" that the other half of the Kingston Trio's medley - "Lonesome Traveler" - involved a somewhat darker and sadder story than did the traditional "Grove" song. That was because LT came from the pen and imagination of Lee Hays, a founding member of the first two real popular folk groups, the Almanac Singers and The Weavers, and his story is surprisingly sad, bordering even on the tragic.

With his friend/opponent/collaborator/nemesis Seeger, Hays was easily the most prominent of the four Weavers because of his voice, his size, and the force of his personal presence. The son of a strict Methodist preacher from Arkansas, Hays spent most of his life in rebellion against any element of power that he felt stultified, cramped, or confined the hopes and aspirations of individuals as he felt his father had done to him. The deep and conservative religiosity of the father spurred Hays into the embrace of leftist agnosticism, though as even a casual acquaintance with his music indicates, he continued to frame his angry radicalizing in terms rooted in religious expression - he remained a great singer of spirituals and spiritual-based music, though like Woody Guthrie, who was Hays' friend and collaborator before Seeger met either of them, he often replaced "Jesus" in camp meeting songs with "union" and made similar transformations in other lyrics.

Hays and Seeger were in the Almanac Singers together, and though their avowed purpose was to sing at union organizing meetings and other political rallies, what Seeger and Hays found that they had in common was a belief that the music that rural child Hays had grown up with and the urban and educated Seeger had adopted as his own had the potential to unite common people into a united front against what they perceived as the tyranny of capitalism. It was a Utopian ideal that the two held to so strongly that it drove them into affiliation with the Communist Party - oddly for Hays, since few other organizations have ever been as top-down authoritarian as the Stalin-era CP was. But as I noted a few years back in a piece on Seeger - the Utopia envisioned by Hays and Seeger wasn't the brutal collectivism of Stalin's USSR but more an almost Jeffersonian Arcadia of The People as imagined by Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg and practiced by communal religious groups like the Amish.

Hays and Seeger turned out some of the great songs of the era - "If I Had A Hammer," the arrangements we know today of "We Shall Overcome" and "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine", and the Weavers' signature protest against McCarthyism, "Wasn't That A Time" (a rousing piece that NBD or NBJ would have rocked on). But there had always been a strain in their relationship - Seeger was far the more talented of the two, more articulate, and to Hays' chagrin, more knowledgeable about American folk music. In fact, when Seeger decided to leave the post-blacklist re-formed Weavers in 1957 - ostensibly over the group's 3-1 vote to sing on a radio commercial for a cigarette company (wouldn't I love to find that recording!) but actually to free himself from the commercial restraints of a pop-folk group - Hays complained that he took with him knowledge of over 300 songs that he, Fred Hellerman, and Ronnie Gilbert just didn't know and would find it nearly impossible to locate and arrange.

Though Hays stayed with the Weavers through their post-Seeger reunion tours, he sank further into the related pits of depression and alcoholism that he had struggled in for his whole adult life. The diabetes brought on by the latter condition and his weight problem led to Hays' loss of both of his legs and eventually his life at the age of 67 in 1981.

I'd bet that prior to Peter, Paul and Mary's stirring re-write of the Hammer song (and both Seeger and Hays acknowledged that the pop-folk trio had vastly improved their composition), "Lonesome Traveler" was probably Hays' best-known original composition and certainly the most widely covered. Everybody doing folk music took a swing at it - it just sounded so authentic, and it had that signature Hays combination of a cry for secular/political reform couched in camp--meeting religious terms.

The Weavers naturally recorded it first, in 1950 on Decca, under the direction of producer/arranger Gordon Jenkins. As I've noted here before in other posts - it's downright strange to hear what the gifted Jenkins thought folk music should sound like, a mere eight years before the KT's Voyle Gilmore created a pop-folk genre that sounded so much more "authentic":

Now listen to those crass commercializers, the Kingston Trio, offer their rendering as the second half of this medley. Which group fifty years later is considered the parent of modern roots/Americana/authentic folk music and recently won a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement? Hint: It's not the guys singing here:*

To be fair, even the urban traditionalist Greenwhich Village folkies had problems with the commercialism of the Weavers, especially after Seeger left. Sing Out! founder Irwin Silber lumped the Weavers in with the KT in decrying the "sallow slickness" of all pop folk music.

