Friday, November 27, 2009

"Bonnie Heilan' Laddie"/"Highland Laddie"

Roots and branches - that's what these sixty-odd posts have been about - where songs come from, and how they morph into a variety of often very different versions over vast stretches of time and place. Additionally, I've been able to rediscover for myself both the richness of the Kingston Trio's versions of these songs (and sometimes have noted the limitations of the same) as well as some wonderful, original, traditional, funny, or in some cases outright bizarre versions of those same tunes.

Well, this week's selection, "Bonnie Heilan' Laddie," embodies quite literally all of the above. The benchmark performances belong IMHO to the KT and Pete Seeger (a fine pedigree indeed) but extend as well in the videos below to some startlingly original arrangements, a go at the song by one of the greatest musician/composers who ever lived, and perhaps the weirdest video I have ever offered here.

"Bonnie Heilan' Laddie" is a Scots number of course, and I'm guessing that most of us figured out fairly early that "heiland" was Scots for "highland." It's just as clearly a sea chantey, though what connection our highland boy has with all the places named in the tune is obscure, or even why the singer is asking if the lad has ever been there.

The song seems first to have been a piper's number, and it remains in its original form of "Bonnie Laddie, Highland Laddie" the regimental march of about two dozen military units both in the UK and across the Commonwealth. It's a stirring and inspiring piece, a dramatic reminder that in Celtic countries what we refer to in English as "bagpipes" were known in their original languages as "war pipes," the purpose of which was not only to rally one's own soldiers but to inspire fear in the enemy through the eerie sound of the pipes (the exact effect accomplished according to veterans of the Battle of New Orleans as General Edward Pakenham's Highland Infantry charged Andrew Jackson's emplacements through a thick fog - to no avail, of course, though the sound of the pipes scared the bejesus out of Andy's men).

Now I know that the pipes do not excite the same thrill in everyone as they do in many of us who claim Celtic ancestry, so here is a short clip of massed pipers doing the song - the melody is a bit different from "Bonnie Heilan' Laddie," but you can clearly hear the "bonnie laddie, highland laddie" section repeated at the end of each musical phrase:

It is easy to infer that a memory of this tune inspired some nameless Scots sailor boys to adapt the basic music into a song that could be accompanied by a fiddle or pennywhistle, which were by far the most common instruments brought onto 18th and 19th century sailing ships, whose voyages could last for months at a time and on which music and dancing were the only forms of genuine recreation. Dave Guard of the KT and respected music archivist Joe Hickerson arranged the sailors' folk song into this version, adding a fragment of another song ("This Boston town don't suit my notion...") that exists only as - well, a fragment:

I love this version from the "dark" album Make Way - but I felt that the Trio was holding back a bit on it, that it could have benefited from a bit more of the full-steam-ahead enthusiasm that Pete Seeger demonstrates below. Nonetheless, even crusty old traditionalist and banjo master Billy Faier, who finds little to like in the Kingston Trio at all, approves of their treatment of "Helian Laddie."

Billy Faier On The Kingston Trio

Seeger essentially owns this song, having rescued it from folk obscurity and promoting it as a concert sing-along, which he tries to do in this video from Australia in the early 1960s, albeit without a whole lot of success. It's a great solo effort even if it wasn't intended to be:

Note: The cited video was taken down for CopyVio, but a fragment of Seeger doing the song can be heard around 4:22 in the video below -

Now the result would have been very different had Mick Coates been in that hall!

In the last few years, there have been a number of internet polls conducted trying to ascertain who the greatest of Irish folk singers is/was. The winner is invariably one of three men - Luke Kelly of the Dubliners, Liam Clancy, or my own favorite, Tommy Makem:

There are a number of pretty good amateur versions on YouTube, though only the Brothers of Through here have posted a full version of the song - rough-edged but enthusiastic:

Finally - like many other classical composers, Ludwig von Beethoven occasionally turned to folk music for musical phrases and themes and occasionally complete airs. In 1818, he debuted his "25 Scottish Songs For Voice With Piano, Violin, and Violincello" with lyrics adapted by James Hogg (Hogg's Lyrics As Sung In The Video Below). Beethoven's tune is recognizably the same as the pipers' number and is a favorite of leider singers. But Robin Hendrix is an opera singer, here recorded doing the number in France earlier this year. I am not sure what was going through Ms. Hendix's mind - but this is certainly the strangest interpretation of a folk song I have ever seen:

Well. I think I'll stick to my own version, one that I play for myself often, which cross-pollinates the KT with Seeger and Makem. Seems like everyone else has had a run at adapting the number, so I have as well. Feel free....

Friday, November 20, 2009

"The Wagoner's Lad"

One of the things that I have always loved about folk music is its capacity to surprise. You can be humming along through all the wonderful chanteys and cowboy songs and ballads and love songs...and then stumble unexpectedly on the surpassingly beautiful (like "Shenandoah" or "The Mountains of Mourne") or the darkly tragic (like "The Sloop John B") - or amazingly modern sentiments in a very old song, like "The Wagoner's Lad."

The very first verse of the song, which is known in a host of variants including "My Horses Ain't Hungry" (recorded famously by Peter, Paul and Mary as "Pretty Mary") and "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" and which dates to the early nineteenth or even late eighteenth century, tells us that we are not in the standard folk universe in this song, where women are usually the objects of either romantic desire or borderline misogynistic humor or scorn. Instead, "Wagoner's Lad" opens with a plaint as old as time, one that remains distressingly true for a really unthinkable percentage of the world's women today - in the Middle East, in most of South Asia and much of East Asia, and in large parts of Africa. Perhaps half of the women in the world today do not choose their husbands freely, making that opening verse perpetually relevant:

O hard is the fortune of all womankind
They're always controlled, they're always confined...
Controlled by their fathers until they are wives
Then slaves to their husbands the rest of their lives.

The sad story of an unsuccessful courtship - due to the unsuitable poverty of the young man and the consequent forced and permanent separation of the young couple - is related in the voice of the girl, itself a bit unusual but not unheard of in English language folk songs. What is unique, though, is that the direct bitterness of the opening verse colors the rest of the tale of the lyric with an underlying and inescapable tragedy, as our narrator herself seems at some point in the future doomed to the "slavery" that she so despises, even sadder because love and happiness have flirted with her in the shape of her wagoner's lad, driven off by an unfeeling and unsympathetic father.

One of the earliest recordings of the song was by the legendary Buell Kazee, a Kentuckian who hit his stride in the 1920s a bit before the Carter Family came on the scene with a series of recordings for Brunswick records. Kazee's real ambition was the ministry, which he pursued for the rest of his life. The YouTube recording of Kazee has been removed,* but Smithsonian/Folkways Records has posted an equally authentic traditional rendition by Mr. and Mrs. John Sams of Kentucky - a field recording by John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers:

By way of contrast - here it is as sung by a woman, contemporary Anglo-Irish-American folksinger Sarah McQuaid - a fine a capella version:

And for contrast within a contrast, another lady's a capella version - who better than Joan Baez? This is the younger Baez, singing in that ice-clear soprano, very different from McQuaid's warm, full alto:

The Kingston Trio gives the song a respectful and almost traditional reading - they change the speaker from the girl to the wagoner's lad, much as they did in Ian Tyson's "Someday Soon", and add a chorus from a verse ("Pullin away...") but otherwise keep within the original thought of the song - one of the last times they did so with a folk number. This is the Something Special album version with the orchestra blessedly removed:

Our UK cousins Bert Jansch (of "Anji" fame) and John Renbourn deliver a wonderful, blues-tinged instrumental:

We sometimes forget that singer-songwriter John Denver began his career doing pop-folk versions of traditional songs, both with the Mitchell Trio and here in 1966 solo - the first song on the video with a fine 12 string guitar part:

Finally, Simple Gifts features the alternative version "My Horses Ain't Hungry" reminiscent of PP&M but featuring a guitar played in open D and a hammered dulcimer - really pretty:

Addendum, April 2012

Buell Kaze is back on YouTube, at least for a while:

Friday, November 6, 2009

Fred Geis' "I'm Goin' Home"

Something a little different this week. Over the last 61 song profiles, I've generally posted professional or near-professional musicians doing interesting and different variations on songs that many of us first heard from the Kingston Trio. Some performers seem to keep cropping up - Johnny Cash, the Carter Family, the Chad Mitchell Trio, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem here and there, and so on. Only rarely have I posted the uploads of enthusiastic amateurs unless they were really really good, most often because I had just too many good professional performances from which to choose.

However - the later chronologically you go into the KT's recorded work, the less likely you are to find songs that have alternate versions, especially during their years with Decca Records. One big reason for this is that the Trio had been moving steadily away from the songs that had originally been called folk, those traditional tunes arranged or adapted by members of the group and thus not surprisingly recorded in different versions by other artists. And while some of those Decca era songs became popular in other recordings, by the time you get to Something Else and Children of the Morning, the only songs on those albums with alternative versions had already been done - more famously - by other performers. Yet there are a number of really quality tunes on those Decca albums, some of which truly deserved a better fate than the near-anonymity of those light-selling LPs (well, light-selling by Trio standards).

