Thursday, January 28, 2010

Tom Paxton Redux: "My Ramblin' Boy"

Part I, of course, being last March's piece on "The Last Thing On My Mind" ...I can't believe that was 10 months ago...

Last July, National Public Radio (NPR) heralded and discussed a survey list developed by radio station WKSU's Folk Alley website and program. WKSU broadcasts out of Kent State University in Ohio, and with Jim McGuinn's Folk Den, the extensive site, Leslie Nelson-Burns' The, and a handful of others, is one of the best-organized and most militant promoters of folk music on the web. The list was a listener's poll of the "100 Most Essential Folk Songs," so-called. The Folk Alley people didn't offer any strictures or requirements on selection, so the final list is an eyebrow-raiser for those of us of a certain age for whom the term "folk music" meant something quite different from what it seems to for Folk Alley's often younger-skewing audience. Here's the list:

Folk Alley's List

This list popped up for brief discussion last July on this and other websites. My own reactions included (but are not limited to) -

a. almost anybody who ever played an acoustic guitar seemed to have qualified;

b. the list is notable for its near-complete omission of real traditional songs (fewer than 15% of the total)

c. the Kingston Trio blows every other performing artist out of the water for output on this list. Though the Trio appears but three times - "Where Have All The Flowers Gone" at #5 as performers, "Tom Dooley" at #12, and "Chilly Winds" at #96 - they are the only artists to have recorded at one point or other in their long career 22 of the 100 songs, truly amazing and another little-known and unappreciated fact about the group, the extent of whose influence on pop and folk music has yet to be recounted (I'm a-workin' on that one).

d. Equally ironically, the absolute "folkiest" of all the writers in the genre from the 50s and 60s, Tom Paxton, only makes the list for two songs, "Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound" at #62 - and at #32, "My Ramblin' Boy."

I call Paxton "folkiest" because only Woody Guthrie combines the simple directness of melody and disarming and apparent simplicity of the lyrics that Paxton does. I like Bob Dylan just fine, but half of his early stuff was simply taking real folk melodies ("Lord Randall" for "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," for example, or "The Parting Glass" for "Restless Farewell") and re-writing the words. The very qualities that are admirable about his later work - the imagistic and poetic lyrics and the rock musical settings - remove him completely IMHO from folkiedom.

But whether Paxton is writing political satire or angry lefty songs or cowboy ballads or quiet love songs - his compositions always sound like they are traditional. Or that they could be. Or that they will be.

And one of his absolute bests, straight out of the Woody Guthrie tradition, is "My Ramblin' Boy." The lyric combines Guthrie's affirmations of friendship and cooperative effort with a quiet lyricism that only the best of Woody's songs ever attained. Here is Paxton performing his composition with Pete Seeger on Seeger's "Rainbow Quest" program:

Note that even a mere three or four years after the composition of"Ramblin' Boy" the entire audience seems to know it well enough to sing along.

Even earlier, all of the musicians who had played as members of the first and best pop folk groups, The Weavers, united for a reunion concert and performed and quiet and moving rendition of the song:

Whoever else ever played in the group, The Weavers always bore the indelible mark of the influence of Pete Seeger, whose lead vocal here is sublime - as usual.

Adroit song-finders that they were, the Kingston Trio recorded the song a year before this show, for their first album on Decca Records after seven years with Capitol. The group was easing toward an almost country-ish sound on some numbers by this time, and that drift is apparent here in the heavy bass rhythm:

Paxton above might have added Ireland to the list of countries where the song attained popularity, the most famous version over there being this bright, uptempo version by Irish country music legend TR Dallas (TR Dallas and His Band):

Leave it to the Scots to put a little more hair on the song's chest and an almost bluesy edge of melancholy to its sound - here John Barr, whose stage name was "Little" John Cameron from High Blantyre, Scotland and Torbay, Newfoundland, Canada (1943-2002):

Finally - I like to offer when possible some video versions of these songs that have some special meaning for me, and this one is of that number. It's Tom Ivey, folk musician, composer, union organizer, luthier par excellence, festival creator, and a good friend - as you can see, this is a video from Trio Fantasy Camp, 2004, with Tom joined actively by John Stewart and Nick Reynolds of the KT.

2004 was the watershed year for the Fantasy Camp, as most of the longterm attendees acknowledge. Earlier camps were informal and somewhat lightly attended. But the FC5 in '04 featured the first stage performance at the camp by Bob Shane; the arrival to great fanfare of Nikki Sherwin; a front page article in the Arizona Republic newspaper highlighting both Miss Sherwin and the camp; more than 400 people trying to get into the evening shows; and the last camp at which campers like Tom and me got to perform with just Nick and John - their age and accompanying troubles necessitated the addition the next year of wonderful stage musicians Tom Lamb and Jeff McDonald to fortify the accompaniment. That was a great addition - but I lived my fantasy, as Tom Ivey does here, twice - just Nick, John, Steven Donaghy on bass, and the camper. Tom's robust tenor is complimented by John Stewart's guitar lead lines and Nick Reynolds' harmonies:

Talk about melancholy. Tom's friend David Plummer died within six months of this taping, and Nick and John are also now gone. That last verse acquires a genuine depth of sadness at the passage of time and the changes that come to all things. So here's to you, all you ramblin' boys now gone....

Addendum - August 2010

Recently uploaded to YouTube is the Cumberland Trio's rendition of this Paxton classic. The group got together at the University of Tennessee in the early '60s and attained a good deal of regional success. They broke through to the national scene with a 1964 appearance on the ABC network's famed folk show Hootenanny and were poised for a leap to the next level of show business when the bottom dropped out of the popular folk market that same year with the advent of the Beatles. The Cumberland Trio soldiered on for a while and had a second, smaller successful run in Greenwich Village until they disbanded. In the early 2000s, the original group re-assembled for a memorable pair of reunion concerts, from one of which this video was taken - and there's plenty more to see of this excellent group on YouTube, including some stunningly clear hi-def videos. My thanks to Trio member Jerre Haskew for pointing me in the right direction to find this outstanding performance. You have to love the country tint that the dobro guitar brings to the C-Trio's version.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Trip Down To "Columbus Stockade"

One of the most widely covered and often-performed of the early country/old-time (and eventually bluegrass) tunes, "Columbus Stockade Blues" is, like most good folk songs, of uncertain origin. The earliest recorded version (below) was copyrighted by Tom Darby and Jimmie Tarlton in 1927, but they were almost certainly using an older and likely well-known tune as the basis for their song, because by the 1930s and through every decade since, a multitude of singers and groups have re-arranged and recorded this prison song. Like its Texas counterpart "The Midnight Special", "Columbus Stockade" (the real stockade today in the picture) works as everything from a Delta blues number to an Appalachian two-part harmony in thirds to a banjo-based bluegrass burner.

It's always nice to save time and space for the music, so I was delighted to find this YouTube video that gives the background of the building and the song better than I could hope to:

The few lines of the song heard at the end of that video are Darby and Tarlton, whose first recording of the song sold over 200,000 copies in 1927 and 1928, a truly amazing number for the day. Of interest here is that the original version is fairly slow and bluesy, and Tom Darby is using a technique on guitar called from his time until I learned it in the 1960s "bottlenecking" - called so because the originators of the style, African-American Mississippi Delta blues players, created that sliding, whining sound by using the broken-off neck of a whiskey bottle* across steel guitar strings in an open tuning. Native Hawaiian guitarists were doing somewhat the same kind of thing and were all the rage in 1927. Darby is the first white musician I've heard playing in this style, which becomes the ancestor of the dobro and pedal steel guitar guitars heard in country music today.

If for nothing else other than historical interest - from all places, The Lawrence Welk Show in 1956, before there was an actual pop-folk revival. This version is from Welk regulars Buddy Merrill and Buddy Hayes with guest star Mary Stadler:

The Kingston Trio recorded the song as "Columbus Stockade" for their 1964 Back In Town live album, their last release of more than 20 LPs for Capitol Records. Trio founder Bob Shane's 1981 edition of the KT included the late Roger Gambill on guitar and a talented and versatile banjoist, George Grove. Shane was within limits trying to reproduce the original sound and arrangements of familiar Kingston numbers, though here the addition of Oscar Cisneros on percussion seems to belie that - and though George Grove is following the basic banjo line of John Stewart, he provides some of his own original embellishments:

And now, as of June 2013 and thanks to Capitol/EMI as detailed to the left - we can hear Stewart and the original KT recording from 1964:

One great artist deserves another, and I've shown a predilection in these articles for posting Marty Robbins videos. Marty takes Trio manic and Darby/Tarlton original and blends it into that velvet-smooth pop country that he could do like no one else:

Now for a pop-country-blues version from the '50s by The Browns, who had a number of hits with folk and country tunes:

More truly remarkable versions from Japan. The first is from Yoshio Ohno and dated 1960 - Ohno is apparently catching the country/bluegrass/cowboy wave that started in Japan in the 50s. Ohno's phonetic vocals are very good, and he's an excellent yodeler:

More recently, our friends from the group Back In Town in 2008 doing a letter-perfect replication of the '64 Kingston version:

Finally and just because I like the group and hope to see them out in Western Colorado some day - a group I featured on the "The Colorado Trail" post, the Bar D Wranglers with guest Cheryl Pickering:

Country Hall of Famer and Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis had a pleasant take on the song as well - :

So many songs left to do, so little time.....

* My source was a beloved and long-lost book, Jerry Silverman's The Folksinger's Guitar Guide. It taught me, among other things, the rudiments of reading tablature, fingerpicking, bass runs - and bottlenecking.
Addendum, August 2013 

And I'm delighted to have found this 1963 version by Roy Rogers' old group, The Sons of the Pioneers:

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Remembering John Stewart - "July, You're A Woman"

As we approach the second anniversary of the passing of John Stewart (1939-2008), it's a bittersweet pleasure to reflect back on all that his artistry has contributed to the musical lives of folk music devotees of many stripes. Stewart was one of the originators of the singer-songwriter movement (a "folk patriarch," said the Los Angeles Times obituary), a country folkie before Poco or the Eagles, an occasional rocker, and a poet with his lyrics first and last. He breathed new life into the Kingston Trio when it was on the verge of commercial extinction with the departure of Dave Guard, helped to alter its direction, and in his own modest words "kept a good thing going." His songwriting for the Trio supplied it with its own original material and helped to launch him into his own distinguished if under-appreciated forty year solo career.

At the Malibu memorial in May of 2008, it occurred to me that because of "Molly Dee" to start with, Stewart had been a presence in my own life for just under fifty years.

Folk fans in general seemed to turn Stewart on and off, giving sales boosts and attention to some of his albums (usually after a song on one of them had become a hit for someone else) but not to others. Among Kingston Trio fans, while there are many, many who followed all or part of Stewart's solo work, there is also a significant segment that either didn't pay attention to what JS did after 1967 or (and this was one of Stewart's peeves) didn't like it because he didn't sound like he did in the KT. Shades of Rick Nelson's song "Garden Party."

While as far as I know John Stewart always treasured his time with the KT, he was on stage at least through his long performing career at times ambivalent about it. In the early years of the 70s especially, I'd see him at venues around LA where a noticeable segment of the audience who had shown up to see a former Kingston stalwart seemed perplexed or annoyed at the electric and countrified sound he was producing at the time. JS would return the favor, at times with asperity, if someone asked him to do "The Reverend Mr. Black" or "New Frontier." "I don't do Kingston Trio songs," I heard him reply, curtly, on several occasions. An equal number of times he would laugh the suggestion off with one of his trademark quips, smiling all the while.

But he wouldn't do the song.

In the mid-80s when he reunited with Nick Reynolds for The Revenge of the Budgie album (which included only one former Trio song), there seemed to me to be the beginning of a shift that included a full solo album of songs he'd written for the Trio (The Trio Years), a brand new folk group in the 90s (Darwin's Army), the re-emergence of his banjo playing (including on the Pete Seeger tribute album) - and the frequent inclusion in his performing repertoire of re-imagined versions of songs he'd done with the KT like "Chilly Winds" and "Run The Ridges," to name two of many.

And the eight fantasy camps he ran from 2000 to 2007 seemed to unify it all, as Stewart would perform his own current songs while at the same time celebrating the life and times of the Kingston Trio.

So it's fitting, I think, that our song for this week should be one of Stewart's best and most popular numbers from the landmark California Bloodlines album - one that within a year of its release Bob Shane's New Kingston Trio had recorded - "July, You're A Woman." Stewart performed the song a number of different ways through all those decades - but never better than on the Bloodlines recording here (and since in 2013 Capitol Records relaxed its block on some YouTube postings, in this delightful video version I first posted in 2010 by "WildWestRosie," entirely in keeping with the spirit of the song):

I have to confess getting a bit of a chill and a tear when I listen to this - it was the first solo JS number I heard, in August of 1969. It grabbed me right away and hasn't let me go since.

It must have grabbed Bob Shane, too - the New Kingston Trio performed the song, here in a track I cribbed from Rick Daly's FolkUSA, a concert bootleg from about 1970. Even through the fuzzy audio, the power of Shane's vocal shines through. It's got a fine banjo part by Jim Connor and good harmony as well:

Another bootleg of the NKT, this one much clearer, from 1971 and posted to YouTube in 2012 by my friend Max Schwartz:

And now, for the peculiar, the odd, and the seldom heard - the Pat Boone version. Uber-Christian Boone felt the need to sanitize the PG lyrics, to a slightly strange effect:

(Well, the CopyVio folks got Pat, at least for the moment. If he comes back, we'll re-post.)

December 2011 - Pat's back! - at least temporarily:

June 2013 - Pat's Gone Again!

April 2015 - Pat's Back Again! For How Long???

To be fair to Boone, though, it has to be said that he had always been a Kingston Trio fan, had featured the group on his show when he was at the height of his popularity, and had appeared with them at a landmark concert at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in April of 1961, shortly before original KT member Dave Guard left - replaced by John Stewart.

Probably the best-known version of the song after Stewart's own is that of alternate-country rock band Mickey and the Motor Cars. I find a weird charm in this - go figure:

Not surprisingly, the easy pace of the song converts easily to bluegrass, and two of the best versions out there are from bluegrass/country groups. First - I just came across this fine version from the great Australian cowboy singer Reg Lindsay, who had an enormous effect on popularizing American folk and country songs Down Under:

I really like this version from a concert by Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen:

And finally, a very young country-superstar-to-be Vince Gill sings the lead in this mid-70s version by Mountain Smoke, the group that gave Gill his start in the music business:

There is so much more to be said about the legacy of John Stewart - I'll be posting some more links and videos over the next few days. For tonight, I'd like to give the last words of this piece to an anonymous YouTuber who on the day Stewart died posted a comment under a video of John Stewart's song "New Frontier" -

"Faith, pride and optimism. John you will always come back to us when we need you."

Amen to that.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

"Riu Riu Chiu/Guardo Del Lobo"

Two of the facets of earlier folk music albums that I loved were the number and variety of foreign language songs, most of which were at least rooted in the traditional music of their respective countries. The leader of the pack in this regard was the Weavers, who included songs from around the world in both their recording and performing repertoires from the start to the finish of their career. Bud and Travis and the early Kingston Trio are probably in second place, with the Trio emphasizing Spanish, Mexican, and Polynesian songs but also including French, African songs from different languages, and those two odd German language numbers that never made it on to an American album until the CD re-issue era. One of the things that I missed in the later KT records as they moved from what had been at least traditionally termed "folk" to singer/songwriter and pop music was their abandonment (largely) of sea chanteys and "world" folk songs, both of which had been strong components on their early albums.

There was a risk inherent in singing songs in a non-native language, not the least of which was the necessity for at least one group member or another to learn the lyrics phonetically, even given the possibility of the other singers actually knowing the language or at least the meaning of the song. Both Bud Dashiell and Travis Edmundson were fluent in Spanish, and that fluency lent an air of authenticity to the largely Mexican songs that they recorded. Bob Shane and Dave Guard both grew up in Hawaii and attended Punahou School, where classes in Hawaiian culture were mandatory; they sang a number of Tahitian songs by ear but seemed to have known the Hawaiian songs from the inside out.

I always suspected that at least Guard and Shane knew some Spanish, and given Nick Reynolds' Coronado, CA roots (near the U.S.-Mexico border), I'd be surprised if he did not as well. Their pronunciation of the language is usually good, if not quite native quality (listen to Shane's pronunciation of "Jesus" in today's recording - it ought to be "hay-ZOOS" and not "JAY-zoos"), and their feel for the music is also good (I have in the past pointed to the distinctively Mexican flavor to the guitar work on "Deportee" and could do so on other songs like "En El Agua" and even "Coplas" as well).

But even with that, the group is taking quite a risk in recording "Guardo Del Lobo"(the correct title, according to a commenter from Spain on YouTube) because of the song's age and because it is the only number I can think of at the moment that they ever recorded a capella. The actual title of the song is from the first line, "Riu Riu Chiu," said to be Spanish nonsense syllables that attempt to replicate onomatopoeiacally the sound of a nightingale. The liner notes on Goin' Places (the KT album on which it appeared) correctly indicate that it goes back to at least the fifteenth century and is a "villancico," or religious festival song, most but not all of which are associated with Christmas. It is attributed to Catalan composer Mateo Flecha, who died eleven years before Shakespeare was born.

I always thought that the KT recording was haunting and different, and its utilization of the reverb in Capitol Studio B adds to the effect. The meaning of the lyrics, usually updated into modern Spanish, appear here with our first version from the dwsChorale [sic] - which is David W. Solomons multi-tracking himself - amazing use of technology:

The Kingston Trio's version adheres to the traditional accompaniment format of the villancico - a capella except for percussion:

That's a lot of sound coming out of three guys and a bassist playing tambourine. It's also three-part harmony throughout, with Bob Shane on a low harmony.

My favorite live performance video of the song is here, from Flauto Dolce("Sweet Flute"), a chorale group from Serbia:

The costumes may not be quite exactly right for the time, but the feminine voices and mixed chorus I find fetching.

And now two remarkably good versions from teeny-bopper pop idols from whom you'd least expect it. First - the Monkees (!):

I see a distinct KT influence here - the harmonic arrangement is almost identical.

Next, American Idol runner-up and teen heartthrob David Archuleta - not half bad for an AI contestant:

Nice to end with a bang, though - so here's the version from Kalenda Maya, a mixed voice ancient music group from Norway:

Addendum 1/09/10

I see from the comments that the "Fans Of David" site picked up this blog post, and thanks for that and stopping by. I should probably clarify that -

a) most of us over on Kingston Crossroads (the message board where I first post these blog entries) are not generally fans of American Idol and its styles of music and singing, but

b)most everyone there, including me, were very impressed with DA's treatment of this song and his vocals in general. You all are right - he's an excellent singer.

All he needs to do now is get past the AI stage and grow into his voice. He could be another Sinatra - and that's saying a lot.