The pop folkies just continued to pop on, though, and few with more wit and verve than the Limeliters, making their first appearance on my blog here after 61 posts - a shame because they were a great group, and one that probably got the most attention for singing LT - here as a reunion in 1988 at the Chabad Telethon:

The second generation Limes do the song justice as well:

Skiffle legend and Beatle-influencer Lonnie Donegan released his version a year or two after the Kingstons:

Finally, a folk-rock version from the mid-Sixties by Esther and Abi Ofarim, an Israeli married couple who had their greatest success in that decade in Germany - there's a story there that needs to be told:

Makes you want to dig out those Carnaby Street fashions that have been lying in the attic for a few decades.

Back a long time ago in a less benighted time, art was considered separable from artist. Van Gogh could send his ear to the lady who spurned him, Gaugin could abuse friend, foe, ladies, and alcohol with a savage disregard, Beethoven could roll in garrets and die in the gutter - but the sublimity of their creations suffered no taint as a consequence. Lee Hays was more tragic and less objectionable as a person; at nearly 30 years after his death, perhaps we can remember Hays' friend and biographer Don McClean's observation that "weathered faces lined with care/Are soothed beneath the artist's loving hand" - perhaps even the artist's own.


*Addendum: December 20, 2014
Thanks to the comment below from JC, I stopped by this article and was able to replace two videos that had been removed from YouTube, the KT and Lonnie Donegan versions. The Weavers had been awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006; when I wrote this in 2009, the Kingston Trio had not been so recognized, and that was the source of my ironic comment. However, just over four years ago, in December of 2010, the Trio was also voted the award, which sole surviving founding member Bob Shane accepted (with the widows of bandmates Dave Guard, Nick Reynolds, and Guard replacement John Stewart) in February, 2011.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Blind Willie McTell To Johnny Cash: "Delia's Gone"

On Christmas Eve of the year 1900, according to several shadowy but semi-authenticated sources, a fourteen-year-old African-American girl named Delia Green was murdered by her boyfriend, fifteen-year-old Mose Houston (or Huston), in Savannah, GA for reasons that time has obscured. According to the same fragmentary records, young Houston was convicted of the murder but in an act of clemency unusual for the South at the time and likely due to his age was sentenced to life in prison. He was paroled some decades later and vanished into obscurity.

This incident may have - or may not have - been the inspiration of a song (or songs) that come down to us as "Delia's Gone" and that provide a fine example of what we call the folk process.

With some songs, ethnologists and musicologists have a fairly easy time tracing roots and branches. There is, for example, a direct and easily hearable connection between the 17th century Irish lament "The Bard of Armagh" and the grandaddy of all American cowboy songs, "The Streets of Laredo," because the melodies are virtually identical; it's more of a challenge to hear the connection between "Bard" and the old Basin Street blues number "St. James Infirmary," though nearly every discussion of the latter song says it's so. And thus it is with hundreds of the folk songs collected and categorized by giants of the field like Francis James Child and the redoubtable Lomax family.

Like many genuine songs that we now identify as traditional, no one knows exactly where or when people began to sing mournfully about the recently departed Delia. Not surprisingly, one version seems to have been in circulation in Atlanta and Charleston, SC (and please, in honor of Mike Askins, do not pronounce the "r" - it's "Chall-ston") around 1910, and a decade later a substantially different and more ambiguous arrangement pops up in New Orleans. The older one features lyrics similar to Johnny Cash's below - a "Tony shot his Delia/ On a Saturday night" - Cash changes it to first person "I"); the Louisiana number identifies Delia as either a gambler or trusted friend whose death is a cause for sorrow, rather more like Dylan's, and which Waylon Jennings shows cross-pollinates with another New Orleans number. Some experts believe that it was just the natural diversification of song variants that we can see in, say, "The Gypsy Laddie" becoming "Black Jack Davey" and finally morphing into the very different "Gyspy Rover" while others maintain that there were two different root songs - and maybe two different but equally unfortunate Delias.

Whatever the case, one of the really early recordings is from the Library of Congress recording of Blind Willie McTell (who inspired Britain's Ralph may to change his name to Ralph McTell, composer of "The Streets of London") from around 1933:

Now the Kingston Trio didn't venture too frequently into blues-flavored numbers, though when they did (think "Leave My Woman Alone" or "This Mornin', This Evenin' So Soon" or "The Wanderer") they could be very effective. The Trio's version separates the singer from responsibility for the girl's death, leaving him in a pain that can only be alleviated by drinking - "one more round." The instrumental accompaniment here features one of the stronger and more emphatic contributions of KT bassist Dean Reilly - there was an odd comfort and symmetry in knowing now that the last time that Nick, Bob, and John ever played together in August 2007 in Scottsdale that they were joined by a vigorous and beaming 80-year-old Dean:

The highest profile modern rendition of "Delia" belongs to Johnny Cash. There is a fine performance video of JC singing it in 1969 on his TV show, but I found this MTV-era video from the Americanh Recordings sessions of 1994 to be more satisfying - Just Johnny in fine voice accompanied only by his own guitar work, reminding us of what a fine rhythm player he was. JC's lyrics are bloodier than the Trio's and give another possible meaning to "one more round." This is Cash at his folkiest:

The above-mentioned Mike Askins mentioned how much he loved "Hee Haw" (me too, Mike), and Waylon Jennings' rendition of "Delia" is a reminder of how much good music the show featured. Jennings is clearly doing the New Orleans version, which is conflated with another very familiar N.O. classic:

Reggae/blues/rap/all-purpose superstar Wyclef Jean gives an island flavor to Cash's arrangement:

For a completely different take, our late friend Travis Edmondson and Bud Dashiell do that inimitable up-tempo Spanish-flavored guitar accompaniment that only they could pull off - Travis especially here with his rhythmic tapping of the sound board leaves you astonished - from one of Hefner's shows in the 60s:

Now I happen to be in the minority around here, I think, in that I really like Bob Dylan's singing when, as they say in sports, he stays within himself, which he does very effectively in folk blues numbers like this - rather closer to Willie McTell's:

This is one of those weeks when I really, really enjoy this Comparative Videos project - every version is a gem.

Addendum - 6/13/10

Here are some other interesting amateur versions - first, Bill Kostelec doing a fine rendition of the most traditional St. Louis bluesy version:

Warren H. Mayo presents NYC folk legend Happy Traum's arrangement - excellent guitar work here:

If videos of the deleted ones above become available again, I'll re-post them.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Who Lives By The Sword: "The Ballad Of Jesse James"

One of the darker aspects of American culture as it has evolved to this point has been our collective penchant to make folk heroes out of some really bad people, most notably high-profile criminals and sociopaths - Billy the Kid, John Wesley Harding, Wild Bill Hickock, Al Capone, Pretty Boy Floyd, Bonnie and Clyde, and more. The first and most enduring of these has been, of course, Jesse James, who fits the description in the first sentence here perfectly.

It's not that other countries don't have outlaws to celebrate. England has had its Robin Hood (who, as recent discoveries seem to indicate, was a real person), RH's mentor the very real Will o' th' Green, 18th century highwaymen Dick Turpin, your occasional buccaneer or pirate like Edward "Blackbeard" Teach and Captain William Kidd. But these are characters celebrated more for craftiness and guile - their abilities to elude pursuit, evade "justice," and outwit the bumbling tyrants at whose laws they scoffed than they are for the sudden, brutal, murderous, and outright violence of their American counterparts. The English don't make heroes of killers and sociopathic misfits. We do.

The why of that is hard to fathom. It may be because we're a younger country with a clearer image of the misdeeds of these characters, and admittedly with most of the folks on my rogues' gallery above stories have grown around them that seek to mitigate their guilt and justify their violence to some degree - most often as (of course) "Robin Hood" characters, which in fact none of them were at all. I suspect that more significantly, we all aspire to a kind of rugged individualism, in Emerson's phrase, and these outlaws personify the self-created or self-actualized individual who stands outside the bounds of the social order.

Whatever the reason, Jesse James is the perfect character to epitomize the outlaw, a figure in his singular, blind, and raging violence worthy of the first and greatest of American outlaw folk songs. A troubled boy from a troubled family that had been broken and reformed several times in his childhood, James began his career of violence at the age of 15 during the Civil War (or "The War of Northern Aggression," as Mike Askins has instructed me to say) as an irregular cavalryman/guerilla with several notorious outfits associated both with Quantrill's Raiders and the troop of Bloody Bill Anderson. He was a participant at the massacre and scalping of 22 unarmed Union prisoners in Centralia, Missouri in 1863 and may have participated in Quantrill's legendary raid on Lawrence Kansas in which over 200 men and boys were killed (partially in retaliation for a similar massacre in the same town of Southerners by abolitionist John Brown in 1859).

After the war, Jesse and his brother Frank began a long, involved, and violent career of train and bank robberies that resulted in scores of deaths, of law officers, innocent civilians, and a fair number of members of the clannish James family, killed by Pinkertons in retaliation for Jesse's depredations. As most know, it all came crashing down after the failed great Northfield Minnesota bank robbery; Jesse was driven into hiding until bagged by "that dirty little coward" Robert Ford for the reward money.

Within months of Jesse's death, "The Ballad of Jesse James" appeared on songsheets and as a poem in newspapers wherever there were Confederate sympathizers, and the mythologization of Jesse James had begun. The original lyric includes a last verse that attributes the song's composition to "Billy Gashade," but there is no hard evidence that such a man ever existed. It's a real broadside-type ballad - a real folk song.

The Kingston Trio's version here was the first number recorded by the Trio with new member John Stewart, and to the end of his life Stewart delighted in telling how Voyle Gilmore had assembled a number of nervous Capitol Records execs in the glassed-in sound booth - nervous because they feared that their cash cow Trio would cease producing milk with the new guy. Halfway through the first take, Stewart would say, they left the booth smiling when they realized that the basic sound of the group was still as good as gold.

I always thought that this was a Trio misstep, like IMHO "Worried Man" - a great musical setting for a traditional song with disastrously re-written lyric trying to play it for fun. Would have been the best version of the song extant had they taken it seriously. Oh well.

The most recent prominent incarnation of the song has been, of course, by Bruce Springsteen in his 2006 "Seeger Sessions" tour. This is the number in which I think the Boss stayed closest to the folk roots of the song.

The uptempo nature of the song has insured that most of its modern interpreters have been bluegrass bands - here first the very capable Pete Feldmann and the Very Lonesome Boys.

More bluegrass and my find of the week - bluegrass banjo as played on guitar by Martin Tallstrom.

46 years before Springsteen, local Detroit rocker Jamie Coe had a minor local hit with his version:

From the UK, a skiffle-style rendition by the Ramblin' Riversiders:

A damn fine song, born and bred in America, enshrining in popular memory a very bad man whose memory finds some redemption in the ballad.

Friday, October 9, 2009

"Lonesome Valley/The Reverend Mr. Black"

Most Kingston Trio fans know the story of how "The Reverend Mr. Black" became a hit single because it was related expertly in the Blake, Rubeck and Shaw The Kingston Trio On Record. The short version is that a high school English teacher in Chicago was trying to instruct a class in the ways in which small groups could manipulate mass media, so he had his 95 students pick what they deemed as the worst and most obscure cut from a record album that they could find and try to promote it into an attention-getting hit. The students chose this song from the respectably-selling 1963 album #16 and immediately began flooding Chicago station WLS with calls requesting that the station play the number.

Now WLS was much more than the Windy City's most prominent Top 40 station. Along with Pittsburgh's KDKA and a handful of other mega-powerful 50,000 watt stations, its signal blanketed the central third of the country and had already contributed enormously to popularizing country music in the 30s and 40s with its "Barn Dance" show (among others). Owned initially as it was by mid-America's champion of retailing, Sears Roebuck, whose logo "World's Largest Store" gave the station its call letters, it possessed a huge influence in the music industry. If WLS said a song was a hit - it was a hit.

Capitol Records recognized that power, and largely at the insistence of WLS released "The Reverend Mr. Black" as a single. It reached #8 on the national Billboard singles Top 40 chart, the only KT single record after "Tom Dooley" to reach the Top 10.

But the fact that a few score phone calls from teenagers had a part in creating a hit record does not, in fact, tell the whole story at all. They may have tricked WLS and Capitol into thinking that there was hit potential in the song - but over 400,000 units of the recording were sold, and that didn't happen because of a high school English teacher. It happened because of the pedigree of the song itself and because of a rockin' good performance of it by the Kingston Trio.

We know that the song was penned by the great Billy Edd Wheeler (above) and Jed Peters, but as Wheeler explains, he had some pretty heavyweight help. The "Jerry and Mike" he alludes to here are none other than Lieber and Stoller, one of the greatest pop music writing duos of all time ("Hound Dawg," "Stand By Me," "Kansas City," "Jailhouse Rock," and dozens of others).

Billy Edd Wheeler on "Reverend Mr. Black" and "Coal Tattoo"

The other part of the pedigree and possibly the more significant one is that the root song is "Lonesome Valley," one of the best-known of the gospel hymns copyrighted by A.P Carter in the 30s and sung by the original Carter Family (though it's one that AP credited as "traditional"). By the time that Wheeler's song was muscled into public attention more by the KT's star power than by a few students, millions of Americans had already heard the chorus on the radio and from gospel choirs in their local churches. I'd bet that the Trio's decision to include a back-up group of gospel-ish female singers on the record stemmed in part from that and in part from the fact that Bob Gibson's wonderful 1961 album Yes I See (a real stunner if you've never heard it) had sold very well and included the Gospel Pearls quartet as back-up singers on about half of the songs to great and original effect.

So here's the Trio with as we-all-know-now-but-didn't-then Glen Campbell on banjo:

It was this song as much as any other that saddled John Stewart with the "Johnny Cash sound-alike" tag, which wasn't really fair because Stewart had a more mellifluous and on-pitch baritone than Cash did. Given the obvious similarities, though, I always thought that Cash was tipping his hat to Stewart when he recorded it years later:

And a non-embeddable link to a church web page featuring Cash's version : Johnny Cash: The Reverend Mr. Black

For an interestingly different version, here is actor and singer Tim Grimm from Indiana. Grimm has a great resume as an actor and records for Allan Shaw's Wind River records - this is a slower, softer, more reflective take:

"Lonesome Valley" itself has been covered repeatedly and beautifully by some of the greatest folk artists of the century. First up, a later incarnation of the Carter Family, Mother Maybelle with sisters June, Helen, and Rosey with Johnny Cash on harmony, from the 1980s:

Next, as far as I'm concerned, my "find" of the week - Joan Baez with the recently departed Mary Travers at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival, a real gem:

Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie with Pete leading the audience, from about 1990 I'd say. 'Nuff said:

Speaking of classic - the first folk blues artist I ever heard (in the Newport recordings from 1960-61), Mississippi John Hurt:

Closing here with the most soulful version I've heard from the gospel Fairfield Four, as heard in O Brother Where Art Thou?

I'm out of space - so in the words of a comment on Tim Grimm's video - "nice job guys! make this kind of music live on!" Amen.

Addendum - 12/21/09

The current Kingston Trio recently uploaded a video of their performance of the classic - a nice update to the original KT recording. George Grove is doing a remarkable re-imagining of the banjo part from the original - remarkable because on the '62 disc, Glen Campbell was playing a six-string banjo tuned like a guitar. George gives it better tonality and a more authentic banjo sound on his Vega longneck:

And Further Yet - August 12, 2013

Unbeknownst to me until today, a year and a half ago some blessed soul uploaded Billy Edd Wheeler's original recording of the song to YouTube. And a fine version it is, demonstrating not only Wheeler's performing chops but also the fidelity that the Kingston Trio's arrangement maintained to the original:

Friday, October 2, 2009

Dark Romance: "Blow The Candle Out"

As early as 1959 in a Downbeat Magazine article, Nick Reynolds and Dave Guard of the Kingston Trio were frank in acknowledging that among the original three only Bob Shane had the chops to make it in the entertainment business as a solo - the chops being the voice, of course, but the guitar, personality, and looks as well. Yet Shane had the chance to make a good go of a solo career in 1968 and even had a promising beginning with the single of "Honey" - yet he expressed then and ever since that he preferred working in a group. There's no mystery there, I think, because as great a job with solos as Bob has always done, he has always been at his best working in and around harmony, and I believe he understood that he had found his corner of the music world, and it was spelled F-O-L-K, as he and Guard and Reynolds had redefined the genre, all protestations to the contrary.

Consider. Bob Shane ventured into show tunes and pop/blues/jazz with great solos like "Scotch and Soda," "She Was Too Good To Me," "When My Love Was Here," and so many more. But I always thought that Bob was at his most effective in the folkier numbers like "Stone" and "Candle." He is such a great singer that he was able to enhance a fairly mediocre boozy, bluesy bar number like "Scotch and Soda" and essentially trick audiences into thinking it was a great song simply because his performance of it was one of the best vocal efforts of the 50s (though don't forget - he also played that great guitar part as well). "One For My Baby And One More For The Road" the S&S song is definitely not - yet Shane elevates it into that level of the musical stratosphere by sheer force of talent.

When Bob had really good material to work with - "Maria," "A Rolling Stone," and "Blow The Candle Out," all of which are definitely in the folk-sounding bracket, the performances soared to a level unmatched by any of the other great folk voices of the time, among which I'd put Glenn Yarborough and Chad Mitchell and Tommy Makem. Sinatra and Tony Bennett could and did take successful shots at some of Bob's pop songs, and Bob could have handled much of their repertoire. But do you remember all the great baritones and second tenors doing pop back then? Jack Jones, Ed Ames, Robert Goulet, Bennett, Steve Lawrence, Andy Williams, Perry Como - as great and distinctive as Bob's voice is, it would have melded into that collage of performers. But in the folk world, Bob had only two serious challengers among baritones - the aforementioned Tommy Makem, who largely stayed within his Irish genre, and Cisco Houston, who died way too young and just as the Trio was peaking.

What I love about Shane's performance of this week's selection is the sustained sweetness and control of the vocal - it's a quiet song that still has an underlying sexual tension that Bob implies but does not exploit, making the song as beautifully romantic as anything he ever did. As we'll see below in both the lyrics and the other videos -no one else quite knows how to hit that subtle combination in their renditions.

"Blow the Candle Out" first appeared in print quite a long time ago, in 1724 in England with the original seaport town being London or Bristol. I've heard an Irish version that uses Dublin, and most American versions mention Boston. Shane is credited with re-writing the lyric and throwing in a parson where non existed in the original, which is more of a sailor's girl-in-every-port song rather than the romantic courtship and marriage piece that Bob presents. The original lyric included these two verses not exactly in the KT's performance:

Your father and your mother
In yonder room do lie
A-hugging one another
So why not you and I ?
A-hugging one another
Without a fear or doubt
So roll me in your arms my love
And blow the candles out.

I prithee speak more softly
Of what we have to do
Lest that our noise of talking
Should make our pleasure rue.
The streets they are so nigh, love
The people walk about
They may peep in and spy, love
So blow the candles out.

The sailor asks the girl to name the child after him (as in the KT's song) but leaves open the question of whether or not he'll ever return.

Here is the Trio's version, from the supposedly "dark" album Make Way, in actuality a thoroughly professional and satisfying musical offering:

All three Trio members are providing excellent instrumental support. As always, Dave Guard's lack of formal instruction on the banjo works brilliantly in his favor, as he lines out individual notes in a unique way - people just didn't do that on the banjo. Nick and Bob's harmonious guitar work compliments the banjo beautifully.

Our other performances of the song are talented amateurs, the best of whom I believe are England's Nancy Wallace and Jason Steel here:

Don Sineti and Steve Roys from Chicago's Maritime Festival go for a kind of art-folk ambiance with Roys' rounded baritone - pretty effective and I like the wash that the accordion lends:

Finally - the Sirens of Sterling seem to be a mid-Atlantic/New England group that performs at Renaissance fairs and pirate shows all through the area - I featured them on "The Gypsy Rover" a few months back. They get the tension but clearly aren't interested in matching Bob Shane's subtlety:

And a final thought that confirms for me that Bob Shane made the right decision in staying in the folk genre that he helped to define, at least as far as the recording industry is concerned. Have you ever seen Bob Shane performing without playing his guitar...seen him in a tux, cradling a mic with his hand in his pocket? Can you even imagine it?