One of the best examples of such a song is the Fred Geis composition (or semi-composition) "I'm Goin' Home," which many fans still call "California" and which makes the short list of nearly every Trio fan's favorite all-time KT songs. It certainly has always been one of mine, and if it never quite equaled my enthusiasm for "Bay of Mexico" or "The Sinking of the Reuben James," it's still IMHO one of their best ever uptempo numbers.

The song and writer have a typically (for KT material) complicated history. Geis was (unbeknownst to me) a fixture on the Chicago folk circuit in the very early 1960s, (when I was too little to go to folk clubs) a friend and comrade of Fred Holstein, who with Steve Goodman and the great Bob Gibson constituted our local folk royalty. Geis was a California Central Valley kid who, as Nick Reynolds and John Stewart often recounted, had been a real hobo. Reynolds said he met Geis when the latter was living in a purple Cadillac, and Stewart recalled that whenever you got together with Geis, in best hobo tradition, he'd cadge something from you - a drink, a cigarette, a ride, a dollar, anything just so he wouldn't leave you with his hands empty.

But it was apparently in Chicago that Geis wrote "I'm Goin' Home" around 1960, and the aforementioned Fred Holstein was the first to record it - and what I wouldn't give to hear that version. When the big break came for Geis when the KT recorded the song in 1964, he wasn't quite ready for it. Even a light-selling Trio album, as the Decca release Nick, Bob, and John was, sold well over 100,000 copies, and the compensation structure was such that the copyright holder for a recorded song made more of a royalty on the sales and radio airplay than the performer did. At 9 cents a sale per song on an album (can't swear to that but it's a figure I recall), Geis would have made between $9,000 and $15,000 for that one song - upconverted from 1964 dollars, that would be between about $60,000 to $90,000 in 2009.

Enough, in other words, to attract the attention of the real composer of the melody, Broadway's Jerry Herman, later famous for Hello, Dolly! and Mame among many others. Herman's first successful Broadway show was called Milk and Honey - and the title song was melodically virtually identical to IGH. Herman sued Geis and won a suit for "unconscious plagiarism" (like George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" derived from "He's So Fine"), and Geis had to split the profits with Herman. It didn't seem to faze Geis, though, who lived until January of this year - obit is linked below.

What makes the Kingston Trio recording of "I'm Goin' Home" so special is that it is one of their last recorded songs that adheres to their original high-energy, banjo-based formula. No matter that it isn't a purist's idea of a folk song - it's just a rippin' good number performed with a gusto that reminded me of earlier albums - here from the group's first album on Decca Records in 1964:

You'd think someone could do something digital to enhance the video here...we can always hope.

A later KT version, from 1981 features percussion - this is the Shane-Gambill-Grove Trio, second half of the video:

Here is the 2009 KT doing an outstandingly authentic rendition:

Now for our non-professional but generally quality cover versions, domestic and foreign. First - two by my YouTube friend JordanTheCat from Canada, the first described as in John Prine style - most appropriate since Prine was also a fixture on the Chicago folk scene at the same time as Geis:

Next, Jordan with two friends at a benefit show - full band:

Now - four really interesting versions from Japan, two very recent, where matching striped shirts, Martin guitars, folk clubs, the KT and the Brothers Four have never gone completely out of style - they are really worth a listen:

First, the Antilles Trio (Kio's group?) joined by John Stewart in 2001:

Next, and this is a treat, Sunday's Folk performing the number - in Japanese:

Finally, two really superior renditions and recordings, the first from the Bayside Club Band from March of this year:

And what may be the best for last, Mash Liquor from October 10, 2009 - these guys really know what they're doing:

The fact that it is all of us non-pros who are keeping the song alive and out there (with the current KT, of course) 45 years after the KT recording and nearly 50 after Holstein's suggests to me that "I'm Goin' Home" is well on its way to becoming - a real folk song.

February, 2012

Recently discovered, a pre-KT version by the New Wine Singers, from Chicago in 1963. The intro misidentifies the composer as "Geist" instead of the correct "Geis" - but the female voice here is Elaine "Spanky" McFarlane in her pre-Spanky and Our Gang days, the group that had a number of folk-rock hits in the late '60s:


A thread about Geis from 10 years ago from the best overall folk site on the web, - fraught with recognizable errors about the KT version but still interesting:

Mudcat On Geis

And the Mudcat thread related to Geis' death:

Geis Obit

And - March 2016
It turns out that since 2013, Fred Holstein's grand version of "I'm Goin'" Home" has been up on YouTube. As Joe Offer points out below, it's a great rendition, and for my money the best of all of these on this page: