Friday, February 26, 2010

Woody Guthrie: "Hard, Ain't It Hard"

Some really unfortunate things tend to happen when a real, three-dimensional person is transformed into an icon, the worst of which is that what makes that person unique and/or interesting and/or admirable (or despicable) is lost in a haze of sloppy, sentimental admiration. We Americans, long regarded as the wide-eyed innocents of the developed world, are especially guilty of transforming our very real heroes into very unreal semi-divinities. We can't tolerate the dark shades of gray that color the realities of every one of us. We implicitly insist that our heroes be flawless, and in so doing we lose sight of who they really were. Worse, if our plaster illusions are shattered, we often turn on those very heroes and demonize them, or at least reduce them in our esteem and tag them with a perpetual sense of our disappointment that they failed to be as perfect as we wanted them at be and as we ourselves are not.

Abraham Lincoln, for example, was by most measures the greatest of our presidents - but he was afflicted by the worst depressions of any of our leaders, and those depressions drove him at times to vindictive rage against those he thought let him down. He blundered at times both politically and militarily. He married for political clout and not love and suffered through a painfully stiff and unfulfilling marriage. But no one wants to hear about those things. We want Lincoln the Icon - wise, gentle, homey, humorous, and strong. He was all of these, truly - but what is impressive about him is that was able to demonstrate those iconic qualities in the face of massive personal failings that conspired to prevent him from doing so. Lincoln is a hero in spite of who he was, not because of it, and that is what makes him admirable. One of Ernest Hemingway's many definitions of courage (not as lyrical as "Grace under pressure") was that it was the quality not of the man who felt no fear but rather of the man who was terrified but overcame the terror to do what was good and right.

In our world of folk music, Woody Guthrie is rightly the ultimate iconic figure. He probably did more to popularize regional folk music and embed it it our developing national popular culture than any other single individual. The Lomaxes and others found the songs, but Guthrie sang them - and then wrote his own. He was a radio star at times and in certain regions and a solidly selling recording artist just as much as he was a political figure. Guthrie had an eye to the commercial possibilities of the music he performed, and if he never allowed financial concerns to dictate what he sang and where he sang it, he never ignored them either. His influence on those who made folk music a truly successful part of the American music industry - especially Pete Seeger, the Kingston Trio, and Bob Dylan - is nearly immeasurable.

Guthrie's charismatic personality overshadowed his darker side, the side we don't want to remember: unfaithful husband, neglectful father, erratic and undependable friend, anti-authority rebel, radical fellow-traveller (as they used to say). I recall a remark made about actor Errol Flynn - that he could charm the socks off of anyone but inflicted devastating injury on anyone foolish enough to love him, and that seems to have been at least partially true of Guthrie as well. We want him to have been the Man of the People, the unsullied hero with a guitar on which was inscribed "This Machine Kills Fascists," the simple, the country-bred prophet of a new age of justice and equality. We don't want the sly, canny self-promoter and personal legend-builder that he also was.

I've profiled five of Guthrie's songs on this site: "This Land Is Your Land", "The Sinking Of The Reuben James", "Pastures Of Plenty", "Deportee", and "Hard Travelin'." The first four of these have clear political overtones, and the fifth implicitly so in its celebration of the Working Man and its illustration of Guthrie's credo that "I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work."

But Guthrie could also be whimsical and funny and pointed and just plain fun, and no song illustrates that better than "Hard, Ain't It Hard." No politics here, no noble working man, no progressive causes. This song has more in common with a fundamentalist revival camp meeting than it does with socialism - being as it is about the evils of hard drink and misdirected desire and all. But it ain't no camp meeting song, because Woody has his tongue planted firmly in his cheek and is singing it just for the fun of it:

Say what you will about the Kingston Trio - but they knew a good song when they heard one, as the really impressive number of songs that they recorded first or gave first national exposure to later found their way into other folk artists' (or pop artists') repertoires. Here they deliver Guthrie's composition with their trademark uptempo energy and high spirits:

For hardcore Trio fans - this is almost certainly the first KT song on which Bob Shane is using a pick to play the guitar. Virtually every other song on the first album, Capitol T996 The Kingston Trio has Shane strumming those steel strings bare-handed.

Oddly, just as I had been surprised that "Darlin" Corey" had over 120 different versions on YouTube, the two videos above are the only professionally recorded and performed versions of the song on the site. But there are some fun amateur and semi-pro recordings - first, bluegrass style from The Custom Grass Revue:

Next, the Cast Iron Maidens from Seattle in May of 2010. This is an interesting version, beyond the use of a musical saw and an aluminum upright bass - because Annie and Katie "re-gender" the lyric to relate Guthrie's lyric about a ne'er-do-well from a woman's point of view:

Finally, Guthrie recorded the tune again with The Almanac Singers, his pre-WWII rabble-rousing labor union rally music group. This recording is notable because the group at the time included both Pete Seeger and Lee Hays eight years before they started The Weavers - ans because the digital re-mastering of the voices produces remarkable clarity.

Next week - something rather more controversial, I think....

Addendum, 4/21/12

An upload of the grandpappy of all folk groups - The Weavers:

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ed McCurdy And "Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream"

Before the Weavers, before Belafonte, or the Kingston Trio, or Bob Gibson, or the Clancys, or any of the pre-1960 icons of pop folk music, there was Ed McCurdy. And before "Blowin' In The Wind" and "The Times They Are A-Changin'" and "Wasn't That A Time" - there was the gentler, more whimsical, and quite possibly longer-enduring "Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream," a song that has survived even when McCurdy's name and fame have not.

I knew of Ed McCurdy before I knew of the KT because we had some of his records in our house - 45 rpms - and they were stacked appropriately with those of his contemporary and friend whose career paralleled his, Burl Ives. Like Ives and the unfortunately less famous Cisco Houston, McCurdy had a voice that many of the same purists who later blasted the Kingston Trio and other pop folk groups regarded as "too good" for folk music. Houston, Ives, and McCurdy were all big, barrel-chested men with deep baritones and natural vibratos that just leapt out at you off of those monaural 45s they recorded.

I had read and always thought that McCurdy was a Canadian - he was identified as such on the liner notes of Vanguard's Newport Folk Festival 1960 releases. But he was a native Pennsylvanian with an Ives-like career that varied from folk music to acting to early TV to commercials to show music. He did in fact spend much of the latter part of his life in Toronto and Vancouver, where he had popular CBC radio shows, and his songs were covered by scores of folk artists who never quite knew who he was.

McCurdy's most famous album was titled When Dalliance Was In Flower (And Maidens Lost Their Heads), a collection of ribald and bawdy folk numbers. At Newport, he was recorded in two hilarious performances of "Blood On The Saddle", a mockery of Hollywood-style Western bad man songs, and "The Lavender Cowboy," a politically incorrect joke about an effeminate cowboy.

Clearly, McCurdy's most lasting contribution is "Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream," and it endures because it manages to be a forceful message song without being abrasive or confrontational and because it neither espouses nor condemns any political view, left or right. It is simply a slightly ironic ("strangest" dream) plea for peace. Written around 1950 in the shadow of the most cataclysmic conflict the world had ever known, the song was quickly adopted by "one-world" progressives and socialists (of which McCurdy was not really a card-carrying adherent), and the first version I heard was from the Weavers, followed by the Chad Mitchell Trio as the closing song on their At The Bitter End live album. But like Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," and the American flag, "Dream" exists on a plane above politics. You sing it if you think that a world without war would be a nice place to live. The Kingston Trio did, and no group was in its very conception more apolitical than they were.

So we start today's all-star line-up with the first version I heard, the Weavers from their Carnegie Hall concert in 1960:

The lead voice here is the vastly under-appreciated Fred Hellerman, the nice guy of the group whose even temper and tasteful guitar work tamed the more volatile Pete Seeger and Lee Hays.

The Chad Mitchell Trio recorded the song in 1961, performed it at their mid-1980s reunion concert with John Denver - and did it again to close their show when I saw them 2 months ago. They sound exactly as they always have - smoothly trained and professional singers with great arrangements:

Paul Prestopino plays banjo and our FC friend Bob Hefferan is on guitar.

One good Denver deserves another - so here is JD live from a 1971 peace rally:

The Kingston Trio gives the song a straight up, respectful reading - but one that rises to their trademark energetic crescendo:

You really appreciate both what a well-played banjo can do for a song - and just how valuable that tenor of Nick Reynolds was.

And now for the remaining star-studded cast.

Simon and Garfunkel

Pete Seeger

Johnny Cash

Our Good Friend Steve Cottrell, Whose Version Stands Up With These Others

What a statement it is that so simple a song of peace should attract so distinguished a group of artists to perform it.

Finally, July 2018 - Ed McCurdy Himself 
At about the same time I was explaining in 2015 to jackaro in the comments below why McCurdy himself was not included in this piece, Smithsonian Folkways posted its own copyrighted version to YouTube. As an officially sanctioned posting, it can't be taken down for copyvio. While I was reviewing this essay and several others of the 230 on this site to be sure that the videos were still available and playing, it occurred to me to look for Ed McCurdy's version, and here it is. I believe that this is a version rather later than the 1950 original.

Friday, February 12, 2010

"South Coast"

One of the more interesting developments of the folk revival - in its broadest sense, encompassing the early days of recording and the union/political songs of the 1940s and the Library of Congress collectors and more, all pre-dating the 1958 beginning of the commercial folk boom - was the rise of what Time critic Richard Corliss called "the faux folk song" and what less kindly translators referred to as "fake folk." The terms referred to songs that were not traditional or that didn't have the fine folk pedigree of a composed song that had weathered a few generations, like the Civil War songs of George F. Root or nearly anything by Stephen Foster (it would take a hard heart indeed to suggest that "Oh Susanna!" was anything other than a folk song).

Some of those "faux folk" numbers pretended to be nothing more than they were - modern songs composed in a "folk style," with a simple chord accompaniment, usually with an acoustic guitar, basic and repetitive lyrics and chorus, and a ballad-like story. I always thought that Tom Paxton was the master of these - songs like "Dubarry Done Gone Again" and "Willie Seton" (both Chad Mitchell Trio numbers) or "Come Along Home Now" or many more. Paxton's compositions just sounded authentic, though he never tried to pass them off as such. At other times, the writers or performers tried to create a folk pedigree for these modern numbers where none existed, usually by implying that they were really old when they were really not (the New Christy Minstrels occasionally did this in concert - I recall them trying to pass off some riverboat song or other as 19th century when the only 19 in its history was 1960).

None of this matters at all today, of course, since nothing called "folk" by the record companies makes any pretense to being anything like "traditional" or any similar description that the Library of Congress used to use. Even the nominees in this year's Grammies for "Best Traditional Folk Album" feature recordings that include by my count less than 20% of material that would have been called "folk" fifty years ago.

Which brings us to this week's selection, "South Coast," a poem written by Lilian Bos Ross with music by Sam Eskin (1898-1974). Bos Ross wrote the poem while on a camping trip to Big Sur in 1926, but the original melody was derived from "Irene, Goodnight" until Eskin (with Richard Dehr of Terry Gilkyson and The Easy Riders, who recorded the song first) dusted off his friend's composition and gave it its current dramatic minor key melody. Eskin seems to have been a great unsung collector of folk songs, a modest man who spent much of his life around Woodstock, New York, and who at his death was praised fulsomely by the luminaries of the folk world, many of whom were named Seeger and Lomax. Katie Lee, folksinger, rabble rouser, boon companion of Cisco Houston and collaborator with Travis Edmundson (and someone with whom I had some delightful conversations at Trio Fantasy Camp 4 in 2003), had high praise for Eskin, and especially for his melody for "South Coast":

It is far and away one of the greatest 'folk' melodies ever to come along. If Sam never did another thing in his life (which he did, and plenty!) he gave us a true marriage of lyric and melody in that poem. He should have had much more reward for it than I'm sure he got, except the satisfaction of knowing. He truly felt the essence of Big Sur.

The longer version of the composition of the song appears in Jerry Kergan's Kingston Trio Liner Notes - the archives are still up here:

Jerry Kergan's Liner Notes

Go to "Songs," click on S, and click on "South Coast" for a more detailed discussion and for great links to Eskin.

"South Coast" never claimed to be, as Bob Shane asserts on the Hungry i recording below, a 200 year old song. But Bob isn't exactly trying to pass a counterfeit bill here - because even a casual fan of Spanish gypsy music, the flamenco that so influenced the folk music of Mexico, will recognize immediately the familiar chord structures, key changes, and syncopated rhythms of real Spanish music. The melody does indeed sound very much like a number of 17th century Spanish folk songs, so Shane was exaggerating only slightly in his intro. The vocal lead here is by Trio tenor guitarist/percussionist Nick Reynolds, and it is one of his absolute best performances with the group:

Good recovery here from an ill-timed drunk's laugh. The complete poem, which I'll post in a follow up, fills in parts of the story elided by the Trio's edited version.

Nancy Ames had a dramatically different take on the song in 1963

A fragment of Doc Watson doing the song here:

Doc Watson

Jeremy Raven posted a few weeks back a fine version of Ramblin' Jack Elliott singing the song - a few days after I thought I'd discovered a hidden gem. Not hardly. It was Ramblin' Jack's first studio album in 20 years and won the Grammy for best Traditional Recording in 1996 - and actually does come closer to the older meaning of traditional. Here is Elliott a couple of years ago -

Sadly, there is no video of Travis Edmundson singing the number, because by all reports he did a bang-up job. But Joe Bethancourt chose the song to honor Travis in a memorial concert last May, and does the song in Travis' style:

Finally - Horse Sense, which was Justin Bishop singing and John Nielson on fiddle and harmony, from 1983. This is the complete lyric:

I have to agree with Katie Lee here - the song surely sounds authentic, however recent it in fact is.

The complete original poem by Lillian Bos Ross:

Ballad of the South Coast

My name is Lonjano de Castro
My father was a Spanish grandee;
But I won my wife in a card game
To hell with the lords o'er the sea.

In my youth I had a Monterey homestead,
Creeks, valley, and mountains all mine;
I built me a snug little shanty
And roofed it and floored it with pine.

I had a bronco, a buckskin­
Like a bird he flew over the trail,
When I rode him out forty miles every Friday
To get me some grub and the mail. 

But the south Coast is a wild coast and lonely­
You might win in a game at Jolon,
But the lion still rules the barranca
And a man there is always alone. 

I sat in a card game at Jolon;
I played with a man there named Juan.
And after I'd won all his money
He said, "Your homestead 'gainst my daughter, Dawn." 

I turned up the ace, I had won her!
My heart which was down at my feet
Jumped up to my throat in a hurry;
Like a young summer field she was sweet.

He opened the door to the kitchen;
He called the girl with a curse;
"Take her, God damn her, you won her!
She's yours now for better or worse." 

Her arms had to tighten around me
As we rode up the hills from the south.
But no word did I get from her that day
Nor a kiss from her pretty red mouth. 

We got to my cabin at twilight
The stars twinkled over the coast.
She soon loved the orchard, the valley
But I knew she loved me the most. 

That was a glad happy winter;
I carved on a cradle of pine.
By a fire in that snug little shanty
I sang with that gay wife of mine.

But then I got hurt in a landslide
Crushed hip and twice-broken bone;
She saddled up Buck just like lightning
And rode out through the night to Jolon. 

A lion screamed in the barranca;
Buck bolted and fell on a slide.
My young wife lay dead in the moonlight;
My heart died that night with my bride. 

They buried her out in the orchard.
They carried me out to Jolon.
I lost my Chiquita, my nino;
I'm an old broken man, all alone. 

The cabin still stands on the hillside,
Its doors open wide to the rain;
But the cradle and my heart are empty,
And I never can go there again. 

Oh, the south Coast is a wild coast and lonely.
You might win in a game at Jolon.
But the lion still rules the barranca
And a man there is always alone.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

"Get Along Home, Cindy!"

It's always fun for me to find genuinely, even radically, different interpretations of a folk song - all of which still retain clear relationships both to each other and to the long-lost original or root song. That's what we have this week with a genuine old folk chestnut, "Get Along Home, Cindy."

That it's a really old song has certification from no one less than Alan Lomax himself, who speculates in his 1947 Folk Songs Of North America that "Cindy" predates the year of 1840 that he asserts as the invention of the five string banjo in North Carolina by one Joe Sweeney. (This, incidentally, is the first time I've stumbled across that note and definitely the first time I've ever heard so definite a claim for the invention of the instrument, though Lomax offers no documentation in the book. If anyone knew for certain, though....) What Lomax doesn't make clear, however, is whether he believes that the song is African-American in origin (and the first established publication of the piece in 1902 is in AA dialect) that was borrowed by Scots-Irish fiddlers and banjo players or vice versa. No matter at this remove, I suppose, and it is doubtful it could ever be established anyway.

In any event, the song breaks out of the valleys and hollers and into public consciousness in the U.S. first not from the Carters or other Appalachian pickers but in fact from the Southwest - from the King of Western Swing, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys (pictured above) in the following 1936 recording. Wills plays a mean country fiddle behind Tommy Duncan's vocal, and his lead guitarist playing an electrified guitar is Leon McCauliffe:

Gotta love that cross between honky-tonk and cowdy (as Mick Coates calls it) with spot-on harmony on the chorus. These guys were the best.

And speaking of the 5 string banjo, Joe Sweeney above or no - the modern master of the folk styles of the instrument is of course Pete Seeger, here on an early 78 rpm recording from the late '40s or early 50s:

The precision and clarity of Seeger's rapid playing, here in what sounds like a modified frail, set the standard for all folk players who followed him.

For a Grand Ole Opry take on the song, we go to Grandpa Jones and a simple, straightforward, no frills version:

The "commercial folk" version here is one of those signature, high-energy, syncopated Guard, Shane and Reynolds songs, with audio here from Dinah Shore's TV show from April of 1959, just when the group is conducting an unprecedented assault on Billboard's album charts, with two albums in the Top Ten, one on the way there, and the summer release of Here We Go Again making it four in December of that year:

Dave Guard has been playing banjo for about two and a half years at this point. Discouraging to us mere mortals.

From later that same year - many will remember Rick Nelson, Dean Martin, and Walter Brennan doing a version of it from the Howard Hawks/John Wayne Rio Bravo:

Not at all bad, really. And whatever else, in the shadow of the Grammys with all that - stuff - they were doing - Rick(y) is really playing his own guitar here.

For the fun and strange - pop/jazz/comedy/what-have-you icon Jo Stafford does a version that straddles pop and jazz - earlier 50s:

But back to the roots with two fine closing versions - first, Duane Eddy's demi-rockabilly instrumental - I always loved his twangy guitar playing:

Anyone else hear the roots of Glen Campbell's later guitar work here?

Weeks like this one are really fun doing this blog. I just may keep it going forever.....

Addendum, 10/2/10

Just found this outstanding and authentic-sounding version from the UK's Rosinators:

Addendum - 12/10/10

A recent bluesy version from Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant - courtesy of folk researcher extraordinaire PC Fields: