Thursday, March 18, 2010

"All My Trials/All My Sorrows"

When I set out to do this week's post on "All My Sorrows," I figured that it would fit neatly into the category of which I've written before (most recently of "Coast of California") in which I presented a Kingston Trio popped-up 1950s sounding version of an older folk song that they probably IMHO could have done better had they stuck more closely to the original version. After all, even in the liner notes for the At Large album, commentator and great jazz critic Nat Hentoff writes that the Trio's adaptation is based on an earlier African American song, ("All My Trials"), Hentoff taking Dave Guard at his word that it was a spiritual and probably a lullaby before that. So - "All My Sorrows" would thus be just another crass commercialization of a purer song, right? An arrangement less satisfying than Irving Burgie's (Lord Burgess) unpretentious 4 chord 50s love song on the same album, "The Seine" - a forgettable and forgotten effort, right?

Well, not quite. It turned out that "All My Trials" is of extremely uncertain pedigree, and the chances seem very good that the "folk" song was in fact assembled from fragments of earlier spirituals to sound like a traditional song when it was set to a mysterious Bahamian lullaby that no one really seems ever to have heard or bothered to record. Joan Baez wrote in her Songbook that she thought it was a slave spiritual from our own South that migrated to the Bahamas and was forgotten here - but that sounds to me like Baez is trying to invent a pedigree for a song where none really exists, as I suggested that some pop folk singers did back in the folk boom days.

All of my reliable fact checking websites and sources - the Lomax books, other ballad collections,, Jim McGuinn's FolkDen, Leslie Nelson-Burns The Contemplator site - all are strangely uncertain about the origin of the song. The earliest commercial recording anyone can find seems to be Bob Gibson in 1956 - on an album of what he thought were "strange" folk songs. Now the "All My Trials" lyrics as sung by Baez and other below include (suspiciously, I'd say) many of the same tropes and lines that Bob used in songs that he actually did write or derive, like "Well, Well, Well" and "You Can Tell The World." I would not be in the least surprised to learn that it was Gibson who took a pleasant and likely musically simpler lullaby from the Bahamas and turned it into a spiritual - which Glenn Yarbrough heard and did in 1958 - and from whom the Trio heard it both as a spiritual and as a love song. When Pete Seeger waxed it in 1961 - it became a kind of civil rights era folk anthem.

But the copyright of the Kingston "All My Sorrows" belongs to Guard, Shane and Reynolds (though probably as a variation on an earlier adaptation by Glenn Yarbrough of The Limeliters) - and to my surprise and as you'll see below - that song was covered and turned into a minor hit by two other groups.

First up - the Kingston Trio version - smooth, professional, and hushed:

All-girl vocal group The Chordettes released a single of the song in 1960, with copyright attributed to Yarbrough:

Britain's The Shadows, their biggest pop-rock-vocal group before the Beatles, had a minor UK hit with the Guard/Shane/Reynolds arrangement (right down to the guitar intro) in 1961 - the legendary Cliff Richard is not, sadly, on this cut:

Two years later, in 1963 and still pre-Beatles, the Searchers recorded the same song with a bit more of that British Invasion sound:

For the at least slightly more traditional "All My Trials," - it's hard to beat the next two versions. First, Peter, Paul and Mary - a fine lead by Mary and absolutely exquisite harmonies:

And from the queen of American folk, the arresting purity of Joan Baez' soprano:

There is almost a chill in the clarity of Baez' voice, less warm and inflected than that of Judy Collins or Joni Mitchell - but one of the most impressive instruments that an American folksinger ever had to work with.

And to close, two more from the UK - first, Nick Drake (with sister Gabrielle in a home tape) again, a kind of British folk Jim Morrison, who flamed out and died at 26:

The lady is unidentified - I can't run down the album either.

Sir Paul McCartney does the Kingstons the compliment of blending their version with the "traditional" arrangement. This is from about 1990:

Not to my taste, but it sold pretty well in Britain, I'm told.

As far as judging pop folk songs by illusory standards of "authenticity" - I just read that it was actually the great dulcimer player John Jacob Niles who wrote "Black Is The Color Of My True Love's Hair" and was so mortified by that fact that he claimed to have heard it from an old mountain lady to give it that elusive pedigree - well, in the words of Nick Reynolds at the end of the Kingston version of Cisco Houston's "Badman Blunder" - "This whole thing has sure been a lesson to me!"

Friday, March 12, 2010

"Bay Of Mexico"

I can pinpoint the exact moment in my past when I decided I wanted to learn to play the guitar. I was nine years old in the summer of 1959. I was going into fourth grade and had already been a classical piano student for two and a half years and was playing all those simplified Bach and Beethoven pieces that beginning students used to learn - and I really enjoyed making music. I'd had plenty of exposure to folk guitar (as I've detailed in earlier posts) because of records in the house by Burl Ives and because of the television shows of Chicago folksinger Win Stracke and of Mousketeer-in-chief Jimmie Dodd.

Many of our family's children's records included folk songs, and our dad had brought home The Kingston Trio At Large album because he was a commuter and loved "MTA." I thoroughly enjoyed that song, but I liked "Blow Ye Winds" and "Remember The Alamo" even more. None of these, however, inspired me to do anything more than spin the LPs on the old stereo.

Then, sometime that summer, my father came home with two more albums. Always a watchful and thoughtful parent, he paid great attention to what kinds of books and music his many children were drawn to - and he fed those interests with a steady stream of randomly purchased gifts. He had noticed my growing obsession with the Trio album and had purchased the first two LPs by that group, the red one and the white one. He put the red one - Capitol T996 - on the turntable first. I thought that "Three Jolly Coachmen" was amusing with the fake accents and all - but when the next cut on the album began, I sat absolutely transfixed by the sound coming out of the speakers, the syncopated strum of what I would later learn was an E chord played on a Martin D28. The cut only got better from there - but it was that opening four beat measure that transformed my life in an instant. I wanted to make that sound. I wanted to make music that sounded like that.

The song, of course, was "Bay of Mexico," and fifty plus years later, it remains one of my two favorite folk-type songs with "The Sinking of the Reuben James" and without a doubt the cut by the Kingston Trio that I admire most of the more than 300 that they put on albums. It's worth playing immediately to remember how effective a song it is:

There is just so much to like about this cut - the arrangement, the production, the recording, and the performance itself.

Most of the modern versions of "Bay of Mexico" are derived from an Alan Lomax field recording from 1935 of Bahamian singers singing the root song - which interestingly was a sea chantey as they sang it and not a calypso. Chantey expert and veteran sailor Roy Hugill (more on him in another chantey post) puts this song in a group that he identifies as "Santy Anno" chanteys, suggesting that the line "Way-o Susianna" is a substitute for "Heave Away, Santiano." The immediate antecedent of the KT recording is, once again, the Weavers from their Carnegie Hall concert from 1955 that had been released as an LP on Vanguard in early 1957. The origin of the song in the Bahamas apparently prompted the Weavers to interpret the song with an ever-so-slightly syncopated, quasi-calypso styled rendition, very different from the 4/4 chantey that the song had been:

Note the similarity in lyrics of the Weavers to the KT - but also note that the basic timing here is closer to the straight 4/4 of a regular chantey than it is to a calypso. The introduction, by the way, is by Fred Hellerman.

The Kingston arrangement may also be borrowing from Harry Belafonte, who waxed the song in 1959 but had been including it in concert for years, courtesy of his in-house songwriter, the great Irving Burgie. On his website HERE, Burgie claims credit for the KT "Bay of Mexico," though the Capitol album lists Dave Guard as arranger. Listen to what Burgie gave Belafonte to work with and I think the discrepancy becomes understandable:

Harry B is giving the song the full-on brass and steel drum calypso treatment, and I believe that Burgie is asserting a direct link between what he did - converting the song from chantey to calypso - and what Guard did. Note also that in what is a fairly standard maneuver, Burgie/Belafonte is/are taking the song up half a step toward the end. Guard's arrangement builds from there with the incredibly inventive half step up at each chorus - and the the final dramatic step down as a kind of coda to close the song as quietly as it began.

What producer Voyle Gilmore here did is also sheer genius. First, of course, Gilmore insisted on using Elmer "Buzz" Wheeler, house bass player at the Purple Onion where the Trio had had its first extended five month engagement, on all of the album's cuts. Now it's time to bring Wheeler out of the shadows and give him the credit he's long overdue. He is a tremendously important factor in making a folk music album a saleable commodity to a general audience in 1958. What he brings to "Tom Dooley" is beyond estimation - because with the wailing Nick Reynolds second chorus "Hang down your head and cry" line, it is what makes the recording unique. Wheeler was an accomplished enough musician to have been used on several recordings in the 40s by the great Charlie Mingus, and the jazz sensibility he brings to the group's repertoire literally makes these 4/4 folk cuts swing - an absolute requirement for 1958 pop songs and something no other folk group thought to do.

Wheeler's bass work on "Bay of Mexico" quickly becomes the real rhythm of the song, overshadowing the bongos in Gilmore's final mix. Listen to the increasing volume of the bass as the song approaches its crescendo on the third chorus and on Reynolds' verse - and listen to Gilmore fade it as the song winds down and Nick's bongos take over again. It's hard to find out much about Wheeler on the web - I'll bet that Dean Reilly knew him and someone should ask Dean. I did find a blog by Wheeler's niece HERE in which she adds a bit of color to what we already know of him. Bill Bush and others emphasize Wheeler's contribution as "bottom" and "professionalism" - but it's so much more than that. The commercial sound of the Kingston Trio is rooted as much in Wheeler's swing as it is in the harmonies and arrangements.

Gilmore is also furiously working those knobs - note how in addition to the Trio's own vocal modulations he brings up each voice for its solo and then quickly re-blends the voice into the harmony choruses. On stage with one mic, the singers did that. In Capitol Studio B with three mics - it's all Voyle. Gilmore also makes a virtue out of necessity. The monaural blend here, dictated by Capitol's refusal to spend stereo dollars on a fledgling group whose music no one really understood, is absolutely superb. The mono enables Gilmore to hit a perfect blend with the highly energetic, almost out of control vocal performance, emphasizing the group's trademark harmonies.

The outstanding three part harmony reaches a level of vocal perfection on the highest chorus, right before Reynolds' verse. The Trio creates what George Grove referred to in conversation last summer as a "phantom harmonic" - the aural illusion (a result of pitch and volume) of a fourth part that really isn't there, as on "Bimini" and "Wide Missouri."

To see just how far the KT took this arrangement and performance - listen to a rough version of the original, pre-calypso chantey by Hulton Clint:

And just to let us know the song is still alive and well - the group Banana Boat in Poland last year, a rousing go at the song with fine harmony:

I never, ever tire of listening to this song. My only regret about writing of it here is - it leaves me only one more chantey from the KT to write about...stay tuned.

Addendum - 8/27/11

Some recent recordings, posted today as Hurricane Irene bears down on the U.S. east coast - first, the Wilson Family in an excellent a capella version:

Next the Bootstrappers from a show in New Orleans in 2010 - the pirate costumes might not exactly fit with the tune, but they deliver a fine, high-energy performance:

Thursday, March 4, 2010

"Si Me Quieres Escribir/Coast Of California"

Imagine, if you will, that you are touring around western Canada by car - highly recommended, by the way - and you stop for the night in some small town in western Alberta or BC or along the AlCan Highway in the southern Yukon, all places where acoustic folk music is alive and well and performed frequently in cafes and bars (which above the 60th parallel and Arctic Circle are invariably one and the same place). You wander into one such cafe and an earnest-looking young performer is doing his best to catch the attention of the sometimes noisy crowd. He has yours because he's talented and clean-cut and just plain good.

After a couple of familiar-sounding songs, say by Tyson and Lightfoot, the young artist announces a composition of his own. He begins with a stirring and complicated guitar intro and starts to sing -

"I'll sing a song of Albert John -- son
He was bold and brave and free -
He fought the law and Moun --ties
Just to keep his liberty..."

and on from there.

You look to your left and right, a bit disconcerted, to see that he's finally won over the crowd. They're tapping their feet and pounding on the tables as he runs through verse after verse. They like the song a lot. But you're knocked a bit off center because the tune he's using for this piece about the sociopathic Mad Trapper of Rat River who was hunted down and killed in 1932 - is the "Marine Hymn."

If the thought of that is just a bit upsetting, then you'll understand my reaction to the Jane Bowers/Dave Guard composition "Coast of California," which takes its melody from a patriotic Republican anthem of the Spanish Civil War, "Si Me Quieres Escribir." As we'll see in the videos below, the song is alive and well in Spain to this day, and putting the bogus, faux-folk lyrics to it that Guard and Bowers did borders, perhaps, on the sacrilegious. Unless, that is, you wouldn't mind our Canadian neighbors doing exactly the same thing to a song of ours which will bring any Marine and half our population to respectful attention. Just such a song is "Si Me Quieres Escribir."

A brief historical refresher is perhaps necessary. This Spanish Civil War, the last of several, lasted from 1936-1939 and pitted two coalitions against each other, the Republicans (including socialists and communists, who favored a generally democratic government along parliamentary lines) versus the Nationalists or Falangists (many of whom favored a monarchy and a church-state coalition but whose most militant supporters were Fascists supporting Gen. Francisco Franco). The war was bloody to the point of barbarism, not least because the Republicans were armed by Stalin's USSR and the Falangists by Hitler and Mussolini. Massacres were commonplace, the most famous illustrated by Picasso's painting "Guernica." Franco's Falangists won and thus began the generalissimo's dictatorship of nearly 40 years.

"Si Me Quieres Escribir" was one of several Republican songs that was based on older flamenco tunes and that found its way to the U.S. via the left-leaning People's Songs groups that included Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, the Almanac Singers, and many of the other folk artists that we remember from the 1940s. "Venga Jaleo" was another such song. (An early Kingston Trio audition for Capitol Records of that song can be heard on Rick Daly's FolkUSA HERE. I believe that Warren Barreiss quotes Guard in his article that the Trio was attracted to the song because it was "wild" in the same way Tahitian songs were and not because of its political content.)

Seeger's Weavers of course featured "Si Me Quieres Escribir" prominently in their concerts, and it appears on their landmark 1957 album The Weavers At Carneige Hall:

More on Seeger's banjo work below - note also Fred Hellerman's excellent guitar work. This is undoubtedly the immediate antecedent of the Bowers/Guard tune. About fifteen years prior, in the early '40s, Seeger had recorded the number with the Almanac Singers:

In both of these, Seeger makes the radical musical decision to accompany a Spanish flamenco-styled song with the very American banjo. Both arrangements clearly demonstrate from where Seeger's banjo acolyte Dave Guard derived his ideas for the banjo work on the Trio's "Coast of California" from the group's 1961 album Goin' Places:

More on this song below.

A modern Spanish group called B.S.O. borrows the Seeger banjo idea (may be two banjos, one possibly a tenor banjo) and Hellerman's guitar part for this stirring version:

Finally, a syncopated version from Quetzal, a contemporary Chicano group who cut an album of Spanish Civil War songs:

We could, I suppose, cut Guard, Bowers, and the Kingston Trio some slack for transforming an anthem to which men marched to battle and death into a dramatic show piece. The folk process often involves such transformations. The British national anthem becomes an American patriotic song; the Irish lament "Bard of Armagh" becomes the cowboy lament "Streets of Laredo"; the feisty Irish "Rosin the Bow" becomes the feisty American "Acres of Clams," "Lincoln and Liberty," and fifty other songs.

As a Californian with a love of history, I dislike "Coast of California" because it has less authenticity even than the Zorro tales (20th century inventions) in depicting Spanish California, Alta or Baja. The golden treasures of Aztec Mexico passed largely through Vera Cruz on the Gulf and thence to Spain. That's why treasure hunters still scour the Gulf and the Carribean for sunken Spanish galleons and largely ignore the Gulf of California and the Pacific Coast of Baja. There just isn't much treasure to be found there and never was.

But for me the real problem is the analogy that I made at the head of this article. "Si Me Quieres Escribir" is a song that the people who wrote it and have sung it revere, much as Americans do "The Marine Hymn." You just don't trivialize a song like that, not tastefully at least. The dramatic performance by the Kingston Trio and outstanding banjo work by Guard strike me, as does the version by the KT of "A Worried Man," as a great arrangement in service of an inferior lyric. Unlike "Worried Man" (which I maintain the Trio could have done with an adaptation of the original prison lyric as a great "Hard Travelin'" type of number), the apolitical Kingston Trio could never have transmuted a leftist anthem into the kind of song that they could have been comfortable with. For my money, it would have been better left undone.

Appendix - The Spanish Lyric And English Translation

Si Me Quieres Escribir
(lf You Want To Write Me)

Si me quieres escribir, ya sabes mi paradero,
Si me quieres escribir, ya sabes mi paradero,
En el frente de Gandesa primera linea de fuego.
En el frente de Gandesa primera linea de fuego.

Si tu quieres comer bien, barato y de buena forma. (2x)
En el frente de Gandesa, alli tienen una fonda. (2x)

En la entrada de la fonda, Hay un moro Mojama (2x)
Que te dice, "Pasa, pasa que quieres pata comer." (2x)

El primer plato que dan, son grenadas rompedoras (2x)
El segundo de matralla para recordar memorias (2x)

If you want to write me a letter, you already know my whereabouts.
I'm on the Gandesa Front, in the first line of the fighting.

If you want to eat your fill, good food and not too many pesos,
On that bloody battlefield stands an inn where you are welcome.

At the entrance of this inn there waits a moor by name Mohammed,
Who warmly greets you, "Hurry, hurry, rare and spicy food awaits you."

The first dish which they serve is hot grenades in quick succession,
Followed by a burst of shrapnel, makes a meal you'll all remember.